Tag Archives: women’s prize

Wrap-Up 4.20

April is usually such a highlight for me- it’s my birthday month!- but this year it was bookended with reading slumps, brought unwelcome post-season snow, and was filled with mostly underwhelming Women’s Prize content. I’m looking forward to moving on as quickly as possible.

My TBR goal for April looked like this:

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In the end I finished three and a half  out of the five. The three books I did read were all 4-star ratings for me, and I am enjoying Wolf Hall, which is the one I’m halfway through. In fairness, I’ve read over 350 pages of it, which feels like it should count for something– it is very long. I’m still planning to read The Glass Hotel very soon. And I finished one of the books from my March TBR that I fell behind on that month. So even though I didn’t finish everything as quickly as I’d hoped, I’m not disappointed with where I’m at.

Here’s what I read this month:

  1. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars. Under other circumstances, this child-narrated mystery of disappearances in an Indian slum might have been a 3-star read for me; the mystery element was a little disappointing. But the narrative voice and themes blended well, and this did turn out to be among the highlights of the Women’s Prize for me this year.
  2. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars. Though the premise was very strong with this one- examining the effects of large-scale disaster on a poor community- this book neglected to follow through on any of the deeper commentary it hinted at.
  3. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars. This retelling of the Trojan War through female perspectives is a solid read with some great characters, but unfortunately failed to break free of the original narrative and didn’t bring anything new to the table for me.
  4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars. My favorite read from the Women’s Prize longlist, in terms of enjoyability! Though perhaps not the most impressive on a technical level, I was nevertheless caught up by the prose and characters in this reimagining of a chapter in Shakespeare’s family life.
  5. Queenie by Candince Carty-Wiliams – 3 stars. A young Jamaican-British woman in London hits rock bottom as her love life spirals out of control, dragging everything else down with it. I thought this was a great story, but so surface-level that I’ve barely thought about it at all since turning the last page.
  6. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars. A stellar WWII fiction set in Singapore. The delivery of information is a bit clunky, especially at the end, but I appreciated each of the perspectives and thought the story was done beautifully, with nuance, and didn’t pull any punches. A real win for the Women’s Prize longlist this year, and a shame it didn’t advance.
  7. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars. This story of a famous (fictional) British-Irish actress and her daughter didn’t have quite as much emotional effect for me as I’d hoped, and yet I loved Enright’s skill with language and the complex dynamics she created between the two main characters.
  8. The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter – 4 stars. I’ve been reading this in bits and pieces since January; it is essentially a nonfiction medical reference work rather than something meant to be read cover to cover for fun, so I needed to take my time with it though I am glad to have seen all of the information at least once. This is an absolutely incredible resource. Review coming soon.

When I finished the Women’s Prize longlist (except for the Mantel trilogy) and the shortlist was announced, it was like hitting a reading wall for me. It wasn’t that I suddenly didn’t want to read, but that I could only manage a few pages at a time. My attention would wander. I would get tired. I would get distracted. I’m battling some sort of mild but persistent head cold which has really wiped me out. It’s been a weird time. I am happy to put this hot mess behind me and start fresh, and hopefully my immune system will do the same. I know it could be so much worse so I’ve been trying to just take a step back instead of complaining. Here’s to hoping May will be better for everyone.

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(The book turned backward in the photo is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; as I’ve read over half I’m giving it an honorary mention.)

Some Stats:

Average rating – 3.5  This is the same as last month, but somehow it feels worse when there are no five stars in the bunch.

Best of month – I’m calling a tie between Hamnet, my most enjoyable read of the month, and The Vagina Bible, the book whose very existence excited me most.

Owned books read for the first time – 7 out of 8. That’s great! I had one library book to finish up at the beginning of the month, but otherwise I’ve been reading off of my own shelves, and expect it’ll be the same for May. I’m not sure when my library will reopen, but my due dates are now pushed back to June so it doesn’t look promising. I think this is the first time I haven’t been to a library all month in over five years. Now if only I could hold off on buying more books in order to make an actual dent in my TBR stack in the meantime… 6 of the books I read this month were only bought in March!

