Tag Archives: Meg Wolitzer

Book review(s): six quick takes

I’ve been a book-reading machine lately, largely thanks to our New Zealand sojourn. For one thing, flying for twenty hours with, like, two movies to choose from (thanks for nothing, Fiji Air) is a situation that lends itself nicely to devouring a lot of books. Plus, being in a camper van for three weeks with not much else to do at night other than read helps, too. So, over the last two months, I’ve read a dozen books, which even for me is kind of a lot. Some of these books, of course, were pregnancy and childbirth-related (if you’re in that market, do check out Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better), but most were fiction. So here, in no particular order, are six (quick) fiction book reviews.

magicians land

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman: This is the third book in Grossman’s Magicians series, which tell the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a graduate of the prestigious magical university Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, and his magician friends and foes. The Magicians books are dark and funny and deep and highly readable. The lazy but rather misleading way to describe them to someone is by saying that they’re like “grown-up Harry Potter,” but that’s kind of an understatement. There’s no butter beer and chaste kissing going on in these books. The magicians in Grossman’s books are really adults. They swear and have sex and make terrible, often disastrous, life decisions. But Quentin and his magical cohorts also get to do really exciting stuff, like explore and rule a magical, Narnia-esque land called Fillory, or, in Quentin’s case, get expelled from Fillory and resort to dark, illegal magic to try to make a quick buck. The third book picks up with Quentin, newly expelled from Fillory, trying to make it as a freelance, under-the-table magician for hire, and also follows up on the gang back in Fillory. No spoilers here, of course, so let me just say that I thought this book provided a highly satisfying conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read the first two books, get on that.

Black_Life-Drawing

Life Drawing, by Robin Black: I read Black’s Life Drawing right after finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and my great admiration for the latter may have tainted my enjoyment of the former. I find that sometimes when I read one book in close proximity in time to another, I notice parallels between them, and then inevitably begin to compare them. This can result in an unfavorable verdict for a perfectly good novel just because it happens to be stacked beside another, stronger one. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for Life Drawing. Like Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Black’s novel traces the complicated dynamics among a long-time couple and an outsider — a woman — and the trouble that such a triangle, even when not explicitly sexual, can bring upon a marriage. Unlike Messud’s novel, Life Drawing is told from the perspective of the wife in the triangle, rather than that of the outside woman. Like Messud’s novel, there are also long descriptions of art throughout the book, since the main character, Augusta (“Gus”) is a visual artist. Unfortunately, Black’s descriptions of imaginary art are even more plodding than Messud’s, and the book suffers for its long diversions into Gus’s creative process. The book spends most of its time, however, within the uncomfortable confines of Gus’s marriage to Owen, a writer with a stalled career, and the story often gets bogged down in Gus’s thoughts about her marriage — and art, and her demented father, and so on. The plot doesn’t pick up steam until well into the novel, and by that point, I had started to become irritated by quirks in the author’s writing, including long runs of dialogue in which each character repeats the name of the character to whom he or she is speaking (e.g., “I don’t know, Gus.” “I don’t understand it, Owen.” “I don’t know what to tell you, Gus.”). The dialogue was so stilted, it launched me out of the story, which was already dragging. Maybe if I hadn’t read The Woman Upstairs just before picking this up, I would have enjoyed it more, and allowed myself to get more caught up in the psychological drama of a damaged marriage, but in the end, there was not enough drama and too much psychology in Life Drawing for my liking.

king of cuba

King of Cuba, by Cristina Garcia: I’m completely fascinated by Cuba (I spent a summer doing my undergraduate thesis research there and it was so weird and wonderful that I still love talking about it) and particularly by the tortured, nostalgic, complicated relationship between Cuban exiles and their motherland. In King of Cuba, Garcia alternates between two compelling characters to tell a riveting, human story about Cuba and the dynamic between its passionate, bitter first-wave exiles and its lingering, equally passionate despot. The story is told from the perspective of El Comandante — a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro — in Havana, and, ninety miles away in Miami, Goyo Herrera, an elderly Cuban exile bent on revenge against El Comandante, who he blames for stealing his first love and ruining his country. The story follows eighty-something Goyo as he plots to take out the eighty-something El Comandante, and paints a vivid, hilarious, and bittersweet picture of life in both Havana and Cuban Miami. I tore through this book and loved every page of it.

