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Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Trust Exercise

CW: abuse of mentorship roles, molestation, statutory rape

For my first read of the year, I chose the 2019 National Book Award winner, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. Though it didn’t go at all the way I was expecting, it really impressed me by the end!

trustexerciseIn the novel, a group of teens attends an exclusive performing arts school in Texas, in the 1980’s. Two of them, a girl and a boy, skirt around each other in an angst-filled battle of wills in which they both want a relationship but express themselves in different ways, ultimately getting their wires crossed. The whole school, of course, is privy to the dramas of their unrequited love. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, the cool theater teacher, the one who was on Broadway, the one all the kids want to be friends with, makes a game of their stubborn pride. For good measure, a few British theater students with two infamous teachers of their own are thrown into the mix, and so proceeds a chaotic tale of inappropriate relationships built around inappropriate art. Years later, the students- now adults- settle into their lives, still fixated the mess of their high school experience.

The book is divided into three parts, each labelled simply, “Trust Exercise.” They’re very different pieces and each, in their own way, requires some trust from the reader.

The first section, which takes up about half of the novel, is set in the 80’s art school. We mainly follow the teen girl, but the perspective is 3rd person and reveals a bit of each of the main characters. The one thing that I thought I knew about this book going in- that it features a pervy teacher breaking up a teen relationship and possibly molesting the girl- isn’t really what I found here, which really threw me off. Instead, it’s a plotless slog about two teens who desperately want to be together and can’t seem to make it happen. The teacher does seem questionable, but he spends little time alone with the girl, and most of that she spends crying in front of him as he asks invasive questions. On top of that, he’s gay, meaning that any apparent manipulations seem like a mental game rather than anything sexual.

” ‘You wanted me to go after her and make her feel better, and tell her we were still best friends. And I did, even though I was lying. And now I have to keep lying because she thinks that we’re best friends again.’ / ‘What makes you think that’s what I wanted?’ / ‘Because you told me to go after her!’ / ‘Yes, but that’s all I told you to do. I didn’t tell you to make her feel better. I didn’t tell you to lie, and say the two of you were still friends.’ “

But there’s clearly plenty of unacceptable behavior taking place and it’s intellectually interesting, seeing all the ways in which these students don’t understand they’re being manipulated or taken advantage of. The people they see as mentors treat them not as children to respect as such, but as inexperienced adults who can sort through the fallout of their uninformed decisions in their own time. It should be a fascinating power study, but it’s diluted by the focus on the failed teen romance and ultimately, the whole section seems to go nowhere anyway, ending rather arbitrarily with nothing resolved or concluded. Add to this the fact that I didn’t care about any of the characters at this point and had no interest in the theater aspect, and you can begin to understand why wasn’t enjoying myself.

Then comes the second section. Here, years later, we follow a woman who previously seemed like a minor character as she turns the entire narrative on its head. We find out that she’s been reading a novel written by one of her old classmates, that the first part of Trust Exercise is actually the first part of this novel, and then we find out that many of the events and details from this fiction-within-fiction are clues or coverups hiding the truth of what really happened. Our narrator in this section speaks in the first person, but also speaks about herself in the 3rd person, going by the fake name given to her by the novelist classmate. This tactic gives us a bit of duality, showing two sides of a much more interesting character who shines a light on what’s already been read and paints it over in an entirely different color.

The meta elements here and the addition of some darker plot twists really turned things around for me. The use of 1st and 3rd person from the same character as well as the introduction of a play brings the acting aspect together. It truly becomes a story not of power imbalance alone but of sexual abuse, of long-term trauma, and of the men in high places who for so many years have gotten away with too much.

” ‘We were never children,’ he said.”

The third section, the shortest of all, gives the reader an interaction between two  characters, both clearly recognizable despite the fact that one has not been named up to this point, and the other bears a new name. There’s not much new information to be found here, and nothing that happens between them is particularly surprising, and yet it is a necessary ending that ties the rest of the story together. The perfect garnish that puts the right tone on the book’s content and makes its purpose apparent.

