Review: One Day by David Nicholls

9395692Blurb:

15th July 1988

Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways.

So where will they be on this one day next year?
And the year after that?

And every year that follows?

Review:

One Day was a novel endowed with a very important task: to occupy me during six hours of train travel. And what do you know, it did its job, not overwhelmingly well but just well enough that it will always be a fond memory, a solid 3-star read.

Smartly composed and occasionally insightful, One Day still undeniably belongs to that genre some are determined to label “chick-lit.” But it’s literary, and although it gives us what we want, we have to work for it. The going is tough before the much-wanted, inevitable relationship gets going. Nicholls is realistic if not a bit ruthless about love. He reminded me that two people can love each other to infinity and beyond and still make each other bleed with nasty words. And that’s why if this is “chick-lit” it’s definitely of a superior rank. Love, while still lovely, is not entirely rosy under Nicholls’ pen; for him love is beautiful 90% of the time, but the other 10% is lived in darkness and suffered in sharpness.

The conceit of the story is that its told on the same day—July 15—over twenty years. Emma and Dexter meet in the 80s and the story ends in the new millennium, when they’re a bit fatter and greyer, but wiser too. Vast swaths of time are lost because as readers we are only privy to the happenings of one day per year. The novel is accordingly obsessed with time, ticking and tocking me until I was struck by the mundane but true realization of how long a year is, how much change 364 days can offer.

Some stories give us exactly what we want but they don’t suffer for this predictability. If these stories surprised us, they would have, in some way, violated a contract between the reader and writer: I read certain genres to be lightly entertained when embarking upon a six-hour train journey. With One Day I was not shocked; I was not made to think; and for this I was contented.

3 out of 5 stars

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Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

12712435Blurb:

Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff.  Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.

Review:

If you dissected the pages of Seating Arrangements trying to locate its literary heart, you’d find nothing bloody or moving or living but instead a cold, hard machine that transmits keen social analysis and psychological insight but nothing emotional or affective. Which is, perhaps, the point. Just look at the title—Seating Arrangements—it’s about a marriage, a celebration of love uniting of two people, but the title has reduced it to the behind-the-scenes mechanics required to organize such an event.

This novel follows several empty-chested blue blood WASPs preparing for the wedding, but at its core it’s about Winn, the patriarch of the Van Meter family, a man who values sons more than daughters yet only has daughters, who values various country club memberships more than the kind devotion of his wife, and who decides to have an existential crisis the weekend of his daughter’s nuptials. Winn is a stiff character for whom I could not summon one iota of empathy, therefore I was never quite invested here. There were big moments, like an exploding whale, that kept me reading, but I didn’t care how anything turned out.

VAGUELY SPOILERISH DISCUSSION OF ENDING (BUT NOT REALLY, IN MY OPINION):
Despite my indifference, the story hummed right along and I was particularly enjoying Shipstead’s sharp eye for human behavior until the disappointing ending. Shipstead spends the entire book critiquing the vacuity of American “aristocracy,” mostly by skewering Winn’s desperately devolving attempts to recapture youth and meaning. She lowers his character more and more but at the end, Shipstead grants him the opportunity to redeem himself by escaping his soulless family life and depraved WASPy social set. It felt disingenuous and inauthentic. I’m not against redemption narratives; in fact I kind of love them. But Winn is characterized throughout as unredeemable, a man who has made all the wrong choices without knowing it and is just beginning to feel something—guilt, regret, anger?—about his unbalanced life ledger. I wanted him to suffer for it! The way Shipstead writes him, he deserves to suffer for being a simple and simpering man, a man who wants to have an affair with a hot young blonde but cannot even rally himself to consummate this desire.

The ending, therefore, feels a bit neat. I would have preferred a more ambiguous or even blatantly dark ending for these characters. But oh well, I’ll forgive Shipstead this and give her second novel, Astonish Me, the old college try.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

22779Blurb:

Hannah Gavener is fourteen in the summer of 1991. In the magazines she reads, celebrities plan elaborate weddings; in Hannah’s own life, her parents’ marriage is crumbling. And somewhere in between these two extremes–just maybe–lie the answers to love’s most bewildering questions. But over the next decade and a half, as she moves from Philadelphia to Boston to Albuquerque, Hannah finds that the questions become more rather than less complicated: At what point can you no longer blame your adult failures on your messed-up childhood? Is settling for someone who’s not your soul mate an act of maturity or an admission of defeat? And if you move to another state for a guy who might not love you back, are you being plucky–or just pathetic?

None of the relationships in Hannah’s life are without complications. There’s her father, whose stubbornness Hannah realizes she’s unfortunately inherited; her gorgeous cousin, Fig, whose misbehavior alternately intrigues and irritates Hannah; Henry, whom Hannah first falls for in college, while he’s dating Fig; and the boyfriends who love her more or less than she deserves, who adore her or break her heart. By the time she’s in her late twenties, Hannah has finally figured out what she wants most–but she doesn’t yet know whether she’ll find the courage to go after it.

