Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Hamnet

We’re in the final stretch with the Women’s Prize longlist! Today’s update is my review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a historical fiction novel I absolutely adored.

hamnetIn the novel, William Shakespeare and his wife, who is here referred to as Agnes, have three children- two girls, and a boy, Hamnet, the latter of whom dies of the plague at age eleven, in 1596. Hamnet and his sister Judith, who also falls sick, are twins.

“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?”

The book is divided into two parts, the first alternating between the family’s past and the 24 hours leading up to Hamnet’s death, and the second part comprised of one long chapter following the family beyond Hamnet’s death. O’Farrell shares in a note at the beginning of the text both the age at which Hamnet dies, and the fact of his father writing a play titled after him four years later, and thus the story’s major events are not treated as shocking plot twists but instead as the basis for an emotional journey in the lives of one historic family. The dual timelines in the first half of the book help the reader balance the foreboding of this impending event with happier times- William and Agnes meeting for the first time, their marriage, the births of their children. It’s a fairly simple, very effective, structure.

The reason I loved this book was, plain and simple, for the writing. I’ve not read any of O’Farrell’s work before, and though I’ve heard plenty of praise, I was not prepared for how swept away I would be by her style. It is, admittedly, a bit elaborate and overly involved, with lots of imagery and descriptions that aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, so surely this will come down to reader preference. Usually even I prefer sparser prose, but there’s a beautiful sense of rhythm to Hamnet‘s sentences that I found incredibly immersive. Reader be warned though, that this could potentially be a difficult read in our current global state, with the incurable “black death” plague being a main feature.

” ‘He wears the mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. / ‘From the pestilence?’ / His mother nods. / ‘And will it?’ / Her mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. Not coming into the house, however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might,’ she mutters.”

Aside from the prose, pros and cons are mixed. I liked the way O’Farrell leaves Shakespeare unnamed through the entire novel, giving his family a rare chance at the forefront, although the attempt to sideline him even partially is rather undermined by the fact that one of the book’s main purposes seems to be displaying the grief that leads Shakespeare to write one of his best-known plays. However, if the intent of the novel is indeed to explore the reasoning behind Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet, I think the narration does not explore the connections between the play and the circumstances of Hamnet’s death closely enough for it to succeed in that regard. There are threads pointing in every direction, enough so that it is actually a bit unclear where exactly O’Farrell is trying to lead the reader.

Despite being the most prominent character, Agnes is not quite isolated enough in the narration for this to feel like her story, and nor is Hamnet given enough personality for it to feel like his, however central his role. Rather, this book is a wider examination of family, (which should come as no surprise to anyone reading along with the 2020 longlist at this point). Like many of this year’s longlisted books, Hamnet asks the reader to reconsider what we expect good parents to look like by presenting unique and imperfect people who, despite appearances, are trying their best with what they’ve been given. We see Agnes, an unconventional woman with a penchant for nature and an abusive stepmother; she’s a strong woman who won’t change her personality despite the ridicule she (and thus her family) faces from her community. Shakespeare, though flawed, for his part does at least value his wife and her eccentricities. His love for her and for their children provides a counterweight to his long and frequent absences from the family home. Other members of the family are present on the page, though given less depth. Even though the approach, as with many of the other longlisted books I’ve read, lacks nuance, it does at least make for an engaging story.

“They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was.”

But the book isn’t entirely a thematic dud. Emotion is very much at the story’s center, and I think the book excels as an examination of love and grief. The unchronological structure serves as a reminder of the ways in which the two emotions can be delicately linked, and likewise can bind the people who experience them together. The narration traverses both the delights and devastations of marriage and family life, braiding them all into one all-encompassing strand. I felt everything.

The best part: you do not need to have read Hamlet to enjoy/appreciate this novel. I’ve actually read very few Shakespeare plays thus far, and that list does not include Hamlet. I have since ordered a copy though, because O’Farrell left me curious.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve preferred this book to present a bit more commentary or takeaway beneath the surface, but can’t deny that I loved every moment of the read regardless. Though I’m not sure whether this title will appear on my shortlist wishlist (I wanted it to accomplish a bit more than emotion) I am confident it will feature at or near the top of my longlist favorites list. This may have been my first O’Farrell book, but it certainly won’t be my last!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Thousand Ships

You guessed it: another Women’s Prize longlist review. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is the last book that I finished reading, so this is me caught up on reviews! And I did mostly like this one!

athousandshipsIn the novel, Greek muse Calliope brings the voices of women together to retell the story of the Trojan War from exclusively female perspectives. This includes everything from the origins of the war (the gods’ decisions to meddle with the order of things on earth, a squabble over a golden apple, and Helen leaving her husband to sail to Troy), to the aftermath (the fates of the conquered Trojans, husband warriors returning to their wives in Greece, and much-awaited vengeance), as well as everything in between.

