I debated between giving this two or three stars, but in the end, the criteria for two stars is "it was ok," and that summed up how I felt about thisI debated between giving this two or three stars, but in the end, the criteria for two stars is "it was ok," and that summed up how I felt about this book. (Although, side note: two stars is ok!? What sort of critical inflation are we dealing with here, Goodreads?)
So, first, the pros: Ms. Thompson's writing style is excellent. She's creative in intriguing ways, and she's capable of writing sentences with such luminous brilliance that it'll make you incredibly envious that you yourself are not a writer. There's also a dark sense of humor that runs throughout the book, helping to show Ms. Thompson's wit and slightly off-kilter way of interpreting the world. All of this is to say that these pros make the con of actually reading this book somewhat worthwhile. But...
The cons. This book is aggressively unhappy. You know that Tolstoy quote about unhappy families? It's like Thompson set out with this book to prove him right. To read it is to read a story about 30 years of unhappiness in one family. The characters never really grow, or change, but remain aimless, steadfastly obsessed with maintaining their general malaise and boredom with the other people in their life, with their work, with the world. Things change around them, events happen, people are born or die, but every character remains narcissistically focused on what it means for them, personally. Or, to be more accurate, how nothing that happens matters, because their life will inevitably be the same. There's an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa Simpson explains to her father, "We're the MTV Generation. We feel neither highs nor lows." When her father asks what that is like, she simply replies "Meh." While this book doesn't chronicle "The MTV Generation," this idea of going through life experiencing nothing but a general numbness is laid out endlessly over 325 depressing pages. I'm well aware that sadness, that numbness and isolation are real things that exist in the world and deserve to be written about. But Ms. Thompson doesn't seem to be making any real point by focusing solely on these things. There's no take away, there's no idea that I can say this book was trying to explain or show or put into words. It's as if the disinterested attitude of the characters seeped into the message of the book itself, as if, in response to asking "What's the point of this book" Ms. Thompson herself is saying "meh." Perhaps that is the point. If it is, then what a waste of writing talent and 325 pages.
Additionally, while the book itself may not have a point, Ms. Thompson does clearly have some ideas that she is interested in writing about. The problem is that all of them seem to be Philosophy 101 ideas, things that 19 year olds find fascinating upon entering college, but that by the time you're older, are less intriguing. Alienation and isolation, both local and globally, are big things in this book. What does it mean to be born into a family that you don't feel a part of? To live in a nation that bars you from accessing all that it supposedly promises? To work in a job for which you feel no passion? These are questions that have been written about ad nauseum. Worse, Thompson brings little original thought or perspective to her own version of these dilemmas, instead retreading familiar ground. She hammers all of this home by, as stated above, insisting that her characters remain isolated and unhappy for the entire novel, by making them, essentially, alienated from themselves and the life they are living. Such big ideas! How dramatic! Life is meant to be lived, not experienced, but how do you do that when you have middle class white people issues? Blah. Let me know when things get interesting.
Finally, I had a huge problem with the way women were portrayed in this novel. Specifically, I found the representations of heterosexual relationships very problematic. Not a single relationship in the novel appeared to be anything less than tolerant, and most of the time were explicitly adversarial. Couples in this novel generally fight with each other and, when they're not fighting, tend to (I know. You'll never believe it) isolate themselves from each other. There's no true connection, there's no solidarity, there's not even general amicability in these relationships. Worse, this book consistently portrays women as being ticking time bombs of irrational behavior and emotions that men are constantly trying to corral into socially acceptable beings. Thompson writes about one particular couple: "At some point in their life together, he had assumed the burden of making her happy. Her most familiar mood, what he thought of as her default position, was one of exasperated suffering. Which he must attend, coax, tease, and try to reason away. He would never be entirely successful; at best, she would only be not unhappy. But he would always be obliged to try."
Are you fucking kidding me? He has to "reason away" her feelings? Moreover, her "default position," her basic state of being, is based on her feelings toward her husband? This is sad. At first, I thought maybe Thompson was characterizing women this way as a means of showing what she thinks men think about women. This wasn't her message; this was her idea of men. But in the chapters told from a woman's point of view, things don't really change. There's no real reciprocity in terms of showing what women think of men, or of combating this view. Instead, Thompson writes these incredibly derogatory sentences, and then leaves them there to shine as apparent examples of truth about what it means to both be and to love a woman. To any women reading this review, I sure hope this hasn't upset you. But if it has, just go find the man in your life and let him "reason" away your irrational emotions! Vomit.