Full of honesty and humor, The Man of My Dreams is an unnervingly insightful and beautifully written examination of the outside forces and personal choices that make us who we are.

Review:

For a moment I thought that Curtis Sittenfeld was going to give me what I wanted: a happy ending. No ambiguities and no doubts. Just happiness for our anxious protagonist Hannah: a shared apartment, evenings entangled on the couch in front of the television, Sunday morning brunches followed by Sunday afternoon antique shopping, an engagement, a wedding, a child—all with the man of her dreams.

Thank god I was wrong. Because what I want is not what I need. I want a book to delight, to entertain, to promise me everything turns out okay. But I need a book to present questions and evade answers, to tell its story not in the shape of a line but a dodecahedron, to venture into the dark and never come out. In short, a book must deny me what I want.

In The Man of My Dreams Hannah is no reader’s ideal narrator. A grown-up Lee Fiora from Sittenfeld’s Prep, Hannah is shy and uneasy, world-weary yet inexperienced, not unable but unwilling to escape what ails her. Sittenfeld’s narrators are hard to get to know and harder to appreciate. Timid girls, they all trick themselves into ignoring the depth of their loneliness and the intensity of their embarrassments. Normally she writes in the third person at the most uncomfortable distance—far enough away that the narrator’s thoughts and decisions remain elusive and irrational, but close enough that the narrator’s failings and ugliness reflect right back onto you.

Yet despite how uncomfortable the narration is, Hannah is a fantastic protagonist. We’ve all already read the novels about girls like Hannah’s sister Allison, a thoroughly decent girl who marries a thoroughly decent man to form a thoroughly decent couple, and girls like her cousin Fig, the bombshell, the debauched girl who buzzes with confidence as she hooks up with one frat boy, and then another, and then another, and then another. But Hannah’s story is one less frequently told, either shoved away in a forgotten bookshelf corner or merely sidekicking in a story about the popular, wonderful girl who gets all the dates she wants. Hannah is a nasty girl, quiet on the outside but screaming on the inside. She screams for someone to care about her, to kiss her, to want her, to simply see her. But internal screams are silent; no man of her dreams will ever rescue her. What Hannah learns is to rescue herself. And fittingly, it’s not a lesson she wants to learn but a lesson she needs to learn.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

342081Blurb:

Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.

Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.

As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.

Ultimately, Lee’s experiences–complicated relationships with teachers; intense friendships with other girls; an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush; conflicts with her parents, from whom Lee feels increasingly distant, coalesce into a singular portrait of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.

Review:

When I went to college I was shocked to meet kids who had actually attended boarding school. I had grown up on a steady diet of boarding school literature, but conceptually, it seemed so preposterous. You went to boarding school if you were European and from the 19th century, not if you were American and born in the early 90s. I befriended one girl who attended a Massachusetts boarding school as a day student. When I asked her about the experience, she shook her head and said, “Never send your kids to boarding school. It screws you up.”

As I came to know more ex-boarding school students, her generalization gained credence. They were fully formed adults who behaved like they were in their late 20s. Meanwhile, the rest of us floundered about, worried about breaking dorm occupancy rules. After reading Prep I understand them better. I know how they came to be this way at the mere age of 18. In Prep Curtis Sittenfeld presents an authentic portrait of boarding school life that, for any sane parent at least, should serve as a massive flashing warning sign before sending any child away to school.

Our protagonist Lee Fiora decides to apply to an East Coast boarding school in a fit of precociousness and derring-do at the age of 14. She leaves her parents and calm Midwestern existence for a more exciting life at Ault School. Again: at the age of 14. It goes horribly, of course. She must face the gender, race, and class discrimination that props up the ivy-covered brick façade of Ault. She navigates loneliness. She struggles to answer this question: do I want to change myself, peel away my me-ness in order to fit into this archaic institution or do I want to alienate myself from everyone by becoming a conscientious objector to this lifestyle? She narrates her four years at Ault after the fact as an adult, and it is clear that even after maturing outside this fishbowl, she has no good answer to this question.

Two disclaimers:
1. This is not chick-lit, despite the title and pink belted cover.
2. It is an uncomfortable read.

If we’re supposed to read this book as chick-lit, it’s ridiculously marketed. It has too much bite to be considered chick-lit, with its extraordinarily detailed narration and its casual indictment of its wealthy and waspy characters. Lee’s perspective is devastatingly realistic, apparently so authentic that some have questioned how biographical this story is. Most reviews for this book are quite negative. Many people seem to hate Lee because she is always a bystander and never an actor. I must admit that even as an introvert, I found Lee’s introversion and resulting passivity infuriating and occasionally painful. She cannot decide how she wants to participate in this ridiculous life she’s accidentally chosen for herself at age 14 and thus she’s listless. She moves nowhere, being careful to make no obvious mistakes but because of that, truly making every mistake. As she says,

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.