“When the war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else. And victory had made the Greeks no kinder.”

The book is divided into 40-some chapters, each told from the perspective of a different woman connected to the Trojan War in some way. These vignettes are not presented in chronological order, but rather flow between related characters, plot points, or themes. I actually found this quite effective; it’s easy enough to keep track of the overall timeline at least in broad strokes- before, during, and after the war, and this structuring method also keeps the focus on the characters rather than the already-familiar plot. Most of the characters are given only one chapter each, just enough space to explain their roles. The language is also reminiscent of what can be found in the epic poetry already associated with these myths- it reads a bit like a translation from original Greek, which lends a sense of atmosphere and history.

Though I did enjoy the read from start to finish, I had a few specific hang-ups. The largest is that while A Thousand Ships aims to be a Trojan War story focused on women, I did ultimately find it to be the same male-focused tale, simply told from different mouths. In the book’s list of key characters, nearly as many men feature as do women. Though the women’s deaths and sufferings are highlighted, most of their tales still revolve around the famous men. These women tell of their husbands, their sons, their owners (in the case that they’ve been captured as slaves), etc. It would of course be unrealistic to expect that none of these women’s stories would include men at all, but I did wish the women would have been given a bit more space to stand firm on their own.

The clearest example of the male focus can be seen in Penelope, who recounts all of Odysseus’s trials on his ten year journey home (through letters addressed to him, nonetheless!); her exasperation and annoyance with him for leaving her alone so long is the only sense in which her own voice shines through what is essentially her husband’s story, though she is given more chapters than any other character.

“Who but you [Odysseus] would assume that the gods had nothing better to do than assist you with whatever impossible scheme you had embroiled yourself in? And who but you would be right?”

There’s also Helen, who is uniformly hated by the rest of the book’s women, which perhaps isn’t out of the question given her role in their suffering, but should have been explored more fully so as not to come across as victim- or slut-shaming. I actually thought her dialogue in response to the accusations against her was very interesting and went some way toward pointing out the complexities of her character and situation, but it is sparse and more coverage was needed. Helen is not given a perspective chapter.

In the end I think Haynes’s biggest mistake was not using these women’s perspectives to add anything new to the Trojan War narrative. I think a little creative license with events and motives (perhaps even to pad the story if not to change canon material) might have saved the book from continuing to place men at the center of this tale. As it is, A Thousand Ships may be a fair alternative to reading Homer, but anyone with working knowledge of Greek mythology is unlikely to find anything truly revelatory in these pages. It’s a wonderfully woven recap that relative newcomers to Greek mythology (and veterans who just never tire of hearing the same tales over and over) may appreciate, but as someone who’s read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Silence of the Girls, Circe, and The Song of Achilles all in the last two or three years, I found Haynes’s take a readable and adept account that brings absolutely nothing novel to an old story. Calliope (the muse) certainly tries to steer this narrative in a new direction, but being spoon fed the book’s feminist intents through a clear author mouthpiece does not have the same effect that more powerful female narratives would have provided.

“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she- all the Trojan women- should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too. War is not a sport, to be decided in a quick bout on a strip of contested land. It is a web which stretches out to the furthest parts of the world, drawing everyone into itself.”

Where A Thousand Ships shines, in my opinion is it’s ability to demonstrate the far reaches of a devastating event such as war. Haynes is able to convey that the effects of a conflict like this spread far wider than the number of dead and injured, altering entire communities, including the victors. She acknowledges on the page some of the female horrors of ancient Greece that Homer doesn’t- the way women are appropriated as slaves and even as wives, against their will, the psychological affects of seeing their families and community members killed, their almost complete lack of agency. It is also a story that reminds the reader that there is more to every story than the winner’s tale of triumph.

“In any war, the victors may be destroyed as completely as the vanquished. They still have their lives, but they have given up everything else in order to keep them. They sacrifice what they do not realize they have until they have lost it. And so the man who can win the war can only rarely survive the peace.”

