No matter what year it would be painful to read Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls because the novel is bad, but it’s particularly tough to read a novel set during the Obama years and following the Obama White House staff when we are currently enduring… I’m not really sure what to call the catastrophe of American political and social life and national institutions.
So if we take as stipulated that my complaints about the novel are not generated from a nostalgia for the Obama years (though that is certainly present as you’re reading), but rather from the novel’s singular lack of imagination, character developement and troubled gendered politics. From the first person perspective of Beth – wife of Matt (and that’s how she’s regularly introduced: I think in the first instance we’re supposed to get the wink and the nod, like yeah, we know she’s her own person, ha ha, see how she gets introduced as ‘just’ the wife, or as belonging to Matt, but then as the novel progresses and Beth really is just the wife I started to wonder how knowing this introducing really was…). Anyway, from Beth’s perspective we follow her marriage to Matt as he navigates his political ambitions as a white house staffer and campagin manager. You’re probably thinking, but E., unless it’s The Marriage Plot, can a novel sustain itself for 400 pages by considering a marriage? And you’re right. It can’t. Particularly when the only complication is to add in another couple – Jimmy and Ash. And the book flap tells it all: Matt is jealous of Jimmy because Jimmy is good looking, effortlessly charismatic and seeminly destined for political success. So the plot in a nutshell: Matt is jealous of Jimmy. What effect does this jealousy have on the marriage? Likely in a more competent novel this question would yield nuanced answers. Here, it’s as predictable as you think: jealousy is not good. Or more appropriate to 2016-2017: jealousy is BAD!
The novel is at its best in the opening scenes which are wry takedowns of Obama staffers. (It comes as no surprise that our author lives in D.C. and has had ample opportunity to mine conversations; not to take away from her delivery – these scenes really are funny and evocative). And with that hook the reader is somehow committed for the full 400 pages, each page hoping to get back to that initial satire and whimsy. And just… failing. There are so many needless inclusions in plot and character and distracting details (why do we need to know the nail colour of Beth’s sister-in-law? or the colour of outfit of the baby? or who ordered a hamburger at the restaurant?) that this reader found herself alternately exasperated with another tired description, and in a sort of awe that no one suggested massive cuts to Close in revisions.
These pointless inclusions might be overlooked if the core of the novel was something interesting or substantial, but instead we’re left with what feels like one giant insider nod, a flimsy plot pulled from a hat in order to allow for the setting (Washington) and the atmosphere (hopeful). Close would have done much better to write an essay. If we take the plot and characters as given, these are likewise dissatisfying. Beth’s ostensible character motivation is to find her passion (to be some kind of writer), and we watch as she flounders, spending most of her time reading novels and watching TV. We hope that by the end of the story she’d have reached some kind of sense of self, or development, but the novel concludes with her continuing to devote her energies to supporting Matt in his political ambitions. Likewise throughout the novel we get glimpses of a complex character opportunity in Beth’s wrestling with whether and when she wants to have children. Rather than take this question on with any depth, we simply note that she has questions and then flash forward in time to when she has a kid. #wtf
So yes. The Hopefuls, like it’s title, was a hopeful read for me. I’m addicted to political news these days, and relished the idea of diving in to a novel set in a heady political moment. But no. Deeply disappointing. Sad.