Cheryl Anne Gardner's Reviews > Waiting For Spring

Waiting For Spring by R.J. Keller
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Oct 05, 09

Read in November, 2009

For a standard “woman starting over after a failed relationship” type of story, this one had a rough edge to it that I liked -- liked a lot. If more contemporary women's fiction was written like this, I would read more of it. Tess, our narrator and main character, is a little off. She is Neurotic. Very. Very. Neurotic. Not to mention: cynical, sarcastic, and self-absorbed. Not much to like really, but considering her dysfunctional childhood, her bleak outlook on life seems somewhat justified. She sort of reminded me of a cross between Bukowski’s crass malcontented characters and Jennifer Aniston’s character in the movie Friends with Money: the sarcastic cleaning woman who isn’t living up to her potential, who gets stoned and obsesses over the man she lost. But this story has so much more to it than that.

To match the personality of the narrator, the narrative itself is very coarse. Tess just says what’s on her mind, and at times, it can be quite melodramatic. There is a fondness for choppy little fragmented thoughts and sentences that becomes noticeable right away. I felt it alluded to the character’s choppy, abrupt, and rather disjointed attitude about her own life and her own identity, but the chop might wear on some readers after a while because everything is so disconnected and at the same time completely exposed. Some might even say that Tess is a bit over exposed, and I would agree with that, but first person narratives with this type of story arc tend to feel self-indulgent, and so I felt the tell it all, here I am, and if you don’t like it go fuck yourself self-exploratory narrative was important to the characterization. Tess is raw, in more ways than one, and we feel it in the narrative. She is bitchy and vulgar on the surface in order to cover up deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, which she obsesses over endlessly to the point of sabotaging anything good that comes into her life. She has a toxic personality disorder, and some readers might find themselves disenchanted with her about half way through the book. I had a similar issue with Love and Other Natural Disasters by Holly Shumas, as the narrator’s neurosis was similar to Tess’. Some readers might find this a bit much to warrant the exasperating number of pages devoted to Tess’ self-destructive foibles and obsessive reminiscing. A prudent cut here and there would have taken care of this issue, but I liked Tess’ honesty, so even though the narrative seemed to drag a bit here and there and her obsessing did start to wear on my nerves after a while, I still didn’t mind spending so much time with her. Even in today’s liberated society, I still see women stifling themselves on a regular basis. Tess’ neurosis was all too familiar, and so the exposition was rather refreshing.

Structurally, the story begins with a prologue and establishes the narrator’s view on God, authority, and justice in the world. I liked the crayon metaphor, and considering it was introduced so early in the piece as if it were going to be a grounding element, I was disappointed that, thematically, it wasn’t carried through the text as deliberately as I had hoped it would be for such a powerful personality statement. We get dribs and drabs but not enough to fully flesh out that side of Tess’ personality, the true artistic and visionary side, which might have been the juxtaposition the story needed to offset her persecution complex.

For the story arc, we have Tess, our narrator and recently divorced thirty-something who is struggling with the demise of her marriage -- among other issues. She decides at the start of the story to try to escape herself by making a new start in a new town -- a new town where nobody knows her or knows about her past indiscretions. Then there is Jason, her ex, who left her because she had adamantly made it known throughout their marriage that she didn’t want to have children. Of course, we find out later that that wasn’t really the reason for his divorcing her. The real reason becomes obvious the more time you spend with Tess. Then we have Tess’ Brother David and her sister-in-law Kim. They are expecting their first child, which will predictably force Tess to reassess her position on the matter. Tess’ parents are typical archetypes: the mother is a cruel cold-hearted fault-finding selfish vindictive shrew, and since I have some extensive experience with that sort of nurturing, I could relate, and the father is basically the all around nice guy doormat who is too tired to fight anymore. There is a litany of other minor characters and sub-plots all of which refract the underlying themes of the story very well.

In the first third of the narrative, Tess moves to a new town and almost immediately takes up with Brian -- the younger man who lives downstairs from her -- in an effort to use sex to drown out the pain she feels over her failed marriage and her perceived failed life, even if she can't admit that that is what she is doing. The remainder of the book deals with Tess and Brian’s relationship, his failed relationship with his alcoholic father, and his relationship with his drug-addicted troubled younger sister. Tess’ inner conflict is reflected back into the narrative as she explores her own inter-personal relationships with the people who surround her in the story. As we all do in life, when we cannot confront our own shadow, we use the lives of others to sort out our own existential dilemmas and our own personal philosophies. It’s Tess’ idiosyncratic perception of the world around her that deepens her feelings of persecution and thus drives the story. Had the narrative been written any other way other than from her point of view, I think the intensity would have been lost, as the immediate storyline is offset with random flashbacks, and the intervals are pretty frequent. This is how the backstory of Tess’ entire life is revealed for the most part -- indulgent yes, but for Tess, it works.