Year total – 36. Goodreads says I’m three books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year. Considering the fact that I’ve barely been reading the past two weeks, I’m just relieved I haven’t fallen behind yet.

Even though there’s been plenty to complain about through April, it wasn’t all bad! The Women’s Prize longlist was largely underwhelming this year, but I still had a lot of fun reviewing the books and chatting about them with all of you! Be sure to check out my

if you missed them! Also in response to the Women’s Prize this year, don’t miss the announcement for the alternate longlist I’m participating in:

And last but not least, my Spotlight Series post of the month featured literary fiction for April, and it’s crammed full of recommendations! Be sure to check it out and weigh in if you’re interested!

I’ll have my May TBR coming up next, and hopefully will be getting back into the swing of reading and reviewing soon. If things go as planned, I should have plenty of content coming up this month and hopefully a handful of 5-star reads to review among my posts! I am determined to have a better month. Tell me about a book you’re excited to read in May!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Shortlist Reaction

The results are in! In case you missed the announcement, this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist contains the following six books:

Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors!

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(Again, I’m missing a copy of Weather, thus the backward-facing stand-in.)

My shortlist reviews (so far) are linked in the titles above. For more of my thoughts on this year’s prize titles, be sure to check out my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist wrap-up, which contains the links to all of my longlist reviews and my impression of the set as a whole. Also included are some shortlist predictions, in which I guessed five of these six titles correctly! That is certainly a record for me, and made for a fun reveal. But let’s talk about the list.

First, what isn’t there? A few of my longlist top choices didn’t make the cut, including Actress, which I was never convinced would stand a chance at the shortlist with this set of judges, who seem to prefer accessibility over literary merit. I thought Fleishman is in Trouble might have stood a slightly better chance, as it is a juicier family drama (which these judges seem to favor, if the longlist is anything to go by), and aside from its bold structure it isn’t a particularly literary read, though it is quite smart. But I wasn’t confident enough to place this one on my predictions list either. I’m more surprised not to see Djinn Patrol, which was lower on my favorites list but a great blend of heavier topics with a lighter narrative tone that I thought would appeal to these judges. It’s also a debut novel from an Indian author amidst quite a few well-established US and UK writers. Similarly, How We Disappeared is a debut from a Singaporean author, and also deftly handles some tough themes- I’m heartbroken this one didn’t advance. I didn’t include it on my prediction list mostly as a way to brace myself for this bad scenario of it not advancing, which sadly is what happened.

Also of note, I think, are the absences of The Dutch House and Red at the Bone, neither of which I particularly wanted to advance but both were highly favored among readers.

As for disappointments that did make the cut, the biggest one for me is Dominicana, which hasn’t sat well with me over time (bumped down to 2 stars), mainly for its lackluster presentation of a questionable romance masquerading as an immigration tale. But it does adhere to a particular motherhood story arc that I saw repeated throughout the longlist, which must have particularly appealed to this year’s judges, and on the heels of the American Dirt debacle earlier this year it does at least make a positive political statement about the need to support immigration stories written by immigrants (or their descendants, in this case). I was also underwhelmed by Weather, though aside from it not resonating with me personally I really have nothing against its presence on the shortlist. Most surprising is the appearance of A Thousand Ships, which I did include in my prediction list as a last-minute wild card but regretted almost immediately because it felt like throwing away a vote; after both longlisted Greek retellings (in the wake of which A Thousand Ships accomplishes very little that’s new) featured on last year’s shortlist, it’s a shock to see such a similar sort of story being honored again so immediately. But while I wasn’t quite at the right place in my reading life to love A Thousand Ships, I do think it’s a perfectly fine novel whose main fault is simply having such a tough act (Miller and Barker) to follow.

