Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

18081809Blurb:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review:

Rainbow Rowell, author of my favorite heart-stuttering tales of first love Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, conquers tepid marriage in Landline. Well not so much “conquers” as “casually approaches and throws up her arms in semi-defeat.” Because while a love story comes with a prepackaged resolution—a kiss and confession of mutual desire—a story about a couple with two kids, married for 15 years, not necessarily in love, more so in shambles doesn’t really have a resolution. Sure, the embittered husband and wife can close the book with a kiss and a re-confession of mutual desire, but that’s no promise that the conflict of the 300 previous pages has been definitively surpassed. It’s probably just lying in wait around the next bend.

So what I’m saying is Rainbow Rowell has decided to attack an altogether different subject in Landline. It’s still a talky romance but it’s not romantic. It’s a harsh and measured look into sputtering relationships, into what happens post-happily ever after. I didn’t like it as much as Rowell’s YA novels, and superficially, I must admit that it’s partially due to the lack of will-they-or-won’t-they-please-please-will-they?? flirtation that accompanies two young people falling in love. But although I may appreciate it less, Rowell is no less wise when it comes to describing two older people falling in and out of love on a day-to-day basis. She has some truly fantastic musings on love and marriage, ideas that young’uns like me, people nowhere near slipping a ring on their left hand finger, might be reluctant to accept. She suggests that love is sometimes not enough, that two people can adore each other to the end of time but they will never be happy if they try to stay together. Rowell says things that her teenage characters Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi might scoff at upon hearing but then anxiously turn over again and again in their heads at night before falling asleep. These are truths feared by the young and gained only by maturity.

What I liked less is the gimmick that moves the plot forward. After skipping Christmas with her husband’s family in Nebraska to work, Georgie feels like her marriage might be over until she finds a magic phone that calls her husband Neal in the past. This unrealistic device is incongruous next to the realistic portrait of marriage. It’s also unnecessary. If Rowell wanted Georgie to compare her present relationship to her past relationship, she could have accomplished this merely by making Georgie reflect and remember. In general, the novel feels somewhat rushed, like it could have been constructed with more care and an eye on deleting superfluous scenes.

Selfishly, I want Rainbow Rowell to return to the realm of YA so I can watch two young kids kiss and confess mutual desire, i.e., fall in love. But she definitely has the skill to write about broken relationships and the (im)possibility of their repair—next time, however, she’ll hopefully do this with one less magic phone.

2.5 stars out of 5

Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Leviathan

 

9279177Blurb:

A modern love story told through a series of dictionary-style entries is a sequence of intimate windows into the large and small events that shape the course of a romantic relationship.

Review:

When I was young, callow, and lazy—a dangerous combination—I would start every essay I wrote with a definition purloined from my childhood dictionary. I did this partly because teachers demanded an attention-grapping opener and this was the easiest attention-grabbing opener available and partly because there’s nothing like a simple definition to condense an abstraction into something manageable and knowable.

I struggle to find a subject more abstract than love, which is why David Leviathan’s The Lover’s Dictionary is so remarkably clever. He’s elevated my silly schoolgirl stratagem to high art, following the thread of a relationship between two lovers not chronologically but alphabetically. Take, for instance, an entry under A:

awhile, adv.
I love the vagueness of words that involve time.

It took him awhile to come back—it could be a matter of minutes or hours, days or years.
It is easy for me to say it took me awhile to know. That is about as accurate as I can get. There were sneak previews of knowing, for sure. Instances that made me feel, oh, this could be right. But the moment I shifted from a hope that needed to be proven to a certainty that would be continually challenged? There’s no pinpointing that.

Perhaps it never happened. Perhaps it happened while I was asleep. Most likely, there’s no signal event. There’s just the steady accumulation ofawhile.

But it’s not all twee and rosy! There are also definitions that capture the harshness and even tediousness of love:

commonplace, adj.
It swings both ways, really.

I’ll see your hat on the table and I’ll feel such longing for you, even if you’re only in the other room. If I know you aren’t looking, I’ll hold the green wool up to my face, inhale that echo of your shampoo and the cold air from outside.

But then I’ll walk into the bathroom and find you’ve forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.

I think this is the most wistful, realistic, and sweetest way to tell a love story. And it is a story, a poignant, fully-realized romance constructed in around fifty 100-wordish poetic drabbles. This experiment could have easily devolved into cute little quotes about love, but it has a narrative with genuine conflict between the two lovers, exposition, climax, even a faux-climax, and, most thankfully, a resolution.

I really enjoyed this for its prettily packaged truths, but I also enjoyed it for making me realize that even after millennia, we still have novel ways to tell love stories. Love can often seem so trite when written about, and that’s a shame because it’s probably the most important thing we can write about. Leviathan’s focus on individual words leads to a focus on moments, those quotidian occurrences that form the backbone of any relationship. Often in literature and film, a love story is constructed with pomp and circumstance; we rehash the same things: first dates, first kisses, “I love you”s and “I love you too”s, first arguments, moving in together, engagement, marriage, etc etc. But a relationship is better defined by the liminal moments, i.e., what happens in between the “I love you” and the “I love you too.” And Leviathan is masterful in depicting the in-between.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

15796700Blurb:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet

Review:

Americanah is an engrossing tale about culture, race, love, and transformation. Transformation is inevitable—the harsh world makes you bow before it, but can two Nigerian kids stiffen their spines to it?