As far as the technical stuff goes: I noticed a few fiddly punctuation issues: In this font the em-dashes seemed the same size as hyphens and not proper em-dashes, so reading those sentences made the eyes go a mite bit buggy because the sentences seemed confusing at first glance. There were some minor interior formatting issues, specifically the chapter start drop caps, which were not proper drops, and so it created an uneven amount of line spacing from the first line to the second. There was a typo or two -- my own personal nemesis -- and a missed word or two. But the issue that most concerned me and one that really affected the read "for me" was the extensive use of italics to indicate internal monolog, specifically the conflict monolog. The constant italicized interjection became jarring after a while. The true nature of a first-person narrative is that it is a reflective narrative, so italicized internal monolog is really unnecessary, especially in a narrative such as this where the narrator is already exposed to a great degree. In this case, I would have advised the author to leave it all unitalicized and to find another way to work in the internal conflict and integrate the thoughts. One could distinguish by the diction the internal “conflict” monolog from the regular First-person monolog without the telltale slanty words. This would have made the text block look better as well, and this would have restricted the italics to emphasis alone versus the use of Capitalized words, which again, to me, felt too in your face in an already in your face narrative. The italicized conflict monolog also created some paragraphing issues, where continuity was lost because the paragraph was split mid-thought to separate the internal conflict monologue from the main narrative. This separation is unnecessary and eliminating or integrating the italicized thoughts would have eliminated the excess chop -- chop that did affect the read for me and did reduce the review score somewhat. I understood what the author was trying to do in showing how disjointed Tess' mental state was during the narrative, but I thought the author's writting style did that quite effectively without the italics.

Aside from that, there was a certain ugliness to the story and the writing that came off almost poetic. The characters behave quite naturally in their world. There is a twisted very human logic to the situational conflict, and the backstory was integrated nicely: The balance between scene and summary was almost flawless, and although it might have seemed like everything set Tess off into flashback mode so she could revel in her own personal drama, it only reaffirmed her obsessive personality to me. The sex scenes were fluid in their emotive content -- innocent, yet deceptively insecure -- and they weren’t graphic or porn-speak laden -- thank goodness. Here the sex scenes are used very deftly to draw out the pathos of our main character as all good sex scenes in literary works are designed to do. Good show!

There are some really touching moments in the story -- very pure uninhibited emotion -- and there are some relationship moments where every reader will roll over in hysterical laughter at the idiocy of it all. Brian has his share of emotional wounds too: his out-of-control younger sister Rachel whom he plays the father figure to, a loser of a father, and the bevy of young babes he bedded during a male angst crisis seem to haunt him throughout the narrative. So the mismatched coupling of Tess and Brian works to the advantage of the story in a misery-loves-company/watching-the-train-wreck kind of way. What reader doesn’t love a good train wreck? This is the kind of story one might see on an episode of Intervention. So if you like deluded self-destructive characters, love desperation -- desperation makes people think about and do crazy things -- and love a narrator whose personality has been soaked in vinegar, then this book is for you. Even still, Tess has a good heart, and she has her vulnerable moments as much as she is wont to believe the mask she wears is on straight all the time:

Later that night I lit a dozen tiny candles all over my room
and we made love in my bed; slow and hot and beautiful. The
room was filled with shadows. They flickered everywhere; on the
ceiling, on the walls, on Brian’s face as it hovered gently over
mine. My heart was open wide, filled and overflowing with a
thousand fragile emotions I couldn’t even put names to. I stared
into his eyes, eyes that were glowing with dark orange light,
glowing with love and heat and the reflected flames of the candles,
and I was too overwhelmed for words or moans or sounds of any
kind. I just gazed at him, at those eyes, his hot breath on my face,
as he reached inside me and touched my soul.

In the end Tess’ prevails even through all the tragedy. I won’t be including plot spoilers here, but there was a moment where Tess finally stands up to her mother, and I could not help but cheer her on. Later she shares a moment with Brian’s sister Rachel that was absolutely excruciating to read, and the end of the book is a bit tense before the happily-ever-after wrap up. Let’s just say that fate and choice make for a bad coupling in this story. Action, reaction, and consequence, that’s what the story is about here … and God has little to do with it. So, if you like a real story, from a real woman’s point of view, about real life, and real relationships, and real womanly angst with all its unbearable messiness, then put the bleach away and sit down with this book. Despite the ugliness on the surface, it’s got real womanly grit, and I like that. It’s a story about survival, about surviving the perception we have been force-fed about ourselves and others. We all know that that sort of survival is rarely pretty, but it’s inspiring nonetheless.
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