3 stars? 2.5? 3.5? 4? 2? It's up to you. I am at a loss.
After roughly five months, I've finally finished Room. And, well, this review is going to be a...more3 stars? 2.5? 3.5? 4? 2? It's up to you. I am at a loss.
After roughly five months, I've finally finished Room. And, well, this review is going to be a mess, because I have literally never had so many mixed feelings about a novel in all my reading life. Some people call this brilliant, an incredibly moving portrayal of survival, adaptation and the mother-child bond. Others call this a saccharine, exploitative, manipulative little journey, all horrible things packaged up for the Oprah's book club audience (no offence, Oprah viewers). And I...am exactly in the middle.
I loved Ma. I love a good mother, I must admit, I'm a total sucker. Good mothers are rare to find in literature - for obvious reasons, writers prefer their mothers emotionally distant if not downright abusive, fraught with terrible back stories, cruel to their offspring, deluded and undermining. I thought Donoghue handled Ma perfectly: she'd been through absolute hell, and she really was doing her best all the way through. Ma is an intensely sympathetic character, and, thankfully, not just because of the horrors she's been through. She adores Jack (when she says to one character, "he is the world to me", you know she absolutely means it, and Donoghue totally earned the intense love that there is between Jack and Ma) and it made me almost tear up a couple of times. Theirs was a really deep relationship from her side, a great centerpiece for the novel, as Ma understandably struggles with being Jack's mother and being her own person.
I thought that Donoghue handled the first half, where Jack and Ma are trapped in Room, really, really well. I loved Ma too much to watch her be raped and beaten but, when my Goodreads friends had mentioned the obliqueness with which Donoghue handles the subject, I feared that it would be all very British, where the horrors are shuffled off-screen to allow us to continue with our cosy lives. Thankfully, it wasn't. Donoghue actually does the thing that many people who talk about writing on such icky subjects as rape/murder/abduction claim to do, which is to focus on the emotional aftermath as a substitute for the nasty details. I was also fascinated by the original and surprising way that Donoghue depicts their life in Room, where Jack thinks that nothing is real except what's in Room, they do Physical Education with their very limited furniture, and read The Runaway Bunny over and over.
Then...Jack. Okay, warning: here be a minor spoiler that is revealed at exactly 50% of the way on my Kindle. It's (view spoiler)[Jack and his mother's escape from Room (hide spoiler)]. That's where the novel kind of falters for me, even though it couldn't have either concluded in Room or with their (view spoiler)[escape (hide spoiler)]. It needed this section but I found it easily the most unconvincing, with a lot of loose ends. For example, Ma's relationship with her own father just sort of tailed off - for a writer that had put so much thought into showing Ma's thought processes and feelings even when Jack himself (who narrates) wasn't aware of them. It seemed weird that Donoghue would forget about, for instance, Ma's father, or never really explore what drove her to do what she did at the 3/4 mark ((view spoiler)[her suicide attempt, of course (hide spoiler)]), which sounds stupid, because the poor woman had been through so much, damn it, but I wanted more coherence and specificity about it. As it was, it felt more of a contrivance (!) to separate Jack and his ma.
Jack's voice also got pretty irritating in part two. I agree with some reviewers that it might've been more convincing for Jack to be 8-10 rather than five. It's a difficult balancing act and, unlike the wonderful development of Ma through Jack's eyes, Donoghue doesn't quite pull it off. The little guy confuses brought/brung continuously, among other things, and can't understand the most basic idioms (some of which I'm surprised wouldn't come up in the conversations between Jack and Ma in Room), yet comes out with poetic noble-idiot (forgive the phrase) observations on real life, such as:
I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter all over the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit, or:
In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there's so much, persons don't even know the names.
It felt a lot like the Oscar-baity jokes about the noble character who is also challenged, stunted, deprived or childlike in some way but teaches the shallow and materialistic people around them the true meaning of life. Donoghue satirised the way that the media coverage called Jack an angel or a saint, but I thought she really fell into this gross and annoying archetype later in the novel. Also, people have been complimenting Donoghue on her originality and, yes, the first section especially was very, very unique (it's literally just Ma and Jack in a tiny room, and they build an entire world within it, in a way that is interesting, surprising and hopeful), but this gradually slipped away in the second part, which became much more about an unusual child adjusting to a world which seems alien to them, a far duller and less imaginative endeavour.
With that said, it comes to a pretty emotional end. My overall impression was of a book that's not perfect, with both extreme highs and eye-rolling lows. Room is an experiment, not one that always works - neither an unqualified success nor failure. I'll say this, though: I wanted Jack and his ma to be happy. I'd like a sequel where they did nothing but go to the beach, eat chocolate and live happily ever after. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book,...more'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book, it's a book that gave me one of the best reading experiences I've had: a thrilling, searing and disturbing little novel that totally hooked me.
Okay, so I admit, I came to this novel slightly prejudiced. I have grown to absolutely hate the narrative choice of constructing the entire plot around one secret that the protagonist refuses to divulge. Charm & Strange is an incredibly well-written variant on this plot, but it couldn't quite make me overcome my hatred of this deliberately elliptical way of pretending at discussing an issue without discussing it. However, due to Kuehn's incredibly readable "psychological study" of her main characters, this cosiness was, thankfully, almost entirely removed.
