**spoiler alert** It's kind of hard to believe how MUCH is in this tiny, seemingly simple, story. The language is so basic, and there are two main thr**spoiler alert** It's kind of hard to believe how MUCH is in this tiny, seemingly simple, story. The language is so basic, and there are two main thrusts in terms of narrative: 1) the story of Addie and Louis - a coming together at the end of their lives for companionship and - eventually - sex. Very sweet and loving. 2) the intrusion into that coming together of Addie and Louis by Addie's grandson Jamie, and his father Gene, Addie's good-for-nothing son.
The novel pulled at my heartstrings in many ways (coz kids and old people, right? vulnerable, dependent, fragile), but where I think its emotional power resides is in the collision of this gentle, sweet love story (whose sweetness was pretty much all about Addie's courage and Louis's kindness and the fact that they were aged 70, when the pursuit and potential for love and companionship is often abandoned but so sorely needed) with the violence and disruption (view spoiler)[(the implicit and explicit child neglect/abuse and, eventually, elder abuse) (hide spoiler)] of the Jamie/Gene story line.
The novel is really subtle in how it weaves these two narratives together - with Addie's love, courage and autonomy ultimately giving way to her guilt, fear and dependence. Everyone ends up (or remains) battered and damaged. And so what starts out as a simple little love story with a bit of a unique twist turns very dark, profoundly sad, deeply moving.
Gorgeous prose poem about living (and dying) under an oppressive dictatorship, but ultimately - despite the beauty and interesting resonances of the iGorgeous prose poem about living (and dying) under an oppressive dictatorship, but ultimately - despite the beauty and interesting resonances of the imagery, which you almost had to feel rather than read - it felt to me distancing and slightly impenetrable. For something similar, my tastes run more to The Vagrants - much more difficult and horrific, but somehow more suited to the subject matter....more
this is my and jo's first attempt at a joint review. this task, already a difficult one, is made all the more difficult by the fact that we disagreethis is my and jo's first attempt at a joint review. this task, already a difficult one, is made all the more difficult by the fact that we disagree about the book! jo liked it less than i!
jakaem: i particularly enjoyed the unique portraits of all the characters, even though i didn't like any of the characters themselves. creating well-articulated characters who didn't have a lot of redeeming qualities, in fact weren't terribly interesting, felt quite a feat. one might claim that it is easier to portray villains than self-absorbed, relatively nondescript, run-of-the-mill banal characters. and yet, they emerge vividly and with distinct personalities and quirks.
jo: i, too, found the characters quite distasteful, at least til the very end, where the author decides to give us something to like about at least some of them. i don't know why hadley chose to populate this novel with unpleasant characters -- even the kids are not pleasant! i did not like the insistence on the physicality of these women (they are mostly women), especially the fact that they are all more or less dumpy and frumpy, excepting the exotic, latin-american new wife of the brother. i also didn't like the emphasis on bad aging. as a woman, i read this book and felt generally quite depressed about the allegedly terrible fate of aging women. i don't read books to get depressed (and yes, i do get that hadley is being more positive about aging than the surface of the novel suggests, but this comes up a bit too little too late).
jakaem: what hadley is doing is drawing a parallel between this family and their changing relationships with each other as they age. hadley anchors these changing relationships in the increasing decrepitude of the childhood home; it's the end of an era for them all. there is something poignant about the siblings' tragic past in connection with the history of the house, which they've taken a final three-week vacation to determine whether they can keep going, or must give up. i also found the pastoral prose enjoyable and thought it worked well as a setting for the organic nature of these complex, growing, changing sibling relationships.
jo: too. many. words. too many nouns, adjectives, plant names, trees, flowers, shapes of the sky, rivers, configurations of the light and the air, permutations of the weather. many, many words about bodies, skin, body parts, over and over and over. and clothing. so much clothingness. i couldn't keep my attention on the page cuz the language kept getting in the way. but look: i admire the book. the writing is exquisite, just not my cup of tea (lots of tea is drunk in the course of this book).
jakaem: the thing that kept me going, aside from the fact that i actually liked the language, is a sense of foreboding. i kept expecting something terrible to happen. (view spoiler)[since nothing really happens, this seemed to me an interesting way to add drama where there is in fact no drama. (hide spoiler)] jo: i have seen that other people rank hadley's former books more highly than this one so i'm willing to try more of her stuff. but here something i'm really not interested in: the rural, exuberantly grown, verdant england all english people love -- this england of long, rain-soaked walks, wellington boots, and hot cups of tea by the poorly-working fireplace at the return.