For the right reader this will be a fantastic experience. It’s not a story that requires prior knowledge, though part of the pleasure for me was recognizing familiar faces. If this book had been published before Miller’s and Barker’s recent retellings, if I had read it when I was first learning Greek mythology, I could have loved this book. It’s a perfectly fine narrative that could have stood a few changes but ultimately does nothing wrong. I just came to it at the wrong time in my reading life, and I suspect that most who’ve read the two Greek retellings on last year’s Women’s Prize longlist will end up feeling the same.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.  I have absolutely nothing against Haynes or this book, but hope not to see it shortlisted. I’m not in a hurry to search out more of this author’s work, but I wouldn’t consider it out of the question based on this experience.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Nightingale Point

Another day, another Women’s Prize longlist review! If I can stick to my schedule there should have another coming tomorrow, too. Today I bring you my take on Nightingale Point by by Luan Goldie. Another disappointment for me, sadly.

nightingalepointIn the novel, a devastating tragedy rocks the London-based Nightingale Point apartment building, leaving some dead and more injured, and upending the lives of everyone else who lived there. The book follows five main characters whose lives intersect around this event, all of them affected in different ways by the disaster.

(I won’t name the disaster, as it seems some effort was put into keeping that aspect out of the book’s info. But the nature of this disaster was actually what drew me to this story in the first place, and it’s such a large part of the premise that I personally don’t think the surprise is necessary; it is easy to track this info down on Goodreads and in other reviews, if you want to know before reading.)

” ‘There’s always so much to deal with. It never ends. Getting out of the building should have been the hardest thing we had to do.’ He shakes his head. ‘But sometimes it feels like that was only the start.’ “

The novel opens on the morning of the disaster, with a prologue that flits quickly between points of view and establishes the setting. In the chapters that follow, divided in focus between each of the five main perspectives, the reader sees the lead-up on the day of the tragedy, the event itself, the immediate aftermath, and effects of the disaster up to five years later. It’s an exploration of community and individual response to a large-scale traumatic event.

But oh, I had so many problems with this book. Mainly, the simple, stereotypical characterization combined with the book’s failure to follow up on any of the meaningful commentary it hints at. This book could have been so complex and interesting, and I found myself so incredibly frustrated by how close it brushed to so many worthwhile topics without ever delving beneath the surface.

There’s the teen girl whose father locks her in their apartment “for her own good,” a horrifying circumstance that should have been used as more than a plot point. She apparently had the choice of living with this father or her newly remarried mother, and the reasoning behind her preference for the abusive father is not even touched on, leaving this girl to act as a prop in the other characters’ lives.

Then there’s the boy who severely mistreats a man with a mental disability in spite of (and partially because of) this disability; sure he feels bad about it eventually, but only when he’s given a big reason to, and even then the whole encounter is quickly brushed off and replaced by close friendship with a simple “I’ll try to make it up to you” and no deeper look at why the boy behaved this way in the first place or how it affected the disabled man.

Assumptions can be made, of course, but the novel misses opportunity after opportunity by failing to make any statements about such problematic incidents, treating them instead as an “ordinary” part of life in this apartment block. (Even their ordinariness could have made a statement, and yet doesn’t.) Goldie mentions in her author’s note that this novel was inspired by real events, and that part of the problem with seeing appropriate community and governmental response to such a devastating event was the fact that the affected apartments housed relatively poor families- people simply didn’t care enough about what would become of them; this would have been another very worthwhile facet for Nightingale Point to explore, and yet while Goldie makes it clear that these are not affluent characters, she leaves it at that.

I could go on, but too many specifics make a review read like a book report, which is boring for everyone. I’ll say instead that I found the character arcs predictable and anti-climactic (all of them but one ending essentially where I thought they would have if this tragedy had not occurred), the focus on only five connected individuals too narrow for a proper glimpse at the community as a whole, and every major thematic point of interest abruptly dropped or overlooked entirely. I found it difficult to care about any of the characters, mainly as a result of the way they’re presented rather than because they’re bad people- I tend to enjoy unlikable characters when their unlikability seems intentional, whereas here I think the desired goal was complexity that just vastly missed the mark for me. I found them completely unsurprising.

The story might have been saved at least somewhat by a compelling writing style, but Nightingale Point lacked that for me as well. I actually didn’t tab any lines I liked in the entire book, which is extremely rare for me; I had to go back through at the end to find a couple of quotes to include in this review.

