Almost in time for Christmas I finished Julia Glass’s Three Junes, the last of the Christmas gift books from 2016. Why did I wait?! (Okay, it wasn’t on purpose. I kept the stack of Christmas books by my bed and picked one up everytime I had a lull between book club books, or top recommended, or stumbled-upon-it-and-couldn’t-resist). Anyway. Glad I finally read it. Glad for the gift (thanks, mum) and glad to be able to share it with you.
A beach read (or if you’re like me, a book you read in the shade in the general proximity to the beach, but more probably far from the beach because of Freckles and Sun and Burns) ought to accomplish a few things: it should be the sort of book that you can read a few pages of and then doze off, wake up and keep reading without entirely losing the thread of the plot; at the same it should be the sort of book that you don’t want to doze off while reading because it should have a compelling plot; it should not pander to your blockbuster whims by delivering candy characters and thematic explosions; at the same time it should not require scrupulous close reading in order to unravel or form an opinion; it should probably involve some elements of the fantastical because you are, after all, on some kind of holiday from your own life when you’re reading a beach read; at the same time, it should include no fantasy at all because you don’t really care for wizards and prefer your drama to come from everyday life (being the sun-sensitive Muggle that you are).
As you may have gathered I’m drafting my 2016 cottage reads list now (which is your invitation to send me your suggestions – post to come before July 17). Had I been drafting the list before reading Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap I’d probably have put it on the list because it fits the bill (though I hardly knew that before I started reading it). So if you’re assembling your own little “what to read while on holiday” list I’d suggest adding Bone Gap to the contenders. Why?
It’s magic realist fiction (and young adult fiction) at its finest in that it marries the imaginative other world of magic and whimsy with the harsh and heartbreaking moments so that you come away rethinking your expectations of relationships. Told from a panoply of perspectives and weaving together greek myth and decollage pop theology, the novel follows two brothers as they sort out love, life without parents (*cough* another orphan young adult fiction novel?!) and the quest (make that Quest) to save a damsel in distress (which turns out to be about saving themselves because this damsel doesn’t need saving thankyouverymuch). It has some bizzare bits with animals, talking corn and small town gossip. It is a delight of Important Themes and bursts of exquisite writing. It’s the sort of book you’re very satisfied to be reading while you’re reading it, and also sure that it won’t trouble you much once you’re done: aka: a perfect beach read.
So there you go. Read Bone Gap or don’t and you probably won’t be better or worse for either. You’ll have a good time if you read it though. And if you have an eleven year old in your life you could safely give it to them and know that you would be the Coolest for doing so (actually there’s a fair bit of mature sexual theme so maybe you’d want to be prepared for your eleven year old to blush or to Not Talk About the Sexy Bits).
Your turn: what should I read this summer? First ten suggestions get serious consideration. Though after the debacle of last summer (and 2014, and 2013) I reserve the right to ignore your suggestions if I deem them ridiculous.
For years I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden every spring. I read it in the spring because its setting was the lush Salinas valley (okay – “Eden”); I loved it because it held the idea that we can choose the direction of our life. (I also probably loved it because it was one of the first books I read during the end of highschool/undergrad that I recognized – on my own! – the way the book was artfully (though not subtly in this case) making meaning: all of the A names are good! The C names evil!). I wanted to believe then (just as I do now) that we humans can make choices (within the constraints of our circumstances…).
Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (as the title suggests)also explores this idea of the limits of choice. The novel follows the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot – as if we needed the reminder that the name of characters signifies something about their thematic role) and Mathilde as they navigate a life of literal and figurative theatre: he is a playwright, they both perform for the world and one another. Attempting to be on the stage of life what they think will earn them the most love (and applause), eschewing honesty for its risk: loss. The novel did not succeed (for this reader) in bringing anything new to the idea of a fated life or one full of intention. It plays around with the ways deception (both the explicit lie and the untold truth) frustrates and enables choice with some interest, but for the most part circles familiar territory.
In its form it recalls Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in a sort of repressed hysteria of women-can’t-be-trusted and the self-satisfied triumph of revealing as much in a formal break in narrative voice midway through the text. The first half of the novel gives us a third person limited on Lotto: his love for Mathilde, his tortured relationship with his mother and family inheritance, his need for approval and adoration. The second half brings us something like a Gone Girl explosion. Mathilde is not what she seems! Women are mostly temptress, seductress whores unless they are beacons of goodness (*cough* another East of Eden parallel…). Under the calm exterior of every woman is a roiling example of evil incarnate and barely controlled fury. Throughout both section the narrator/authorial voice interrupts in parentheses to let us know what is really going on – the playwright inserting the intended reading. It is, at moments, a compelling device, however it is unevenly deployed (almost as though it’s been forgotten at some points and at others with little effect except to be novel). I suppose that’s my complaint about the form of the novel: it reads like a overly workshopped story, intent on being taken seriously, a little too satisfied with the creativity of its changing narrative voices.
Unlike Gone Girl there’s merit in this novel. There are interesting ideas about choice and deception, and moments of great writing and formal play. The caveat is that you have to muck about with a bunch of obvious Symbols and handwringing Theme for those moments. A good one to take on a plane or to the beach in that it reads quickly and requires very little of the reader. Plus there’s a bazillion sex scenes. Because you know, women. They’re so sexy. And furious.
We’re fat, we’re image obsessed and we hate ourselves. The irony at the heart of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me is that we’re all so busy looking at ourselves and imagining other people looking at us that no one is properly seeing anyone. Obsessions with image and identity collapse under the surfaces, glosses, mirrors and refractions that reveal nothing but continued obfuscation. Impermeable even to – or especially to – themselves, the characters in Egan’s novel complete Odyessian searches (complete with siren calls and tortured transformations) for a core sense of self that might anchor their choices and relationships.
Central to the plot is the New York fashion model Charlotte’s experience of radical physical transformation: after a car accident, her face is reconstructed to such a degree she goes unrecognized by her friends, coworkers, lovers and family. In this way Charlotte enacts the fantasy of beginning again, the chance to re-form an identity without the cumbersome logistics of fleeing to a far off island or buying a fancy car. What she discovers – as do the supporting characters who experience their own sorts of attempts at beginning again and reforming past selves (both in the sense of forming anew and correcting for poor behaviour) – is that without exteriority, the recognition of others, the self-itself collapses: to be unrecognized is to cease to be. In place of “I think therefore I am,” Look at Me posits: “I’m seen, therefore I am.”
While there’s a conceptually rich idea here the pace of the novel and the complexity of the characters and their interaction fall under the weight of the premise. Too busy insisting that the reader “get” this message, the novel misses opportunities to look at many possible layers of spectacle. There are passing nods to the way gender and class shape the way we are viewed, and a fuller exploration of racial politics in the character of Z. Z, we learn, is a would-be terrorist on a mission to destroy the image-obsessed America and who carries out his mission by trying on identities as one tries on bathing suits: not effortlessly or enjoyably, but with a sense of purpose (note the book was written pre-9/11). Yet these treatments feel – perhaps appropriately – cursory and surface, throw-away lines rather than meaningful dialogue.
Which is not to say it’s an arduous slog. Egan writes genius sentences of arresting beauty (I suppose there’s another irony to be found in the lushness of writing that demands the reader stop and re-read (look again) at the marvel of its beauty) and there is enough interest in how the wayward characters will all meet in climactic wonder. Interest, too, in the prescience of Egan who seemed to anticipate both 9/11 and Facebook in one masterful rendering.
All the same it was decidedly not the perfection of A Visit From the Goon Squad, but it is certainly a great book to teach about performativity and metaphor. And the advantageous of a good moisturizing regime. And the perils of binge drinking. And strangers. Except for Egan, we’re all strangers: most particularly to ourselves.