Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue

The title is what drew me to this book. The cover featured the hazy image of the back of a young woman. The saying goes "don't judge a book by its cover" but in truth, a nice cover and an enticing title does quite a bit to make a book stand out among the many books on display at the bookstore.

In this case, the description of the story sounded as intriguing as the cover. Set in New Orleans, a woman, dead 70 years, exists in a realm of "in-between", seeks information about the man she once loved, while observing a newlywed couple struggle with the trials of the living.

I was hoping for something beautiful and tragic and dark. And it was, to some extent. But also, the story possessed a strong sense of practicality that I thought detracted a bit from the intensity it might have had otherwise. This wasn't quite the story of ghosts and lost lovers mired in voodoo that I'd hoped it would be. I liked this book, but I wanted to love this book.

There almost seemed to be too many storylines running through this book. We learn bits and pieces of different people's lives, past and present, enough to make me curious and interested, but not enough to make me care or connect to the people. It felt like maybe too much was attempted. I didn't feel like enough attention was paid to the ways in which the stories connected. The connection is somewhat surprising, but it felt rushed in the end. I felt like I didn't learn enough to fully understand what had happened or more so to really feel the effects of what happened. I had questions at the end -- and if anyone else has read this book or does read this book and would like to discuss, get in touch with me. Seriously.

I'd summarize this book as being about people who met the love of their lives -- their soul mate, the person who set them on fire, the one -- then lost that person. The story lies in how each person manages to move forward, knowing they will never feel love like that again, and in each instance settling for someone comfortable and safe. A practical love. The stories are presented in a way that assumes that this is what a person is supposed to do -- settle for someone you know you can never love as much as the person you lost. This idea bothered me immensely, because while I understand that this is the most logical choice, a person cannot build a life with a ghost, I also believe that in some situations a person would be better off alone with their memories than sharing their life with someone they don't passionately love. Why should Amy settle for Scott? Nothing about his character makes me think he was worthy of her love.

In life, we're forced to live in a logical and practical manner, but in my fiction, I want the characters to find a way to surpass those boundaries and refuse to settle.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

A more appropriate title would have been "Tales of a Prep School Nothing."

If judging a book by its cover, I would immediately steer clear of this book because of the obnoxious amount of pink on the cover. With its simple cloth pink and pale green belt, the cover shouts "girl book," "superficial book," "book about pointless female blathering." Had I judged this book by its cover, I would have been correct in my assessment.

I only read this because someone in our book club selected this book. Oddly enough, the book was selected by the only male in our book club. He said he was interested in the idea of prep school.

I hated this book. I tend to prefer stories with a bit of depth and meaning, both qualities this book was clearly lacking.

I found this book to be offensive on two levels. As a writer, I was offended that something so badly written was published. As a woman, I was insulted and infuriated by the portrait it painted of young females. Books like this perpetrate the myth that young women care about nothing except their appearance and boys. Shocking as this may sound, there are some women who having bigger, more important interests and goals and place getting laid fairly low on the priority list. Had I not known, I would have assumed this book had been written by a man because you don't expect a man to know any better, but it wasn't. Despite the name Curtis, the author is not male.

The story spans the four years the narrator, Lee, attends prep school. She's on a scholarship and the impression is given that she's going to provide some insight into what it is like to be a poor white girl surrounded by wealthy students with entitlement issues. Instead, the book is mostly about how Lee keeps to herself, never gets involved with anything, never really talks to people, doesn't care about academics, obsessing about what people think about her and has a big crush on a guy named Cross. We hear a lot about how she's unhappy and doesn't fit in, but she never makes any attempt to change her situation. She doesn't seem to have any interests or hobbies, knows nothing about music or current events. She truly is a "nothing".