Teenagers live in state of metamorphosis and high school is their chrysalis. Imagine if your chrysalis is inhabited by the spoiled offspring of Manhattanite bankers and national senators. Imagine if the floral pattern on your bedspread determines whether you are popular or not. Imagine that if you pine after a boy, you can never approach him; he will pursue, you will be pursued. Imagine if your chrysalis cannot be cracked open at the end of each school day when you return home; you must live among your peers in this extreme environment for four straight years.

Actually stop imagining that because it’s horrifying. It’s obvious how such a life could ruin a mere child. How can you decide who you want to be in such conditions? I loved Sittenfeld’s largely plotless but wholly profound depiction of these conditions because it allowed me to vicariously live them without suffering their consequences.

And after the melancholy final page, I was forcefully reminded me of three things: 1. we can only hope we have good parents 2. only by being rich, white, and male can you live your life effortlessly 3. boarding school will screw you up.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

15790857Blurb: Bernadette Fox has vanished.

When her daughter Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette, a fiercely intelligent shut-in, throws herself into preparations for the trip. But worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Ms. Fox is on the brink of a meltdown. And after a school fundraiser goes disastrously awry at her hands, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces.

Which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together an elaborate web of emails, invoices, and school memos that reveals a secret past Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where’d You Go Bernadette is an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are, and the power of a daughter’s love for her mother.

Review:My younger cousin used to have a game called Story Cubes. It was a set of dice with various images on each side. You rolled them, collected six images, and then constructed a narrative that referenced each image. With only 20 seconds to weave a bee, a skyscraper, a cauldron, a train crash, a door, and an eye into a comprehensive story, the tales were always zany.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette seems inspired by an adult supersize set of Story Cubes. Semple throws together a trip to Antarctica, environmental architecture, expensive prep school helicopter parents, Microsoft company dynamics, Seattle stereotypes, and family dysfunction, adds a pinch of (attempted) humor, and expects a decent story to emerge. But none ever does. It’s simply scattered.

Adding to the book’s scattered feeling is the way it’s constructed. Bernadette disappears and her daughter Bee recounts the events leading up to the event. But Bee doesn’t tell a straight narrative. Instead she reconstructs Bernadette’s life using emails, newspaper articles, police records, and handwritten notes. It jumps from character to character, from plotline to plotline, so I never found my place in the text. Reading this novel was like crossing the Drake Passage during especially stormy weather: I was violently thrown back and forth until I just wanted it to end.

Bernadette is a humor novel. My writing professor says that comedic writing is all about exaggeration. You must take a funny element and stretch it to its limits. These characters are certainly exaggerated, but I don’t think Semple pushed them far enough. She redeems a previously awful character and at the end, she tries to make her main characters sympathetic. It can’t be both ways. They must be either horrible, extreme caricatures or fully realized characters—never both. I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette to laugh, but it only made me cringe.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

227443Blurb: Meet Bridget Jones—a 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:

a. lose 7 pounds
b. stop smoking
c. develop Inner Poise

“123 lbs. (how is it possible to put on 4 pounds in the middle of the night? Could flesh have somehow solidified becoming denser and heavier? Repulsive, horrifying notion), alcohol units 4 (excellent), cigarettes 21 (poor but will give up totally tomorrow), number of correct lottery numbers 2 (better, but nevertheless useless)…”

Bridget Jones’ Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget’s permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

Over the course of the year, Bridget loses a total of 72 pounds but gains a total of 74. She remains, however, optimistic. Through it all, Bridget will have you helpless with laughter, and — like millions of readers the world round — you’ll find yourself shouting, “Bridget Jones is me!”

Review: The simultaneous failure and masterstroke of this book is, of course, the fact that Bridget Jones is everyone. It’s a delightfully funny romp of a book; the pages turn quickly and the laughs come easily because every reader identifies with Bridget’s misfortune and neuroticism. But the fact that most readers will identify with her means that she’s probably not individualized enough—except in her case, with her zany ways, it’s likely that she’s too much of an individual, which paradoxically makes her an archetype. If that makes any sense…

Really, though, this isn’t the type of book where such a criticism matters. It’s a book to be enjoyed quickly, in the brief moments where you’re not, like Bridget, obsessing over your love life or career or appearance. I found it impressive that although many of these characters are frequently unlikeable (Bridget herself is horrible when her friend Tom “disappears”), they are all so easy to sympathize with.

Although I haven’t read much “chick-lit” and I also despise that term, I am willing to bet this is a highlight of the genre. For the most part, it’s light and funny, but it also puts emphasis on significant current social issues, particularly those concerning the role of “modern” women. And for that reason, I expect Bridget Jones’s Diary will, despite its fluffy exterior, go down in the literary annals because it quite accurately represents the major anxieties facing women in the beginning of the 21st century while managing to be witty and charming.

4 out of 5 stars