doerr

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Al’s lovely step-mom Ginger recommended this book to me, and I’m really glad I picked it up. When I saw that it was a novel about two young people in France and Germany during World War II, I’ll admit that I was trepidatious, fearing something maudlin or ultimately hopeless. But All the Light We Cannot See is neither of those things. It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a gifted young German orphan recruited into the Wehrmacht for his technical skills. The story jumps around in time, flashing back and forth between the children’s childhoods and their young adulthoods in the throes of the war. Some reviewers hated this time-jumping format, and some loved it. I didn’t mind it, and I liked how digestible the short chapters were. Eventually, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in the walled French city of St. Malo at the very close of the war, and the results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even though this is a novel about kids in World War II, it won’t leave you rending your clothes or tearing your hair. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it’s filled with very human, relatable characters going about their lives on both sides of an inhuman situation.

landline

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: I loved both of Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to read her third effort, Landline. As I sometimes do, I went into this novel blind and read nothing about it before I opened it. So imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t just a light romance, but a light, time-traveling romance! Well, it’s not exactly time travel, it’s more of a phone with a direct connection to the past. Am I making this book sound crazy? It seems less crazy when you’re reading it, I promise. Landline tells the story of a wife and mother, Georgie, a successful TV writer, who’s hit a snag in her marriage to her college sweetheart, Neal. When Georgie decides to stay home in Los Angeles to work on her show, rather than accompany Neal and their two kids to Nebraska to visit his parents, things hit an all-time low. But then Georgie realizes that the landline in her high school bedroom connects her to Neal’s parents’ house — fourteen years earlier, before they were married, at a critical moment in their young relationship. In other words, present-day Georgie has the opportunity to fix her present-day marriage with an unwitting Neal of the past. Putting aside the obvious conundrums that spring up every time you introduce time travel (the butterfly effect, and so on), it’s an interesting idea. Probably everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship wonders, at some point, what it would be like to go back and fix earlier mistakes. Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the magical phone works its magic, and things end up as they’re supposed to. Overall, while I enjoyed Landline, it felt insubstantial; when I was done reading it, it slipped right out of my brain and heart. It was a far cry from the raw emotional power of Eleanor & Park, which made me cry at the gym, or even the pure, earnest sweetness of Attachments, which I read two-and-a-half years ago and still remember vividly. Maybe the issue was that I didn’t connect with Georgie and Neal as characters enough to ever become fully invested in the outcome of their relationship; I was kind of neutral for most of the book on whether they should stay together or divorce. Rowell is extremely gifted at creating relationships that feel real and relatable, but in this case, the relationship between Georgie and Neal wasn’t enough to elevate the book into something emotionally powerful for me. Nonetheless, I would recommend this as a slim, quick little book to read on the Metro or the beach. Just don’t expect to cry at the gym.