But there are some reasons to celebrate as well! With two WP shortlistings and two Booker Prize wins under her belt for the previous books in the same trilogy, it is exciting to see Mantel advance with The Mirror and the Light. It would be a great accomplishment to see her win either the WP or the Booker this year with the trilogy’s final book, and I’d very much like her to have that success. I’m also currently reading this trilogy, so its place on the shortlist is also personally motivating and lets me feel my reading is still “relevant” even though I didn’t quite finish this final longlister before the shortlist announcement. But I’m equally thrilled for Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other on the shortlist! After the fiasco of her dual win of the Booker Prize last year with Atwood, it would really be a rewarding accomplishment to see her win this one outright. Helped, of course, by the fact that her experimental novel (mostly) about queer black women in London is an absolutely excellent book. Then there’s O’Farrell with Hamnet, which was my favorite reading experience from this year’s longlist despite not being the most technically well-done. O’Farrell is perhaps a bit less obvious a choice for the winner (though still very deserving!) than Mantel or Evaristo this year, which is appealing in itself.

And some of my least favorites are now left behind as well, another relief. I’m most pleased not to see Girl on the shortlist, which I thought was messy both in content and authorship. I’m also glad not to see Nightingale Point advance, which many longlist readers (especially UK-based) seem to be loving, though I strongly disliked mainly for failing to deliver on its stellar premise. While I had some fun reading The Most Fun We Ever Had, I also thought it had nothing to offer beyond entertainment, which is really not what I look for in a literary prize so am happy to see this one missing from the shortlist as well.

I think the only longlisted book I haven’t mentioned yet is Queenie, so might as well! This was probably the most middle-of-the-road book for me on the longlist, and I was fairly indifferent to its possible shortlisting. It’s a book that I love to see getting commercial attention and was happy to discover on this year’s longlist, but it also left me nothing to think about after closing the cover, which isn’t a trait I would look for in “the best” fiction of the year. I suspect it might have been a bit too thematically similar to the more obvious shortlist choice of Girl, Woman, Other, which probably hurt its chance of advancing this year even if it is a great read.

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So, my initial overall impression of the shortlist: It could have been worse! It also could have been better, but it would have been hard to pull a really exciting shortlist out of a longlist that felt so underwhelming to begin with, and I think the three I’m happiest to see on the shortlist also have the best chance of winning, so it’s hard to feel too bitter.

Do I recommend reading the shortlist? Sure! While I don’t think this is the most exciting set of six books, there’s only one that I thought was actually subpar, and some readers seem to be having a better time with it than I did. If you’re a long-time prize fan looking for a literary challenge though, this one might not be for you. But there’s no shame in picking up only what appeals either, even if that isn’t the set of books that made it to the shortlist. I recommend at least glancing through the longlist because this is a great way to find books by women that lots of people are reading and talking about! My top recommendations from the longlist would probably vary by reader, but I would most widely recommend Girl Woman Other, How We Disappeared, Hamnet, and Queenie.

Where I stand: The only shortlister I haven’t read yet is The Mirror and the Light, which is the third book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I am currently reading Wolf Hall, the first book in said trilogy. I’ll plan to review all three books together in one go, probably at the end of April or beginning of May. The winner will not be announced until September 9, so there’s plenty of time to finish up (and I do intend to take it a bit easier both with reading and blogging than I have been the last few weeks)! I’ll probably start gathering my concluding thoughts as soon as I finish the Mantel, while my thoughts are fresh, but I’ll wait to post them with an informed winner prediction until closer to the final announcement date, by which time a refresher will probably be helpful.

But never fear! I’m obsessed with Women’s Prize content these days, so more WP-related posts will still be forthcoming. I’ll be posting about an unaffiliated alternate longlist created from this year’s Women’s Prize eligible books, assembled by a great group of bloggers who’ve closely followed this prize. Whether you’re looking for just a few further recommendations or a whole new reading challenge, stay tuned! 🙂 I’ll also be reading as many previous WP winners as I can over the next five months, reviewing as I go, because September is also the closing of the WP “winner of the winners” public vote! The poll is open now if you’re already prepared to cast your vote; if you’re waiting, I’m planning to post at least a partial wrap-up including some thoughts on all of the past winners I’ve managed to read, complete with a ranked list of my favorites.