My time with this book was a roller coaster experience, from a slow, seemingly straightforward, uninteresting start, to an utterly engaging and emotionally taxing middle, to the smooth leveling off of the end. This should probably have rounded off to a 4-star book for me. It took me three days to get through the first half and I didn’t like it. The framework of the story felt unbalanced. Choi has a tendency of overwriting in places, belaboring the point and drawing out an idea into a page-long paragraph when a single sentence would have sufficed. One character’s excellent memory means we occasionally get full dictionary definitions (this is not an exaggeration) for individual words, including commentary on how each possible interpretation of the word applies. It’s easy to see how readers who find the writing more grating, or who aren’t as enraptured as I was with the shift in the second part of the book, might have a more disappointing experience.

And yet, despite its flaws, I was completely caught up in the ride. I loved the book’s examination of power and abuse, and how far it pursued these themes. I loved the artistry involved in the narrative style and structure. I loved the misdirection that left me doubting what should have been obvious. I loved how quickly and completely Choi was able to change my mind about what I had read. She took my sky-high expectations and dropped them low, then lifted them right back up again. I’m actually looking forward to rereading that boring first section with my fresh knowledge. For this, I’m marking Trust Exercise as a 5-star read. It’s a brutal little book that isn’t as it first appears and requires a bit of mental reconstruction to piece together. I didn’t love every moment of the experience, but when I closed the book and set it aside, the story remained stuck in my head and I’ve been carrying it around with me for days.

“Your life outside school isn’t any of his goddamn business. You know that, don’t you?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I chose this book from my 2019 books I missed list, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. It took a while to convince me, but it got there in the end. Despite the rocky start, this one is setting a high bar for my 2020 reading!

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question

I’ve already read a book in January that I’m very excited to review, but I SUPPOSE it would make more sense to catch up on my December reviews first. I am going to try implementing my “shorter reviews” goal for 2020 right away here and cram them all into a couple of posts before the end of the week- not because I disliked these books, but because I just don’t have time to do full reviews for all 6 books (plus short stories) if I want to get around to January reviews within the month. So, we’ll see how this goes! For today, I’m looking at Know My Name by Chanel Miller, one of my favorite books of 2019, and at The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. Let’s dive in!

knowmynameIn Chanel Miller’s nonfiction memoir, she shares what happened on the night she was sexually assaulted, how her life changed leading up to the trial, and the ways in which the US legal system proved to be a hostile place for victims.

You may have heard of Emily Doe, the girl sexually assaulted by a talented swimmer on the Standford campus in 2015 whose victim impact statement went viral the following year. That statement is published in Know My Name, along with the rest of Miller’s story. There is certainly difficult content here, including the details of the assault, Miller’s mental struggle in reassembling her life and surviving the trial, and some of the terrible things people have said to and about her as the case began making headlines. And yet, it is absolutely worth the read.

This book looks closely at one case, but with incredible insight and understanding, Miller uses this single experience to explore the ways in which society allows these tragedies to continue to occur. She’s not here to blame her attacker, but to hold him accountable, and to hold accountable every part of the system that makes it so easy for a man with a little money and talent to walk away from a life he’s permanently marred, without ever realizing that what he’s done is wrong. Miller describes her emotions and the challenges she’s faced not because she’s seeking pity, but as a means to explaining why the system in place needs to change- or at least be improved upon.

Miller’s writing is perfectly suited to her task, and every bit as worth reading as this topic. She’s clear and straightforward, explains the legal process in an easily understandable way, and has a natural knack for pacing and balancing events, info, and opinions. She also takes the time at the end of her own narrative to mention how other well-known cases and the #metoo movement are affecting the way the US sees and deals with these cases. Despite the darkness she’s been through and the fury she inspires, Miller’s tone is ultimately hopeful that people will come together over this and ensure a better future. I sincerely hope she’s right.

“It had never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong, could be changed or improved. Victims could ask for more. We could be treated better. Which meant my onerous experiences were not useless, they were illuminating. Being inside the system would give me insight; the more I encountered issues, the more I’d be able to see what needed to be fixed. I could convert my pain into ideas, could begin brainstorming alternate futures for victims.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is as close to perfect as a book gets, in my opinion. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to pick it up.

thebodyinquestionI wanted to segue back into fiction after Know My Name with another trial book, so I picked up this little volume next, Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question.