the wife

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: This is the second Wolitzer book I’ve read (the first was The Interestings, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings), and after reading The Wife, I can say with conviction that Wolitzer is a great writer who sprinkles a lot of resonant truth throughout her books. Like with The Interestings, as I read The Wife, I felt compelled to highlight in my Kindle lots of passages that spoke to me, that seemed universally correct (in the beginning, Wolitzer’s description of the air on a plane, “once so antiseptic,” as now “home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes” made me grin/cringe with recognition). To its credit, unlike The Interestings, the ending of The Wife was not emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, and I didn’t end up feeling like Wolitzer had taken me through the wringer unfairly. My one complaint about the book is that its largest plot reveal seemed glaringly obvious to me quite early on, and I’m not sure it that was intentional or not. The book tells the story of Joan Castleman, the unhappy wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman, and it revisits their long marriage, from soup to nuts, to suss out the source of Joan’s particular unhappiness. Because the novel spans the length of their four-decades-plus marriage, dipping in and out at various points, it’s not action-heavy until the very end, when we jump back into the present and Joan faces the decision of whether — and how — to leave her husband. Despite being low on twists and turns, I enjoyed this book, even though I could see the big reveal coming from a mile away. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a page-turner, but the strength of Wolitzer’s writing and the keenness of her observations about marriage, particularly power dynamics within marriage, carry The Wife quite far.

Well, there you go: six books to contemplate. Some hits, some misses. Stay tuned for more book reviews, coming soon, as I’m plowing through several juicy tomes at the moment.

 

Book review Tuesday: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings last night and was so bummed out by both the ending and my own reaction to the book that I immediately had to start something more upbeat (in this case, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which is excellent so far) in order to take my mind off of The Interestings before going to sleep. And now I need to figure out whether I liked or disliked this book, because it could go either way.

TheInterestings

 

This was one of those books, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, about which I had heard a tremendous amount of buzz before I read it. However, unlike AVFTGS, I didn’t put off reading this one until everyone and their mother had read it. Instead, I snapped it right up onto my Kindle shortly after it came out. However, all of the aforementioned buzz was both a blessing and a curse in terms of my enjoyment of this book. At first, I had read and heard only positive reviews. This novel had been compared to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and, well, they had me at Eugenides. Barrie Hardymon, a guest contributor on one of my favoritest podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, raved about the book, and I tend to like her suggestions, so all systems were go. And, indeed, as soon as I started reading this book, I loved it. And then, along the way, things started to change.

First, a very brief plot summary of the book: the story starts off at a summer camp for the arts in the Berkshires in 1974. A group of smart, privileged teenagers who enjoy, variously, music, pretentious literature, animation, drama, and weed, come together as friends and deem themselves “The Interestings.” (This opening, while obnoxious, nonetheless rings true, because don’t all teenagers labor under the delusion that they and their friends are The Most Interesting People in the World?) The novel then traces the lives of these five friends — Jules, Ethan, Ash, Goodman, and Jonah — over the next forty-odd years, as some excel and others flounder.

This book has a lot of great stuff in it. I bookmarked so many passages on my Kindle that I can hardly choose which ones to share, because Wolitzer’s observations about life are all so on-the-nose. I read several reviews that describe this novel as “astute,” and that’s a perfect word to use; Wolitzer, through her prose, nails so many universal human experiences and emotions: jealousy, dissatisfaction, early love, sadness, euphoria, nostalgia. Wolitzer’s best observations, though, are around friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved a scene in which Jules, a character through whose perspective much of the novel is filtered, and her husband Dennis go out to dinner with their lifelong friends Ethan and Ash and another couple that Ethan and Ash are friends with. Ethan and Ash are now much wealthier than Jules and Dennis, and Jules is acutely aware of how different the two couples’ lives have become, especially when it comes to new friends.

The friends of Ash and Ethan in question had been a couple of recent friendship vintage. The husband was a portfolio manager, slightly older, and the wife was an interior designer who also ran a literacy program in East Harlem. Both of them were lithe and angled, their clothes made of linen, and the dinner that night hadn’t been awkward so much as depressing. The portfolio manager and his wife had nothing to ask Jules and Dennis. It wouldn’t have even occurred to them to ask them anything. The fact that all the interest flowed toward that couple did not seem at all unusual to them. They neutrally accepted the one-way flow, and Dennis in particular kept the conversation going, wanting to know the answers to various questions. Once again, he was interested in other people; it was an admirable quality generally, but in this case it irritated Jules, who didn’t want these people to think they should accept other people’s interest as their due. She herself, in her mild rage, began to ask them question after question. “What are the literacy rates in our country?” she drunkenly demanded of the wife. And, barely having listened to the answer, she turned to the husband and said, “Since when did ‘portfolio’ start to refer to money, not artwork? It’s like the way if someone’s an analyst, it no longer means they’re Freudian, it means they study the stock market.”