jakaem: hahaha. yeah, it really was weakly steeped in lots of places. i liked Harriet and her whole character arc, though. she kept me going. also, this book gets the award for most creative - and abundant - descriptions of eyelids.
jo: what kept me going was wanting to know where it all went. and the ending definitely pays off!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Eileen is a triumph of narrative voice, and that is the single reason why I am giving this novel four stars. From the distance of many years hence, EiEileen is a triumph of narrative voice, and that is the single reason why I am giving this novel four stars. From the distance of many years hence, Eileen narrates a week-long series of events that occurred to her leading to her departure from her hometown at the age of 24, where she was living a life of squalor, despair and servitude to her alcoholic father.
An old woman now whose circumstances are unclear, Eileen is -- or at least was -- one hot mess. But a compelling one. I found her absolutely fascinating: a mass of insecurities, fantasies, drunkenness, physical decreptitude (with a not insignificant degree of body dysmorphia), emotional volatility and inconsistencies hidden behind what she tells us is a "death mask". Ridden by fears and anxieties, she is the product of truly awful life circumstances. She never bathes. She wears her dead mother's clothes. She drinks to excess with her father in a squalid house; stalks a co-worker -- her only sexual outlet (she's never had a date, or rather, had one for her prom which went terribly badly). She is easy prey to a glamourous teacher who arrives in town -- but who exactly is prey and who predator? (To be honest, neither one of them possesses the competency or confidence to be true sociopaths, contributing to the culminating event degenerating into farce).
Eileen is a misfit and an outcast and a self-admitted oddball.
There's a great amount of humour here - unintentional, for the most part, although it's born of some kind of survival instinct and a self-deprecatory approach to this hostile world, in which Eileen rages mutely and wants nothing more to leave via an act of violence to herself or her father (it seems to be the only way out for her). And though the potential for great violence hovers in the air always in this novel, propelling it forward, there is simultaneously a sense - per above - that Eileen is just too damn damaged to pull anything off. So, quickly, the novel becomes less about the dramatic tension of whatever is going to happen to drive Eileen out of town, and more about its inevitability based on Eileen herself, her life circumstances, her pathos.
It's absurd, and dark, and we are really not laughing at her, but with her. And we (at least I) liked her. Mostly. The framing device of Eileen as an old woman, telling the story of who she was, creates an honesty and vulnerability that is endearing. Not entirely (or at all) believable, but the reader is in on the joke - and we (at least I) found a place of tremendous compassion for her, side-by-side with repulsion and horror.
To be sure, there are moments where Eileen reveals the full scope of the emotional damage that has been done to her, and we sense a chilling coldness, a lack of empathy that might be described as sociopathic, if one were to choose to put a label on it.
But there are also moments -- and more of them -- that fall in between, for example a scene she narrates where a young neighbourhood boy had shovelled her driveway and she invites him in to pay him. She ends up kissing him (and scaring him away for good). From her perspective, the moment unfolds with a certain innocence, and as a reader it came across as less predatory than simply socially awkward (to an extreme degree) - similar to many, many other scenes in which older-Eileen reflects on younger-Eileen's behaviour, and gives the reader a glimpse into what this behaviour looked like, albeit a glimpse tinged by her own unreliability and considerable ambiguity.
This is a just one of many scenes that are difficult to interpret in terms of how, exactly, disordered Eileen really is. Mostly, I landed somewhere in the middle where I had compassion for this woman whose personality seems to have developed in a complete vacuum and who is, essentially, just plain lonely and really badly broken.
There is, as mentioned, the incessant march toward Christmas Eve day when Eileen is forced to leave her small Massachusetts (? - New England somewhere) town forever. We don't know why, we just know it's coming and so we are filtering all of her behaviour through that lens. When it does come, it's a) not what we expect; and b) told again in this minimizing, detached voice which nevertheless reveals that there is true chaos, disorder, violence occurring - inept as it is - and it's all the more chilling for that.
