Julie Christine's Reviews > The Lotus Eaters

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
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it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction, south-asia-theme-setting, best-of-2013, read-2013, war-conflict
Recommended to Julie Christine by: Janet Maslin/NY Times

The perfect title. As readers, we give it little thought. By the time we see a book in its finished state, it’s a done deal. We consider its cover, the heft in our hands as we ponder the accolades on the back jacket or peruse the synopsis on the inside flap (I don’t know what e-reading sorts do – don’t you miss the feel of a book, the whisper and scent of paper and ink? Sigh.). At any rate, the right title is perhaps the most critical and taken-for-granted aspect of a book.

But the perfect title will be more than a quote or an image from the book it fronts. It will carry a theme or act as a metaphor to summarize in a handful of words the book’s core. Such titles seems as if the book was written around them

And so it is with The Lotus Eaters. As depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters were inhabitants of an island deep in the southern Mediterranean who ate from a native lotus, becoming indolent and apathetic - drugged by the flower’s narcotic. Odysseus’s sailors
“…went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."

Odyssey IX

It is an image used time and again by novelists, from James Joyce to Edith Wharton, and serves as the ideal metaphor for Tatjana Soli's debut novel The Lotus Eaters.

In Soli’s gorgeous, fluid and haunting novel, the seductive narcotic is war. When mixed with ambition, desire and an exotic locale, it becomes an elixir custom-made to slake the thirst for adventure.

This novel expresses more clearly than any I can think of the allure of the war experience and the shame and confusion that accompanies the attraction. The story opens in April, 1975 as Saigon is overrun by the North Vietnamese Army, signaling the end of the war in Vietnam. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, is torn between getting herself and her lover onto a chopper and out of the madness and her desire to capture this story of her lifetime.

Helen makes her decision and through that decision the reader is taken back ten years, to the start of Helen’s personal and professional journey through Vietnam. The Lotus Eaters is told principally from the perspective of Helen, but we also read through the voices of Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist, and Sam Darrow, a celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Both men become Helen's mentors and the focus of her passions.

Helen’s ambition to excel as a female photojournalist pushes her past the machismo of her fellow journalists, the barriers erected by the military against allowing women near the front, the horror of witnessing death and mutilation, the impossible fight against nature in the tropics and mountains of Southeast Asia, and her loneliness and fear, until all of these become the very source of her ambivalent addiction to recording the war in Vietnam. Vietnam becomes home. She learns its language, the rhythms of its seasons; its very scents and shadows become ingrained in her spirit.

The Lotus Eaters shows us the upside-down world of the wartime experience and how living on the edge heightens each emotion. Passion, anger, fear, joy intensify until they overshadow memories of “normal.” Helen even tries to return home, spending several weeks in the healing beauty of the California coast, but the pull of the Lotus is too strong. She returns to Vietnam, to assume her place at the front lines of the war.

Tatjana Soli’s writing is as lush and vivid as her setting. She can be heavy-handed with the metaphors, as if she’s trying too hard to bring you into this overgrown, overripe world, but this is easily forgiven. Her characters are complete, the story is compelling and the writer’s voice is strong and unique. The novel itself became a Lotus that I reluctantly set aside each day and was bereft when it came to an end.

Rarely do we see war’s front lines through the eyes of a woman; rarer still is ambivalence so richly presented without judgment or conclusion. An outstanding read.

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Reading Progress

March 30, 2010 – Shelved
May 2, 2013 – Started Reading
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: south-asia-theme-setting
May 2, 2013 –
page 50
12.85% "It's rare that I pick up a book I once abandoned - usually if I'm not engaged early on, I leave it to the abyss. But on the convictions of some of my favorite readers (Jeanette, Suzanne & Heather on GR and my husband), I have embarked on Attempt 2. \n Wow. Wherever my head was before, it's in this book now."
May 4, 2013 –
page 100
25.71% ""Her body was like a spoon of moonlight." Loving this."
May 5, 2013 –
page 199
51.16%
May 5, 2013 –
page 250
64.27% "If I quick-hurry get some of this week's meals premade this afternoon, I can sink into this and finish tonight. Not that I want to. Finish it. Really. Hearts will be broken. Mine, for certain."
May 6, 2013 – Shelved as: war-conflict
May 6, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2013
May 6, 2013 – Shelved as: read-2013
May 6, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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Julie Christine The writer's style is not engaging me in this story. It's choppy and distant. Moving on...


Heather Fineisen I really loved this book but read it at the right time. Her writing is choppy.


Julie Christine I'm trying again, Heather. My husband just read it and loved it- not to mention so many trusted GR readers like you- so it's back on the TBR list.


