I started out liking this book fairly well, but as I got closer to the end the balance of its content shifted. It s...more(Contains a few potential spoilers)
I started out liking this book fairly well, but as I got closer to the end the balance of its content shifted. It started out seeming like an interesting portrait of a complex marriage; toward the end, it seemed more like a slightly preachy and moralizing book about sex addiction. I think I might have been more okay with the content about sex addiction if the author had managed to do a better job of convincing me that (a) the husband and wife really were sex addicts and that (b) this was a bad thing. However, from my amateur viewpoint, neither of their behaviors struck me as particularly extreme or very far out of the ordinary. The husband gets off to porn every now and then. The wife hooks up with someone, but never actually consummates the affair. I'm not saying either of these are particularly laudable behaviors, but it seems like an overdramatic exaggeration to label them as "sex addict" behaviors.
So first, the porn part. The wife (the main character) says that she and her husband have looked at porn together in the past. She's not Mormon, and it's not clear that she has specific any moral objection to him looking at porn. Her rationale for getting upset over it is that her husband is looking at it without her and instead of having sex with her. In the course of the book, though, she gets increasingly hysterical about it, and it gradually starts to seem like her reaction is kind of an irrational puritanical knee-jerk one. It doesn't seem to make much sense in the context of her background as a deliberately inactive Mormon who wants nothing to do with the Church and doesn't like its preachy attitude. She dislikes the Mormons' holier-than-thou views, and yet she's extremely moralistic about her husband's fairly typical and banal interest in porn. The hypocrisy and closed-mindedness there just irked me, I guess.
Then, the infidelity part. As I say, this is not exactly laudable behavior, but blaming it on "sex addiction" seems over-the-top. Weirdly, even though the narrator is in rebellion against her puritanical social milieu in "the land of Zion," she almost seems to see the enjoyment of sex as something unhealthy. When her husband wants to have sex with her (and she also wants it), she holds back, assuming it's not because he loves her, but because he's only able to relieve his stress by having sex. News flash: For a lot of people in the world, sex actually is a good way to relieve stress. And if it's sex between two married people, how can relieving stress through sex possibly be a bad thing? Two married people who enjoy bonking each other and otherwise are nice to each other = a good thing, no? What motive for having sex would be appropriate in her eyes? Procreation and spiritual communion only? It's never spelled out, but that's almost the impression I got.
So yeah, the conflict between the overt rebelliousness of the narrator and her implicit Puritanism became clear by the end and kind of spoiled the book for me, at least on the level of ideology.
On the positive side: I thought her writing style was fun and her characters were realistic, sympathetic, and interesting. The author definitely has a distinctive, appealing voice that comes through clearly (although religious readers may find it too vulgar), which I enjoyed. I wish the book had been better edited and typeset, because the errors and weaknesses there were distracting, and with a good editor and a nicer design this could have been a much stronger book. Also, as the book got closer to the end, the plot started to feel a bit too slice-of-life and lacking in structure. It started to have a "and then this happened, and then that happened" feel to it, that made me wonder if the author was just following too closely a pattern of events that actually happened instead of crafting a narrative arc. And at least one plot thread is left dangling (we never do find out why she weirdly lactates while fooling around with the dentist).
On balance though, I give this three stars ("liked it") because I liked the author's voice. And it's worth a read if only because published novels depicting Mormon characters genuinely misbehaving are few and far between, and the author bravely ventures onto largely untread ground here. She deserves kudos for that.(less)
This is a historical novel about the life of the writer Henry James.
On the one hand, I'm surprised by the level of critical success this book achieve...moreThis is a historical novel about the life of the writer Henry James.
On the one hand, I'm surprised by the level of critical success this book achieved. (It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and on several Top Ten Books lists for the year.) The pacing is slow - we're talking snail speed, here - and while there was dramatic tension within individual chapters and scenes, there is none whatever between chapters. If this were a debut novel, I wonder if it would ever even have found a publisher in today's rabid publishing economy. The scenes and events the author narrates often seem trivial or seemingly fail to add up to a coherent, meaningful narrative structure. Henry buys a house in a small English seaside town. Huh. His servants drink too much, and he has to let them go. Okay. A hot American sculptor comes to visit, but then he goes away. A cynic could ask, why should I care?
Maybe as a biographical novel, the book suffers from the same malady that often plagues autobiographical writing - sticking too closely to the truth at the expense of dramatic tension and a proper plot arc.
In some cases, Toibin also misses opportunities to dramatize incidents instead of merely describing them - I'm especially thinking of the chapters with James's friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, who commits suicide. Toibin tells us again and again that this is a special friendship and that Constance has unique qualities, but we get barely any dialogue between them to show us what their friendship was like and why it meant so much to James. Similarly with James's sister Alice - she's described in abstract terms, bitter, joking, but we don't really see her or get her voice.