I have a strong understanding of the "outsider," the kid who doesn't fit in with the "popular" crowd. But usually that student has some creative abilities, she/he is into music or art, or they excel in academics. Lee does none of these things. Something that I found baffling was the fact that she was on scholarship, but had very bad grades. I would assume that to keep a four-year scholarship a student would be required to meet certain requirements, but that never seems to be an issue. Also, if she was on scholarship, shouldn't she have at some point displayed some sort of academic inclination? At least with grades she could have created some niche for herself. She could have been the "smart" girl.

But, as I mentioned, she does develop a crush on a guy her freshman year. For the next three years she has absolutely no contact with him. Then one night for no reason at all, he walks into her room and climbs into her bed. As further proof of her "nothing" status, she allows him into her bed, without question. He then proceeds to fuck her on a fairly regular basis. They have no relationship at all outside of the bed. Lee seems honored that she's being used in such a way. She has no qualms about the fact that Cross acts like he doesn't even know her on campus. You realize later that the sex is nothing more than him making the most of his senior year. "He's really into being a senior," advises Lee's roommate, Martha. Later in the book, it is suggested that he's making his way into the beds of many of the female students, compiling a list with his roommate. Lee exhibits absolutely no self-respect. Without hesitation she gets down on her knees on the concrete floor of an empty classroom and delivers a blowjob when asked.

This story might have been able to redeem itself if the author had provided some element of contrition or regret in her reflections. The story is told as a remembrance of her past, from the viewpoint of an adult. But she seems to have learned nothing from her experience. I felt like even as an adult, she remained the "nothing" that she was in school. If anything, she still provides desperate hints that maybe, just maybe Cross did like her. She confronts him at the end of her senior year, not because she finally realizes that she's been used, but rather because she's upset that he quit showing up in her room for sex. At this point, he has a real girlfriend, someone he talks to and hangs out with in public view. She tells him that he made her feel bad about herself and she walks off, and she seems elated, even looking back on that moment because he called her name as she walked away. Even as an adult, she seems unable to accept the fact that he thought nothing of her.

Aspects like that make this book seem uncomfortably autobiographical. She never acknowledges how pathetic and stupid she behaved. She never seems to realize that she was used, that she repeatedly allowed herself to be used and was considered nothing more than a joke to Cross and his friends. I don't understand how someone could tell a story like this, why someone would imagine a story like this and be so blind to the story she was actually telling, unless she was merely relaying events from her own past.

I never figured out the point of this story. What was the author trying to say? What was there to be gained from reading this? What was I supposed to take away from Lee's experiences? Nothing especially insightful happened. Evidently even Lee gained nothing from her prep school experience.

The story was boring anecdote after boring anecdote. She had a teacher from the Midwest; she cut hair; she taught someone to ride a bike; she nearly failed her math class. A lot of little stories that lacked cohesiveness. Maybe if Lee had been a more interesting or observant person these tales might have been enjoyable, but instead I kept thinking, "Why? Why? You, stupid, stupid girl." The first three years were unbearably boring. I didn't find it interesting until the sex during her senior year and that was mostly for the train wreck effect. So gruesome I couldn't look away. Fittingly, it seemed to be the only thing Lee was truly interested in as well.

The writing was inconsistent and the characters were never fully developed. Sometimes the descriptions were brief, but for some reason anytime the author described a bathroom event she felt the need to be crudely accurate. Sometimes Lee was awkward and self-conscious, but then amazingly clever and funny when finding herself seated at the lunch table with the popular kids. Every once in a while, there would be a line or two of brilliance, like this:
"It was like being drunk, how you so rarely feel drunk enough to do the thing you want to, you still feel pinned back by your own sense of the rational or the proper, but the next day, hung over, you realize just how drunk you were. You had a window of opportunity. If you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but in not using it, you wasted something irretrievable."

But lines like that were rapidly negated by pages of nothing. She lost her underwear and someone found it. Then she wanted a flower from Cross but didn't get one and her roommate did, and she sent him one and oh woe is me...

I admit it, I'm bitter. Why does crap like this get published when I know that my friends and even I can write better than this? The rest of us are toiling away at our soul-killing corporate jobs while someone who strings together this mess gets paid to write. Life is not fair.