There are interesting characters in this book, but too many of them are undifferentiated, and many of them fall back on tired stereotypes (the overbearing mother who loves her children so much it ends up pushing them away; the beautiful daughter who is popular and gets married only to find out that being a mother and wife isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be; etc.) Add that to the sexism and general tone of depression and unhappiness, and it's hard for me to say that I would proactively encourage you to read this book. And yet, there is good writing. There is intrigue. So I won't advise you as to whether you should stay away or dive in and read. I'll simply say, you've been warned. ...more
Well, once again, Ms. Drew and I cross paths long after my youthful infatuation with her antics has ended. This time, I was helping an old college proWell, once again, Ms. Drew and I cross paths long after my youthful infatuation with her antics has ended. This time, I was helping an old college professor of mine pack up her office when I discovered this particular Nancy mystery on her bookshelf. After teasing her about the literary merit of the Nancy Drew canon (she is an English professor), she told me I was welcome to take it if I wanted. After the stunning hilarity and outrageous racism of the last Nancy Drew book I re-read, I couldn't resist. What treasures would await me as I followed Nancy to the Lilac Inn? What early 60's societal norms would subtly be advocated for impressionable youths to follow?! Oh the suspense!
Sadly, the mystery in this book is not much more coherent than the last one I read about the pearl. Nor is it written better. It might as well be a Dick and Jane reader, the way sentences are so crudely constructed. Rest assured, no flowery descriptions clog up the working of the plot gears, and no large or obscure word is selected where a shorter one will do. And certainly, those tricky things like adverbs and other complex grammatical flairs make nary an appearance. Aren’t these books meant for teens?! Couldn’t we try something more advanced? I mean, I’m beginning to think that Carolyn Keene’s grasp on the English language was tenuous, at best.
Also to lament is that, as an early entry in the Nancy Drew series, her trusty sidekicks, Morbidly Obese Bess and Closeted Dyke George, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get Helen Corning, whose most notable attribute is her ability to do absolutely nothing for most of the book. One time, it actually says that she is lying on the Inn's patio reading. READING. The one time she does take action, she leaves her and Nancy's cabin late at night, despite being aware that their lives are in danger. In doing so, she leaves the deadbolt that was SPEDCIFICALLY INSTALLED TO PROTECT THEM UNLOCKED, which allows for someone to plant a LITERAL ticking time bomb (!) in the cabin that nearly blows them all up (thankfully, the ticking awakens Nancy and she escapes). Shortly after that, Helen is hit on the back of the head, but (sadly) survives. Way to go, Helen. I hope one day you can do absolutely fucking nothing to help me solve a mystery, and almost get us killed in the process.
Nancy’s other sidekick is the owner of the Lilac Inn, Emily Willoughby. Emily is, if anything, more useless than Helen, though she does give Nancy the mystery to work on. Weird happenings have been going on at the Inn, so she asks Nancy to help see what’s going on. In the beginning, this is fine. Nothing super dangerous or illegal has taken place; a waitress quit after claiming the Inn is haunted; a gardener falls into a hole that no one will claim to have dug and sprains his ankle in the process; and one night, Emily was awoken by music coming from the recreation room, but when she got there, NO ONE WAS THERE. So sure, let’s have Nancy look into prank like antics like these. What becomes ludicrous is that, shortly after Nancy arrives, someone steals $50,000 worth of diamonds from Emily. I don’t know what the inflation formula is, but I assume $50,000 worth of diamonds in 1961 would be a shit ton of money these days. But Emily flat out refuses to tell the police! Because if word gets out about the theft, no one will come to stay at the Inn! So she asks Nancy to solve things. Sure, why not put the resolution of a felony in the hands of a youthful civilian with pluck??
The rest of the cast ranges from completely forgettable to laughably one –sided and insane. There’s Mrs. Maud Potter, the social director (!) of the Inn, whose only qualification to be a social director appears to be her ability to play a guitar. She is consistently portrayed as an intolerable bitch, and you would think this would be a substantial impediment to doing a job where your sole responsibility is to facilitate congenial relations amongst guests. But no one ever says that perhaps her demeanor makes her incapable of fulfilling her job. Helen, in fact, comments that she can sing quite nicely, as if this absolves all of her other shortcomings. I liked Maud, though, because at least she is direct about her opinions, instead of being all fake pleasant like Nancy. Plus, Maud hilariously throws herself at Nancy’s father when he pops up. She tries flattery, calling him a “world famous” criminal lawyer, but apparently, flattery gets you nowhere with Carson Drew (“Carson Drew did not like flattery”), which isn’t really a surprise since the man is, if possible, even more sexually repressed than his daughter.