In the meantime… let me know what you think of this year’s shortlist! Do you have an early guess for 2020’s winner?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Longlist Wrap-Up, Shortlist Predictions

The shortlist announcement for the 2020 Women’s Prize is only hours out! In that spirit, here is a full round up of my thoughts on the longlisted books (minus one- I haven’t finished Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light yet), and some guesses about what lies ahead for the shortlist.

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(Not pictured: Weather by Jenny Offill, which I read from the library in Feb.)

Though my initial reaction to the longlist was one of cautious excitement, my feeling at the end (or almost) is one of disappointment with this year’s selections. This year’s judges seem to have very different reading taste than I do, and as a result I am left underwhelmed by many of these titles and by the 2020 longlist as a whole. It hasn’t been all bad, of course- this list has encouraged me to pick up a few books I’m happy to have read that I might have missed otherwise! But I’ve not found a single 5-star read among them. This is in contrast with last year’s Women’s Prize longlist which contained FIVE 5-star reads for me, as well as two 4-stars that came very close. In the wake of such excellence, I am less than satisfied with my overall current rating of 3.2 for the 2020 longlist.

One part of the experience that made this longlist stand out for me is the fact that it was the first time that I’ve read most of a longlist outright, picking up the books back to back to back from start to finish. Well, 13 of them- I read two titles prior to seeing the longlist, and still have one left to finish. With life out of whack due to lockdowns and all, I found it very helpful to have a structure to follow over the last month, a concrete list and a (sort of) concrete deadline.

Also because of the lockdowns and *current world state,* I noticed quite a few mentions of fever, quarantine, hand sanitizer, and other “timely” key words in this year’s longlisted books. Almost every book, actually, contained a sentence or two that felt very ironic given our present situation. It’s likely this would have happened with anything I was reading (the same way learning a new word makes it suddenly seem to crop up everywhere), but I was surprised to realize how common it is that authors remark on outbreaks of illness. The most obvious case is of course O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in which the black plague plays a key role, but there were plenty more mentions. (No wonder reading has been such a struggle for so many who are stuck at home these days!)

“I was, for most practical purposes, a person in quarantine; my sickness was without cure and kept eating away at me until I could hardly see anything of myself.” – How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

” ‘Here-‘ she said, holding out a bottle of antibacterial hand gel. She squeezed some into my palm.” … “I pinballed my way down the bus, careful not to touch anything or anyone with my hands, and stepped off.” –Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

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

 

Less coincidentally, I noticed among this year’s longlist a pervasive theme of motherhood commentary. Every single longlisted book (barring Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I can’t speak about yet) includes a pregnancy, a child, a family, or some combination of all three as a central focus of the book. There are absent mothers, abusive stepmothers, sisters who take on parental responsibility, women who aren’t ready for pregnancy but find themselves faced with it anyway. Of course lots of women even outside of literature have children and families, but they are present in these books as main subjects, not incidental details. The common trend seems to be an exploration of what makes a “good” mother; many of this year’s longlisted titles present the reader with a woman who is seen as bad or undesirable as a mother for one reason or another, and then goes on to show that there’s more to the story and to demonstrate that the mother is actually making the best choices available to her given her circumstances. Though this is perhaps ultimately a positive message about women existing as individuals outside of the demands of motherhood, it does paint a rather unflattering image of parenthood in the process, giving us many mothers who seem discontent, doomed from the start, and unrewarded for their efforts.