At the beginning of Americanah Obinze and Ifemelu are kids in love. They bounce through the world, shielded by their love for each other, not daunted by the unpredictability of their lives, but invincible in front of it: nothing can destroy them when they are together. They are young and naive, and Adichie writes them perfectly, expertly capturing their voices; I believed everything she told me. But in politically unstable Nigeria, not even love can quell the forces that separate the couple, with Ifemelu off to America to study and Obinze eventually off to England to work.

The Atlantic barring them from each other, their indomitable love becomes domitable and both undergo a decade of metamorphosis. The bulk of the book focuses on what happens outside of Nigeria, the stably unstable idyll of their youth. Obinze, formerly a popular teen envied for his effortless success, must discover how to cope when the world fails him. Ifemelu discovers race. In Nigeria her black skin was just black, perhaps darker or lighter than a classmate’s, but black all the same. In America stepping into a certain neighborhood is a statement because of her skin.

Ifemelu changes hairstyles—from braids to chemically relaxed locks to an Afro. Obinze changes names—from high school idol “The Zed” to illegal immigrant “Vinny Boy” to fully fledged “Obinze,” a wealthy Lagos landowner. They change partners—Ifemelu dates a white American and an African-American, mining each relationship for material to use in her blog on race in America as told by a foreigner. They change incessantly, growing up and out of their unformed youth and into selves that may or may not be their true selves. They change until one day they return to Lagos, a city that has changed in their absence too, leaving them behind when they believed it was they who had left Lagos behind.

This epic tale—and it is truly epic if we take the Odyssey as our model: oceans are crossed, decades are breached—asks if anything can remain constant if the world just won’t stop changing. Can an aged and battered love still shine after years in the dark? Adichie answers this question, but the odyssey towards it is not simple. Americanah is about the pursuit of progress, but it is unclear if Obinze and Ifemulu’s expat progress is truly positive. The two change, change, and change so much in order to mold themselves to their new worlds that it takes years before they stop and wonder if there is the possibility of constancy. The answer doesn’t come easily for the two protagonists nor for the reader, but when it arrives, it satisfies.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

1309412Blurb:

At twenty-nine Valancy had never been in love, and it seemed romance had passed her by. Living with her overbearing mother and meddlesome aunt, she found her only consolations in the ” forbidden” books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle. Then a letter arrived from Dr. Trent, and Valancy decided to throw caution to the winds. For the first time in her life Valancy did and said exactly what she wanted. Soon she discovered a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.

Review:

It is remarkable that this book perfectly follows so many long-established Hollywood romantic comedy conventions, and yet it avoids cliché, surprising and delighting the reader despite its tired plot.

The Blue Castle is built on several overused tropes. Valancy, the homely protagonist who has been living as an old maid since girlhood, discovers that she will die within a year. And so the book begins with one of those well-known carpe diem sequences where a dying character gives her finger to the world and learns, too late, how to live life to the fullest, normally by swimming with dolphins or going skydiving, and of course, by falling in true real deep love for the first time ever. Yet here, Montgomery’s use of this trope does not irritate, mostly because despite Valancy’s profound change in attitude, she remains the same person. Valancy accepts her morbid news and uses it as a way to discover what she has wanted and forbidden herself from having for 29 years. She doesn’t create a massive bucket list and cross off items daily—she simply learns to say yes to what she wants and no to what she doesn’t want.

Another romantic comedy trope: the ridiculous family. Valancy is part of the Stirling family, a bourgeois Canadian clan that reigns in small town Ontario but considers itself to be equal to the royal family at Versailles. There are around ten relatives that incessantly insult, pity, and, worst, simply ignore Valancy, and each is wonderfully sketched. One of the novel’s most fantastic scenes takes place at a family dinner soon after Valancy’s diagnosis. She finally tells each family member exactly what she thinks of them, and each relative melts into a babbling state, unable to recognize the newly liberated niece/daughter/granddaughter/cousin who sees through them and their antics.

The final romantic trope is also one of my most hated. In The Blue Castle we have a case of he-loves-her-but-shhh-only-she-doesn’t-know-it syndrome. Because of the relationship’s unique circumstances, I cannot reject this trope as I normally do. It seems believable that a girl who has been told for decades that she is ugly and unloveable would struggle to accept that she is indeed loved. And without this trope, we wouldn’t get to read a wonderful scene where the lovers finally acknowledge and confess the true depth of their love.