A few potential saving graces of note are the descriptions of the event itself, which I found morbidly fascinating, as well as the emphasis on long-term mental, physical, and social effects of a large-scale disaster. And the quickness of the read! Despite my mounting frustration at finding this very much not the story I wanted based on its premise, I did manage to finish the book in just over 24 hours, which is a feat for me- I’m a slow reader.

Unfortunately, none of these pluses were quite enough to make this a positive reading experience for me. In the end, it felt more like a basic tragic love story and/or tale of brotherhood than a meaningful examination of how people “rebuilt their lives after losing everything”- the author’s stated purpose. Unfortunately, it seemed to me like a lot of the rebuilding was happening off the page, in the gaps of time where the story jumps ahead hours or months or even years. The narration is written in third person, which keeps the characters’ mental processing of this disaster at arm’s reach from the reader. Absolutely nothing about this story challenged my perspective on the effects of a disaster of this magnitude. Maybe the fact that I’ve been through several museums honoring the victims of large public tragedies, the most recent of which I visited just under a month ago, heightened my expectations for this story beyond what the average reader would experience. But for whatever reason, despite the fast read and the absolute miles of possibility in this novel, it completely failed to come together in a satisfying way, leaving me emotionally cold and baffled at the book’s apparent success.

” ‘You keep acting like you’re all right to give up everything you worked for, ’cause things have gotten off-track.’

‘Off-track? You call what happened to us going off-track? Are you fucking kidding me?’ […]

‘I want you to be your old self and get back to the original plan: university, internship, career.’ [He] uses a finger to mark off each stage. ‘I don’t get why you’re giving up.’ “

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. As much as I genuinely hope other Women’s Prize longlist readers will have a better time with this book than I did, I do hope it won’t make the shortlist. I have no interest in reading further from Goldie at this point, though I remain interested in seeing this subject successfully fictionalized. This just wasn’t where it was at, for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The Women’s Prize shortlist announcement is now only two weeks away! I’ve read *almost* 11 of the 16 longlisted books so far and am on track to finish everything but Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on time. I’ll keep trying, but it would take a miracle for me to finish 7 books (plus the last few pages of my current read) in fourteen days, especially given the size of the Mantel trilogy. But I digress- all this was to say that as I near the end, I have a surprisingly clear idea of which books I would be happy to see on the upcoming shortlist. The most recent read addition to this list is Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

djinnpatrolonthepurplelineIn the novel, 9 year-old Jai and two of his friends are disturbed by the news that one of their classmates has vanished. Jai is fascinated with an investigation show called Police Patrol and is eager to soothe his parents’ worries (thus freeing himself from the strict rules they’re laying down)- and so the three children set out to discover what has happened to the missing boy, in hopes of setting their community (an Indian slum) back to rights. As they struggle to find the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together in a realistic way, more children disappear and life in the basti becomes increasingly fraught.

“The headmaster won’t open the main gate fully because he thinks strangers will run into the school along with us. He likes to tell us that 180 children go missing across India every single day. He says Stranger is Danger, which is a line he has stolen from a Hindi film song. But if he were really worried about strangers, he wouldn’t keep sending the watchman away.”

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a mystery of sorts- the question of what has happened to these children keeps the novel moving, though this isn’t a book to pick up for its whodunnit clues and plot twists. (This is reinforced by the fact that Jai’s favorite theory is that evil djinns have spirited the children away, rather than a human criminal.) Instead, at the heart of the novel is the revelation of a greater metropolitan problem- missing children who go unfound and even unlooked for, mainly because of their poverty. Through a series of child narrators- primarily Jai, interspersed with brief chapters about each of the missing children- the reader is given an interesting blend of the worries and delights of youth, who notice the adults’ fears but can’t quite understand them.

“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not.”

The choice of utilizing a nine year-old as the story’s main narrator is both clever and somewhat frustrating- Jai’s investigations accomplish very little, and among his group of friends he seems to contribute the least to solving the case of their missing classmate; I wouldn’t rate him highly as a sleuth, and his scant role in the unraveling mystery is my greatest criticism of this book. On the other hand, he does have a particular vivacity that’s compelling amidst the book’s grim subject matter. He befriends a stray dog, compares himself to detectives he likes on TV, and makes an adventure of it when his detecting takes him to new places. His innocence buoys the novel’s pace and makes this a surprisingly addictive read despite the dark commentary packed between the lines.

