If half stars were possible, I'd probably give the book 2 1/2 stars.
I can understand why some people would love it; it could be seen as uplifting andIf half stars were possible, I'd probably give the book 2 1/2 stars.
I can understand why some people would love it; it could be seen as uplifting and optimistic, and some elements were particularly touching--the narrator's strange but lovely friendship with a Vietnam Vet, for instance, would make a great novel in and of itself--in fact, I wish this book HAD been that book--I would've enjoyed it far more.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
As it was, for the most part, I didn't buy it. I felt like the narrator's Catholicism was forced, and it didn't seem genuine or even realistic to me. I found the prayer circle in the public school especially difficult to read about, in spite of her "if you're atheist just humor me" comment. This is coming from a Catholic who grew up walking alone to church because her parents didn't attend, btw. I actually lived that situation; the way it was portrayed in the book was both cheesy and over the top. I also now teach English Literature in a Catholic school. I think if you asked the vast majority of even my most devout Catholic students if they relate to that aspect of Amber, I suspect that they would utter a resounding "no!".
This was not the only unbelievable aspect of the book. I read one other commenter that said Amber sounded more like she was in the 10-13 yr. age range; I have to confess that for most of the book, I assumed she was 13/14. (If her age was mentioned at the start, I must've missed it). When it stated about half way through that she was 17, I was extremely surprised and a little chagrined that this is what Matthew Quick thinks a 17 yr. old young woman sounds like. I had the same problems with the grating over-use of slang terms that many other readers did, and felt they made Amber excessively annoying to listen to. The relationship between Donna and Amber (and Ricky) was nice, and somewhat believable, but like Amber, I can't believe Donna didn't figure out Amber's situation much earlier.
The relationship with her mother was just sad. I feel like the mother's alcoholism wasn't quite fully fleshed out, and the fact that she was out looking for a man every night instead of a second job was sort of horrifying. It was also weird that Amber only had a seasonal summertime job, and instead spent all of her free time doing charity work. Of course, that's wonderful, and it's an excellent message to send, but if she could've worked 20 hours a week at a part time job, perhaps she could have helped her mother scrape enough together for a down payment on an apartment.
The mother's rape/murder seemed both gratuitous and far-fetched to me; I would've found it more believable if she had collapsed from exhaustion/starvation and died from exposure while on her way to the bar/liquor store. Sure, that would've robbed Amber of the triumphant haiku moment at the prison, but it would've been far more believable, and more in line with the mother's characterization up to that point.
The end was especially unrealistic. An entire community coming together to raise over $200,000 for one disadvantaged girl is completely unbelievable. And if, in fact, that were to happen, it would show a dramatic disregard for all of the other homeless children and teens in any given community.
Certainly, I am not the target audience for this book, and perhaps I would've worshipped it as a young teen, but my adult self felt it had a little too much manipulative sentimentality with far too many unrealistic elements that outshone the more positive, enjoyable ones.
When I read the first chapter of this book, I thought, "Oh, good, an angry narrator (sigh)". Which is fine, I guess, but not necessarily MY thing, unlWhen I read the first chapter of this book, I thought, "Oh, good, an angry narrator (sigh)". Which is fine, I guess, but not necessarily MY thing, unless, of course, there's a good reason (though after thinking it over, I can't come up with one book that has a justifiably angry 1st person narrator; main characters, yes, but all of those narrators are 3rd person). Even in the end, although I'd say that she does have a right to be angry at people she thought were her friends, the scope of her anger seems a bit much to me.
Finishing the first chapter, I also couldn't shake the feeling that the author was trying just a little too hard to be "literary". First of all, there are all those references: Dostoyevsky, Ellison, Thoreau, and that's just in the first four pages. Then, too, she gets all "philosophical" about "real life". Blech.
More allusions: Alice through the Looking Glass (Part I chapter 9) Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgewick (throughout)[I did think the choice of these women as subjects for the dioramas were fascinating, though the dioramas themselves sounded more to me like "cutesy", if interesting, art than something people would take seriously] The Elves and the Shoemaker (Part I Ch. 12) Imaginary Homeland (Part II Ch. 1) Robinson Crusoe (Part II Ch. 4) Alice again (Part II Ch. 4) The Lotus Eaters from The Odyssey (Part II, Ch. 7) And I'm sure there are some I missed.