Oh and also: (view spoiler)[the climactic moment occurs within the context of Eileen's work at a 'children's prison' - a house of horrors that she is numb to, or dissociated from, or unable to empathize with. Leonard Polk, and his mother, and Rebecca (some kind of instrument of 'justice' - but also distorted and just plain odd); the prison itself, and the abuses that go on; all of these are mere backdrop for plot. (hide spoiler)]What actually happens to drive Eileen out of town is less important (at least, it was to me when reading) than Eileen's psychology, her responses to it, the catalyst it proved to be.
It's sort of awful. It's awful because the true horror in this novel passes as scenery, unremarkable in some way. Eileen herself walks - literally, walks - out of town and away from it all and - we seem to be told - goes on to live a relatively good life. She takes great pains to tell us that she is never caught; that no one even comes looking for her. The ineptitude of her act and departure - which simply must have left a trail of clues a mile wide - suggests that no one really cared to look. And that's the tragedy at the heart of this novel. That, and the horror she both experienced and contributed to, which remain behind like a bad smell.
It's an unsettling book. But an amazing authorial feat. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
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.
I enjoyed this book a lot as I was reading it - but I honestly can't remember precisely what I liked or, really, much of what I read. I know I liked tI enjoyed this book a lot as I was reading it - but I honestly can't remember precisely what I liked or, really, much of what I read. I know I liked the writing; there's an elegance to it and to the slow, careful unlayering of the characters' thoughts and motivations as they tell the narrator the stories of their lives (or pieces of them).
We never really get to know anyone - even tho' they are sharing masses of details, many many words, about some of the most personal aspects of their lives. Their relationships, the failing of these relationships; the cruelties they've experienced and, sometimes, doled out in these relationships.
But we never get beyond these characters' subjective 'truths' - quotation marks because there is a good deal of questioning of whether or not they in fact are telling the truth. Whether, indeed, they even know the truth.
This telling of personal stories takes place by writers, for the most part, to a narrator who is teaching a writing class, i.e., teaching people how to tell stories. There is something delightful in the dynamic tension created as people appear to be deeply self-reflective and self-revelatory, with words that seem thoughtful and laden with insight, but who give us just the briefest slices of their lives in story form (outlines, as it were) which may or may not be true; and that by necessity are disconnected from any verifiable reality beyond the narrator's own assessment of whether she believed them or not.
The stories the narrator is told (making up the story we readers are told) are shown to be vapour-thin and ephemeral - maybe real, maybe not; maybe truth, maybe fiction. Kind of like the novel we find in our hands as we turn the last page. ...more
**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 outstanding book. so under the radar in 2015 - why? WHY? Echlin writes straight from the heart. Straight, clean, unencumbered-with-clauses-or-literAn outstanding book. so under the radar in 2015 - why? WHY? Echlin writes straight from the heart. Straight, clean, unencumbered-with-clauses-or-literary-embellishments sentences that pour out raw emotion onto the page. And it's a slow build - it feels, sometimes, like these easy, basic sentences, paragraphs, chapters can't possibly do such heavy lifting. Until she drops a phrase or ends a chapter or turns the plot and you are whomped by the depth of what she's saying, the artistry of what she's doing.
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
In the immediate aftermath of reading F&F, my first book by Groff, I rated it 4 and even 4.5. Then, as I thought about it, I got a little annoyedIn the immediate aftermath of reading F&F, my first book by Groff, I rated it 4 and even 4.5. Then, as I thought about it, I got a little annoyed with how I just couldn't pin the thing down - there were huge parts of it that evaporated like a Chinese take-out dinner. But THEN I talked about it with my friend jo, and re-read the last 100 pages. And THEN, I got it. And will stick with my 4.5 rating.
I was all over the place with this thing while reading, too, with opinions of the writing and story-telling that ranged from:
"m'eh, this is what all the hype was about?" to "oh, I see what she did there...wow" (pay particular attention to the cinematic and shifting points of view at chapter endings in the early part of the Fates section - I wish she had kept that up) to "this is fabulous technique" to "this is pretentious and over-written" to my final: "this is stunningly brilliant language and story-telling." [with the final caveat that I was kind of wrung-out by the end with the unrelenting barrage of staccato sentence fragments; a very small quibble overall]
The characterization, at different points, was:
"Subtle and complex, with a richness we rarely see except in the best literary fiction" to "these characters not only don't hang together with any kind of internal coherence but they are also completely uninteresting" to "omg .... how has she created characters who occupy such a moral grey zone, who behave and are full of internal contradictions, without them disintegrating into a muddy mess?" to "these characters are completely human ... flawed and tragic and real."