On the positive side, I found myself consistently charmed by Toibin's prose. It wasn't a page-turner, but I always looked forward to getting back to it, and I enjoyed spending time in Henry James's quiet company. Also, the historical research Toibin incorporated into the book gives it great value (and probably represents an immense amount of work), and I think makes up for many of the above-mentioned flaws. On the whole, I liked the book, and it was worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Henry James.(less)
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a solitary scholar in the 1970s who tries to piece together the story of his grandmother's life as it took place...moreA Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a solitary scholar in the 1970s who tries to piece together the story of his grandmother's life as it took place during the latter half of the nineteenth-century, out in the American West.
I'd like to give this book two and a half stars, because it fell somewhere between being an okay book and a book I liked. The prose was the saving grace. This was one of those books like Colm Toibin's The Master, where reading it made me like the author, but not the book. I liked the narrator as a person, but not as a storyteller. On a sentence level, on a paragraph level, the writing worked; however, the author either failed or maybe never intended to construct an effective plot. It's one of those slice-of-life type plots where it's "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" - not a narrative arc, and little in the way of tension or suspense to keep the reader's attention.
Yes, if one persists, there are things here to reward the patient reader. But it's very much a book that makes the reader come to it and coddle it and make allowances for it, rather than one that sweeps the reader off her feet and carries her along on the wave of the story.(less)
I read this book not because of the movie version coincidentally playing in theaters right now, but because someone gave me an old copy with a faded c...moreI read this book not because of the movie version coincidentally playing in theaters right now, but because someone gave me an old copy with a faded cover a few years back, and I'd always meant to read it but only just recently got around to it. Now, having read it, I really want to see the movie.
What most surprised me about the book was how delightfully good the writing is. This is far above your standard chick lit (or "mom lit," as I like to call the subgenre) prose. Hardly a page passes without some strikingly inventive and simultaneously hilarious simile or turn of phrase, which made it a sheer pleasure to read.
Thank God for that, because in other ways, the storyline was painful for long stretches. The main character is a woman with two children and a gentle but highly ignorable husband. She works in some kind of high finance job in London's "City" (UK equivalent of Wall Street). She works insane hours, travels frequently, and basically ends up having to do most of the work taking care of the kids at home, too, despite the fact that she's the main breadwinner. It's not that her husband doesn't try, but he just doesn't remember things and he's not the go-getter Type A personality that she is. As a result, she's in a constant state of extreme exhaustion, and she ends up ignoring her husband for most of the book and being constantly wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for her kids.
She makes heaps and heaps of money, and basically seems to be willing to accept having a deeply horrible life and a work environment that treats women like @#$%&*! in exchange for material luxury. So for most of the book, I found myself just wanting to shake her and ask, "Why, why, WHY would you do this to yourself? Is shopping at Barney's during your rare five minutes off from work really worth it? What is WRONG with you, woman?" Yep, it's one of THOSE books, the ones where you want to give the protagonist a good hard slap across the cheeks, to tell her WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE FOR GOD'S SAKE WON'T YOU?
Thankfully, there's a happy ending, and it all works out okay for her. That, at least, is aesthetically satisfying. However, a lot of the book also seems to consist of the author painting the portrait of a straw man: a woman who just can't win, no matter how hard she tries (and believe me, she tries much harder than you'd ever want anyone to), because as a working mother and a woman working in finance, all the cards are stacked against her. The underlying message being that the professional world is still grossly unfair to women, especially moms.
The message is undercut, however, by the character's ridiculous money-grubbing materialism. And it never seems to occur to the woman to think: Why would you want to be someplace that doesn't want you? Why work in an environment where you're not wanted, and where your value isn't considered high enough for your work-life balance to be respected? If the world of high finance treats working parents like @#$%&*, the parents will and should stay away, and, perhaps most importantly of all, IT'S THE COMPANY'S LOSS when this happens, when they lose smart, dedicated employees.
In the end, the main character does finally seem to be just beginning to realize that she can put her enormous talent, brains, and energy into work that's both more worthwhile and more family friendly. But for vast swathes of the story, the author's energy all goes toward painting a subliminally whiny portrait of the neverending hell of a mother of small children working ridiculous hours for ridiculously huge amounts of money. This was effective as a caricature or a cautionary tale about making bad choices based on skewed consumerist values. But it made for some painful reading.
That said - on balance I really liked this book and would recommend it, especially to working moms. And dads. And those who might eventually become working moms or dads.(less)