In this short novel, a woman is summoned for jury duty. Before going in, she jokes with a summoned man about how they might get out of serving; neither follows through, and they end up watching the case unfold together. The trial, at which a teen girl is accused of setting a fire that killed her infant brother, is a sensational one, and the jury is sequestered. During the weeks of the trial, the man (young, single) and the woman (older, married) strike up a clandestine affair.

This is really intriguing in concept, as it primarily examines whether the jury can remain impartial as relationships and opinions are formed (the other jurors, of course, sensing that something is going on among them). Perhaps if I hadn’t picked this up immediately after a 5-star all-time favorite I might have had a slightly better time reading it, but despite both this one and Know My Name exploring the failings of the US legal system in fascinating ways, this book did not work as well for me as I’d hoped, for two main reasons.

The first is that I found most of the characters unpleasant, and the main woman in particular I found abrasively judgmental. I suspect the author wanted her to seem a bit sharp-edged and rebellious so that the reader wouldn’t question this married woman starting an affair at the drop of a hat, but instead it alienated me from the main character. There’s nothing “wrong” with the other characters, but the book is so short and sticks faithfully to the first woman so the reader is never given enough opportunity to warm to them. My apathy made it nearly impossible to invest in any part of the story.

The second is that the book is so divided between the trial and the affair that the two pieces never came together appreciably for me. We see the trial in bits and pieces; new information is still being conveyed as the jury votes. I could never form an opinion on whether the girl accused of arson was actually guilty or not, which made it hard to form an opinion on whether the jurors having an affair were actually messing up the trial. The main character’s opinion is clear, and her reasoning is clear, but it’s also clear that she’s not giving the reader all of the evidence. On the other hand, if we try to look past the insufficient trial details and focus only on the affair, what is the message? Is it to avoid sleeping with other jury members while on jury duty? (Is that a common problem?!) Or is the point a broader one, that the justice system has plenty of room for error? In which case, is it advocating for stricter observation of jury members under sequestration? For removal of jury from the justice system? Or just stating that human error happens in all sorts of places? I’m really not sure. As intriguing as I found the concept, the two halves of this story just didn’t quite sum up what it had started for me, even though the main character seems certain in the end about what has happened.

“She hardly remembers Tim’s testimony- only that he clenched his molars and ranked Stephana over Jesus. Would she have remembered more of what Tim said if she hadn’t been distracted by the notes her lover had written to her in his jury notebook and then angled the page so she could read the words from one row back, two chairs over?”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was entertaining and quick, but never quite convinced me. If the concept intrigues you I’d definitely still recommend giving it a go, I think it’s one of those books that could have very different effects on different readers!

What’s your favorite court/legal story?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Tiger’s Wife

The 2011 winner of the Women’s Prize, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, was my most recent buddy read. Reactions to it have been quite mixed (both in the buddy read and in general), so definitely check out more reviews if it’s a title that interest you. (I’ll add the reviews from my reading buddies for this title here as they appear: Callum, Naty, Rachel…)

thetigerswifeIn the novel, Natalia and her friend, both doctors in the Balkans, are traveling to an orphanage across the border of their country to deliver medicine to children on the other side. Still trying to reconcile her feelings over the newly divided country and the aftermath of war, Natalia also learns that her grandfather, a beloved mentor and revered member of the community- has died, supposedly on his way to visit her. While she helps distribute the medicine and tries to persuade the travelers in town (who are digging for a body left behind 12 years ago) to allow their children to be treated as well, she must now also attempt to retrieve her grandfather’s things from the morgue. Interwoven with this series of events, she also recounts two stories she’s heard about her grandfather’s past, both involving death, and both featuring a bit of magic.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life […] One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”

Unfortunately, at a little over 300 pages The Tiger’s Wife somehow felt excessively long and drawn-out to me- probably because despite including plenty of individual moments that I adored, several larger aspects were ineffective for me. My reading experience was filled with pros and cons, landing me somewhere in the middle of the wide range of opinions surrounding this book.

