I thought I was being selective with my monthly anticipated releases lists but apparently I will have to be even more selective about which of those books I try to read immediately. I’ve been focusing on the choices available at my library, but am realizing that my time would be better spent focusing on the titles I’m most excited for, even if that means passing up easily available books and spending a bit more money. Because unfortunately, not all releases live up to expectations. Today I’m talking about two perfectly adequate January releases I’ve read recently that just didn’t quite win me over.
I picked up The Tenant by Katrine Engberg (translated by Tara Chace) partially because I haven’t read a mystery/thriller in a while, and partially because I wanted to read more translations this year- this one’s from Denmark.
In the novel, a police detective who’s recently gone through a divorce is given the lead role in a new case, even though everyone knows he’s been off his game since his wife left him. The case is a grisly one, in which a young woman is found murdered and mutilated in her own apartment. Though there’s no clear motive, there are a daunting number of connections to relatives, friends, past acquaintances, and everyone else living in the building- including the owner, who is working on a manuscript for a murder mystery, featuring the very woman who’s just turned up dead.
What drew me to this particular mystery was that meta writing element, which I did end up enjoying even though it turned out to be only one facet of a larger story. The whole plot came together quite nicely for me, with a decent pace, a good variety of clues all pointing in different directions, and enough action scenes to break up the theorizing. I was able to guess some of the twists though not all, and the characters continued to surprise me even after I thought I had them pegged. I would’ve liked a bit more of a social connection for a lasting impact ( admittedly there is a bit of commentary on orphanages, mentioned rather than explored), but the way that the mystery spins out and winds back together is very well done and I would certainly recommend this book as a smart whodunnit.
” ‘Esther made the story up in two rounds: first the part about the young woman who moves to the capital and meets a man… And three weeks later the description of the murder itself? […] The killer could certainly have inspired Esther, through Julie, to write the first part and then found his own inspiration to commit the murder from the second part. Reality, book- book, reality.’ Jeppe sighed. ‘It’s starting to get quite convoluted, this is.’ “
So what didn’t work? Mainly, the characters. I remained emotionally detached from them throughout the book, which detracted from any tension the plot might have held. Jeppe’s divorce, affair, and back pain weren’t enough to make me care whether he solved this case or not, and his little feuds with Annette didn’t convince me to invest in their friendship/rivalry. There’s very little departmental drama during the investigation and none of the characterization outside of the case developments actually seemed relevant. The suspects felt like pawns being moved around a chessboard. I just wasn’t hooked.
Additionally, the translation seemed a bit unbalanced in places. Some details that probably wouldn’t have needed an explanation in the Danish version are explained in text for the English reader (like gaekkebrev, a form of paper cutting), but the wonderful sense of setting I’d seen so much praise for on the cover turned out to feature mainly street names and landmarks I wasn’t familiar with, rather than anything visual or cultural for an outsider to grasp. This isn’t a criticism of Engberg’s or Chace’s writing; I can understand this being a popular mystery in Denmark, and even in English it’s not the author or translator’s job to educate the reader. But these aspects did affect my experience with the book.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I read this. I found it readable and fun and didn’t hate anything about it. It just didn’t stand apart from other mystery/thrillers I’ve read.
Shifting gears entirely, I also finished Karma Brown’s Recipe for a Perfect Wife just yesterday. This one’s contemporary fiction with a historical element and strong feminist themes. Also a mixed bag for me.
In the novel, the narration alternates between the lives of two women: one a 50’s housewife, the other freshly married in 2018, leaving a busy and mostly fulfilling Manhattan life for a work-from-home job in the suburbs while her husband commutes. The modern woman, Alice, finds a box of the previous owner’s belongings in her house’s the basement, including a stack of women’s magazines from the 1950s and a well-used cookbook. Alice feels a sense of kinship with her predecessor and begins researching the older (now deceased) woman’s life.
It’s my own fault I expected this to be something it wasn’t, and thus liked it less than expected. I thought there were going to be obvious similarities between the two women’s lives, perhaps in a “these are the ways the patriarchy is still holding women back” vein. Instead, it seems to be aimed at readers who don’t already know how misogynistic 50s marriages could be, as it seems this fictional modern woman did not. The two timelines are barely related, except for the fact that the present-day woman is immersing herself in 50s housewife culture as research for her novel.
Despite being a very quick and easy read, this book didn’t push any boundaries for me, and I disliked a lot of the plot. I saw the big reveals of the 50s storyline coming a mile away and found that entire narrative arc very predictable. The modern plot is less straightforward, but only because the present-day wife acts erratically for no apparent reason. She’s lying to her husband, who seems receptive and caring enough, unlike the 50s husband. She insists on having a sort of 50s housewife experience, but then is angry that she’s expected to cook and clean and bear children and defer to her husband even though… she’s the only one placing those expectations on herself? (I know there’s an argument to be made for internalized gender stereotypes here but I really don’t think that’s what Brown is going for.) I firmly believe that an honest conversation or two would’ve completely resolved Alice’s plot before it began, a pet peeve of mine. There’s a lot of potential here for commentary on marriage and feminism, both historically and in the present. Instead, the messages are fairly blatant and what you see is what you get.
But even so I did appreciate the themes, as well as the expository nature of the historical chapters. I couldn’t have cared less about the recipes, but that’s down to my lack of interest in cooking. However, the chapters that don’t include a recipe feature quotes from various publications that real wives and husbands might have had access to in this time period, all highlighting some piece of awful, misogynistic advice. Here are a few infuriating little gems:
“Don’t mope and cry because you are ill, and don’t get any fun; the man goes out to get all the fun, and your laugh comes in when he gets home again and tells you about it- some of it. As for being ill, women should never be ill.” -Advice to Wives, The Isle of Man Times (1895)
“Don’t expect your husband to make you happy while you are simply a passive agent. Do your best to make him happy and you will find happiness yourself.” -Blanche Ebbutt, Don’ts for Wives (1913)
“Be a good listener. Let him tell you his troubles; yours will seem trivial in comparison.” -Edward Podolsky, Sex Today in Wedded Life (1947)
“Just as the vampire sucks the blood of its victims in their sleep while they are alive, so does the woman vampire suck the life and exhaust the vitality of her male partner- or victim.” -William J. Robinson, Married Life and Happiness (1922)
I hope the source of Robinson’s bitterness was a wife that refused to be “put in her place.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. In the end, this book didn’t do what I wanted it to, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the story it did have to tell. But it’s heart was in the right place and it did make me righteously angry about the way women have been treated by society, which I think was ultimately the point.
Because these reviews have been littered with minor complaints, I’d just like to reiterate that my reviews are a reflection of my personal experiences and not an attempt to steer anyone away from certain books. Though neither of these quite impressed me, both are sure to work better for other readers; if you’re interested at all I would definitely recommend checking them out!
The Literary Elephant