Tag Archives: character

Little Fires Everywhere: #terrific.

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.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction

Swing Time: Was this Book-fate?

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A week ago Donald Trump was elected President. A week ago I put out an urgent plea for book suggestions that would give my mind somewhere else to be. The same day as my request, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time arrived for me to review. I won’t claim to believe in book-fate*, but it sort of felt like book-fate.

It wasn’t book-fate. It was a great read, yes. Continue reading

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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Funny, New York Times Notable

Nora Webster: Unflinching (Lessons in appreciating unlikeable characters)

grumpy-catThere are no cats in Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. But there is an awful lot of grumpiness. My cat, Titus, makes this sound (I call it playing her like an accordion) when properly prompted, that sounds much like the titular protagonist, like this: *harumph, grump, grump, grump *harumph, grump grump grump

Oh sure, Nora has many good reasons for being a total grump: her husband dies, she’s left to raise four difficult (and well drawn) children, she has to scramble to earn a salary after years of being comfortably supported, in making the salary she has to give up reading for fun, she’s a Catholic sorting out Irish politics. And then, what seems to pain Nora the most is having to rely on others. No, she doesn’t have to actually ask anyone for help, but perhaps just as bad (worse?) she has to accept help that’s offered to her. She’s entirely self-interested and self-obsessed, convinced always that other people are judging her appearance, her spending habits, her parenting style, her grief. For instance, when her daughter goes missing she spends as much time wondering how others will view her reaction as she does worrying about where Aine might be.A self-interest that raises challenging questions about the role of a parent. She rationalizes that her indifference or purposeful silence in response to the obvious needs of her children spares her children humiliation or more pain; the reader is left to wonder whether this silence is yet further evidence of her selfishness in that she doesn’t engage their pain because she’s too busy thinking about her own. To what extent must parents subsume their own feelings to protect/respond to/engage the feelings of their children?

Is it a pleasure to read such a grumpy-grump character? Well, it’s as much pleasure as it is to play Titus like an accordion. A kind of voyeuristic enthusiasm for seeing someone else get it all so perfectly wrong. Someone who could have more friends, greater satisfaction from her relationships, more confidence and comfort in her own skin, but who… doesn’t. Elects not to. Or does she? I suppose it’s not a conscious choice for Nora. She sees it all as put on her. The judgement of others. The circumstances of her life.

When she does make choices – to take singing lessons or to decorate her living room – these choices are couched as concessions to others. She’s not doing these things for her own pleasure or enjoyment, but rather to satisfy others (her singing teacher, her children).  No escaping the guilt.

It makes for a somewhat claustrophobic read. All the same, it’s a fascinating character study and a triumph of writing when this reader stayed with the rather wholly unpleasant Nora and continued to hope she’d do something surprising (like smile) (or care for someone else) while knowing that the book is a reminder that as readers we make unrealistic demands of authors. We expect likeable characters. We ask for a character development that will make our characters better, more heroic, more likeable. What Tobin presents instead is a rich character, who does develop over the novel, but becomes no more heroic, no more noble or likeable. She remains reproachable, unpleasant and grumpy. And instead of complaining about how frustrating and sad (and grumpy) she is, this reader was thankful for the long and deep engagement with the unlikeable.

And because I’m such a delight to be around myself, it was a chance to embody and empathize with the deeply flawed and unpleasant of the world.

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