Speaking of commentary, this seems to be Djinn Patrol‘s main focus- the narration digs into many challenges that city children can face in India: the need to care for themselves and sometimes even younger children, the difficulty of getting a quality education, the prospect of working (perhaps even multiple jobs at a time) before the legal employment age. Jai and his friends are often hungry, their families living together in one room, their few belongings used over and over until they are worn beyond repair. The book conveys the difference in expectations and opportunities for Indian boys and girls beginning even before their teen years, the tension of opposing religions leading to bullying and even violence that doesn’t exclude children, and the thick smog that cannot be escaped even when it is cause for canceling school. All this before the novel even touches on the things that can happen to snatched children.

The writing itself is solid, if simplistic- it’s elegance lies in things implied but not said, rather than poignant prose. This worked well for me because it fit the young narrator in a way a more ornate style wouldn’t have. There’s also a good mix of cultural vocab mixed into the story (there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though I didn’t realize it and managed to glean almost everything from context, always a plus). The sentences are quick and straightforward, the tone generally light, and the chapters flow easily from one to the next- a bingeable read. But don’t be mistaken- it’s sad as well. This is not a book that ties up neatly with happy endings for everyone involved, which is exactly how it makes such a powerful statement about the ongoing problem of missing children cases in India. There’s certainly a depth of tragedy here, which is essentially why Jai’s perspective works so well. Anappara mentions in her afterword speaking with real Indian children and wanting to capture their “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger,” and “their determination to survive in a society that often willfully neglected them.” In this reader’s opinion, she delivers with aplomb.

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This one wasn’t quite as strong for me as a couple of other commentary novels disguised as mysteries that I’ve read this year, like Long Bright River or Disappearing Earth, but after a string of mediocre Women’s Prize reads I really did have a lot of fun reading this one and it stands out as one of the stronger longlisted titles I’ve read thus far. I feel like I’ve learned a bit about India, and I was entertained at the same time. I’m still working on a ranked list and my shortlist predictions, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see this one feature. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Dutch House

I’ve been meaning to read some Ann Patchett for a while, so seeing her latest novel, The Dutch House, on the Women’s Prize longlist this year was the final nudge I needed to pick up some of her work. While I’m glad I finally gave it a chance, I’m hoping I’ll fare better in the future with some of Patchett’s other titles, because this one didn’t quite hit the mark.

thedutchhouseIn the novel, Danny and his older sister Maeve spend most of their childhood in the Dutch House, an excessively fancy home that their father loved and their mother hated. When their mother leaves for the last time and a selfish stepmother enters their lives in her place, it is only a matter of time before Danny and Maeve lose the house, their rich lifestyle, and all semblance of family beyond each other. They spend the rest of their lives trying to pick up the pieces, returning frequently to sit in a parked car outside of the Dutch House to ruminate on all they’ve lost.

“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside. “

The Dutch House begins as a beautifully written, fairy tale-esque account of strangely fortunate and unfortunate children in the 1960’s-70’s. They are well off in some ways, with cooks and housekeepers to make them feel at home in their ridiculously extravagant house. In other ways, they suffer- the missing mother, the cold stepmother, the father who can’t be bothered to express affection or emotion or spend any time with them. It is interesting to see how the house becomes a symbol even while they are living in it for everything that they have and could have had, and at the same time serves as a substitute for the things they are missing. But when Danny is fifteen and Maeve twenty-two, their eviction from the house changes the shape of the story, and the book becomes increasingly frustrating.

What starts as a tale of lonely children in a beautiful house turns into an adult quest of grudges and revenge, in which every character seems frozen in a state of childish emotion, committed to spending decades reacting to a single perceived slight. Instead of unfolding depth and meaning from the monumental event of these characters’ lives, the novel narrows further, spinning in circles and buckling down to defend simplistic characterization that hardly makes sense. There is no backstory or nuance utilized to explain the stepmother’s cruelty toward her husband’s children. The mother is exonerated for abandoning her family with the explanation that she wanted to help the less fortunate. Danny and Maeve, instead of building lives of their own and adding further chapters to their own stories, make their choices based on how best to get back at the woman who hurt them, even though these choices perpetuate their unhappiness- for example, Danny spends years struggling through medical school to use up as much as he can of an educational trust that would benefit his stepsisters despite having no interest or intent in becoming a practicing doctor.

“Norma said that childhood wasn’t something she could imagine inflicting on another person, especially not a person she loved. I imagined pediatric oncology only reinforced her position.”