I’ve never seen a theme quite so consistent across an entire longlist, and while I don’t have an issue with books about motherhood on principle, the concentration of it here bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not particularly interested in marriage or motherhood for myself at this point of my life, which made it harder for me to find any of this commentary personally relevant.  I don’t need to “relate” to every book I read, but out of sixteen of “the best” books in literature published by women over the last year I would have hoped for at least one that would really speak to me. There’s so much more to women’s experiences than motherhood. There’s so much more to literature. It’s disappointing not see more of a variety being highlighted by this prize.

Secondly, I couldn’t help wondering how the strict adhesion to this theme reflected the judges’ approach to selecting this longlist. Were there great books up for the Women’s Prize this year that were passed over for a spot on the list because they didn’t focus on motherhood? Were some of the weaker longlisted titles chosen solely because they highlight motherhood and family dynamics? I have no proof or insider info of course, and I ask out of a sense of curiosity and fun rather than accusation, but this has provided me some interesting food for thought as to the judging process. (Another conspiracy theory for your list, Naty!)

Before I move on from themes and content, I want to touch on some smaller parallels I found between longlisted books. Here are some subjects and/or tactics I saw repeated:

  • Boy sleuth investigating tragic mystery: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, How We Disappeared
  • Long-term emotional and psychological effects of large scale violence/disaster: Nightingale Point, A Thousand Ships, Girl, How We Disappeared
  • Retelling: The Dutch House (Hansel and Gretel), A Thousand Ships (Trojan War)
  • Impoverished group neglected by police/government: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Nightingale Point
  • Wicked stepmother: The Dutch House, Hamnet
  • Criticism of marriage and wealth through unlikable characters: Fleishman is in Trouble, The Most Fun We Ever Had, The Dutch House
  • Ignorant men overlooking efforts of spouse/family: The Dutch House, Fleishman is in Trouble
  • Challenges of life in London as a black woman: Queenie, Girl Woman Other
  • Teen girl removed from family home and raped: Girl, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, A Thousand Ships
  • Absent mother: The Dutch House, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone, Queenie Fleishman is in Trouble, Hamnet
  • Family saga: The Most Fun We Ever Had, Red at the Bone, Actress, The Dutch House, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, Girl Woman Other, Hamnet
  • Difficult/unusual pregnancy/birth: Fleishman is in Trouble, How We Disappeared, Girl, The Most Fun We Ever Had, Hamnet, Red at the Bone, Queenie, Actress

(Let me know in the comments if you’ve noticed any connections I’m missing! I had a particularly hard time placing A Thousand Ships and Girl Woman Other because of the multitude of perspectives in each; I read GWO several months ago and no longer remember every character’s plot arc. I also haven’t read The Mirror and the Light yet so am not sure what applies.)

 

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, my ranked list of longlist titles, from most to least favorite. You can follow the links through the titles for more info and my thoughts on each of the books!

  1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 4 stars
  3. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars
  4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4 stars
  5. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars
  6. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars
  7. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – 3 stars
  8. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 3 stars (down from 4 stars initially)
  9. Weather by Jenny Offill – 3 stars
  10. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars
  11. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars
  12. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars
  13. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars (down from 3 stars initially)
  14. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars
  15. Girl by Edna O’Brien – 2 stars

(Not included: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I’ll come back and edit it into place when I finish, but my best guess right now is that it’ll end up in the 4 star range, though I’m HOPING for a 5!)

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You can see above my top six favorites, and those would be my IDEAL shortlist. But I don’t expect that will happen. My actual shortlist prediction is:

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  2. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill
  4. Djinn Patrol by Deepa Anappara
  5. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  6. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

wp2020shortlistpredictions

This was actually very hard to choose! It is always a bit challenging to guess what will appeal most to other people (in this case five other people), especially when factors like diversity, past accolades and present author standing, past WP lists, thematic relevance, and more could all be weighed in the balance as well. I drafted about fifty variations of predictions before I had to just quit so I could finish this post before the announcement, ha. I doubt I’m correct but I didn’t feel any more confident about my other variations and it’s all in fun anyway! Anything could happen. A Thousand Ships is my bold choice reflecting that, I suppose, after TWO Greek retellings made it onto last year’s shortlist.