On the plotting, I went from:
"ugh...not ANOTHER 90s New York friendship novel centred around an arrogant, vapid 20s something male - yawn" to "oh ... this is getting interesting" to "for pete's sake, she's thrown everything but the kitchen sink in here, this is ridiculous" to "what just happened, am I understanding anything at ALL?" to (once my kind friend jo explained it to me and I re-read the last 100 pages) HOLY HELL this rivals Shakespeare in its labyrinthine tragedy (and what a nice complement that is to so many recurring motifs! Give her the Pulitzer now!)."
On the themes, my various opinions were:
"what the hell is she trying to say to us about [marriage, being a "wife," being a woman in the role of a wife, physical beauty--other stuff but those were the big ones for me]" to "oh I get what she's trying to say, and I don't like it AT. ALL. It feels mysogynistic, stereotyped, and clichéd to the max." to "oh, wait, NOW I get what she's trying to say. This Lauren Groff is way too smart for me; this book has depths I never expected--it deserves all the accolades and more."
So all that to say: there are things that still grate on me, in particular the lookism and a kind of sexism (1. everybody was fat; fat was described as a kind of negative thing that - I *think* - went beyond establishing character to revealing a prejudice I'm not sure Groff was being intentional about; 2. Lotto's bad skin (and other physical flaws, but that in particular) was described as contributing to his beauty; essential to it; yet, the women's physical flaws were unequivocal limitations to their beauty. Many if not most of the women were described as beautiful despite being [too tall/fat/pale/wrinkled/flabby, etc.], esp. Mathilde; Lotto was beautiful because of these same physical attributes - it was a super-annoying double standard).
And, I do think she put everything and the kitchen sink into it and I was left, at the end, thinking - but what is she really saying about these things?
But then ... if Groff was over-ambitious or over-reaching (which I also thought, on occasion), she also met her own lofty goals and then some. Only after discussing, contemplating, and re-reading, did I see how amazing are the plots and characters in F&F - I mean, I won't go so far as to say on par with Shakespeare, but .... wellllllllllll ...... in her intentional attempt to craft a Shakespearean-style tragedy,* she comes pretty damn close.
*and/or Greek myth, but I can't comment that because I know diddly-squat about Greek myths.
Any lingering flaws that I am holding on to were mine as a reader--some sensitivities I was bringing to the book--and not Groff's.
So, believe the hype and F&F's place on all those best books of 2015 lists. What a great way to start 2016!...more
I'm going to four-star this even though it's landing for me somewhere between a three and four, primarily because what I enjoyed does not quite make uI'm going to four-star this even though it's landing for me somewhere between a three and four, primarily because what I enjoyed does not quite make up for what I didn't enjoy or understand.
I realize this is a flimsy premise upon which to base a rating, but the end times are here and I'm not much inclined to worry about the little things, y'know?
So here's a quasi-review filled with unsupported statements that will sound more definitive than I intend, and questions that I throw out there for others to do with as they will.
'Coz end times.
What I Liked
The impressionistic writing, full of snatches of conversation and thoughts, disconnected, referential to pop culture or previous parts of the novel which one may or may not get. The brunch section was particularly kaleidoscopic, and I thought a marvel of structure and language and characterization.
The sense of place and its influence and constraints - physical, cultural, socio-political.
Related, the trajectory of the characters, each of of them, in terms of where they came from and where they are going. The sense that there are escapees and others, those who don't or can't or won't escape. And that the grass is not necessarily greener on either side (see Keisha/Natalie and her sister, as one example).
The broader theme of identity and how it's shaped (by place, race, class, culture, socio-economics, education, etc.) but also chosen but also arbitrary and also fluid. This tension - between self-identity and the struggle to define or transcend a definition imposed on one - seems central to every character, although it plays out differently for each. It especially shows up for characters vis-a-vis their parents - Natalie, Leah, Felix - and their spouses/girl-boyfriends.
Without too much more thought on this, I wonder if self exists in this novel in no way except in relation to others, and the common milieu they share?
Related to this, I thought the character of Natalie - whose central goal is self-definition (she actually changes her name, that's how much she wants to be someone else - but who?), and who seems a hollow shell of a person in so many ways, someone who lacks a self of any real substance - was fascinating and compelling, however also ...
