Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why didn’t I like that book?

I love reading bad reviews—really delicious, mean, pointed reviews, that get at the heart of what a book has gotten wrong—but I don’t like to write them. When I read a book that I don’t like, I’m much more likely to let it passed unremarked than I am to publicly excoriate it and its author. I appreciate—all too well—how hard writing is, so I don’t really want to add pain or disappointment to the world.

Still, I finished a book this week that I just thought was poor and I’m trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Let me, without naming the book, take a crack at the gap between what it was trying to do and what it did.

I’ll start by saying that everything about it should have made me like it: a friend in the book business sent it my way (hoping for publicity, sure, but this friend is judicious and knows my taste), the author and I have a lot in common (same kind of college, love of the same great American lyricist, one of us currently lives in the other’s home town, etc.), and it’s a comic novel, a middlebrow book by a lover of James and Wharton.

So, this is a fast-paced novel, the kind of novel that would make a really good ensemble-cast movie. I read fifty pages, fell asleep, and woke up from a nightmare at 3 AM and, unable to shake the dream, turned on the light and finished the book. But, doing so made me feel a little sad: the writer is clearly so smart and the book is sloppy, unfocused, and unsure of its genre. I can see the hilarious book behind it but this book is not it.

Here are two examples of scenes that misfire: There is a big wedding at the heart of the book. The bride and groom are ill-matched, the wedding is beyond expensive, and the groom has cold feet. As things begin to go wrong, there is an avalanche of the cupcake tower wedding cake. Slapstick is hard to write, but this should be a slapstick scene: full of frosting wrecking expensive shoes, tears, dogs getting sick, laughter, recriminations. To work, it needs to be big and hilarious. But the writer can’t forget that she also likes her characters, cares about them; I can sense her liking them, but we haven’t seen a nice moment from the bride in so many pages that I don’t like her anymore and am not sorry that “her day” is getting spoiled. Thus, the scene neither has enough action nor enough poignance to work.

There is also an injured child. Here, the author does a very very bad writer’s workshop thing: she shows us the child, motionless after a fall, then switches perspective to another character for three pages, then shows us the child, safe and sound with a few stitches in her scalp. Only then, in flashback, does she explain the accident.

Writers: do not do this. This is a very lazy way to create suspense.

There are some icky things going on with race in this lily white book where comic relief comes from the non-whites.

Finally, although there are metaphors and descriptive set pieces in the book, there is no motif—of images, of habits—to let us know the characters and their minds. In fact, the images are so underdeveloped that, in the next paragraph when the author refers back to “the crabwalker” or “the Flatlander,” I always had to slow down and re-read the set up for the reference.

Mark Sarvas does such a good job with the silly but consistent recurrence of the Monte Cristo sandwich in his book. Marcy Dermansky, too, gives Marie a real love of food that remains a touchstone in almost every scene--she is hungry, loving or hating the food and drink, over and over again. 

This book should have been a comic masterpiece, a funny book by a smart person about silly rich people. I would have been better off reading two brilliant examples of the genre: Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised and Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. For now, I’m choosing between Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Eloisa James’ bodice-ripping retelling of Cinderella: A Kiss at Midnight.


Geoffrey Philp said...

I, too, dislike writing bad reviews and have passed on quite a few. Your approach, however, has made me rethink the strategy: name the flaws without naming the book could work.
Yes, writing is hard enough...

Audrey said...

For better or worse, now it's impossible not to be curious about the identity of this book (a comic middlebrow novel by a lover of Wharton and James seems like just the thing!)... but in the meantime,I'll look for the other two.