Tag Archives: contemporary

Review: Queenie

Today marked the FINAL WEEK in the lead-up to the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement! It was also my birthday, which was very low-key, relaxing, and Women’s Prize focused this year, thanks to this whole lockdown thing. Any day full of books is a good day though, so before I turn in I’m here to talk about another title from the longlist: Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie.

queenieIn the novel, Queenie is a young woman of Jamaican descent living in London. Her boyfriend of three years has just requested a “break,” so Queenie is temporarily moving out of their shared apartment. At the same time, she’s received some shocking news from her gynecologist that she’s keeping to herself. Amid this upheaval, while the boyfriend refuses to answer her calls or texts, Queenie begins having meaningless sex with men who treat her like trash, which also contributes to trouble at work and with her friends. Everything seems to fall apart at once, and the constant casual (and not so casual) racism Queenie faces drags her down to an all-time low. Can she pick up the pieces?

“I just wanted my old life back. I wanted my boyfriend, and I wanted to not be fucking up at work, I wanted to feel good about myself. I was so far from that, so far from being who I was, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from self-destructing.”

Queenie is a pacey read driven by compelling first-person narration and packed with modern day-to-day dramas. It’s essentially a coming-of-age story; Queenie is in her mid-twenties just trying to figure life out, in a way that’s very relatable as a fellow mid-twenties woman who’s not entirely sure where her life is heading. Though Queenie’s quest for “normalcy” and a happy ending may be familiar, she is also a very specific character with plenty to share about the female Jamaican British experience. Or at least, one example of it. This aspect I could not relate to, though the level of detail with which things are explained suggests that the book was written with a much wider audience than Jamaican British women in mind, and I did close the book feeling as though I’d gained a bit of perspective.

Queenie as a character is easy to love, despite her questionable choices. It’s clear she’s a good person, a mostly positive, optimistic person, even though she’s hit a rough patch and lost her stride. She reaches out. She tries. She doesn’t apologize for who she is or try to become someone she’s not. She’s not great at explaining or even examining her feelings, so it’s possible some readers will feel disconnected from her, though I think her emotions are usually clear enough through her actions, and it does serve the plot for her to untangle her feelings later on. Carty-Williams has crafted a complex, dynamic character in Queenie, and I enjoyed reading from her perspective.

Point of view aside, the writing is plain but adequate; I found myself marking passages for their quotability rather than because I found the style inspiring or noteworthy. Despite the excellent characterization in Queenie, the rest of the book’s cast is rather one-dimensional. There is not a lot of technical skill on display; this is clearly a contemporary book rather than a literary one, by which I mean the words are well-chosen and serve their purpose, but achieve nothing beneath the story’s surface or through the structure of the narration.

Both plot and commentary are transparent. There’s no nuance to Queenie’s choices in the course of this story, no doubt for either her or the reader that she’s making bad choices because the things she won’t talk about are bothering her at a very deep level. These unaddressed things will, of course, be revealed throughout the course of the novel, and it is not difficult to guess what they will turn out the be- the narration has a tendency to conspicuously skip over details that will later become important, leaving a gaping hole where that information should be, a telltale question mark left dangling as the story moves on until it’s ready to address these gaps. Even the commentary on racism is obvious; someone says something laughably ignorant, another character explains why it is Bad. Even lingo is dissected in-text, whole Urban Dictionary entries appearing in dialogue/text messages. There’s no chance of missing anything, though this also means there’s little need to look deeper than the blunt top layer of text. It’s all right there up front.

” ‘All that Black Lives Matter nonsense,’ scoffed an older man I recognized from the review supplement. ‘All lives matter. […] What about the lives of Latinos, of Asians, the lives of- I’m white, does my life not matter?’ he continued. / ‘I’m not…suggesting that the lives of other ethnic groups do not matter,’ I explained, gobsmacked that I had to explain. ‘I don’t think that any part of Black Lives Matter even hints that other lives are disposable?’ / ‘Well, when you put the lives of some and not all on a pedestal, what else are you doing?’ / ‘It’s not putting black lives on a pedestal, I don’t even know what that means,’ I said, my heart beating fast. ‘It’s saying that black lives, at this point, and historically, do not, and have not mattered, and that they should!’ “

Black Lives Matter is, of course, an important topic, as are the other examples of racism and defense against it that appear throughout the book, but I can’t help but feel lectured when these are laid out so blatantly (as in the example above), which is not a preferable reading experience. It pulls the reader out of the fiction layer of the story, rather than working together with it (at least it does for me). I’m certainly no expert on racism or intersectional feminism, both of which I think Queenie is attempting to address, but my personal taste tends toward subtlety over bluntness; I certainly think there’s an audience for this book and I don’t hesitate to recommend it despite the lukewarm temperature of this review, but because of its blunt-edged approach it just wasn’t a perfect fit for me.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be fitting of the 2020 Women’s Prize longlist if we didn’t acknowledge that this is also- to no one’s surprise- a book about motherhood. This becomes apparent through Queenie’s relationship with her mother, her grandmother, her aunt, and her own thoughts on pregnancy. All of these mother figures have their own particular commendations and flaws, as Carty-Williams- like the rest of this year’s longlist authors- unpick the question of what a “good” mother looks like.