Usually I don't mind allusions (sometimes I quite revel in them) but with the exception of the diorama figures, most of these seem forced to me, dropped in to show how "well read" the author is.
I also find the narrator insulting; who is she to decide that "all" women are angry? Who is she to belittle "mediocre" lives of people like teachers? "The land of silly accents"? Seriously? How condescending and offensive can you get? In the end, even when she was justifiably angry, I had a hard time caring. I sort of rolled my eyes and thought, "What did you expect? (You whiny, pathetic, annoying nutcase!)"
I was also annoyed at how she treated her father. Bravo to him for finally standing up to her--"Let's say we've come here for your mother. It makes me remember how much your mother enjoyed it. Is that good enough?" Nora's parents, in fact, were two of my favorite characters in the book. Too bad they had so little to do, and in the end were not nearly enough to create sympathy for Nora herself.
And that reminds me--it wasn't all bad (after all, I did give it 3 stars). Another character I really liked was Didi--she seemed reasonable, compassionate, fun, and far more interesting than Nora.
Some of the lines and passages were nice, too: "The red neon of a Bud sign lit up her hair from behind. She'd become a giant fairy-tale genie" (Part II, Ch. 5, about Didi--cracked me up). The paragraph in Part II, Ch. 7 about the Lebanon civil war is really great, as is much of that entire chapter, which details some of Nora's conversations with Skandar. I particularly like the idea that it's sad in a way that the first thing anyone in the U.S. learns about Germany is Hitler--instead of all of the beautiful things, like Bach, and Rilke. Also this:
"Service", he said, "is one of life's great joys. It's a privilege to be in service" (Part II ch. 8). And isn't it telling of Nora that she looks at her "service" as "enslavement". Oh, for the love of god, if you don't want to be a teacher, quit already and actually GO DO YOUR ART. Or, at the very least, SHUT UP.
The story of Nora's mother's life (and death) was also touching and interesting and compelling. Somehow she was more sympathetic to me than Nora (perhaps because Nora had her mother's experience to help her out, and yet she ignored it entirely, except to whine about it).
Something else I liked: the idea that everyone has an individual perspective--that Nora has one view of their "shared year" and Sirena a completely different one--that her father's view of her mother isn't just different than Nora's, but actually the direct opposite. As close as we can get to people, we can't really get INSIDE of them; there's always a barrier there.
In the end, though, Nora's self pity and self-righteous anger were enough to drown out all that I found enjoyable about the book. She thinks that Sirena is selfish, but she's the most selfish character in the book--not caring that other people have lives, too, but always wanting them focused on her, and when they don't she feels victimized, even to the point of resenting poor Esther just because she garners some of Didi's attention. Even the fact that she took care of her dying mother didn't make me like her; she even seems to blame part of her "mediocre" life on that choice, which is despicable to me.
Thus, as I'm a character reader, I can't bring myself to give this book more than 3 stars, even though I did find it to be a fairly quick read. And while what was done to Nora in the end was mortifying, as I noted previously, I couldn't bring myself to even care. I suppose her using it as inspiration to actually try and do something with her life (you know, besides living that "mediocre" life as a successful teacher) is admirable, but I still don't care. Not one little bit.
While I didn't enjoy this one as much as "The Poisonwood Bible" or "Prodigal Summer", I liked it more than Kingsolver's other books (all of which I liWhile I didn't enjoy this one as much as "The Poisonwood Bible" or "Prodigal Summer", I liked it more than Kingsolver's other books (all of which I like a great deal). I found the sections set in Mexico to be the most engaging and interesting; learning about Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Lev Trotsky was fascinating, and presented in such an interesting and appealing way. It was presented in such a moving way that I wept at Trotsky's death in spite of the fact that I knew it was coming. It is an interesting take on the McCarthy era, and has some fascinating characters from the main character Harrison to his stenographer Violet Brown, to the historical figures brought to life.
The end of the book, to me, was sort of a let down. I understand Kingsolver's reasoning, but as a reader, it was sort of anticlimactic. The accounts of the hearings was well-written, but struck me as somewhat dull, which I suppose such hearings must of course be. The book overall evoked a sort of pointless anger, focused on the injustice of the methods of the McCarthy hearings, with no recourse--it is of course impossible to go back in time and erase the hatred and unfairness of the trials. Overall a good read, in spite of the somewhat slow moving ending. ...more