Brought to you by The Oberlin Review
There are a few writings that you’re not really allowed to “review”, per se, in the sense of critiquing the work and finally evaluating whether or not it’s worth reading. Yes, you should read the dialogues of Plato. Is that even a question? Plato is the first and most influential figure of Western philosophical writing, if not philosophical thought. Socrates would be more of a contender if he’d written anything down, but the method used in these dialogues bears his name anyway, and he’s the star of these works, too.
Between Socrates the speaker and Plato the transcriber, there’s a rhythm of logic and material that everyone afterwards would keep in mind. The rhythm shows through in the dialogues’ general structure, too. It is safe to assume, going into any given dialogue, that Socrates will have the upper hand by the end, and that one or several people will be humiliated in being proven wrong. It can be easy to become lulled into this structure - yes, Socrates must be right, if everybody in his general vicinity thinks so, even if I can’t follow the argument all of the time.
I did find Plato rather dense the last time I read him. Maybe it’s because I read a great deal more at once this time. I tackled the first five as presented in the Great Books of the Western World collection: Charmides, Lysis, Laches, Protagoras, and Euthymedus. Eventually I was able to get more of a sense that Plato was not making any logical shortcuts in his arguments. He has a few motifs he returns to frequently - comparing the philosopher with the physician, for example, or with the craftsman. These do serve a particular purpose, though, such as that the philosopher involves himself in the business of others.
I was better able to appreciate the smooth logic of Plato when Socrates came up against other philosophers who claimed to be so wise as to be able to impart this wisdom to others. Their logical styles being quite different from that of Socrates, logical fallacies were much easier to spot, and were in fact pointed out by Socrates himself. He found one pair too general and circular in their arguments, and another man too focused on myth and stories to pick out good ideas.
In both of the encounters with other philosophers, Socrates questioned whether philosophy was something that could be taught. The arguments subsequently dived into discussion about philosophy’s general purpose. I found these questions particularly delightful at such an early stage in the area’s history. Is what we’re talking about important, or even necessary? You might call it an early version of existentialism. Perhaps, instead, it is the builder taking a long hard look at the cement foundations to make sure that he is ready to build a house that will stand for centuries to come.
Having recently begun a tumbling regime, having gone to several performances of Cirque du Soleil, and being someone who always has his head in the clouds, I’m a sucker for the circus. Okay, Water for Elephants had Robert Pattinson in it, but! Giant adorable elephant! Anything that even has the word “circus” in the title peaks my curiosity, so of course I had to try The Night Circus, by first-time novelist Erin Morgenstern.
As it turns out, the premise has more than a little similarity to the dueling magician films of 2006, The Prestige and The Illusionist. Two individuals, raised by neglectful fathers, must face each other in a magical challenge that could mean life or death. Only this time, there’s no pretense of illusion; the magic they can perform is real. The first act of the book is largely about Celia’s and Marco’s upbringing, so in other words, this starts like The Prestige but longer. Which is just what we needed, along with a Moby Dick that’s more obtuse.
But the rest of that first act is about something else entirely: the production process, and eventual inception, of an extraordinary circus, shrouded in mystery and constantly moving. It turns out to be a good thing I’m a circus fanatic, because this book was basically written for people like me. Nearly every chapter features some new tent, exhibition, or spectacular feat. And everything is written in exquisite visual detail. The imagination, sensory imagery, and poetic prose surrounding everything invokes a beautiful sense of magic. If there was such a thing as a circus in book form, this is it.
Eventually, though, the book must have plot and characters, because otherwise it is less of a novel and more of a scrapbook. Morgenstern spends less time within the book developing her characters than she does describing her world, but they are no less fleshed out because of this. Much is accomplished through suggestion. The book is told in short segments often spaced out over several months, but Morgenstern forms solid character arcs nonetheless. Characters that, at first, seem one-dimensional, who only seem to embody their most prominent trait or their act (as in a circus), generally have a larger purpose, too. This is quite a real world she creates.
The plot itself is set in motion by magicians Celia and Marco. They too are developed gradually over the course of the narrative’s several years. It is a minor spoiler to say that their competition eventually morphs into a collaboration, and finally into a love story. Here is the final place where the book really shines. It is extremely difficult to write a romance with real, true emotion that also manages to feel both epic and special to the two involved. Miyazaki has done it; Philip Pullman more or less did it; countless authors have tried. Morgenstern absolutely nails it. When the romance gets going, many of the chapters between these two, who want to be together but cannot be by destiny, are real tearjerkers. It is a beautiful thing to behold, and excellent payoff for all those chapters of their upbringing in the first part.