My least favorite aspect of the book however, is Danny’s narration. Not the prose style in which his story is told, which I actually quite liked, but the simple placement of Danny at the novel’s center. In a story packed with women who must all have more knowledgeable and interesting points of view regarding the Dutch House, we are instead given an oblivious man who seems to expect a pat on the back for realizing years later how difficult a time the women in his life have had while also taking care of him.

Perhaps the point of this maneuver is to demonstrate a disparity in expectations placed upon men and women- Danny free to follow an expensive education to its conclusion and then essentially throw it away (and in doing so providing more unpaid work for his sister), while Maeve spends her entire life sans mother taking care of her brother in lieu of chasing her own dreams (like furthering her own education). Danny also has the Dutch House’s servants and eventually his wife bolstering him up while he continues to focus on himself. But if Patchett is trying to capitalize on the ease of opportunity for men at the cost of stifled women, wouldn’t any of the women involved in the story be able to convey to the reader Danny’s spoiled self-interest, while also providing a more engaging and direct narrative? It is, after all, Maeve rather than Danny who fixates on the Dutch House; Danny’s relative uselessness and the symbolism of the Dutch House do not seem to be making the same point, which further muddies the water of what this book is trying to accomplish.

The novel also seems intent on pointing out that men can get away with abandoning their children much more easily than women, but again, is Maeve not best situated to make this point, as she is the one who actually remembers their mother and takes on responsibility for her brother’s upbringing from a young age? And if this imbalance of what is expected from mothers vs fathers is the Point, the fact that neither Danny nor Maeve, after acknowledging it, can quite forgive their mother in the end while also lauding their father for loving them more than they knew at the time seems to negate this argument. Ultimately, I think Patchett was either trying to do too much or too little with the novel’s narration and purpose, failing to land either effectively. In my opinion, choosing a different narrator (Maeve seems the obvious choice) might have lent the story an entirely different- and more successful- effect.

” ‘I look at Kevin and May and I think, who would do that to them? What kind of person leaves their kids?’ […] ‘Men!’ Maeve said, nearly shouting. ‘Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it.’ “

This is turning into a very negative review, and I only have the smallest of positive to notes to end it on (which is making me rethink my rating, actually). While I have nothing but complaints for the characterization and technical choices of storytelling in The Dutch House, I did love the tragic/elegant aura of the house itself, and the sumptuous prose. Despite finding much of the content frustrating, I did appreciate Patchett’s writing style and occasional moments of insight. I think there was a brilliant and beautiful novel in here somewhere, and up to about the halfway point I had a good time reading it.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. A low 3, and not a book I’m hoping to see on the shortlist later this month. But because I liked Patchett’s writing, I am still hopeful that this simply wasn’t the right book of hers for me, and am curious to try more of her work. I’d really like to give Bel Canto a go before the vote for the Women’s Prize winner of winners this fall.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Back to reviews with another Women’s Prize longlist title! This time we’re looking at Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had, one of the largest books on the list at over 500 pages. Fortunately, I had a good time reading it, though I can’t say it had much else going for it.

themostfunweeverhadIn the novel, four adult sisters are trying to find their way in the world, both guided and hindered by what they see as their parents’ epic romance, an impressive love story none of the girls is confident about finding for herself. A secret son, concealed by two of the sisters and given for adoption at birth, suddenly reenters their lives fifteen years later, testing the bounds of the familial relationships and finally showing the sisters that there may be more to a “good” and “successful” life than keeping up appearances.

” ‘There’s four of you?’ he asked. ‘What’s that like?’ / ‘It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.’ “

There are quite a few books on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist that look at family, parenthood, and marriage, but The Most Fun We Ever Had stands out as the ultimate family saga. Its page count allows Lombardo to examine- in excruciating detail- the minutiae of day-to-day interactions, a lifetime of decisions and assumptions, and each sibling and parent relationship that is one thread in the greater web of this family. I found the dynamics between characters highly entertaining and enjoyed the writing, but even so I think Lombardo could’ve shaved off two hundred pages without losing anything crucial.

The book opens on one of the daughters’ weddings, from their mother’s perspective. From this glimpse alone the reader can see that there is plenty of interest going on beneath the surface of this happy family, though we soon come to learn that their mother doesn’t know half of it. From here, the narration jumps ahead sixteen years to follow a year’s worth of family drama, divided into seasonal sections. Though this year is presented chronologically, the book also delivers numerous flashbacks that showcase virtually every significant moment in each character’s life, from the parents’ origin story, through their four daughters’ childhoods, and into choices each make as adults, all leading up to this one eventful year. Across all of these moments, The Most Fun We Ever Had demonstrates the duality of affection and pain in familial relationships, showing that what holds people together can also drive them apart, and that it is after all easiest to hurt the ones we love.