At heart, The Tiger’s Wife is a story of superstition and belief, of what people tell themselves to cope with what is happening to or around them. Both of the stories from Natalia’s grandfather’s past include a magical realism element that may or may not be taken at face value, a choice that allows the reader to see how these characters might have accepted such outlandish stories to begin with. Though I’m not always a fan of magical realism, I thoroughly enjoyed those elements in this novel. I thought the magical chapters were the most engaging to read, and they gave me something deeper to think about than the surface details of the story. But after so much attention is given to these magical tales throughout the book, the payoff for them seems too rushed and insufficient for them to warrant so much page time. Pro, meet con.

The two largest pieces that didn’t work for me were 1) the structure, and 2) the narrator, who provides the framework for the story.

The book alternates between three story lines: that of the Deathless Man, that of the Tiger’s Wife, and that of the narrator’s experience with the orphanage. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is also explored piecemeal through historical anecdotes sprinkled throughout, which touch on the political conflict in the Balkans from the time of the world wars onward. Though the stories (historical, political, personal, magical) do tie together at the end, I found the constant switching between such disparate narratives to be disorienting, and not conducive to compulsive reading. Even within each chapter, our narrator jumps through time to explore not only the narratives themselves, but also the histories of each of the main players. Though each chapter eventually drew me in with one plot point or another, having to switch back to another story line in the next chapter, and then not necessarily from the point at which the last relevant chapter left off, made it easy to set the novel down at every break and harder to pick back up. Every chapter takes patience and an effort to adjust.

Additionally, and also damaging to my reading experience, I thought the narrator felt like an unnecessary addendum to the story. Until her trek up the mountain on the heels of a mysterious figure (at the very end of the book), she contributes very little- no personality, no opinions, no actions beyond what is necessary to move the plot along. Primarily, I felt The Tiger’s Wife to be the grandfather’s story, and including a granddaughter at all seemed only a convenient way to frame the story after his death, since death is so crucial to the two biggest stories of his life. Even from a logistical standpoint though, it seems an awkward narrative choice; only one of these two major stories is actually given to Natalia by her grandfather, the other she must collect from various sources while visiting the village of his youth, and she does this several years after her trip to the orphanage; this means that the entire narrative is actually told from a futuristic viewpoint, when the narrator finally holds all of the stories together, though I found no further insight or reflection as usually accompanies a story told retrospectively. The events surrounding the orphanage visit seem like they’ve happened just yesterday, just a moment ago, not from some future point of clarity. Even setting the strange timing aside, Natalia doesn’t express much emotion about any of the book’s events, which makes her feel like a third party in someone else’s show rather than an active participant in her own. Ultimately, I just didn’t find her voice useful or engaging.

“Slightly younger, we had been unable to ration our enthusiasm for living under the yoke of war; now, we couldn’t regulate our inability to part with it.”

And now that I’ve complained my way through several paragraphs, it’s time for the upside: the writing. I suppose opinions will be divided on this as well, but I loved Obreht’s style in this book. The prose is sumptuous and evocative, full of imagery and deep characterization (aside from Natalia). The details didn’t all feel necessary, as I’ve outlined above, and in the end the story didn’t quite pull together as strongly as I’d been hoping it would, but something about the writing of this book felt so promising, so hopeful, that even when I found myself disappointed in other aspects, I wouldn’t have considered giving up on the book. She’s clearly a talented writer, and The Tiger’s Wife is all the more impressive for the fact that it’s Obreht’s debut. It examines timeless and fascinating concepts: grief, death, political upheaval, superstition- and ties them all to a specific time and place. For the right reader,  I imagine this book can be a great success. A reader more interested in historical fiction, magical realism, and beautiful prose, with a clearer picture of the Balkans’ political history. Sadly, that didn’t quite seem to be me.