I’m almost at the end of my review and I’ve just realized I haven’t given this book a proper genre. It’s worth noting, because in this respect I think it’s unique. The Night Circus is a circus fairy tale. It is told in a conversationalist tone with a slightly epic feel, layered with meaning, symbolism, and moral. It is better than its well-worn premise would indicate. In fact, I think this book will endure, and here’s why. It is a rare book that can evoke a truly magical world, or create an entire cast full of complex figures, or write a love story that hits all the right notes without feeling cliché. The Night Circus does all three, and even more. It is a true treasure.
Generally, I don’t like romance novels. They always end too happily (I’m very much a realist) and the characters’ names are usually exceedingly quaint. That being said, I really liked Secrets of the Lost Summer by Carla Neggers, which surprised me. It was everything that I could want in a romance novel. The main focus of the novel wasn’t the romance between Dylan McCaffrey and Olivia Frost (I promise I’m not giving anything away; the front and back cover says it all.) It was also a mystery story.
In short, Olivia Frost, a graphic designer living in Boston, is going through a career crisis. To get her life back together, she goes back home to Knights Bridge, Massachusetts, (which isn’t a real place), by the Quabbin Reservoir (however, the Quabbin Reservoir does exist).
Dylan McCaffrey gets thrown into the story because, after the death of his father, he inherits a house in Knights Bridge. A native of San Diego, Dylan is puzzled as to why his father bought a house on the East Coast, especially in such a remote area. As his father was a treasure hunter (sort of like a Geocacher), he senses that there was a motive behind the purchase of the house. Together, Olivia and Dylan try to understand why his father bought the house. In the process of doing so, they fall for each other.
Overall, the love story was not too cloying nor was the mystery so far-fetched. I got wrapped up in the mystery actually. Furthermore, I liked the way that Neggers wrote her love scenes. She isn’t a romance novelist that bluntly describes their hot sex on the kitchen floor, which, for the record, doesn’t happen in this story (sorry to disappoint!). She leaves a bit more to the imagination.
As far as her prose, Neggers writes well because she writes in a very simple manner. She doesn’t use impressively big words with her descriptions. It is not a book that requires you pay absolute attention to it to follow the story line.
In truth, I chose the book because of its size, which you would understand as it’s a really cute pocket-sized book. It’s a little on the plump side actually, but it’s no more than 300 pages.
Needless to say, I definitively recommend reading Secrets of the Lost Summer! Likewise, I know I would read another book by Carla Neggers, if I ever need my dose of an idyllic love story.
Superhero comic books have a rather singular problem: once a month, for as long as seventy years or more, their creators must tell a continuous story. How do you keep one, decades-long tale of Spider-Man interesting in the 2000’s? If there’s one franchise with a built-in solution to that problem, it’s the X-Men. While the same characters can be followed for an enormous length of time, their story is centered around a school. Presumably, the various students that pass through there are ample fodder for new and different stories, in parallel to the characters of Cyclops, Angel, and Jean Grey.
New Mutants vol. 2, released in the mid 2000’s, focuses on one of these groups. The series is just thirteen issues long; and immediately following its cancellation, the title was renamed to New X-Men vol. 2 (another unique trope of superhero comics: constant renaming and volume renumbering). It’s unsurprising, then, that the series feels like a beginning with an extremely open ending. The main crew is recruited by issue 6, and the cast feels like a tight-knit team just in time for the series end.
But, simultaneously, the series feels like a transition. I picked it up because it introduced some characters I wanted to read more about, knowing their stories would be continued and elaborated upon in New X-Men vol. 2 (that’s the part following what I just read - bear with me on the numbering). But at the same time, the series purports to be an indirect continuation of New Mutants vol. 1. Given the numbering, this makes sense until you realize that New Mutants vol. 1 ran from 1983 to 1991. It’s a thirteen year gap, so the people reading this comic shouldn’t be expected to know who these older characters are. Nevertheless, previous cast members are met along the way, and one is in a coma for no good reason. It’s little background details like this that I’d have like to seen in a flashback or something.