Still, I wish that Win's big secret had come out a little sooner, because I wanted more. I wanted more of Win's realisations, Win's family - especially his older brother, Keith, who was probably my favourite character in the novel, and his and Drew's dynamic was the undoubted highlight - and the impact of what had actually happened, rather than Kuehn's intriguing and well written but ultimately frustrating writing around these subjects. I enjoyed her crafty and incredibly disciplined tactic of peeling away layers of Win's psyche, but there was a point when it just wasn't enough for me and I wanted more clarity.
As a result, I just COULDN'T get hooked to the present ("matter") sections. I found that I was skimming them without intending to, in an attempt to get back to Win's claustrophobic childhood summer at a house in New Hampshire with his large and eerie family. None of the present characters had the emotional pull for me that young Drew (Win's past alter ego) or Keith, Drew's tragic elder brother (who I loved so much that I actually feel like crying when I think a bit about what a book from his perspective would have looked like, I mean, god damn). Because of the tragedy of the "antimatter" sections, the "matter" sections felt like a nowhere near as interesting counterpoint to me.
Yet, reading Charm & Strange was a little like having a hole burned in my heart. I wanted to save Drew, and Keith, and Win (Win and Drew are different people - kind of) and I just felt so sad for everybody. The sense of sadness, guilt and intensity that Kuehn projects throughout the novel is unforgettable and incredibly painful. No, it's not without its flaws (to me), but there's no denying that this one promising debut.(less)
[This review is angry - it's not meant to insult anybody who enjoyed this book. I NEVER write reviews before I'm done usually, even if I have to skim...more[This review is angry - it's not meant to insult anybody who enjoyed this book. I NEVER write reviews before I'm done usually, even if I have to skim to get there, but I can't hold myself back.]
The ickiness didn't bother me. The sex didn't bother me. The book bothered me.
I'm not going to rate this (yet) because I haven't finished it (yet). I am, according to my Kindle, at 57%, which is hilarious given that the book is only 330 pages. It has taken me about three months to get this far. This has to be one of the slowest books I've ever read. I'm amazed by the number of incredibly positive reviews among my Goodreads friends, reviewers I really trust, because, frankly, I am BORED RIGID.
I had such high hopes. I loved the premise and I needed it right now, even though I was warned that it was slow, poetic and character-driven rather than horror-ish and intense as it sounds. Except that I think those three things might be synonyms for a book that seems to resent any attempt at plot, dragging along at the pace of mud in November, and characters who are not so much unlikeable as NOT EVEN THERE. Abbott's style is very "literary" (which of course has everybody squealing because it's a potboiler plot married to literary writing and therefore immune to criticism), but it's also frustratingly elliptical and samey. Everybody in Abbott's world a naval-gazer, who cannot so much as pick up their phones without speculating on the cultural implications, even the sex-crazed teenage boy, his sex-crazed sister and their sex-avoiding Biology teacher father.
The wrtiing is good, don't get me wrong, but the plot is what really kills The Fever. It's sort of a mystery, I guessssss, in the loosest sense of the world, in that Deenie's (sex-crazed sister) totally nondescript friends, who have back stories instead of personalities, are stricken by a mysterious illness. What caused it? Is it the lake in which they all swam, the HVP vaccine, sex (which, by the way, is something of a 'theme' in the novel - edgy!), puberty, schizophrenia?
Except, apparently because this is literary instead of a lesser genre like science fiction, horror or mystery, Abbott doesn't have to make any of this believable in any way, even in the loosest sense of the world. I mean, I don't work for a hospital, or the Centre for Disease Control, or whatever. I'm not trying to criticize any of this from a learned standpoint as I just don't know - but, let me tell you, none of it felt REMOTELY plausible to me in the context of a novel. It's full of PEOPLE WHINING, or introspectively speculating on Sex As A Disease, Teenage Girls As Ambiguous and Unknowable Creatures, and the HPV vaccine as a concept and, honestly, Abbott, I like your pretty writing but would it kill you to include even a modicum of plot or character development? Deenie is constantly shafted by her sick friend Gaby, who won't talk to her properly,and Lise is out of commission for like 60% of the part of the novel I read. I don't know these people. I don't care.
I love a good town-hysteria novel but this seemed to come from nowhere. We're not told WHY people think the HVP vaccine could be a cause. We're not told WHY (really) everybody blames the lake, since everybody denies they've ever been there (pull the other one, fools). Outside of some airy-fairy recollections from Tom and Deenie of the glowing of the lake, that's it, we don't hear anything else. It's one thing to have red herrings but, please, they must be remotely logical and operational within the bounds of possibility. Please.
We're supposed to believe that everybody does because Abbott says so. None of it is remotely built up. We're supposed to be invested in the girls' illness because Deenie tells us that they were friends. Similarly, we're supposed to be interested in Deenie, Tom and Eli because they're the main characters.
So, in short, RIGHT NOW, the plot is nothing but air. The characters are doing nothing but whining, moaning and boring the hell out of me. The relationships are non-existent. The Emperor's New Clothes.(less)