The Blue Castle is trite, to be sure, but it’s trite in such an utterly charming way that I can’t bring myself to fault it. It certainly helps that L.M. Montgomery is a wonderful writer with an incredible capacity to describe the beauty of the Canadian wilderness. Like all of Montgomery’s work, this is a book that reminds you how amazing it is to be alive, to be able to enjoy the world with friends by your side. There may be clichés and a serious case of deus ex machina, but no matter, you’ll be too grateful that you can lie in the grass, gaze at the stars, hear the songs of the birds, and fall in love at any moment to even care.

3.5 stars out of 5

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

16068905Blurb: Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .

But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Review:

I pride myself on my cynicism. I pin it like a ribbon on the dark clothes I wear to broadcast my angst. So when it comes to Rainbow Rowell I’m conflicted because she’s now written two books–Eleanor & Park and Fangirl–that make me want to dress myself ROYGBIV style while frolicking in a vat of kittens.

This is not okay.

That is not to say I will stop reading Rainbow Rowell books. Because: why? Why would I deprive myself of her perfectly gooey stories that never descend to shallowness and always leave me joyous? I guess I might just have to admit that for a few hours at least, when consuming a Rainbow Rowell book (consuming being the most apt descriptor: you do not read these books, you consume them like a cake topped with gobs of frosting and innumerable sprinkles), I am more sunshine than dark side of the moon. Yes, I am now an unabashed fan(girl) of Rainbow Rowell.

While Eleanor & Park was an intense and internal tale of first love, Fangirl is a brighter, vaster tale of both first love and a bunch of things that happen when you “come of age.” Cath, a prolific fanfiction writer with social anxiety, goes to college and has to learn to navigate the real world instead of merely retreating to the safety of her fictional and internet-based world. It’s probably one of the better depictions of college—and I suppose also, young adultness—that I’ve read about. There’s drunkenness, roommate squabbling, empty nest syndrome, mental health problems, infuriating professors, dining hall conundrums, unintended makeouts, and family drama. These issues elevate the book above a standard romance. But let’s be real: I’m mostly here for the looooove and the fangirling.

First, the fangirling. Cath doesn’t just write fanfiction; she writes Simon Snow fanfiction. In her fic, Simon (picture a scarless Harry Potter) and Baz (imagine Malfoy with a dash of Edward Cullen) are not the enemies they are in the canon series but gay lovers! It’s wildly popular of course. Throughout the book, excerpts from Cath’s fanfic and the “real” Simon Snow series precede chapters about Cath’s real life, often cannily mirroring what is happening to her. I have but one request: Rainbow Rowell, write a full version of Cath’s Carry On, Simon fanfic and post it to Fanfixx.net, please & thank you. I loved these stories, mostly how they goofily parody Harry Potter. The fangirl aspect itself will be appreciated by anyone who has loved something to the point of obsession.

And now, the love story. The biggest complaint I can lodge against Ms. RR is her twee writing. Sometimes there are quotes that are cute, yes, but also demand an eyeroll. But I don’t much care because these twee statements are said by BFF-worthy characters. Cath and her love interest Levi are nerds but most importantly they’re kind. It is simply pleasant to read about decently well-intentioned people trying to figure things out but occasionally screwing up. Their romance is wonderful. It builds slowly—I’m talking Victorian style courtship—but because of its pace, everything between them feels earned. When the culminating moments arrive (and there are more than a few culminating moments; that’s the benefit of taking things slow—everything new, even the slightest touch, is a culmination), I was ecstatic. Like I’m-grinning-so-hugely-right-now-I-probably-look-deranged-ecstatic.

In truth, I am not the type to gush or squee or deem something adorable. But here I am: gushing and squeeing over this positively adorable book.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Katherine by Anya Seton

33609Blurb: This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

Review: Here’s the thing about historical fiction: we already know what happened.

So the wiles of plot are nullified. There’s no reason to wonder how everything will turn out when Wikipedia exists.

Okay, then how about the writing? We may know what happens but the author can sprinkle the story with good prose and keen insights to keep us reading.

Unfortunately, most historical fiction authors try to echo the language spoken in days of yore. A good tactic, certainly, but one that is rarely successful. The balance of modern language with antiquated cadences is finicky. Too often you read sentences like this: “Yes, Sir Hugh, I’m quite alone and helpless. Have you come to ravish me?”

If the plot is useless and the writing questionable, is there any other reason to read historical fiction?

Yes! For a storyteller’s touch. A fiction writer can skim facts if it makes for a better story. A historian cannot. Yet in Katherine Anya Seton writes her fiction much like nonfiction. She is a slave to the facts, reporting in minute detail the manueverings of various Western European nobles and the birth of every new royal descendant. She should have focused solely on the romance between Katherine and John of Gaunt because it is truly an epic tale. It spans decades and plague outbreaks and political strife. It produces four bastard children–and I love bastard children! Their offspring cause the War of the Roses and basically every royal house in Western Europe has some relation to Katherine or John Lancaster. But for every bastard child, for every clandestine dalliance in a secluded castle, there are pages of overly detailed description and simplistic writing.

What a shame. True stories are rarely packaged like fiction. The story of these two medieval lovers was made for our consumption, but Seton made it rotten.

2 out of 5 stars