Ultimately, it doesn’t make a huge difference; most of the older characters serve as mentors to the new ones. For the first six issues, Dani Moonstar, of the previous New Mutants team, goes recruiting to build the cast of the new series. Similar to Thor by J. Michael Straczynski, the series’ first arc focuses less on battles and more on character building, about one character per issue, providing for a more casual superhero read. Because of the broadness of the concept of superpowered individuals and the huge stable of characters possible for X-Men writers, it’s rewarding when X-books try something new. (Well, or new-ish.) The first half hour of X-Men: First Class was more like a Bond film with supers than a superhero movie. This comic reads like a soap opera that occasionally puts everything down to fight a villain.
Of course, if you go soap opera, you have to really commit to it. And whileNew Mutants vol. 2 does, it’s often dull or confusing. The characters are monotonous, is what it boils down to. Compare it to some other books. Recently, Marvel’s Avengers franchise has tried to do the same thing, recruiting new characters as the next generation of heroes, giving readers a new beginning with characters closer to their own ages. Avengers: The Initiative prominently featured:
The variety of power sets and personalities made the clashes between these guys interesting to read about. Meanwhile, the cast of New Mutants vol. 2have powers that are less distinctive (pheromone powers and quick-learning powers don’t actually manifest themselves that often), and the cast muddles into a group of angst teenagers complaining about their lives. A mere few stand out - Josh/Elixir grows from mutant hater to mutant hero, and Wind Dancer has some interesting growth in the first few issues.
The hook at the end of the last issue for the sequel series suggests that New X-Men vol. 2 will follow the same cast of characters. I’m intrigued, but a good deal of my intrigue is to see where a couple of unresolved plot threads lead. For example, one instructor begins a rival team of kid mutants, which could be interesting if developed. And perhaps now that the main cast is a better-established team, they’ll prove more interesting in battle. Greater conflicts could create more interesting consequences than “more detention”. But then again, maybe they’ll be blander than ever.
It takes a very special sort of author to make a book about adolescent terminal cancer patients more heartbreaking. John Green is pretty damn special. And with that, we realize that I’m back to colloquialisms after last week’s foray into serious literary-critical language.
That’s not to say that John Green doesn’t deserve highfalutin’ discussions of literature, meaning, and nothingness — he absolutely does, and proves that fact on every page of The Fault in Our Stars — but a) appealing to “high literary” sensibilities is not the novel’s stated purpose, and b) this book was full of far too much blunt, raw emotionality for me to address it on those terms without turning into a miserable little pile of tears.
For context, the book is told from the perspective of Hazel, a sixteen-year-old living with metastatic thyroid cancer, concentrated in her lungs. The disease isn’t growing, due to an experimental drug trial, but, like her cancer, she’s completely stagnant, spinning her wheels on good books and bad TV until the day her miracle stops working. That is, until she meets Augustus Waters, a charismatic — read: hot — young man who’s escaped his own battle with bone cancer at the cost of a leg. Through books, banter, and a healthy disdain for most of the feel-good platitudes heaped upon them from all corners, they naturally fall in love.
Of course, this could only end in tears.
And it does, magnificently. In spite of that, though, John Green doesn’t force anything. He doesn’t attack the reader with the tragedy of cancer in adolescents and children, nor does he sugarcoat things — Hazel’s breathing problems are painful to read, as are descriptions of conversations with family, friends, and doctors. Although Green is quite concerned with the inherently fictive qualities of literature — he’s particularly emphatic about this subject in his author’s note, and plows into meta-fiction in the story-proper — there’s something deeply honest about the way he writes. And with that honesty, there’s something almost frightening, whether he’s describing Hazel in the hospital, getting fluid removed from her lungs, or in her bedroom, re-reading her favorite book and trying desperately to contact the author.
The terrifying thing about the novel-within-the-novel, An Imperial Affliction, which also focuses on a young woman with cancer, is that it ends mid-line, cutting the story off in an apparent reference to the narrator’s death or exacerbation of her illness. Hazel doesn’t find the book demoralizing — if anything, she appreciates its honesty — but she’s still desperate for a further story, the resolution of what happens to the other characters. As painfully aware of how universal human mortality is, she’s still attracted to the ‘after.’ As she and Augustus often quote, “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
And that’s the real kicker with this book: it’s not just that their lives are painful, but that the story is bound to end, to stop short, to remain sequel-less. There will always be other stories afterward, but there are few greater tortures, it seems, than knowing that fact but never being able to experience those stories. It’s this sort of thought that gives way to Hazel’s stillness, as well as Gus’s desperation to have a life — or a death — that is heroic, that matters on some greater level.