There are also a lot of trenchant observations about feminism, which are illuminated through the female characters’ struggles to find balance among career aspirations, motherhood, and marriage. I also enjoyed Wolitzer’s descriptions of the ways in which various characters reckon with their need to be — or at least, to feel — interesting, special, and unique, even into adulthood. Like I said, Wolitzer packs a lot of great stuff into this book, and manages to keep things interesting (pardon the phrasing) despite the large scope of the book (40+ years, competing plot-lines, etc.). So there’s a lot of Good here.

Now, though, we need to talk about The Bad. I made the mistake, midway through this book, of reading some more reviews, like this one from The New York Times, this one from the Washington Post, and this one from The Boston Globe. I can’t remember what compelled me to do this — I try to never read reviews when I am mid-book — but I think something must have been bothering me about the book and I wanted to suss out if I was the only one feeling the way I felt. Instead of echoing my own observations back to me, thereby affirming my experience of the novel, these reviews gave me other things to focus on. For example, the WaPost review, which was pretty harsh, noted:

So “The Interestings” gets bogged down with long-winded explications and gratuitous, self-serious and often awkwardly phrased historical references: “It would be ten years before the notorious case in which another prep-school boy attacked a girl in Central Park. . . . And it would be thirteen years before a young female investment banker out for a jog in the park at night was raped and beaten into a coma.” The writing here has all the weary cheerlessness of a participant approaching the end of an all-day charity walkathon. 

Ouch. After reading that, I started to notice that, yes, Wolitzer does try to infuse the characters’ lives with historical meaning, or at least to situate every one of their life events into some larger cultural trend, which gets irritating, and feels unnecessary and forced.

But these reviews didn’t point out what bothered me most about the book, and that is the focus on the character of Jules, who Wolitzer paints as the sort-of, almost, kinda heroine of this story. I found Jules hard to take and didn’t understand, despite what I suspect was meant to be a sympathetic portrayal of her, why she had friends at all. Jules to me was grating, insecure, boring, needy, and remarkably unspecial. Even when Jules made observations that rang true to me, I attributed those observations to Meg Wolitzer rather than to Jules Jacobson, which was probably not the intent of the author. I felt that Wolitzer’s sympathies with Jules were misplaced; to me, there were far more sympathetic characters available in Ethan or even Jonah. What’s most baffling to me was the fact that Ethan Figman, the only member of the troupe of Interestings who actually met with wild success as an adult (and, arguably, was the only one ambitious or talented enough to pursue such success), carried an undying flame for Jules throughout the book. What started off as a fairly inexplicable teenage crush at camp evolved into a deeply inexplicable non-requited love into adulthood; Ethan thought Jules was just the bees knees, and I just don’t understand why. It’s like Jules is a Mary Sue but without any of the good qualities.

Finally, the book’s lumbering, depressing end, with more tragedy than was perhaps strictly necessary, left me feeling deflated. I don’t demand a happy ending from every book I read, but the ending of this book felt particularly hopeless. I like a teeny bit of redemptive hope tucked into any depressing ending, and I didn’t find that here.

Did I hate this book? No. Did I love it? Well, yes, parts of it. But overall, The Interestings was a mixed bag for me. Final verdict: I would recommend it because mostly, it was a good read. It was packed with sharp observations and the characters’ stories did carry emotional weight. But the book was unsatisfying to me in two key ways: its putative heroine, who was disappointing, and the ending, which was depressing. Still, this book made an impression on me, and the fact that I’ve written so much here trying to sort out my reactions to it is probably a sign that it’s worth picking up.