“She was just trying to do the right thing, but that wasn’t so easy, because everyone in her life had a different conception of what the right thing was, and she herself was caught somewhere in the middle.”

Thematically, alongside the complexities of parent and sibling relationships, this story looks at wealth and privilege from a number of angles. The adopted boy has, by a bad stroke of luck, spent most of his life in the foster care system, and his sudden need for care provides a rude awakening for the sisters who’ve grown up with two loving parents in a big house with adequate income. A family of six subsisting on one doctor’s salary didn’t exactly equate to the lap of luxury for the four girls while growing up (which isn’t to say they wanted for anything), but most of them were able to improve their circumstances even further as they reached adulthood- their own children are well-situated indeed. In comparison, there is one daughter who survives paycheck to paycheck in a sad apartment with one fork to her name. This woman plays such scant role in the plot that she seems present primarily to balance the scales of the family’s wealth. But despite the thorough setup, the book’s commentary barely dips below the surface of the expected.

In truth, I don’t think there’s anything at all to learn here. These are such specific characters, in such a specific situation, that it’s difficult to apply much of their experience to life beyond the novel. It’s a love story, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a generational story, and yet despite everything the book encompasses, its primary purpose seems to be entertainment. Perhaps the main message here is something like, “love is messy,” or “there’s more to every relationship than meets the eye,” but there’s nothing groundbreaking or life-altering to be gleaned from such platitudes. Unless the takeaway is that we shouldn’t present our children with the model of a solid marriage for fear of setting the bar too high, there’s little substance to take back to the real world after closing the back cover. At its core, The Most Fun We Ever Had isn’t much more than an entertaining drama about four sisters and their futile competition to prove themselves most worthy of their picture-perfect parents- and each other. The ruthless competitiveness between these sisters is the driving force of the novel.

On that note, if you’re looking for likable characters, this probably isn’t the book for you. Though each is sympathetic and suffering in their own way, they do all make poor choices, sometimes for bad reasons. There is certainly some redemptive growth, but it’s a long journey getting there. I particularly enjoyed their contrariness, but it won’t be the right fit for everyone.

“But this was the thing: sometimes being a sister meant knowing the right thing to do and still not doing it because winning was more important. Victory was a critical part of sisterhood, she’d always thought.”

I do think Lombardo’s a good writer- I loved seeing how well she fleshed out all of these characters, how the four very different sisters’ personalities tracked across decades of their lives and how they all interacted with each other. I don’t have a sister, myself. I have two brothers, but we’re not close. Perhaps someone with stronger sibling ties might get more out of this one than I did, or find more to identify with at least. Instead, I found this story engrossing and fun, but surprisingly shallow.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had a good time with this book, I really did. But I expect more from the Women’s Prize than a simple good time, and I didn’t find any standout depth or technical skill here. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s a straightforward story that neglects to go the extra mile. I might be interested in picking up more of Lombardo’s work someday, but I won’t mind if this one doesn’t make the shortlist.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dominicana

My Women’s Prize longlist journey continues with Dominicana by Angie Cruz. I didn’t think this book would be a good fit for me (and I do have complaints), but the low expectations did help me enjoy this one a bit more than I’d expected.

dominicanaIn the novel, fifteen year-old Ana agrees to marry a much older man at her family’s urging- it is not a relationship built on love, but rather on the expectation that Ana’s husband will take her to America and help bring her family to the US from the Dominican Republic as soon as possible. Ana finds it harder than she expected to settle into life with Juan- he’s cold and abusive, expects her to follow many “rules,” and is often absent (a blessing, actually, though Ana is lonely in America). The year is 1965 and it’s a tumultuous time, but as Juan is pulled away from home to take care of business matters, Ana begins to find her footing in New York.

“Juan keeps his head down when he passes the police. Inside the apartment, he is a bull. On the street, he looks small, vulnerable, even scared. As if I can blow him away like a speck of dust.”

I haven’t actually read very many stories of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries- a few, but nothing from the Dominican Republic, as far as I can remember. I think this worked in my favor with Dominicana, because the plot does follow a very predictable path if you’re at all familiar with this type of narrative. Even without having read having read specifically from this area and/or the year 1965, nothing in this book managed to surprise me. If you’re new to immigration stories, this might work better for you.

