It must have been the guilt of my last post, but I’ve done marginally better at turning down my social media and turning up novels. It helped that small human spent a weekend at the grandparents, but I read three novels (okay, part of it is in a mad dash to hit minimum acceptable book total for 2019…).
Anyway – Mrs. Everything is the blockbuster by Jennifer Weiner that for – whatever reason – topped many of the best-of lists for 2019. I can only assume that the people writing these lists have a limited imagination for what constitutes ‘good.’ In this case the story follows two sisters from their childhood in the late 1950s through to their waning years as adults in the 2010s. We witness what we are told to be the pivotal moments in second wave feminism, as the sisters encounter various scenes of Quintessential Feminist Journey, from sexual awakening, to living room consciousness raising, to queer identity in the 1960s, to sexual assault/rape, to commune living hippie feminism, to the commercialization of feminism. It is… a lot. The sisters, Jo and Bethie (cue your Little Women radar) are caricatures of themselves, constantly negotiating with themselves against the small box imagined for them from the outset. The supposedly pivotal moment in their relationship only announces itself years later and is not – at all – obvious to the reader at the time that something significant in taking place. For a novel that is explicitly preoccupied with how gender operates and shapes lived experience, it does a curiously terrible job of representing men and masculinity, with men either angels or demons in a way that you might think was a deliberate attempt to mirror how often women are poorly imagined, but for the fact that it does not read as at all intentional (if only because the women, too, lack for depth of nuance and imagination). So yeah. When it pops up in your ‘must read’ list of 2019 I suggest you… pass.
Normal People on the other hand is a weird and wonderful little journey. Sally Rooney succeeds where Weiner fails in crafting rich and complex characters through subtle and careful scenes that unfold over years. Marianne and Connell have a relationship that is romantic, but is so much more complex that a ‘romance.’ The book explores how they know themselves and how they know one another amid a world that strives for – and seems to perpetually fail – connection and understanding. Their tenderness with one another, and the moments where their inabilities to think outside themselves hurt one another, are genuinely moving. Variously operating as anchors for one another and forces of chaos and uncertainty, the complexity of their relationship is one to fully enjoy.
Finally another Louise Penny novel A Better Man that was the ideal choice for the unexpected weekend without the kid. You can read a Louise Penny novel in a day (which I did) and feel both satisfied and like nothing at all happened. Once again Gamache is a hero battling his own demons to protect those he loves, his morals and honour are above question, and the descriptions of food are on point. I’d hardly urge you to read this one, but if someone passes you a Penny novel over the holidays, say a sincere thanks, and enjoy the several hours of mindful absorption in a world where people do terrible things but are justly punished for them. Maybe better described a fantasy than a mystery.