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.
The overwhelming word that comes to mind with Emma Donoghue’s Akin is ‘lukewarm,’ which as someone who tries to write down how I feel about the books I’ve read feels unsatisfying. Declare a position! But really, I could neither urge you to read or not read this one. It’s fine. If your book club picks it? Fine. If someone gifts it to you because it was on the bestseller table at the book store? Fine. If you pass over it at the used bookstore because there are seven copies and you’d rather take home [insert anything else] [except Girl on the Train] Fine.
I read it out of curiosity. I’d enjoyed Room and Akin was getting lots of hype and I’m nothing if not easily persuaded by best-of lists and recommendations. And Akin does have reasons for recommendations: (1) it’s a tight plot – taking place in a little over ten days, it follows octogenarian Noah as he must unexpectedly take over the care for his grand-nephew, Michael, and still journey to his birthplace of Nice to discover the truth about his mother (Noah does, I mean). The focused plot gives the novel a short story-esque feel, and a relative certainty early on for the reader on how things between Michael and Noah are going to turn out. (Cue every plot ever about a troubled teenager and an equally-troubled-but-pretending-to-have-it-all-sorted adult like every teacher-disturbed class movie ever). (2) Michael is a well done character, and the questions he asks and his reactions feel sensible and in line with what his character would say or do.
And then there’s the reasons you could pass this one by: (1) The aforementioned obviousness of the outcome of the Noah-Michael dynamic and the somewhat alarming way in which having children is roughly inserted towards the end of the novel as a prime Purpose for living – an insult to folks who don’t have kids and an unreasonable burden to place on children (2) The entire plot line of investigating the backstory of Noah’s mother reads as both impossibly far-fetched and like a poorly grafted limb onto the main body of the story. Every time the two of them set out to investigate another piece of her backstory I was surprised again to find that the novel seemed to think Noah’s mother and Nazi history was the point of the book or the thematic center. Not so, novel. Figure out what you’re about and be about that. (Curious minds want to know? Themes of judgement, justice and redemption).
Taken together I remain… lukewarm. Convince me otherwise? Or don’t. With this one I really don’t care.
Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is formally fun in that it plays around with narration and point of view, with authorial perspective, with time in ways that are surprising, and so, sort-of engaging. The trouble is, the plot and character aren’t compelling enough to stand behind the formal play, and so this reader was left debating whether it was worth marching on through another teenage dramatic scene (literally – the protagonists are teenagers in a drama program at a fancy arts high school; and figuratively – they are also in love and thwarted by pride and ego) in order to get to the next quirky formal element.
I decided two thirds of the way in that, no, it was not. So I can’t tell you if it has a sudden turnaround where all the hours of hand wringing longing for the lost lover is satisfied. I can tell you that there are some strange sex scenes (if that’s your thing), and uncomfortable moments of power imbalance between adults and children, and a pretty good adult recollection of how painful feeling are when you’re a teenager (which, being an adult recalling this period, I must say I am poorly equipped to comment on whether this is an accurate picture of how proper teenagers feel). So I don’t know, if your thing is weird formal elements and a kind of engaging, but not really, romance/gender plot, then… have at it.