And that’s where the novel hits home, I think, at least for those of us lucky enough not to be ravaged by terminal illness. Because I see myself in Hazel, and in Gus, and that’s heartbreaking. Because John Green, despite being almost two decades our senior, gives voice to this generation as a whole, even through a narrow lens. Even those of us with terrible hardships aren’t all quiet, stoic heroes; we can enjoy things both vastly more stupid and vastly more complex than many of our parents; and we are just as capable of fear and sacrifice, courage and selfishness, as anyone else. And, even at our darkest moments, we’re quite taken with gleefully shouting “WHAT IS THIS LIFE?” until we frighten or disturb everyone around us, because that’s how much we care.
I think I’ve been rambling a bit, this time around, because I just have a lot of feelings about this book. This is the kind of book that matters, that makes you really take it in. When people look down on Young Adult Fiction, this is probably the book I will bludgeon them with. It’s also the kind of book that goes by quickly, but feels as if it filled a greater hole than I can convey here. Beyond his sardonic sense of humor and excellent quality as a storyteller, John Green has a way with words.
He spins them out elegantly and simply, until they flow like a dance: something that lasts for only a fleeting series of moments before it’s gone, though it seems to last forever when we look back on it. Each moment lasts for years—maybe even years we never get to have. That’s the book’s greatest genius, in delivering us Hazel, and Gus, and a beautiful cast of characters made of death: life is all too short, but the real length of a life isn’t so easily measured, whether you believe in “Something with a capital S” after it all ends or not.
Some infinities are larger than others.
“Try to insert yourself into that moment.”
This encouragement dots “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” one of many emotionally devastating portraits of Americana in Dan Chaon’s new short story collection, Stay Awake. The story is told in the second person, forcing the reader into the seat of the protagonist through the simple word “you.” In this way the story stands apart from the rest in the collection, but aside from that, its themes are deeply familiar to the reader by the time it appears.
The death of a child. The dissolution of a relationship. Shame and distance in the face of family. A pervasive sense of fear and confusion, not knowing where to go or what to do, completely at a loss for how to reconcile the oft-malformed, sometimes even malignant thing your life has become. These are regular backdrops—characters, even—in Stay Awake.
Readers familiar with Chaon’s other works will recognize a number of the archetypes present in this collection. Main characters in the stories are most often middle-aged-men, most often alone, most often in the Midwest, and most often adrift in some transitional phase of their lives, or at least hoping for the transition to appear. Addiction and illness make a few appearances, as do child-rearing and (most often failing) romance and marriage. But it is the presence of these other characters — little more than presences themselves, but heart-stoppingly palpable — that make Stay Awake unique.
The first story of the collection, “The Bees,” depicts Gene, a father on the brink of collapse, disturbed by the seemingly endless screams of his sleeping son — screams that appear and disappear without cause or explanation — and haunted by the memory of the family he once abandoned, and has never been able to contact since getting his life back together. As both sensations persist, however, Gene becomes ensconced in feelings of paranoia and crumbling sanity — something is watching his new life, waiting to punish him for his unearned happiness. Nevertheless, rather than encouraging us to dismiss Gene as ‘crazy,’ Chaon keeps us firmly trapped in his shoes, knowing that something terrible is going to happen and being utterly unable to prevent it.
Moving forward in the collection, I expected to feel relief from the gripping sense of horror infused in that first story. But, while some of the other stories may at first seem to offer respite, they only plunge deeper into the things that disquiet us. True, there are few stories in the collection that invoke terror the way “The Bees” does, but all of them recall discomfort in ways impossible to ignore. All of Chaon’s characters seem to have lost something, and their inability to recover it—or themselves—creates a feeling that stands constantly on some unholy border between despair, fear, and madness.
One New York Times review of Stay Awake suggested that Chaon’s failing in Stay Awake is that he builds these almost campfire-story-like tensions too well, that in at least a few stories the sense of “impending catastrophe” it too lacking in resolution. True, I found myself on more than one occasion waiting for a twist or a scare at the end of a long build-up, only to find it never came. But I nonetheless have to respectfully disagree with the Times reviewer. It is the times when Chaon leaves us, not falling from a cliff — or even at its edge — but stumbling through the mist, knowing only that the drop is near, that he most acutely connects us with his stories. The existential horror of aimlessness — of not knowing when or how we’ll meet our fate — is one of Stay Awake’s greatest objectives. The title warns us not only of what agents of the moonlit shadows prey upon us in our sleep, but also of the horror of what dreams may come.
