You don’t know that you know Matthew Quick’s work (or maybe you do, and if you do, congratulations and high five), but you do. He wrote Silver Linings Playbook, made famous for its adaptation to film. I’d not read anything by him before, but J. suggested I read his latest, The Reason You’re Alive, and she’s rarely wrong, so I did. And wham bam! What fun! Okay, fun might be a stretch when describing a novel that considers the lasting impact of the Vietnam war on veterans…
Category Archives: American literature
This weekend we took a family trip to get cat food (because we are a family that goes together to get cat food?) and across from the pet store was a Chapters. So off we went to get pumpkin spice lattes and browse (because we are also a white, middle class family on a trip to the suburbs). The Starbucks line was too long, but there were plenty of books amid the sweaters and candles and stuffed animals. One of the tables was the “New Hot Fiction of Fall” and prominently displayed was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In fact there were only two copies left on that table, no doubt because everyone else already knows what I just discovered: this book is great. (Or more probably the publishers are doing a fine job promoting the novel. In fact I got this one as a review copy…).
Like it’s predecesor, Everything I Never Told You, this novel is a character driven family drama. Set in the 1990s (there are some wonderful references to the music of my youth), we follow starving-artist, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, as they arrive in the planned community of Shaker Heights. Their arrival causes some upheaval for the Richardson family as Mia and Pearl differently insert themselves into the family’s life. Just like Everything I Never Told You, Ng’s second novel opens with the climax – in this case that the Richardsons’ youngest daughter, Izzy, has burned down the family house. The novel then moves back in time to explore why she has set this ‘little fire,’ and how the rest of the family might be implicated.
Wonderfully rich in character detail and relationship, through juxtaposing the two mothers, Mia and Mrs. Richardson, the book explores the tension between a life led following the unspoken and prescribed societal rules and a life led following passion and interest. In both cases the novel explores how the choice to follow or abandon a planned life causes pain for others, suggesting that our human characteristic of (in)advertenly hurting others is inescapable, what might be more important is how we respond when we realize we have caused harm.
In the children the novel is slightly more uneven in the development of characters. While Izzy both opens and closes the novel, she – unlike all the other children – doesn’t see a third person limited narration. Okay, that’s not true, Trip also gets a more surface rendering, though we do get a better sense of him through his relationship with Pearl. I suppose it’s a complaint of focus – if we are meant to understand Izzy’s actions both in burning down the house and in what follows, I wanted to see her in stronger focus. Except as I write this I’m questioning my initial reaction – perhaps this oblique and proximal development allows us to see Izzy as everyone else in Shaker Heights does: we misunderstand her, we misattribute her motivations, if we want to know her at all, we can only do so through her actions because she keeps others (and readers) at such distance. Fine, fine. I’ll accept.
This minor complaint aside, the novel is wonderfully engaging. The flashback to Mia’s 20s is one of the stronger sections in this regard, as we are both intensely interested in her past at the point at which the flashback occurs and because she is so fully realized. Likewise the adoption subplot presents a fascinating moral question that will (I’m sure) leave plenty a bookclub and reader in discussion.
Ultimately a novel celebrating the magic of art in allowing us to see and be seen, this one deserves its prominent place on the ‘New and Hot’ table and you’d do well to put your name on the list at the library as soon as possible. Or you can borrow my copy. Or perhaps you’ll end up at a super complex with pet food, diapers, bulk celery, a pumpkin spice latte and… this book.
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.
Okay, okay, I’m not doing well at vacationing. Whatever. More guest posts to come and I’m not reading anything but magazines right now (!), so this is really and truly the last post from me for a few weeks. Plus Of Mice and Men is a novella and takes a couple of hours to read, so there. Continue reading