Luscious, laconic, nothing-happens-but-everything-happens Anne Tyler. A kaleidoscope of lives revealed in all their plainness and their complexity. ThLuscious, laconic, nothing-happens-but-everything-happens Anne Tyler. A kaleidoscope of lives revealed in all their plainness and their complexity. The intricate love of families, bound together by petty annoyances and profound love, unspooling over the years. I thought each section could have stood on its own as a short story (this is not a criticism, just another way to enjoy the novel and marvel at Tyler's capacity to illuminate these lives slowly, carefully). I loved the gentle humour - anchored in people's conversations with each other that felt so impeccably true to life. And I love how important the house was - what a light hand Tyler had with the central, unifying metaphor of the house. ...more
I'm giving this a solid four, although while reading it I was three-ish. In many places it was superb - the beautiful, poetic language; the originalitI'm giving this a solid four, although while reading it I was three-ish. In many places it was superb - the beautiful, poetic language; the originality of the premise and plot (hard to do in post-apocalyptica, and I didn't really get there until well into the second hundred pages); the interludes in which Watkins interjected new, self-contained pieces of writing - I don't know what you call that - the expositional beginning of part II; Levi's primer; the scene in the buried swimming pool; Luz's root trip (holy crap, what an amazing piece of writing that is).
There was a ton of creative energy in this. And then, there is the author's own back story, which can't help but inform the reading making it even more fascinating. (I liked knowing that in advance, btw; altho' not everyone would).
When this book took flight, it really soared.
The problem for me is that it was a turbulent ride. It felt inconsistent - too inconsistent to me. It felt a little kitchen-sinky. It felt a little over-ambitious - not typically something that discourages me, when reading; I really like authorial audacity. But it was enough to cause me to look out the window and worriedly wonder if the wings were gonna hold. It made me trust Watkins a little less than I needed to. This is a wild ride, and you need to trust.
This is a tree-falls-in-the-forest question, but I wonder, (view spoiler)[had I known where I was going to land, and also that both Luz and Ray survive until the very end at least (hide spoiler)], if that would have restored a sense of continuity, and my ability to trust where Watkins was taking me? Whether I would have had less of a rev-up, stop, stall, rev-up again feeling of plot progression that was, at some level, my primary challenge in the overall reading experience of this.
I admire that structure a lot. I think it actually works fantastically well with the plot and premise - it almost mimics the unpredictable encroachment of the sand. But I didn't enjoy it at an experiential level while reading, that's the thing.
Also, loosey-goosey character back stories. I felt like the moral of the story was always there, but under-explored. Strangely, I feel like I wanted her to be a little more heavy-handed with some of the themes, and with some of the characterizations. (Had she been so, I would have hated it no doubt. Be careful what you wish for, reader). Without this, though, the whole thing skirted a little too closely to nihilism for my own readerly comfort.
So, those things were enough to unsettle me. But again, when this book is brilliant - which it regularly is - it is stupendously brilliant. The ending - wow. Another beautiful piece of writing; gorgeously surreal.
I'ma stop writing or I'll talk myself up to a five.
**spoiler alert** This is a tidal wave of a book. It hooks you with lyrical, beautiful, deceptively gentle prose at the beginning (and, if you are rea**spoiler alert** This is a tidal wave of a book. It hooks you with lyrical, beautiful, deceptively gentle prose at the beginning (and, if you are reading a hard copy, a cut-above physical presentation including full-colour photos and colour page/chapter headers - turquoise, for the sea.) It starts you off from the POV of the 12-year-old protagonist who, it will become apparent at some point, is telling the story of her childhood from 20 years hence.
I liked it a lot - I like the clever and poetic use of fish imagery and the yearning for an alternate universe by this sad, anxious, lonely girl. I liked this sad, anxious, lonely girl. The more we learn about Caitlin and her mother, Sheri's, life together (its impoverished, precarious bleakness), the more the aquarium seems a dreamscape.
Environment – whether a dark, mystical and dreamy aquarium; a warm bed in a white, sparely-furnished apartment in an industrial area; or a Victorian bungalow fitted up with lovingly hand-crafted woodwork – is essential here in specific and symbolic ways. The idea of refuge, of shelter, of safety is important, and is integrally linked to, often provided by, place.
It is not provided by parents – or really, any other adults or social structures (with the most unlikely, fairy-tale-ish exceptions, to be discussed in a bit).
There is very little safety here for anyone. All of the traditional structures that should support children growing up are shown to fail – either by abandonment and neglect (Sheri’s father); incompetence (Caitlin’s teacher); or outright physical and psychological abuse and violence that occurs after a childhood of horrific trauma (Sheri herself).
Enter: unlikely saviours. Sources of love and belonging that tip convention on its head (and in many ways defy all belief): the old man at the aquarium (who, by implicit understanding of ‘how these things work,’ we are primed to think of as a predator. Although, at the same time, we don’t – because Vann treads a finely-wrought line in presentation of him that is worth the price of admission all on its own); Caitlin’s girlfriend Shalini – her shelter from the storm, her introduction to a world as beautiful and sensual as the aquarium; Steve – Sheri’s latest boyfriend (who sticks around).