What I Didn't Like (&/or Didn't Understand)
disappointing. Natalie's arc is confounding to me in terms of what Smith is trying to say about and with this character. Given that her section is the longest, and her character the most intimately shown and known, this is kind of a fatal flaw for me in the novel.
The last couple of chapters, stylistically and linguistically rich, are ultimately empty of meaning for me. (view spoiler)[Natalie's breakdown (is that what it is?) seems abrupt, though not unexpected. Her foray into the threesomes seems out of character in so many ways that it *must* be meaningful, but then - how? I suspect some kind of literary trick going on here, her peripatetic final disposition existing to convey some symbolic, deeper meaning that I just don't get. (hide spoiler)]
Similarly, I wish there had been stronger links between each section. Leah seems to exist as counter-point to Natalie, but her story - which started the novel and was engaging in and of itself - peters out, and is never revisited. Leah's husband Michel - a shadowy background figure - seems important in the beginning, but doesn't end up so. And Felix's section is sandwiched in the middle of the two central female characters, with references to him before and after, but ultimately these references didn't add up to anything coherent (although his story is so dramatic and poignant). Again - he is point and/or counterpoint to what, exactly?
As much as I loved the impressionistic writing throughout, which early on gave the writing such energy, I started to disengage from it as the novel went on. I guess Smith gives her readers a lot of respect, and trusts that they will be able to follow along with her bouncing ball - even if it skips every second or third bounce - to put the clues together into a sensible whole.
For me, though, it required too much faith. It was impossible to keep up with the unvarying, staccato rhythm with so many obscure details and dangling threads, so chunks of the novel just passed into background noise for me like the snatches of song lyrics heard on a car radio as it drives by (which happens frequently in NW). It ended up isolating me, instead of drawing me in; the experimentation - especially pronounced in the third section with its chapter snippets - changed the rhythm yet again, but also grew wearying.
By the end - the very end - the novel fizzled out entirely. I was hoping for some kind of coming together of theme, character, plot. Maybe it was there and I missed it. Maybe it wasn't there at all. Maybe whether it was there or not is beside the point. You tell me.
My first immersive experience in a complete book of poetry in a loooooooong time. Very powerful with many moments of amazingly beautiful language andMy first immersive experience in a complete book of poetry in a loooooooong time. Very powerful with many moments of amazingly beautiful language and images (all the more so because describing sometimes very ugly scenes of racism and violence); some (deceptively) simple, and others much more complex and layered, elusive and impenetrable - but no less enjoyable for it. Recurring themes and images that made the journey from poem to poem, and from section to section, tell a larger story. ...more
I felt like I was reading this slowly - although clearly not, as I finished in two-three days or so. And even tho' I was processing throughout and aftI felt like I was reading this slowly - although clearly not, as I finished in two-three days or so. And even tho' I was processing throughout and after each section, I still feel that I need another five reads to get all of what Bechdel is saying here.
Still. It's a tour de force which I'm sure I just read in one of the excellent reviews; either jo's; simon's; or moira's (and I'm sure there are many more).
It's rich, complex, brave, stunning in its scope and depth. Multi-layered, dense and difficult - especially if you are new, as I am, to the psychoanalytic constructs explored and used as entry points and illustrations of Bechdel's experiences and relationships to her self, her mother, her work, her lovers, her analysis. etc etc.
And so, I got maybe 20% of it. But even that is enough to recognize how brilliant it is - and I am still amazed not least by the way this form (graphic novel) can say SO MUCH, as much as my beloved novels, as much as To The Lighthouse which is another layer of the story; another theme, and which I can now re-read and maybe, hopefully understand better and embrace.
Despite my own somewhat fraught experience with Woolf, that should be read as pretty high praise: Bechdel and Woolf. Working at the same level to explore uncover share expand people's understanding of [women's] lived emotional, psychic experiences. Laying themselves bare to do so.
And you [I] just need to be a little bit courageous to accept the gift they are offering. ...more
Shatteringly and heart-wrenchingly good. Three things I don't generally read (or don't read enough of maybe?): graphic novels, memoirs, lesbian fictioShatteringly and heart-wrenchingly good. Three things I don't generally read (or don't read enough of maybe?): graphic novels, memoirs, lesbian fiction. All three of these walls come tumbling down in this. The depth of feeling and thought, the honesty, is extraordinary, and to have it conveyed in graphic novel form is a little--no, a lot--mind-blowing. (In addition to the clarity and beauty of her writing, Bechdel is a *fantastic* graphic artist). (Perhaps) more thoughts to come after Are You My Mother....more
Edited: my first review was harsh. And although I stand by my overall evaluation, I don't really want to slam this little book, a Giller prize winnerEdited: my first review was harsh. And although I stand by my overall evaluation, I don't really want to slam this little book, a Giller prize winner - and recognize that I am decidedly in the minority on it.