Suzanne Glad to hear you're going to give it another try. I really loved this book!


message 5: by Mundi (new)

Mundi Finally, a book I have read before you!*wink* jk! With your ability to knock out so many books, so quickly, I count on you to weed out the not-worth-readings for me! I await your review of this... after you have been seduced into the story.


Julie Christine Mundi, it's a team effort! Save me from something awful if you see me headed down the wrong path.
But this one, I think it's going to be in my "best of the year" list...


Heather Fineisen I recall needing to know what happens to these characters on a sleepless night! I am glad you found the right time to read it , and enjoy it.


Julie Christine What an achievement. This is an extraordinary novel. Review to come.


message 9: by Jeanette (last edited May 10, 2013 01:17PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Oh hell, yeah! So glad you got to give it another try. Sorry to say, her second novel doesn't measure up to this one.


Julie Christine Jeanette, I treasured this book-I'm so glad you brought it to my notice and that I gave it another go. So worth the wait! I remember that you were not taken with her sophomore effort- hopefully there's more where The Lotus Eaters came from.


Heather Fineisen Loved your review! I agree, Jeanette. Maybe number three will be better.


Suzanne Julie, you make this sound pretty fabulous. If that $2 copy is still on the for-sale shelf at my library, it will have a new home today.


message 13: by Jay (new) - added it

Jay Very nice review. Right now I am knee-deep in Bolano, but am adding this to my "to read" list. Have you read Yellow Birds?


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "Julie, you make this sound pretty fabulous. If that $2 copy is still on the for-sale shelf at my library, it will have a new home today."
Oh, grab it, Suzanne!


Julie Christine Jay F wrote: "Very nice review. Right now I am knee-deep in Bolano, but am adding this to my "to read" list. Have you read Yellow Birds?"

Thank you, Jay! I brought home a copy of Yellow Birds from the library a few months ago and skimmed through it - it just didn't appeal to me. Then again, I started The Lotus Eaters three years ago and abandoned it in the first chapter. Sometimes it just takes the right time for the right book to hit home.


Suzanne The $2 copy - I got it! I don't know when I'm going to read it, but I got it.


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "The $2 copy - I got it! I don't know when I'm going to read it, but I got it." YAY! No hurries. We've had a copy for 3+ years and I finally gave in and gave it another go :)


message 18: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Yet another fabulous review. I read The Forgetting Tree and really liked THAT, and heard that this one is even better. It's on my TBR shelf and I intend to get to it this year.


message 19: by Mundi (new)

Mundi Nice review... I am glad you were (eventually) as seduced by this as I was. I have stood on the streets of Hanoi, and other rural areas, and I can testify that Soli nailed it; the colors, the heat, the life-sucking humidity and the pace of life, smeared into the palette together until it comes out dark and beautiful.
Now, if I can get to some of your other recommended books....


message 20: by Jay (new) - added it

Jay Julie wrote: "Jay F wrote: "Very nice review. Right now I am knee-deep in Bolano, but am adding this to my "to read" list. Have you read Yellow Birds?"

Thank you, Jay! I brought home a copy of Yellow Birds fr..."


Yes, I agree. It took me years to re-evaluate Tim Winton's The Riders, just to mention one example. Re The Yellow Birds, so much that has been written about the Iraq war in non-fiction, coming from officers or journalists whose writings seem coldly pedestrian. For me, Powers captured with extraordinarily nuanced prose the perspective of the enlisted soldiers whose primary goal is simple survival. He brought a poet's insights and artistry to the underbelly of modern war. Your observation about the unusual perspective in The Lotus Eaters ["Rarely do we see war’s front lines through the eyes of a woman>"] made me think of The Yellow Birds.


Julie Christine Jill wrote: "Yet another fabulous review. I read The Forgetting Tree and really liked THAT, and heard that this one is even better. It's on my TBR shelf and I intend to get to it this year."

Thank you, Jill! I've read such mixed reviews of The Forgetting Tree - I'm not sure how I feel about taking it on. I know you loved it, so I am mightily swayed. I hope you enjoy the The Lotus Eaters at least as much.


Julie Christine Mundi wrote: "Nice review... I am glad you were (eventually) as seduced by this as I was. I have stood on the streets of Hanoi, and other rural areas, and I can testify that Soli nailed it; the colors, the heat,..."

Mundi, it was Brendan's reaction to The Lotus Eaters- after having spent time in Vietnam- that made me take a second look. He felt the same as you - that she captured beautifully and truthfully Vietnam's essence. Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, is high on my travel list...


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