There’s also Emily’s Aunt, a woman whose characterization comes this close to that of a fragile, aging Southern Belle who constantly needs smelling salts to be revived after the latest shock to her system. She may also be a closeted lesbian with Maud. Then there’s the love interest, John McBride. He’s the best man to Emily’s fiancé, who very early on makes a pass at Nancy only to be told by Emily that he better back off because “Nancy – well, she’s mighty busy these days.” Oh Emily, you found happiness with Dick! Why can’t you let Nancy find happiness, too?! If there’s one thing I love about a Nancy Drew novel, it’s Carolyn Keene’s utter insistence on Nancy’s chastity, despite the fact that men are constantly throwing themselves at Nancy, and she’s obviously of age to begin a sexual relationship. What’s sad is that Emily’s excuse for why Nancy can’t date seems to have been taken as truth by Nancy herself, in the way that oppressive governmental regimes retain control over their citizens through hegemonic practices. Nancy closes the novel by saying that no men can be in her life right now because “for the present, my steady partner is going to be mystery!” The indoctrination is complete. Nancy truly believes that the only way she can pleasurably relieve her sexual urges is to sublimate them into solving mysteries. She is now a pawn of the government, ready to be deployed to solve all the mysteries River Heights has to offer, but never allowing herself to form a true emotional and physical connection with a man. How sad. And if anything, John seemed like a better match for Nancy than her later steady Ned. But alas, the closest they get to any sort of romantic dalliance is when they go skin diving together.
Which leads me to the worst aspect of the book. Namely, it’s utter lack of connection with reality. There are more fantastical elements in this book than a fucking Tolkien novel, and yet we’re supposed to treat everything as though it’s perfectly logical. Nancy, for instance, is a stellar skin diver, which the book never clearly says is scuba diving, but based on the amount of time she spends underwater, has to be. Now, this wouldn’t really be an issue except that Nancy doesn’t live by an ocean. She lives by a river. So yes, in the book, she goes scuba diving in a river. What? Better, while scuba diving with an underwater camera (those existed in the 60’s?), someone THROWS A SPEAR AT HER THAT LODGES IN THE CAMERA’S LENS!!!! An event Nancy, trained to be a crack detective who cares only about the answer and not herself, treats as though someone shot a Nerf dart at her.
Even more incredulously, the final part of the book revolves around a fucking SUBMARINE that is in the river! Let me repeat that. A SUBMARINE. IN A RIVER. I may be no genius, but unless that river is the mighty Missisip’, it seems unlikely to me that some sort of submarine could just troll around in its depths. The river itself is only 20 feet deep. Can subs even be used for depths that shallow? What if the river has a particularly sharp bend? Or shallow area? Was Carolyn just high as a kite, or three sheets to the wind?
The mystery at the Inn is also connected to a second mystery wherein someone has been impersonating Nancy in her hometown, even going so far as to rack up $2,000 of charges for clothing at the local department store (what a reprehensible being!). In the end, these two mysteries overlap. It turns out, one of the waitresses at the Inn is a former actress named Gay who was sent to jail for check forgery by Nancy’s handsome criminal lawyer father. Vowing revenge, she has returned and appropriated Nancy’s image to make the town believe their star citizen is a lying thief. What world are we living in? Superhero world? Where Clark Kent need only remove his glasses and don spandex and suddenly is unrecognizable to everyone?! The book says that Gay is a wiz with makeup, but unless she’s Rick fucking Baker, it seems unlikely to me that a little foundation and eyeliner could render you both unrecognizable as your former self and apparently identical to another person. At the end, Gay tries to fool Carson Drew into thinking she’s Nancy, so that the real Nancy will go to jail as a thief. But the real Nancy exposes her by “rubb[ing:] off some of the actress’s heavy make-up.” Um, unless that makeup was 4 inches thick, could you really fool someone’s father? I guess maybe if they’re as emotionally and physically distant with their daughter as Carson Drew is with Nancy.
Anyway, it also just so happened that Gay also used to work at the Lilac Inn, and overheard tell that Emily’s diamonds would soon be in play, and schemed to steal them. So Nancy’s impersonator is also caught behind the other mystery! Unfortunately, the diamonds sank to the bottom of the river when the boat they were on caught fire (ok), but thankfully, as we all know, Nancy is a crack skin diver, and rest assured, Emily’s precious jewels are returned to her before the novel ends. Then we find out that John was a secret agent for the military inspecting some sort of electronics theft. Then Nancy gets a military award.
Then I had a full on mental breakdown because I could no longer discern reality from fantasy. Thanks, Carolyn. Another gem of a novel....more