I’m most sure about the Evaristo and Mantel advancing, and the only book I really don’t want to see advance is Girl. My other 2-star ratings do seem to be getting more favorable reviews from other readers, so I’m trying to prepare myself for one of those featuring. I also have seen that most of this year’s popular hits and commercial successes (ahem, The Dutch House) are not my personal favorites, though it’s always hard to guess how many big names/titles the judges will put forward- not 6, surely. But it seems inevitable SOMETHING I don’t want to see on the shortlist will be there. I just hope some of my 4-star faves will also appear!

Soon we’ll know. I’ll probably post again in about 24 hours with a few early thoughts in reaction to the shortlist, and possibly a winner prediction! (Although maybe not if Mantel does advance, I’d like to finish her trilogy before sharing an opinion about it.)

 

Last but far from least, I can’t close this wrap-up without a big shout out to my Women’s Prize squad, who’ve been ranting and (less frequently this year) raving about the prize books along with me: Hannah @ I Have Thoughts On Books, Marija @ Inside My Library Mind, Naty @ Naty’s Bookshelf, Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri, Sarah @ Sarah Ames-Foley, and a special nod to Callum @ Callum McLaughlin, the only one of us to actually FINISH the entire list before the shortlist announcement!! Since disappointment with the longlist was pretty mutual amongst us this year, we’ve actually recently assembled an alternative longlist, which I (and others from the group) will be posting about soon as an offering of further recommendations and fun. 🙂

And an extra shout out to even more bloggers who’ve been posting Women’s Prize content that I’ve been loving following along with: Hannah @ Hannah and Her Books, Hannah Celeste @ Books and Bakes, Gilana @ Gil Reads Books, Laura @ Laura Tisdall, and Lou @ Random Book Reviews Web!

If there’s anyone here you’re not already following, definitely check them out! (And if I’ve been commenting on your Women’s Prize content over the last month but I’ve missed you on this list, please let me know so I can correct the oversight!) A big thanks also to everyone who’s read, liked, and/or commented on my Women’s Prize posts even if you’re not reading/posting from the list this year. Having a community to read and chat with about this prize really makes the experience, and I hope anyone who’s been following along with my thoughts has had a positive experience as well!

 

And now… what do you think will make the shortlist?!

Edit: it’s been half an hour and I already want to change my chaotic A Thousand Ships prediction to a perhaps slightly more likely (and personally preferred) Hamnet… 😅

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Actress

This is likely my last review from the Women’s Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement coming up on the 21st! I am still planning to post a wrap-up / shortlist prediction prior to the announcement, and I will review the Mantel trilogy (probably all in one go) as soon as I finish it, which likely won’t be before the 21st. I am currently reading (and really liking) Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but 15 books into this list I’m TIRED and Mantel’s books are all so LONG. Anne Enright’s Actress, on the other hand, is of considerably more manageable length!

actressIn the novel, Norah is approached by yet another writer who wants an interview about Norah’s mother; after this encounter, Norah decides it is finally time to write her own book about her famous/infamous mother. And so begins a recounting of the life story of Katherine O’Dell, English-Irish star of screen and stage, known in the end for her eventual madness and for shooting a man in the foot. Mixed with this tale is the story of Norah’s own life; as Katherine’s only child and her “miracle,” the two shared a close relationship, their tales forever intertwined.

“This was my marvellous mother, who told me that I was marvellous too.”

Here we have another little family saga for the 2020 Women’s Prize. With Norah as narrator, hers is the only perspective the reader is given directly, though in describing her mother’s history Norah also delivers to the reader the actress Katherine O’Dell and her parents, for a generational story spanning about the length of a century.

