Eveline Chao's Reviews > The Dissident

The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger
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's review
Nov 25, 2007

did not like it
Read in December, 2007

This wasn't bad for a first novel, but, eh. Basically none of the characters ever really came to life or drew you in so that you ever felt invested in or particularly attached to any of them.

I think the author was maybe a bit too ambitious with the number of characters. All of them were given a cursory psychology and background and personality but once given the explanation that, say, the middle sister always felt like a gray sheep against her white sheep & black sheep brothers, nothing really happens with her and she just kind of drops out of the story.

Also it seemed like the book couldn't decide whether it wanted to be this big literary revelatory dramatic thing or lighthearted and slightly comedic. If it was trying to be the former, then the various dramatic revelations that we spent chapters and chapters of plodding narrative and not terribly interesting flashbacks building up to were totally anticlimactic. Like you spend forever being given all these hints that the main character is haunted by some memory about his ex, and once you finally learn what the big painful memory is (after WAY too many pages), it just doesn't feel like that big of a deal. Same with the present-tense storyline - there's all this foreshadowing that something is going to go awry at the school where the protagonist teaches, and once it happens, you're sort of like, "That's it? That's not a big deal at ALL!" Basically with a book of this size, and with this much foreshadowing and hinting all along the way, I expect some earth-shattering shit and instead you get some ho-hum pedestrian shit.

I actually think the book could have been pretty good if it had committed in the other direction to being sort of wryly comedic, which it almost did in the chapter where Phil smuggles a bush baby onto an airplane, instead of trying to cover so many different perspectives and worlds all at once.

Or alternately, the author actually had a lot to say about art, which came up all through the book and which I felt was actually pretty interesting, but which kept getting dragged down/wiped out by the plodding storylines. So as long as we're tossing out Alternates for What the Book Could Have Been, I think the author had it in her to pull off a full-on highbrow exploration of What is Art? but then felt like she had to make it more commercial and mass-markety and threw in all these lame storylines (who cares about the annoying black sheep brother whom we don't actually ever learn anything about?) and all this dramatic revelation stuff that didn't really work.
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Rain You absolutely nailed that review!

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