The summer of 2008 was a magical book summer for me (stay tuned for my next post on ‘what I’m reading this summer and what you should read’). I read a series of incredible novels, in some cases staying up all night to finish them. Such was the case with Annie Barrow’s first novel, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (a title that belies the brilliance of the story and makes it difficult to recommend to others because of the constant fumbling about for the proper order of words). I devoured it; I cried in earnest at the ending; I recommended it to others.
So imagine my delight in seeing Annie Barrow’s has a new novel: The Truth According to Us. I signed up for an Advance Review Copy and put aside other books on my to-read list to read it. I filled the bath, poured my wine. Veritably rubbing my hands with excitement. I anticipated an immersive world full of rich characters and affecting themes. I hoped for the terrific realist American fiction focused on small town life that one finds in Songs in Ordinary Times or Empire Falls or anything by my beloved favourite, Anne Tyler.
Instead I got an interminably dull plot, with unbelievable, unsympathetic, uncomplicated characters, set in the necessarily arid and characteristically tired moment of Depression era, midwestern America. If I had only one word to describe this novel it would be “dust.” The supposed point of conflict centers around a high-class woman, Layla, who is sent to Macedonia, the outpost of the midwest, to write the chronicle of the town. Layla boards with the once-wealthy-now-rocked-by-scandal-and-poverty Romeyn family and finds herself “embroiled” (I use quotes as embroiled suggests some level of urgency or intrigue, which are decidedly lacking from this plot) in their history. There’s some attempt to raise questions about truth-telling and historiography. The gist? History (capital H) is shaped by those telling it.
This book was the first time in recent memory I’ve properly considered a) throwing a book at a wall b) buying an e-reader (this 400+ tomb -dustdustdust- was my unfortunate and only travel companion on a cross-country trip – I even considered buying a magazine to save myself the horror of being stuck with this thing on the plane).
So what went wrong? You might be expecting some grand theory on the fate of second books (as my click-bait title suggested). Instead I pose this: The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was co-authored. A collaboration between Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. It was brilliant. This second, solo effort? Not so much.
Here’s hoping for better luck with my summer reading list. Which brings me to: what do you want me to read this summer? I promise to read the first three suggestions, and consider all others. (note: I put this call out last summer and read all that was recommended!)