There is very little plot to Actress. Norah mentions her present life a few times: the interview about her mother, a trip to her Katherine’s birthplace, a few exchanges with Norah’s husband. None of it amounts to much. Between these moments, the family history is told unchronologically, lightly working its way toward an explanation for Katherine shooting someone and also toward a revelation about Norah’s father, but for the most part the timeline feels rather meandering and aimless. I found it a bit difficult to stay invested in the underlying story; though I enjoyed episodes from Katherine’s and Norah’s lives, I didn’t feel much cohesive forward motion in the overall narrative.

What held the book together for me instead was its dual sense of character study. Though Norah claims to be writing about her mother, I would argue that Actress is actually more about Norah. Her mother in the focal point because Katherine’s career and fame has irrevocably shaped Norah’s life, evident even after Katherine’s death in the fact that Norah’s books sell because they’re written by “the daughter of Katherine O’Dell.” The fact that the book is addressed to Norah’s husband, a frequent “you” in these pages, indicates that this account of the actress is perhaps a private project not intended to leave the family home. A personal reckoning, an opportunity for reflection and introspection. There are moments that left me wondering about the reliability of Norah’s memory of her mother, and of the way Norah’s biases may have skewed her understanding of what had happened in her mother’s life or what it meant; I took this as an intentional tactic meant to blur the line between where one woman’s story ends and another’s begins, but certainly part of the beauty of Actress’s characterization is that there’s plenty up for debate in the presentation as well as the content; opinions on the book’s point of view and intent are likely to vary.

“Despite her posing, as though for Life magazine, with her new white goods, the truth is that Katherine O’Dell was, at forty-five, finished. Professionally, sexually. In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door.”

Altogether it’s a very nuanced look at a mother-daughter relationship, at the hardships women face when they’re well-known, and when they’re not. Very little of the book is actually about acting and fame, but rather about the personalities of the two women behind their public masks. Both are complex individually, and likewise is their relationship. They love each other AND find each other challenging. Norah is “a miracle” to her mother, but her existence also serves as a reminder of things lost to Katherine O’Dell, or roads that can no longer be taken. Likewise, Norah’s identity has been, throughout her entire life, tied to her mother’s, flaws, crimes, madness, and all. They are two beautiful, remarkable people, revealed away from the stage and public eye to be every bit as ordinary and extraordinary as the rest of us.

“The dress was a costume, it made her look demented, I thought. So there you are. Did I already know she was crazy? Just the way all mothers are crazy to their daughters, all mothers are wrong.”

I was also hooked early on by the writing. Enright’s prose is clever, perhaps a bit too much so in the dialogue, but very well-formed otherwise. She’s got an incredible sense for when to turn an image or idea on its axis, drawing new meaning on the perpendicular instead of following beaten paths or resorting to tired phrases. My favorite line was perhaps this one:

“And the house around me is a puzzle of absences, room by room.”

Though none of the historical moments or bits of social commentary apparent in these characters’ experiences ever felt central enough to be hailed as the focus of the story, I did appreciate the glimpses into WWI and the Troubles, and the remarks about how women were generally treated by society in different eras. For example, I wouldn’t say this book is “about” the challenges Katherine faced as an actress, the expectation that she be always young and beautiful and less powerful than the men around her, though these details are inextricable from her career and indeed crucial to the story. The backdrop of the Troubles in northern Ireland as Katherine’s mental state begins to fluctuate is also crucial, though again there’s much more to the story. Enright manages to fold small so many huge events and weave them all in together, for the reader to unpack at will.

In the end this was quite a mixed experience for me. I enjoyed the book though not necessarily the story. After finishing it I was left mulling and marveling over individual pieces and how they fit together, which I appreciate, though the emotional impact was low for me. While I may not have loved every moment of the read, I do think this will be a book I’ll remember fondly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the sort of book I expected to find on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, subtle and literary and packed with food for thought. I didn’t find it as immediately gripping as some of the other titles, but I still overall had a good time. I may be interested in trying more of Enright’s work in the future.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Thousand Ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Nightingale Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Dutch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dominicana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant