A Review of Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season (by Bethany)

ward just an unfinished season

I am always impressed when I find a book that manages to be completely engrossing while still being, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld – fundamentally “about nothing.” What I mean in a literary sense is a plot that emerges completely organically from character and setting, a plot whose crises and conflicts the reader barely notices until they are over, a plot in which daily life leads to other aspects of daily life, in which the author is almost completely effaced. If such a book also introduces me to an author I’ve never read before, so much the better. Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season is an excellent novel. It’s contemplative and poetic and honest, unapologetically slow-paced and unapologetically ambitious. I recommend it wholeheartedly and am so happy that I found a new author to study and enjoy.

The novel opens on a fascinating image: the protagonist – 19 year-old Wils Ravan – is watching his father, who comes home from work every night during the winter and immediately changes his clothes and carries a red duffel bag down to a small pond on his property, where he practices hockey. If the headlights of another car light up the road, Wils’ father crouches down behind a bench and hides, clutching his red duffle bag. Bit by bit, we learn that Wils’ father was a hockey player in his youth and that these nightly practice sessions represent his connection to the past, to his own glory days. In the present-time narrative (the novel is set in 1952), Wils’ father is a business owner who is facing the belligerent words and actions of his laborers, who are perennially threatening to strike. “The Reds” are mentioned every so often. Wils’ father is known throughout the city (Chicago) as a die-hard capitalist who stands firm against organized labor, and of course he is admired for this quality by some and hated for it by many more. The red duffel bag that he carries with him everywhere contains a gun, which was given to him by the local sheriff, who is a childhood friend of Wils’ father. The gun does NOT go off in Act Three. That’s how much of a stud Ward Just is: he’s even willing to break Chekhov’s gun rule.

Wils watches his father’s nightly ritual without comment, which is how Wils watches most things. He’s an observer more often than he’s an actor, and a number of references to The Great Gatsby in this novel suggest to me that Just wants us to see Wils as a Nick Carraway figure, though a generation younger, living in the Midwest that Nick Carraway first abandoned, then embraced.

When summer comes, Wils has a job in a Chicago tabloid newspaper and spends his nights at parties put on by the families of local debutantes. Many of these girls are friends or acquaintances of his, but others aren’t: Wils and his family live in Quarterday: a golf community that seems to be about equidistant from Chicago itself, the North Shore suburbs where most of the parties are held, and the rural countryside beyond the metropolitan area. He doesn’t completely belong in any of these worlds. Over time, Wils becomes fascinated by a man he sees at many of the parties. He learns that the man is a psychiatrist named Jason Brule. To Wils, he might as well be an astronaut or a rodeo clown – that’s how exotic the profession of psychiatry seems to Wils. Wils confesses his fascination with Jason Brule to a young woman named Aurora; her response is to inform Wils that Jason Brule usually goes by Jack. Wils later learns that Aurora is Jack Brule’s daughter – and his embarrassment matches that of Nick Carraway, who asks a stranger what he knows about Gatsby only to find that the stranger is Gatsby (this detail, among many others from the party scenes – including a reference to “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” [87] – indicates that Just intended the allusion to Fitzgerald’s novel). Wils begins dating Aurora soon after this party, and he learns that Brule is enigmatic, silent, tortured, and devoted to his daughter. Snooping around in Brule’s apartment later in the novel, Wils – who loves history and knows most of what there is to know about World Wars I and II – finds what he believes to be evidence that Jack Brule survived the Bataan Death March and was hailed as a hero for saving the lives of many of his comrades during this ordeal.

This is the pattern this novel follows: Wils goes somewhere, meets some people, and is fascinated by them. Lather, rinse, repeat. He is determined to figure people out and can be extremely stealthy in doing so. Ironically, the editors and reporters at the tabloid where Wils is working tell him he’s completely unfit for the journalistic profession: “You’re the oldest god-damned nineteen year-old I’ve ever met. I think you were born middle-aged, and that’s your trouble. Curiosity is child-like. My best reporters never grew up. I don’t think you enjoy finding things out. Finding things out is for the proles. Find something out, you do away with guess work. You do away with romance. You like guess work because you think everything’s a mystery. You like mystery. You don’t care much for the truth. But that’s not what reporters do. When reporters find things out, they demystify. They don’t have to like what they find. In most cases, they don’t care what they find. Liking and caring don’t come into it, the reporter’s trade. When you’re on the job, you dig; what you dig up goes in the newspaper. If it’s gold, it goes on page one. If it’s brass, it goes inside. That’s the incentive, you see. Page one. But you’re not interested in digging, one crisp fact after another until you have a story that people will buy the newspaper in order to read, because the story’s satisfying. It’s nourishing. It’s scrambled eggs and bacon. It’s well told. But you don’t care what satisfies people, what makes them buy the paper day after day. You don’t want to be below decks, doing the digging, shoveling coal into the hotbox, making the engines run. I think you’re interested in topside. You’re interested in navigation. You want to be on deck with the sextant, charting the course. You want clean hands. And you want the wheel” (164-5).

There are lots of other passages I’d like to share with you, but the problem is that all of them are as long as this one, or longer. This is not a novel full of showy, flashy sentences – or even stark, brutal ones that are nevertheless complicated and true. The sentences in this novel are 100% ordinary – like the ones I quoted above, but what they add up to is painful and beautiful.

The majority of the novel takes place in 1952, but the final chapter does flash forward to Wils as a career diplomat living in Cypress and working for the U.N. – a fitting career given his introspective, observant personality and his editor’s description of him, above. He is married and has two sons, and his life has moved on, but the words, faces, and images from the summer of 1952 are still part of his interior landscape. He locates Consuela, who was Jack Brule’s mistress in 1952 and whom Wils hasn’t seen since that year. He feels a magnetic draw not only to Consuela itself but to anything connected to that summer, which was formative for him.

I am glad that I read this book and that I get a chance to share it with you – but what makes me even happier is that Ward Just has written many other novels (17, I believe) and is still writing. One of the few downsides of keeping tabs on the literary world the way I do is that I’m not often surprised to discover writers new to me late in their careers, when they have produced a broad canon of work and are still refining their art. Ward Just is one such novelist. I’m slightly embarrassed that I’ve never read him before now, but I’m very excited that the rest of his work is still ahead of me.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, Ward Just | Leave a comment

A Review of Diana Gabaldon’s The Space Between (by Bethany)

 the-space-between

When I’ve reviewed Diana Gabaldon’s novels in the past, I’ve complained about the fact that her novels never really explain to my satisfaction how time travel works. In my opinion, when a writer writes science fiction or fantasy, she has two choices: she can flatly state the realities of the fictional world and then move forward without trying to explain them scientifically, or she can come up with a plausible explanation for the fictional technology, modes of transportation, etc. In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card simply announces that their study of the buggers’ telepathic communication allowed the human race to invent the ansible, which enabled instantaneous communication among groups of humans no matter how far apart they are – a development that allowed for the colonization of space. Card makes no attempt to explain how the ansible works physically, and he doesn’t need to. He just describes it in a few sentences, and bam – for the rest of the series ansibles exist, and extended space flight is possible as a result.

Problems happen, though, when writers try to account for the fantastic elements of their stories and can’t fully get there. In Outlander, Claire travels through time when she happens upon an enchanted stone circle in rural Scotland on the pagan holiday of Samhain. If, like me, you grew up fascinated by those ads on TV for Time/Life Books’ Mysteries of the Unknown, you’re familiar with the mythology of stone circles and were probably perfectly happy to accept this pretext for some good old-fashioned TIME TRAVEL.

The problem, though, is that it would be implausible for Claire, the protagonist of Outlander, to accept the fact that she has traveled through time without question. In her own reality, this kind of travel is impossible, and it makes sense that she should try to find out how time travel works. The early Outlander novels are told entirely in first-person (and the later novels partially so), so we experience these stories through Claire’s perspective. Claire follows any leads she finds that may help her understand what has happened to her: first there’s Geillis Duncan’s vaccination scar, then the mysterious Monsieur Raymonde in Paris, and then there’s Otter Tooth and the skull Claire finds in North Carolina, and so forth. At some point we find out that gemstones are an important part of time travel, and later that gold is helpful as well. But in spite of these hints, Gabaldon never really explains time travel to my satisfaction. If anything, my understanding gets hazier and hazier as the series progresses. It made sense when Claire just stood near the stones, heard a weird noise, and woke up in 1745. But then we learned about gemstones and gold, and Roger almost died going through the stones, and let’s not forget Geillis Abernathy née Duncan’s weird time travel/pedophilia cave in the Caribbean (and WHY exactly does she have the same name as Claire’s friend Joe Abernathy from Boston???) and Wendigo Donner and Roger’s father and Jem and Mandy’s weird telepathy and the horrible men in the 20th century who seem determined to kidnap Jem and/or rape Brianna as part of some vague time travel/gold acquisition scheme. And I still don’t understand how time travel works. I was happier when I thought it was all about Samhain and dancing women and magical joo-joo.

I don’t have a solution. I don’t think I could have done the job better. I am writing in the fantasy genre for the first time myself, and I struggle with these same questions. I wish Diana Gabaldon had left well enough alone and just allowed time travel to be mysterious and inexplicable – but that would require Claire to be completely dense and passive and incurious, and she is none of those things.

All of this is a long way of saying that I was a bit annoyed to find that Gabaldon’s recent novella The Space Between seems to exist only to help fill in the gaps in the science of time travel. It’s about two very minor characters from the Outlander series: Michael Murray (Ian and Jenny’s son; brother of Young Ian) and Joan MacKimmie (younger daughter of Laoghaire; sister of Marsali and stepdaughter of Jamie Fraser). Joan is on her way to Paris to become a nun, and Michael – who is returning to Paris, where he is a wine merchant, after visiting his family to grieve when his wife died. There is sexual tension between Michael and Joan, and of course Joan doesn’t actually become a nun. The Comte St. Germain, a minor character in Dragonfly in Amber, plays an important role, and the mysterious Monsieur Raymonde returns as well.

We learn a bit more about time travel, including the fact that the Comte is using time travel to “hide” and is very interested in whether he can travel to the future with any accuracy (a question that annoyed me a bit, since Claire travels to the future at the end of Dragonfly in Amber and Roger, Brianna, Jem, and Mandy travel to the future at the end of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, so the reader already knows it can be done). The Comte is also roaming Paris impregnating various prostitutes for reasons that have something to do with time travel, and he also likes to touch people and see if he can make them turn blue, which connects him with the mysterious doctor Roger and Buck meet in the 1730’s, who is also able to make people turn blue if they have the time travel gene. The Comte kidnaps Joan for a while because he thinks she is the daughter of Claire Fraser and assumes that she has the time travel gene. Which she doesn’t – but she does have the hearing-voices gene and is compelled to go up to various strangers on the streets of Paris and say, “don’t do it” – which she says to the Comte right before he vanishes, presumably bound for the future.

Diana Gabaldon may be the sloppiest writer on record. I do enjoy her stories and am mostly happy to laugh off their ridiculousness, but I don’t think she understands that the need to write and publish additional novellas in order to attempt (unsuccessfully) to explain things that she didn’t get around to explaining in the eight thousand-page novels she has already written is just inexcusably inefficient. In the hands of a different writer (Orson Scott Card comes to mind…), the novels in this series would be half their current length AND would account satisfactorily for time travel (possibly not by explaining it but by letting it be an unquestioned part of reality) without the need for additional novellas.

Posted in Authors, Diana Gabaldon, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Bethany, TIME TRAVEL | Leave a comment

Quick!! What do all of these books have in common?

IMG_7422What they have in common is essentially nothing, except that they are all sitting next to me on my couch.  And why do you get to see a picture of them?  Because it’s almost 10pm on Saturday night and we just got home from my dear friend Lauren’s daughter’s first birthday party and I needed to post something.  It’s been a while since I posted book art, so here it is.

At the top is my “naked” copy of Deborah Harkness’ wonderful The Book of Life, which I don’t want to write about yet.  I’m on page 200 of 561, and I’m liking it pretty well so far.  I feel like I need to read the first two books in the trilogy again though.

Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, book two in his Century Trilogy, is next. It just came out in Mass Market recently and I was at The Avid Reader in Davis and decided I’d just  go ahead and get it.  I am not going to read this trilogy until the third is available–it’s better for me if I marathon trilogies so I don’t forget important details (see my comments on the All Souls Trilogy above).  Of course, this begs the question, “Why am I bothering to buy the books as they come out if I’m not going to read them for at least two years?”  And the answer is, of course, “I wanted them.”  I don’t attempt to justify my crazy book purchases anymore.  It’s too hard.

Next is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.  Bethany and I have yet another reading challenge coming up.  It’s sort of an offshoot of The Numbers Challenge and involves us choosing two books that we have read that we think our co-blogger would like, and saying, “Here.  Read these.”  This is one of the ones Bethany told me to read.  The other is East of Eden, which I probably should have gotten out for this photo shoot, but I didn’t think of it until right now.  Too late!  This book is the reason I went to The Avid Reader yesterday.

Next is my well-worn movie-tie in cover of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.  Yes, friends, PAT CONROY MONTH!! is almost upon us, and this year I’m going to subject myself to staring at Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand’s naked profiles on the cover of this book.  Maybe something will happen to it and I’ll need to buy a new copy.  One can only hope.

And after that is The Island of the Day Before, which is my September Numbers Challenge book.  I seriously doubt I’m going to get through this one and also The Prince of Tides in one month, but I’ll do my best.  I added this one to my list because I tried to read it about ten years ago in the midst of vet school and just couldn’t get into it.  I think that I’ll like it, but that I didn’t have the necessary brain power to devote to Eco at the time.  I hope I have it now.

Wally Lamb’s newest just came out in paperback.  The cover of We are Water is really pretty.  I’ve only read one of Wally Lamb’s books, his first, She’s Come Undone, which I loved about fourteen years ago.  I have religiously purchased his other books and shelved them ever since.  I have no doubt this will be the same.  Purchased yesterday at The Avid Reader.

And last but not least is The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.  This is a Bethany Book if it’s anything.  Bethany has spoken of Flannery O’Connor with love and respect quite a few times on the blog.  I have read several of her stories over the years, mostly in high school, and I figured I should take a stab at them someday, and, you know, I was at The Avid Reader anyway….

Hope everyone is having a wonderful Saturday night.

 

 

Posted in Acquisitions, Reviews by Jill | 4 Comments

A Review of Anita Shreve’s Testimony (by Bethany)

Testimony cover image

When I encounter a book I’ve never seen before that is set in a boarding school, SOP is to buy the book first and ask questions later. When Anita Shreve’s Testimony was published in 2008, I remember being very pleased with myself for NOT purchasing it right away. I just had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be good and I was going to be annoyed, and trust me, I did not need one more thing to be annoyed about in 2008. My annoyance plate was already quite full that year. I picked the paperback up a few years later at Target (for 20% off – the book still has the sticker on it) and then rediscovered it on a shelf last weekend.

Most of the time what I enjoy most about books about boarding schools is how wrong they all are. Very few fictional representations of boarding schools capture the realities of that world: the grinding schedule, the relentless forward motion of time, the giddiness that comes from being constantly stimulated and constantly exhausted. The intimacies (and I don’t mean sexual intimacies, although those happen too, of course) – I know more about the dogs of some of my boarding school colleagues than I do about actual people I’ve worked with at other jobs. One novel that does capture what boarding school feels like is The Catcher in the Rye. Remember chapter 2, when Holden goes to say goodbye to his history teacher, who is in bed with the flu? As a kid, I read through that scene without thinking about it, focusing on the many humorous moments – Holden commenting on the teacher’s hairy, pale chest under his bathrobe, and so forth. It wasn’t until later that I reread this scene and thought about it through my own perspective rather than through Holden’s. This is an older man (Holden exaggerates about his age, of course, but he seems at least sixty) in bed with the flu, and here comes Mr. Sarcastic Underachiever in his red hunting hat to say goodbye. The teacher has his stack of graded exams in bed with him while he has the flu. If you filter out Holden’s sarcasm, what you see is a man who cares more about a failing student than he does about his own health and his own privacy. That’s boarding school. That’s it right there.

I was pleasantly surprised by Testimony in one sense: Shreve gets the day-to-day details of life in boarding school down on the page fairly well. She clearly has some experience as a teacher or parent in a contemporary boarding school setting. As I was reading, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel was set at New Hampton School in New Hampshire, a school at which I interviewed in 2007 and which struck me as perilously poised on the edge of a scandal like the one in this novel.

This novel is about what happens when a sex tape surfaces and makes its way to the headmaster (I can barely type that word without cringing – just about every school nowadays uses “Head of School”) – at what is described as a prestigious boarding school (this could be a credibility slip – there is a mistaken sense out there in the world that all boarding schools are prestigious. Some are, sure – but some will take anyone. I’m just saying.) called Avery Academy. The headmaster’s response is to quietly expel the students involved and do everything possible to avoid alerting the media. The novel is structured with shifting points of view: a chapter about the headmaster receiving and viewing the tape is followed by a chapter about Ellen, a mother of one of the students involved (Ellen’s chapters are written in the second person, for reasons I could not discern). All of the students involved have their say, as do the other parents, various townspeople and members of the police department and media, and other students who only know small parts of the story. Sometimes I think shifting points of view are a copout because they free a novelist from having to tell the story well through the limited perspective of one character; however, it occurs to me that shifting third person may be the only realistic way to tell a story set at a boarding school, because a boarding school by nature is a multi-eyed beast. Nothing is ever viewed through only one lens.

So some quick details on the sex tape: four students, including one holding the camera who is never identified to the authorities (although we as readers know who he is). Three are senior or PG boys (Anita Shreve even knows what PG’s are and how they behave – I was especially impressed by this!) on the basketball team; the fourth is a freshman girl. In the video, the girl performs oral sex on one of the seniors and has sexual intercourse with another. While the girl gives the impression in the video of being very willing to engage in these sex acts, she later calls her parents and tells them she was raped. They’re the ones who call the police, and that’s how the media, the local police, and several local residents get involved. Two of the boys are expelled first and then later arrested; the third leaves campus before the authorities can find him and goes for a long hike in the woods, where he is later found frozen to death. It wouldn’t be a boarding-school novel without a death.

In spite of Shreve’s above-average command of the realities of boarding school life, I felt a general dislike of this book as I was reading it, and I didn’t realize until I started writing this review that the reason I found this book so unimpressive is the fact that not one single thing happens that is unpredictable. The parents all react to their children’s expulsion in a predictable way. The girlfriend of the boy who disappears in the woods reacts to his death in a predictable way. I was never once surprised by anything that happened. Because the thing is, in boarding schools, incidents like this one happen all the time. There isn’t usually a tape involved – and the combination of this piece of hard evidence and the fact that the girl’s parents called the police and the media dictated a specific course of action that had to happen in this novel. Usually, administrators become aware of these sorts of incidents through rumors and innuendo, and with no proof these incidents are handled via a combination of enhanced supervision, the planning of educational events about safe sex or some other relevant topic, and the counseling of individual students by dorm parents, deans, or health staff. When I was a boarding school administrator, we had something called “the statutory rape talk,” and we gave it all the time. The dean of students would look at his to-do list and announce that so-and-so needs the statutory rape talk – who’s on it? We also had something called the “Anal Sex Phone Tree,” but that’s a story for another day.

It’s possible that Anita Shreve knows the boarding school world too well – but it’s also possible that she sabotaged her own novel by packing the first few chapters with several incidents and details that could only lead to one realistic result. With a sex tape and a rape charge given in the first few chapters, the characters’ only choices for the remainder of the novel are in the area of what color shirt to wear to the arraignment. The plot proceeds with grim inevitability toward its end – like a novel that opens in New York City on September 10, 2001.

This novel is the literary equivalent of iceberg lettuce. There’s no there there. It’s not unpleasant or bad, but reading it will not do one single thing to nourish your mind or soul. I can’t think of a single reason that this novel ought to exist. People who are naïve enough to believe that these kinds of sexual incidents don’t happen in high schools might be a little titillated by the scandal. There’s a certain amount of forward momentum to the plot, and the short, character-driven chapters give the novel a fast (almost frenetic) pace that a reader might find amenable to a plane trip or beach vacation. But there are so many books out there that are better, that will leave characters and situations in your mind that you will carry with you forever. Why waste your time on one like this?

Posted in Anita Shreve, Fiction - general, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

I really hope that all New Yorkers aren’t like the ones in this book. Thoughts on Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (by Jill)

satc cover

Sex and the City was my August Numbers Challenge selection. I put it in my list for several reasons, not the least of which was that I actually wanted to read the book that the HBO series was based on. I really loved that show. It was my favorite means of procrastination during the middle of vet school. It was this glimpse into a glamorous and fun life that I was very much not living at the time, and I genuinely cared about Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda and their trials and tribulations in Manhattan in the late nineties and early 2000’s. This book is not at all like the series. Yes, versions of these women all make appearances. But they are sort of terrible people, or rather, Bushnell doesn’t flesh them out enough, so all we see are the least attractive parts of their personalities. I know that the book is essentially a compilation of Bushnell’s Sex and the City columns she wrote for the New York Observer in the mid-nineties and it’s not meant to be a novel. This is the major reason why it took me the better part of four years to find it at Borders—it wasn’t in the fiction/literature section. I think it was in journalism or somewhere like that. I happened upon it accidentally one day, I think in 2008, if the price tag on the back of my copy is any help. Also the front says “Now a Major Motion Picture” on it, which puts us at 2008 (when the first Sex and the City movie came out) as well.

I started this book on Sunday afternoon. On Sunday evening I emailed Bethany and said that I didn’t think I could finish it because it was so awful. She told me that she likes it when I don’t like books so I should keep going. So I did it for her, and because sometimes it’s fun to say not nice things about a book. In short, this book was not what I was expecting. I was expecting to see the genesis of the characters from the TV show, maybe some early adventures of the four BFF’s. While some of the stories contained in this book are present in the show, the “modelizers;” Carrie, et. al.’s trip to the suburbs for a bridal shower; Carrie’s disastrous first go-round with Mr. Big (which was so much more painful to read than watch); and others that seemed vaguely familiar, it was like this book had the worst of that world on display. The callous courtship rituals of the upper middle and upper classes of Manhattan society made me sick to my stomach, and it wasn’t just the way men talked about women. The women were equally culpable. Apparently in Manhattan in the mid-nineties it was all about appearances and drugs and partying and the people who got away from that world were just not worth anyone’s time. Maybe this makes me an old country bumpkin from Sacramento. I mean, I love to go out and drink and have a good time, but nightly? All night? For decades? It makes me tired to just think about the shenanigans these people were up to. Oh and the Carrie that’s in the book is a freaking crazy person. She needs medication and rehab. I never thought that way about the version on TV, but maybe I would now since the last time I watched that show was ten years ago. It’s possible that I would have a different opinion now.

The people who ran the show at HBO did a smart thing: they picked four of the names from the book/newspaper column, fleshed them out, and focused on them in particular. I don’t think that the show would have gotten very far if it had maintained the format of Bushnell’s original work. I haven’t had an urge to watch Sex and the City for a long time, but now I do. I want to know if I still feel the same way about Carrie, Big, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte. I hope that I do, but I’m worried that I won’t.

Posted in Candace Bushnell, Fiction - general, Reviews by Jill, The Numbers Challenge, TV/Film Adaptations | 2 Comments

Yarn Along (by Bethany)

 

Edstrom - WIN_20140826_105811

I started a cowl for myself yesterday out of this lovely orange alpaca/merino blend. I bought it a few months ago for a sweater, but I think I bought too few skeins for the pattern, and of course there’s no chance of finding more of the same dye lot at this point, so a cowl it is. I hadn’t been working on it for two minutes when I realized that I wanted to make a little deal with myself. I’m making the cowl, and in return I am promising myself that between now and next spring I will go somewhere cold enough to wear it. Just the thought made me so happy. I really, really miss cold weather. Most people think San Francisco IS cold, of course, and I do love our foggy days here, but what I miss is real cold weather. A vacation isn’t likely to be in my budget any time soon, so I’ll have to be creative, but even if I just go to the Sierras for a day or hop a cheap flight to someplace random, I WILL wear this cowl in actual cold weather this winter.

The book in the photo is Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season. I started it a week or so ago and was in awe of the first sixty or so pages, but then I let myself get distracted. I’m throwing myself back in to it and should finish it this week. I’m reading a ton lately, and writing a ton too. It’s one of those strange weeks when everything is working as it should. I’m trying my best to just enjoy it and not keep looking around for booby traps.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her lovely blog, Small Things.

Posted in Yarn Along | Leave a comment

Final thoughts on Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (by Jill)

the interestings cover

I was fortunate enough this weekend to have four days off and to get to see one of my dearest friends and her family. It was a lovely visit, only made better by the two hour drive to get to her house. I got so much reading done thanks to my husband who likes to drive much more than I do, and who is very tolerant of my reading needs. It’s too bad he never reads the blog because he’ll never see this compliment. Oh well him. I plowed through The Interestings in about a week. I feel like having a kindle takes the length factor out of the equation—every book feels the same, so there’s no obvious size intimidation. I won’t lie, the heft of this book is one of the reasons I put off purchasing it myself. But now I’m glad I waited, because if I’d bought it myself I doubt I would have read it anytime soon. And I’m glad I got to read it.

At about the two-thirds point, we finally catch up with Jules, Ash, and the other members of “The Interestings” in the present day. Their lives touch on all the major first world problems of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Jules’ husband Dennis has massive major depression issues and finds help with a SSRI. Ash and Ethan’s son has an autism spectrum disorder. Jonah is a gay man who loves a man who is HIV positive. They are aware of the problem of child labor in third world countries. Cathy is raped by her ex-boyfriend Goodman, and no one believes her for a long time. Jules’ therapy practice takes a major hit during the Great Recession. They all know people who are killed on 9/11. The list goes on and on. This aspect of the novel is not necessarily a complaint. I actually fully expected one of the major characters to be killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, though, and was surprised when they all made it through.

I enjoyed “watching” these characters grow from teenagers to adults starting out their careers to seasoned professionals to people having later in life career changes. Of course I related best to the mid-thirties married and having kids section of the book because that’s the age I’m at now (minus the kids), but the nostalgia aspect of summer camp and all that was cool too. An eight-week long trip to sleep away summer camp was never something I engaged in; in fact it seems like sleep-away summer camp was something that happened in the late sixties and early seventies and then faded away. Maybe I’m wrong about that. It reminded me of movies like Meatballs and The Parent Trap, with all the shenanigans that ensued. What made me sad about these characters in their middle age is how dissatisfied they all seem. Ethan seems almost afraid of his autistic son Mo. Jules is so jealous of Ash and Ethan’s “perfect” life that she almost forgets to be happy about her own relatively happy marriage, healthy daughter, and productive career. They are all pretty well-rounded and fleshed out people, though, and I liked them all in general, though each and every one has characteristics I found annoying. And that means Wolitzer did her job well. These people are fallible. They are human. And they are about as interesting as anyone you might meet, no more or less, despite what Jules thinks about her little life.

Like I said in my last post, Wolitzer has some passages I enjoyed a lot and wanted to share. I never did find the original ones but I found a couple more and I wanted to share one of them. This is from page 320, shortly after Ash and Ethan learn that their son, Mo, here three, has an autism spectrum disorder that is never identified. The Wolf-Figman family retreats to Bali to “heal,” which makes little sense to me, but then if I had more money than Donald Trump maybe I’d go to Bali to heal, too. Anyway, here it is: “For a while they’d stayed close during the absurd years of his sharp rise, having children had knocked it all into a different arrangement. The minute you had children, you closed ranks. You didn’t plan this in advance, but it happened. Families were like individual, discrete, moated island nations. The little group of citizens on the slab of rock gathered together instinctively, almost defensively, and everyone who was outside the walls—even if you’d been best friends—was now just that, outsiders. Families had their ways. You took note of how other people raised their kids, even other people you loved, and it seemed all wrong. The culture and practices of one’s own family were the only way, for better or worse. Who could say why a family decided to have a certain style, to tell the jokes it did, to put up its particular refrigerator magnets? …. There was a further divide between those with children and those without, and you had to accept it.” As one of the outsiders without children, but who maintains close friendships with many moated island family nations, I see this all the time. Some friends retreat inwards, some still manage to maintain links with outsiders. They all criticize other parents, some of them even criticize the parenting skills of their own parents. This has always confused me more than a little. Maybe it’s something I won’t understand unless I have children of my own. Or perhaps my parents are just so wonderful no one would even compare to them. And it’s too bad that they don’t read the blog so they’ll never see that nice thing I just said about them.

Yes, I enjoyed this book. Yes, I recommend it. It’s not offensive, it’s entertaining, and it’s pretty quick. I do sort of feel like Wolitzer did almost too good a job including every single major cultural issue of our era. It’s almost like she had a check-off list. Autistic kid? Check. 9/11? Check. Date rape? Check. Depression? Check. AIDS? Check. That being said, the novel does a stupendous job encapsulating the past forty years of American life (of a certain demographic) into an easily digestible tale.

 

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