“Do you think I sleep, with all of you to worry about? I don’t think I’ve put my head on the pillow and slept a full night since 1950.”

All in all, a solid offering that I am glad to have read and don’t mind seeing on this year’s longlist, though I wasn’t quite as impressed as I’d hoped to be. I’ve saved some of my highest-hopes titles for last, so the competition is getting to be somewhat fiercer at this point. (Finally!) I’ll have at least one more positive review coming before the end of the week!

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undecided between a 3 and 4 actually, this might change by the time my longlist wrap-up comes up next week. Though the book didn’t do quite as much as I’d hoped it would, I did still have a good time reading it and expect I’ll remember it fondly. I wouldn’t count out reading more of Carty-Wiliams at this point, and I wouldn’t be broken-hearted to see this one make the shortlist, though I think there are stronger contenders I’ll root for ahead of this one.

Have you read Queenie? What did you think?

 

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

Review: Red at the Bone

And so begins my 2020 Women’s Prize longlist journey! I’m getting a late start and suddenly have plenty of titles to choose from, so I went with one of the shortest books on the list to pick up some momentum, and one I thought I had a good chance of enjoying. Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone proved a great place to start!

redattheboneIn the novel, Melody has just turned sixteen and her family is hosting a coming-of-age ceremony in her honor. It’s a long-standing tradition, but Melody’s mother’s party was canceled as a result of her teen pregnancy, so this is the first ceremony of its kind in two generations. As her parents and grandparents attend this party, they reflect on Melody’s life, on their own pasts, and the ways their relationships have evolved to lead them all to this point. Later, we see what becomes of each of them after the party.

This is not a character study so much as a family study. Each member has a unique experience within this frame, but they all play a role in shaping each other. Woodson gives the reader a glimpse not quite at a collection of individuals, but at two approaches to motherhood and the daughters they raise; at two approaches to fatherhood and the challenges they face; at the actions of children and parents and their far-reaching consequences. In the end, though Melody helps hold the generations of her family together, this is not, in the end, Melody’s story. If any character stands more in the spotlight and sends more ripples through the lives of her family I would argue that it’s actually Melody’s mother at the heart of this novel, though even she is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Through her though, we see perhaps the most interesting facet of the novel: an exploration of what makes a good or bad parent, and how confining societal expectations can be, especially for young women.

“Was that cruel? To be the child’s mother but even at nineteen have this gut sense she’d done all she could for her? She had given her life. Nursed the child all through junior and senior years of high school- running home at lunchtime to stuff food into her own mouth and her boob into the baby’s. Each of them staring at the other in wide-eyed amazement, as though to say, How the hell did you get here? and Are you going to stay?

Red at the Bone is light on plot. The book opens on Melody preparing for her ceremony, and the reader is given a lot of key information right away. We learn that this party is a family (and cultural) tradition, that her mother missed her turn, and why. We learn how Melody feels about her family members and the party. After all of these indicators are offered in the book’s earliest pages, most of the following chapters are told retrospectively, in vignette-like flashbacks to the choices that have led these characters to gather at Melody’s ceremony and behave in the ways that they do. Stories told from the past like this often fail to hold my attention, as knowing where the characters are headed takes a considerable amount of the tension and emotion out of following their journey. Through most of the book, Red at the Bone was no exception to this rule, though it offers some commentary on race and class, identity and societal expectations to hold the reader’s attention.

At first the retrospective structure and thus the book’s failure to surprise had me worried that this story wouldn’t deliver the emotional impact I look for in family sagas. But there’s a shift about halfway through, an exploration of sexual identity I hadn’t been expecting that slides elusive motivations into place. The narrative also eventually moves past Melody’s party to touch on the eventful months and years that follow, and in these moments I thought Red at the Bone really shone. Melody’s party was something the family had been able to prepare for, had been headed toward for sixteen years; but the events that follow it catch the characters off guard, giving them more of a chance to act and react, and demonstrating the ways in which all those years of history have come together. It shifts to a tale of tragedy and perseverance, and of inheritance.

“She felt red at the bone- like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.”

Ultimately I wish the first half had been stronger and I’m not sure this book will leave any long-term impact for me, but it’s such a quick and easy read and in the end I did have a good time with it. I’m not particularly rooting for or against this one making the shortlist, but I’m glad it’s spot on this year’s longlist gave me a reason to pick it up.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It took me a little while to warm up to this one, and through most of the read I expected to settle on a 3-star rating. But in the end I enjoyed reading about each of these characters and seeing where their lives took them. It made me think not just about what struggles people face individually, but at how each of our experiences and actions also inform the lives of others. It’s been a while since I’ve read a good family story, and this one delivered.

Update: I am bumping my rating down to 3 stars. I still think this is a solid read and deserving of its place on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I am finding it more forgettable and less impressive in what it accomplishes, over time. While the amount of thematic exploration packed into so few pages is still my favorite aspect of the book, I do think about 50 more pages for further development of the content introduced at the end would have greatly benefited the book overall.

 

The Literary Elephant