” ‘People become very upset,’ Gavo tells me, ‘when they find out they are going to die. […] They behave very strangely,’ he says. ‘They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things they have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury.’ “

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this has been my least favorite of the Women’s Prize winners I’ve read thus far, though I don’t regret the read. I’m certainly not discouraged from trying more titles from the list of Women’s Prize winners, and I might still pick up Obreht’s 2019 release, Inland, at some point as well, though I would appreciate anyone who’s read it (or read both, preferably) weighing in on whether I might get along with it any better?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Girl, Woman, Other

I’ve finally read the second winner of the 2019 Booker Prize: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman Other! (Second only in that I happened to read them in this order.) Fortunately, this one went much better for me than Atwood’s The Testaments did.

girl, woman, otherIn the novel, twelve lives overlap in Britain. Most of these are women, most are black, all are unique. At the after party of a ground-breaking play’s opening night in London, through quiet conversations and seemingly ordinary encounters, twelve stories quietly intersect. Between the introduction to the play and gathering afterward, the reader follows each character through a vignette-like study of their history and experiences; we follow these people through history and around the world, ultimately seeing them come together around the central play. Rather than simplifying these perspectives by collecting them together, Evaristo shows how one scene can be filled with many perspectives, each as vital as the next.

“Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English

which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being…”

I want to start off here by saying that I found Girl, Woman, Other a worthy Booker winner, since that was the context in which I read it. If you read only one Booker winner this year, I highly recommend choosing this one, though of course Atwood’s novel certainly has its audience as well. I haven’t read the entire shortlist yet (4 and 1/2 out of 6), so it’s perhaps unfair to pick favorites at this point, but the clear standout for me is still Ducks, Newburyport. It’s inventive and captivating in a way nothing else on the shortlist comes close to in my opinion, which (sadly) includes Girl, Woman, Other. That said, I don’t begrudge Girl, Woman, Other its win. For one thing, I can understand that readers who only pick up the Booker winner(s) because of their win are more likely to actually read Evaristo’s novel whereas they might give a 1k-pager like Ellmann’s a pass for its sheer (and not totally necessary) size. Girl, Woman, Other uses an interesting format, covers timely topics, and is undeniably readable. It strives to challenge outdated and uninformed views, to give voice to minorities, and to promote equality- all important things to put in readers’ hands.

“maybe that was the point, a completely gender-free world, or was that a naïve utopian dream?”

What I liked:

  • Girl, Woman, Other is compulsively readable in its twelve bite-sized pieces. Averaging around 30 pages each, every chapter is its own adventure, each focusing on a different character. There are some obvious connections between them throughout the book, particularly within the sets of 3 that the chapters are sorted into, but each section is distinct and more or less complete in itself (though this is definitely a novel, not a set of connected short stories- reading any of them as a standalone would not have the proper effect).
  • The writing style uses spacing to connect and divide ideas rather than abiding by proper punctuation rules. There are no periods, capitalization is restricted to proper nouns, and yet it’s still clear where the sentences are. Evaristo uses commas and indentations to mark breaths/breaks and changes of subject in a way that feels simultaneously comfortable and artistic, and lends the story its own rhythm.
  • The representation is phenomenal. By featuring so many women, so many black characters, such a range of genders and sexualities, Evaristo really highlights a side (or many sides) of Britain that gets overlooked and/or dismissed. She gives the spotlight to people who are told (or shown) that they don’t belong in Britain or are treated as outsiders, demonstrating that these, too, are undoubtedly a part of Britain’s lifeblood and just as worthy of being heard.

“…it’s crazy that people are so stupid to think over one and a half billion Muslims all think and act the same way, a Muslim man carries out a mass shooting or blows people up and he’s called a terrorist, a white man does the exact same thing and he’s called a madman…”

What I didn’t like:

  • Because Girl, Woman, Other features so very many diverse characters, there are a few times when it feels like the narration is just checking minority boxes. For instance, we get full details on all of Yazz’s (diverse) college friends, even though they’re only really there to prove how “woke” Yazz is. Later on, as Morgan realizes they’re gender free, they makes a friend who gives them the rundown on the LGBTQ+ community; this friend explains all the options for gender identities, explaining what’s wrong with the “gender binary” view and what is or isn’t appropriate to say, in an obvious attempt at educating the reader. Moments like these just felt like Evaristo was maybe trying to tackle too many issues in one go for each of them to feel natural and convincing in the overarching story.
  • With the focus on all these various personalities, the plot takes a backseat. Though Amma’s play loosely ties everyone together, it doesn’t include much in the way of tension or climax or anything I would normally associate with “plot.” Instead, each of the chapters flashes back and makes its own plot out of every character’s life. In about 30 pages, we essentially follow each main character (all narrated in the third person and referred to by name, which helps avoid confusion) through their entire life story. This can become repetitive despite the characters’ disparate experiences because essentially it means we’re getting twelve similar trajectories in which each character faces repression or exclusion from a predominately white society, and then this character comes of age, overcomes adversity, finds a way to live another day. None of these threads are quite “resolved,” since the social issues at hand are mostly still ongoing, but they do follow a pattern nonetheless. Additionally, because these vignettes are often presented as retrospective, we generally know some key information beforehand about where the character will end up, which decreases the tension. Though I loved the connections between the characters, those moments alone didn’t provide the book with much momentum.

But, despite this not being my favorite story, I enjoyed the read and I love what this book is doing- giving voice to a lot of people who haven’t had a fair audience. It’s an important read and an accessible winner that (in my opinion) offers more substance than it’s co-winner, The Testaments. I think with the caveat of wanting you to know going in that’s it’s not the most plotty and is blatantly trying to expand your worldview sometimes at the cost of the entertainment factor, this is one of those books that I really would recommend to basically everyone. I would not recommend Ducks, Newburyport that widely, so in the end, I’m happy with this win!

“she watches the stream of people crossing the bridge this morning, most of whom are more engaged with their phones, taking selfies, tourist pics, posting, texting, than actually taking in the views either side of the bridge

people have to share everything they do these days, from meals, to nights out, to selfies of themselves half naked in a mirror

the border between public and private are dissolving”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not in a rush to read more from Evaristo, though I wouldn’t count it out at this point. I’ll be interested to see what she publishes next, for sure. In any case, I’m very glad to have read this one and I can see myself recommending it often and eventually rereading. Not at all a waste of my time, though waiting for it to win the Booker perhaps put a bit more pressure on it for me than if I had read it earlier.

(I’ll probably post some sort of final 2019 Booker Prize overview either this month or next when I get through the last two titles I’m planning to read (for now). At that point I will have read 12/13 of the longlisted books, and I’d like to talk final thoughts on each of the books and on the shortlist and prize results before I cap off my 2019 Booker experience.)

Are there any 2019 Booker nominees you’re still planning to read before next year’s prize?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Firestarter

(My last belated review from November reading! I’m so close to being caught up again!)

I picked up Stephen King’s Firestarter in preparation for reading King’s newest release, The Institute. I heard somewhere along the line that the two novels share a key element or two, and I love a good comparison. I’m also just very interested in the fact that King can find such success in using “recycled” content. But this post will be a single, focused review since I’ve only just started The Institute– any comparisons between the two will appear there.

firestarterIn the novel, a man and his daughter are on the run from a top secret government branch known as “the Shop.” Several years previously, Andy met his wife in a paid study where they were both given experimental drugs. Neither can quite be sure whether they hallucinated the events that followed, or actually tapped into a range of psychic abilities as part of the test- some residual power to manipulate the minds of others and close doors without touching them suggests the latter. Even so, they’re both surprised when their daughter Charlie, is born with the ability to start fires with her mind, and only grows stronger with time. The Shop wants to study her badly enough that they’d kill to get their hands on her; they’re not above kidnapping either. But no one understands the pyrokinetic power they’re up against- not even Charlie.

“You sit here and make your plans for controlling a force beyond your comprehension. A force that belongs only to the gods themselves…and to this one little girl.”