The scenes depicting Caitlin’s deep and desperate love of her mom, and her equally desperate longing for the reconstitution of a stable family – and the scenes where Sheri betrays that love, violates every facet of her obligation as a parent as she has experienced that violation – are wrenching and harrowing. The reader learns – not quite as harshly as Caitlin herself – the background details in layers, hints, and then completely – or as completely as Sheri can tell it. The mother-daughter relationship – at first appearing merely neglectful (although there are plenty of suggestions that there has been physical violence); later, escalating to terrible scenes of psychological and physical abuse – is the fulcrum around which the themes of intergenerational trauma, violence, family, forgiveness and healing pivot.
There are some supremely nuanced moments of interaction: e.g., Sheri’s desperate, sadistic plea to Caitlin that she keep quiet so as not to drive Steve away – and what that reveals of Sheri’s fractured, twisted approach to love and attachment. E.g., the moment that Sheri asks her father to give her something, anything, any reason to help her not to hate him (he reveals his WW II trauma).
There are many moments that reveal a household in complete disarray, with all the pieces in place for lives of quiet (or not so quiet) misery to slide down into ruin.
All of this, we are led to believe (because we see it in the news every day, we know the stats, we know the state of the world, don’t we?) can come to only one sad, inevitable ending. Variations on a theme, maybe, but ultimately the same sad ending. Mom in jail. Caitlin in protective services. Grandpa arrested, or with a restraining order against him, without the means or capacity to step back in and make things right. Boyfriend revealed to be an opportunistic, drug-dealing, fly-by-nighter who is very soon gone, gone, gone. Or, Mom and boyfriend teaming up to swindle a repentent, broken old man out of his hard-earned house, heaping upon him the years of abuse in a vicious quid pro quo. Girlfriend found out and sent away, far far away, banned from ever seeing Caitlin again by her aristocratic Indian parents.
And then … then there is the ending that Vann gives us.
At first, when I read the ending, I thought: no. No no no no no no. This fabulous book, this beautiful writing, the uniqueness of the imagery, this gripping story: there has been some mistake. This author got it wrong.It just doesn’t happen this way.
Grandpa doesn’t come back with a pretty little cottage and a willingness to sign it all over to his daughter if she’ll just forgive him.
Boyfriend doesn’t all of a sudden become the stable father figure correcting years of relationship chaos for Sheri, and for Caitlin and Sheri.
12-year-old girls caught in the bath together, dragged out naked and screaming, aren’t allowed to bed down for the next xx years, under the approving eye of Grandpa and Steve, and the acquiescence of Mom who most definitely does not, in a split second …
… see the error of her ways and, faced by a demand by Grandpa (whom she hasn’t forgiven) and Steve (who is still unbelievably there), witnesses the burning up of the title to the house, and trots off to therapy. Twenty weeks of CBT, and all is well (that’s not Vann's story, that’s my cynicism coming through).
They don’t all live happily ever after.
But then, I thought about it. And I thought – Jen, this author is renowned. He has shown you the most exquisitely rendered scenes of nuanced, psychological realism. You're nothing but arrogant to think he's wrong; to think his ending(s) aren't intentional. This is a choice he’s made. What clues do you have to figure out WHY this ending? WHY?
And in conclusion, it seems to me that this novel is exploring the very question: whether or not failures of parenting – by which you can infer the most extreme cases of abuse and neglect, physical and emotional – can be healed. Whether forgiveness can happen. Whether things can turn out alright.
The ending, for each reader, is either wildly implausible or … not.
The ending asks us to believe in a fairy tale. That people lost in a forest, surrounded by monsters (this happens) can come out alive. That knights in shining armour are out there. That the gingerbread house (or Victorian cottage with lovely, handcrafted woodwork) really exists. That it’s an oasis of sweetness and love, attainable by even the most impoverished and disenfranchised and disempowered. That Grandma (or in this case Grandpa) will provide sustenance and compassion to the end of their life (and not turn out to be an evil witch who tosses kids into the stove).
That people can change.
That therapy can help.
That the wounds created by the basest violations of trust can be patched over.
Maybe not perfectly, but enough. Enough for a reasonably happy ending.
An oyster girl, Nancy, from Kent Fell for Kitty when dressed as a gent in part two she found joy as Diana's boy toy in part three, she loved Flo in a tentAn oyster girl, Nancy, from Kent Fell for Kitty when dressed as a gent in part two she found joy as Diana's boy toy in part three, she loved Flo in a tent. ...more
The title poem is spectacular. Worth the price of admission and I'm glad to have bought the book based on the tumblr-hype just to support a young poetThe title poem is spectacular. Worth the price of admission and I'm glad to have bought the book based on the tumblr-hype just to support a young poet. I hope Clementine von Radics continues to develop and I will look forward to reading her in about 10-15 years (god willin' and the creeks don't rise)....more