This book was disappointing. It failed for me in three main ways:
1) The authorial voice left me uninspired - I found it monotonous and entirely lacking in humour (for a book that seemed tailor-made to be chockablock with whimsy or dark comedy or both). I found that the most dramatic moments were telegraphed a mile in advance and then they were quickly over. I was never fully engaged. In fact, I was often bored.
2) The author doesn't seem to know dogs at all. He seemed to be falling back on the idea of dogs as pack animals who exist entirely on a dominance-submissiveness continuum; a theory long since discredited in doggie circles as a superficial understanding of the complexity of dogs' emotional, social, and behavioural repertoires.
I've read a lot of non-fiction about dogs, and so I pay a lot of attention to how dogs are portrayed and how they are used as devices in literature. Don't get me wrong, I didn't want this book to do a good job on doggie psychology; but I definitely wanted it - and needed it - to do a good job on what that psychology would be like when infused with human consciousness. This was the great potential of the central conceit, but it wasn't done convincingly.
I was looking for anthropomorphism of a specific sort here: not the manipulative kind, but the compelling, thought-experimental kind. There were only small glimmers of it at the end with Majmoun, which was too late and too expositional.
Without this, I had no connection to the dogs. No emotional investment in them. No interest in their characters or their lives and therefore (view spoiler)[no interest in their deaths. My interest waned as the body count climbed, and since that happened really early on, for the most part, my interest was barely sustained for about 3/4s of this book. (hide spoiler)]
I don't think that this was the narrative arc Mr. Alexis was seeking to create, but it was my experience reading.
3) As a result of these two factors, the central question - to explore whether human consciousness and language (as a reflection of that consciousness) brings joy or misery - fell flat. What I was hoping would be an original, creative approach to it (i.e., giving the titular 15 dogs human consciousness and language and seeing what happened) felt muddled, under-explored, off-point, and unfulfilling.
Sorry Mr. Alexis and Giller peeps: not this one, not for me.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Excellent. I'm in the minority on this one vis-à-vis Waters' Fingersmith, because I like The Paying Guests so much better for reasons that have to doExcellent. I'm in the minority on this one vis-à-vis Waters' Fingersmith, because I like The Paying Guests so much better for reasons that have to do with how well the lesbian theme was integrated with the other themes in the novel - class and gender relationships, the great cultural shift that led to women's emancipation in post-WWI England (and elsewhere) and the main plot twist of Part 2.
I thought Frances exquisitely rendered. I thought her relationship with her mother (a hold-out Victorian) absolutely brilliant - so subtle, so fraught, so nuanced. I thought the graphic scenes of a) sex and b) violence also, equally, exquisite not just for the surface detail, but also for the psychological underpinnings.
It's kind of amazing what Waters has done here: she's created this fast-moving plot while imbuing every scene with rich detail; despite weighing in at a hefty 576 pages, it never bogs down. And the broad strokes with which she plots are matched by the greatest level of subtlety in the human relationships, with characters whose inner workings and complex thought processes, shifting loyalties, fickle attractions, retractions, hesitations and vacillations, feel so very human. At the same time, Waters never veers too far away from her big themes and the cultural milieu, she just chooses to explore them through the individuals who are living, loving, dying; working or unable to work; coping with their downfalls, disappointments and grief as best they can.
The twists and turns (view spoiler)[in the inquest and courtroom drama (hide spoiler)]at the end *could* have felt repetitive and even clichéd, but Waters has absolute control over what she foreshadows and the suspense she is building - while juggling, again, the big themes of class and integrity; loyalty and morality(view spoiler)[, balancing them with similar twists and turns in Frances' and Lilian's feelings toward one another (hide spoiler)].
If I have one beef, it's with the ending. A little too open for me, especially after what felt like a rolling series of conclusions. I don't know where these characters go from here - maybe the fact that I truly want to find out is enough.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more