If you’ve ever found yourself confined to a space – think airplane, waiting room, pandemic hideout, room-room – you’re familiar with how important high quality fiction can be for taking you out of that space, even while you remain physically rooted. I find myself in the unique (for me) experience of spending a little over a week in a smallish room that takes me six small steps to walk across. In my initial packing for this trip my suitcase was almost entirely dedicated to thick and heavy mystery novels. When S. pointed out that I might rather some of the real estate be given over to snacks and clean clothes, I scoffed. Wasn’t he aware that a new novel was worth several days of sink laundered underwear? Well. He persuaded me to put all these books on my tablet and – for the week – suspend my hatred of reading on screens. It’s too soon to tell who was right, but having removed the books and filling it instead with a yoga mat, I am *still* washing underwear in my sink, and so we were both (probably) wrong #marriagehacks
Anyway. So far – three days in – I’ve read a book (and refreshed my news feeds about ten million times): The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison (which now I’m thinking her first name must be part of the mystery?). It was okay? I feel like my sense of what is good writing has been completely obscured by my assessment of whether or not the book is sufficiently distracting. In this case it did well enough in that I read it in a day. Otherwise it’s pretty bland: rich white woman kills her husband in order to remain rich. I think the book tries to be interesting by layering on the rich white lady’s own complex psychology, but mostly it reads like a glossy magazine where everyone drinks expensive wine and has more than one couch.
The effort to be interesting piques with the back and forth narration between ‘her’ and ‘him,’ I suppose an effort to show how the murder is really a miscommunication – like had they been able to have full and honest conversations with one another then he might not have left and she might not have killed him (it’s not a spoiler btw to say she kills him – as much comes out on the first few pages). And what a warning for all of us in relationships (and aren’t we all in some kind of relationship) of the perils of avoidance, denial, deception and on and on. Like it’s so easy to just be honest. Or like honesty never got anyone in trouble.
Anyway. I’d hardly recommend it, but I wouldn’t scoff if you said you were planning to read it. A perfectly acceptable book for captivating your interest if you are stuck somewhere. Which isn’t the high bar I’d usually set for a novel, but then, here we are.
There’s something so strange about reading a book about a public health crisis that is not a book about Covid19 (oh man! when do you think the first Covid19 novel will come out? And better question, the first good Covid19 novel?), but that’s what I just finished. Liz Moore’s Long Bright River explores the opioid epidemic through the lens of a police officer, Mickey, and her addicted sister, Kasey.
I picked the book because all the reviews I read were like ‘thriller!’, ‘page turner!’, ‘Can’t put down!’ and given my ability to focus right now (limited) and to read (limited), I figured these qualities would keep me engaged long enough to actually read something. And it worked! The book is all of those things, if not very good.
Mostly not good because the characters lack depth and the plot twists are very obvious and very Plot Twisty and it’s written as though it anticipates its adaptation (which spoiler, it has already been picked up for TV adaptation). But! If you are worried you will never be able to focus and read again, you could do much worse. The book is so earnestly trying (and sure, failing) to be a critique of the monolithic portrait of ‘junkies’ and addicts. And there’s something in there about gender and policing that isn’t totally ridiculous. So while it misses the mark on almost every front, it might get points for trying. And for somehow still managing to make you want to keep reading.
If you’re in the greater Guelph area and want to pick it up, I’m happy to leave it on my porch for someone – just send me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org
I finished reading Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me a day before Ontario shut down the schools and all the grocery stores sold out of flour and pasta sauce. So to say that my memory of its plot and import is foggy is… accurate. Because how could I be expected to remember anything without pasta sauce. Really.
But I am not going to forget to tell you that I did read Lynn Coady and that Watching You Without Me was only sort of okay. It follows a middle aged woman in small town east coast Canada (I assume? I actually can’t recall if the setting is named) as she returns to her childhood home following her mother’s death to spend a few weeks with her sister before moving her sister into an assisted living facility. The sister, Kelly, has some kind of – again unnamed or forgotten – cognitive disability and our protagonist arrives imagining, as she always has, that Kelly will move in to this facility. Enter the super creepy man, named…. maybe Tyler? something with a T? anyway, what unfolds is the gradual revelation of Tyler as a Super Creep/stalker/abuser and we the reader are taken along for the ride that is meant, I think, to explain how someone could find themselves wrapped up with such a predator without ever intending to be.
I persisted in reading it because it was the book I had available at the time and because reading inertia. It wasn’t great. Certainly not something that in a pandemic I’d suggest you go buy because your library is closed. Our protagonist makes weird choices (by that I mean they don’t feel consistent with her character), the plot line with Tyler seems to drag, the fraught relationship with the dead mother that is meant to be the emotional heart of the novel is never fleshed out well enough to be anything other than the Reference Point for Pain in the past, rather than something the reader identifies with, and the secondary characters all similarly lack complete design so read as either flat or inconsistent.
The good news is that I have started reading again, and am finding a new kind of balance in this [insert overused adjective about unprecedented, challenging, strange new normal] world and so expect I will be a more reliable correspondent in the coming weeks. And because I know all of you live online now, you could do worse than to send me a message with a suggestion for what catastrophe read I should order (or try to trade for!).
Joanne Ramos joins a growing genre of novels imagining a near future where reproduction is fraught and bodies-with-uteruses are (more than ever) subject to surveillance and control for their reproductive possibilities. Too bad this was such a poor comparison with the truly excellent Red Clocks and not as speculative or feisty as The Power and such an obvious spin on The Handmaids Tale as to be irritating. And that the whole thing seemed to be written as though it already anticipated its movie adaptation: lots of plot, lots of surface, lots of descriptions of sleek cars and finger nails, and a disappointing lack of character development, interiority or good writing.
The hook this novel tries to make is to wed conversations about control of reproduction with class and race: the story follows a Filipino woman, Jane, as she spends nine months gestating the baby of an ultra billionaire at ‘the Farm’ a pregnancy center/spa/prison for surrogates. We are meant, I suppose, to read all the female characters as sympathetic – even the ultra rich – as they struggle to have it all, or to have some of it, or to just get by. We’re meant to appreciate the knowing nods to the Sisterhood and how women are made to compete against one another rather than to unite against Patriarchy. It’s just all so very Obvious and looking for nuance in this book is an exercise quickly abandoned in lieu of finishing it in time for book club.
So please on this International Women’s Day continue to read excellent books about the challenge and cost of pregnancy and parenting for women (the gendered wage gap is just the beginning). Just don’t read this one.