Three things to be aware of right off the bat:

  1. This book was published in 1980, and feels very much like a product of its time. Between the mad scientist, the psychedelic drugs, the ease of hitchhiking, the slow spread of information (predating the smart phone era), and the secret government agents destined to stay ahead of the Russians, it’s definitely a throwback.
  2. This book was published during Stephen King’s addiction years. In his own On Writing (and probably elsewhere), he admits that he doesn’t have clear memories of his writing projects from this time, including the entire novel of Cujo, if I remember correctly. I haven’t read Cujo yet, but I have read quite a handful of King’s works, and this is the first one that felt genuinely sloppy to me. It is coherent, but gave me the strong impression that King was riding on his fame and churning out ideas without polishing them.
  3. This book is very obviously one of the main sources of inspiration for the Stranger Things TV show. Charlie is clearly an earlier rendition of Eleven (though with a different power), and the Shop paves the way for the Hawkins Lab. The set-up for the drug experiment is very similar to the set-up of the experiment in Suspicious Minds, the first official Stranger Things novel, which stands as a prequel to the TV series. Many small details match up as well, character traits and motivations, etc. I feel confident in saying that Stranger Things would not exist- or at least, not as it does today- without this novel.

In a nutshell, if you’re interested in science fiction stories from the 80’s, in King’s writing in general, or in Stranger Things, you’re more likely to find this a worthwhile read. Because I was very interested in 2 of those categories and indifferent about the 3rd (80’s sci-fi), I did enjoy the underlying concept and quite a few of the details. That said, I did have some larger issues that are more likely to bother readers who aren’t interested in this book for one of the above reasons.

“Of course, an eighth-grade science book teaches that anything will burn if it gets hot enough. But it is one thing to read such information and quite another to see cinderblocks blazing with blue and yellow flame.”

The first issue I had was with characterization; most of the characters in Firestarter feel like archetypes rather than nuanced people. The assassin was probably the most interesting, though even he turned out to be predictably evil rather than morally gray. Andy, the father, is a typical wrong-place-wrong-time hero who just wants to do the right thing so badly that he’s boring, and Charlie just feels entirely inauthentic as a 9 year old girl: her dialogue is corny and cringe-worthy, her reactions strangely detached, and she’s given no personality- no favorite toys or pastimes, no best friends she misses, no self-expression in her clothes or behavior. It’s like when she’s not in the current scene, she doesn’t exist, and even when she is in scene she’s so transparent that it’s hard to invest in her plight. It’s the situation they’re in rather than the characters themselves that drives the story forward.

And on the topic of momentum, the second main issue I found with this book is that the pacing lags right in the middle. The story starts with Andy and Charlie on the run, which is interesting enough, but there’s a sort of stalemate in the middle of the story between the end of the chase and the big climax. In this pause, King spends hundreds of pages (out of the total 500) just moving his characters into place for the final act. It’s a slow, largely plotless section full of helplessness and prophetic dreams and no one quite sure where they’re going anymore or how they’re going to get there. The concept has lost its novelty by this point, the characters have proven themselves uninteresting, and literally nothing is happening. Even though I knew King was going to end this one with a bang, it was such a struggle getting through that middle section.

Which isn’t to say the book’s all bad. Even though I would not have liked this story if I wasn’t interested in reading for reasons that extended beyond the plot, there are certainly some fun elements. Andy’s power, for one: he can “push” people into believing things- convincing a cab driver that the one-dollar bill in his hand is actually a hundred, for example. The drug experiment he participates in and the Shop itself is fascinating, if you’re into government conspiracies. The increasingly large fires Charlie can set without breaking a sweat add an extra layer of intrigue. And there’s an interesting afterward in which King notes that while he’s not trying to persuade anyone that psychic powers are real, there was actually a time when the government spent time and money trying to discover whether such powers might be harnessed for use.

“Do not fear, you are wrapped snuggly in the arms of Modern Science.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was so fun to see what was clearly a source of inspiration for other creators, and to weigh this early story against some of its notable recent counterparts (Stranger Things and Suspicious Minds). Though the story itself did not quite satisfy me, I did appreciate its premise, and I’m so intrigued to see where King goes with the psychic powers in The Institute. I hope the latter will be a more polished and entertaining work in its own right, but Firestarter has not discouraged me or lowered my expectations. I’ll definitely be reading more from King, and I’m now very much in the mood to rewatch Stranger Things!

 

The Literary Elephant