Overall, Domincana was such a middle-of-the-road book for me- it didn’t inspire active hatred but nor did it do anything at all to impress me. There are so many interesting facets to this story with the potential to turn this narrative in a new and intriguing direction, but each stops short. For instance, Ana’s apartment is right across the street from where Malcolm X is killed, and though she sees the commotion and some of the aftermath it means nothing to her, even as it comes up over and over again throughout the book. Her husband is abusive and adulterous, though neither trait is properly examined or addressed. Ana’s early interactions and experiences in New York- people or places she’s told to avoid, cultural norms different than what she’s used to (she is yelled at by the apartment super for washing her floors the wrong way, for example), English classes for non-native speakers-  are mentioned briefly and then glossed over. There are so many small details that I would’ve liked to see expanded for a closer look at how Ana learns to navigate her new life and what New York means to her.

Relatedly, a bit more agency from Ana across the board would not have gone amiss. Of course she is a fifteen year-old stuck in a small apartment with a domineering husband who does as little as possible to help her acclimate to the city, but she does so little. When Juan suggests that she learn to drive or take a typing course she never reminds or asks him about these plans when he doesn’t bring them up again, despite her initially expressing excitement. When someone mentions that there are free ESL classes near her building, or that Ana might make some money by selling her cooking, she wants to do these things and yet doesn’t even try until Juan is out of town. She neither asks nor makes any attempt to reach for opportunities on her own; surely her situation plays a role, but Ana’s tendency to wait and see makes her a rather boring character who follows others’ leads throughout most of the novel. In her acknowledgments, Cruz mentions having changed the main perspective while writing, and I must admit I’d be very curious to know who’s perspective she tried first, and whether it might actually have worked better.

Instead of focusing on any other aspect of Ana’s immigration, Dominicana reaches for the reader’s heartstrings through romance. Before Ana leaves the Dominican Republic, there is her friend Gabriel. Then there is her husband, Juan, who is a brute but Ana does try her best to make the marriage work, for her family’s sake and her own. And finally, there’s César, Juan’s youngest brother, the man who sees and appreciates Ana. Of course there is still the fact that she is fifteen (César is twenty), pregnant, and married to his brother, but these details barely factor into their emotions. In fact, most of Ana’s attempts to make a home for herself in New York are tied to her romantic excursions with César. I would have preferred a narrative that singled out Ana’s experience and dug into her cultural transition with a little less focus on which attractive man she would end up with,  but I do think these relationships and the comparisons between them are one of the book’s greatest strengths. If you enjoy reading romance, you might have better luck with this book.

“When you fall in love, you have to play it out even if everyone calls you crazy. That’s why they call it falling. We have no control over it.”

The prose is readable but inelegant. The structure is very straightforward- most of the chapters show Ana’s point of view, but a few also deliver short bursts from Juan and Ana’s other family members. The chapters are short.  None of it seems very literary, which I think is at the root of all of the issues I’ve listed above: placement on the Women’s Prize list (or any prize list) always raises my expectations for a novel, though actually I wouldn’t be surprised for Dominicana to fare well with a contemporary/popular fiction audience. Nothing about this book was a strong turn-off for me; while I don’t think I would’ve rated it any higher even under other circumstances and I can’t quite make sense of how this book ended up on this longlist in a year when there were so very many strong contenders, its placement, I think, is a disservice to an adequate novel that will likely appeal to a different crowd. I cannot see this title being shortlisted and I don’t imagine it’ll rank highly for many longlist readers, but I do think a more receptive audience for it exists. Unfortunately it just wasn’t the right fit for me.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was just… fine? I was able to read this book pretty quickly and painlessly, despite what has turned into a mostly negative review. It’s not my least favorite book from the longlist, but I’m probably not going to be reading anything more from Angie Cruz.

Update: I am bumping my rating for this book down to 2 stars. The reading experience was mostly fine, but over time I’m finding that what’s sticking with me is the heavier focus on the questionable romance with César at the cost of a deeper exploration of the logistical and psychological difficulties of uprooting one’s life and trying to adapt into a foreign country. This should have been a much more emotionally engaging read, and not for the half-baked love story. It’s place on the Women’s Prize shortlist now also raises my expectations a bit higher for literary merit, which I’m just not seeing enough of here. I might have had a better time with this one outside of the Women’s Prize, but in the end I think this book was just not for me!

 

The Literary Elephant