Ultimately, though, Chaon’s greatest weapon is not horror, but universality. Many of the tragedies and sins that befall his characters — the loss of a child, one’s own selfish acts of abandonment, or the untimely death or crippling injury of someone close to us — are unfathomable to most of us. They are, at the very least, the sort of things we go to bed at night praying will never happen. But just as many — the loss of a parent, feelings of paralyzing aimlessness and loneliness, and the sense that, while there may be something larger than ourselves out there, it may not have our best interests at heart — are as familiar as a best friend, a lover, the shadows of our own bedrooms.
Perhaps these fragments of grief could remain separate if you read Stay Awake in discrete segments, picking and choosing stories at random, but when the book is read in sequence, the effect is anything but disparate. In returning to short stories, Chaon has certainly taken a few cues from his novel-writing, making this collection feel like nothing less than a completed whole. The actions of parents and children, siblings and friends repeat themselves in various stories, no matter how disconnected the characters may be. In the final story of the collection, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands,” a father experiences the same accident as a son does in “I Wake Up” — a fall from a ladder after glimpsing an unearthly memory in an upper-story window, which costs both men a finger. Both characters are haunted by decades-old attempts at infanticide, though on the opposite ends of the equation. In the latter story, one of three daughters fears a coffin-sized room in her basement, certain in the knowledge that within it she will find her own corpse, a remnant of a reality that never was. The sentiment that something ought to be different, however dismal the alternative, is one that echoes throughout the collection. The woman’s sister, across the country, ponders a quotation that should be familiar to fans of Await Your Reply: “Are we not all of us spirits?”
The tragedies we know and the ones we hope never to encounter blur and entwine, as the waking and dreaming worlds do in those life-long moments between sleep and wakefulness. The effect is that even acts we could never imagine committing, horrors we could never imagine entering our lives, all become painfully real. ‘They’re just dreams,’ we tell ourselves. ‘That could never happen to me,’ we reassure.
But even though he isn’t really there, even though it’s merely the idea, the image, the false sensation of a face floating over our own as we drift off to sleep, Chaon’s stories whisper to us. Softly, quietly. Certain.
“Insert yourself into that moment,” he tells us.
And we do. Every time.
Yes, I did. Like a small child. Thankfully, a lot of that was from laughing.
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a sharp 2011 (see, I’m relevant, I swear) satire, in the tradition of George Saunders. If you haven’t read George Saunders, I highly recommend Pastoralia, a collection featuring the title novella and some truly excellent short stories, as a starting point—don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Did you think I was kidding?
Okay, you were right. I know it must have been difficult to wait through those two sets of ellipses. They probably made you doubt a great number of your life choices up to this moment, and for that, I’m sorry.
Super Sad True Love Story thrives on such applications of discomfort (Bam! Segued), depicting a near-future America that wants very badly to be a dystopia, but is too incompetent to do so. Even as the streets fill with National Guard troops (some privatized, some not) and poles that measure individuals’ credit scores at every pass, there’s a sense that none of the totalitarian creepiness has much weight, since the country is teetering on the brink of collapse due to dollar devaluation and an increasingly titanic debt to China (sound familiar?).
It’s an incredibly awkward moment when you find yourself saying ‘Jeez, we really must be in trouble if the government can’t even muster the strength and organization to oppress us properly.’ Nor does the devolution of society stop there, as we’re treated to an endless parade of materialistic obsession — which goes hand in hand with the narrative of debt and credit — as well as a growing culture of constant ratings of physical attractiveness, monetary viability, and even digitized measures of personality. At one point, the main character’s Russian-Jewish mother not only gives him the more traditional ‘You don’t call, you don’t write’ rhetoric, but also “You don’t eat good food and you do not have profession and your Fuckability rankings are very low.” If there’s any way to never have that conversation with my parents, sign me up.
A lot of this sounds like a critique directed solely at the youth of our generation, and there’s plenty to support that in the text. The extremes of fashion in Shteyngart’s America, for instance, clearly lean in that direction, with trends—especially for women—like completely transparent “Onionskin” jeans (worn commando, naturally), and brands like “JuicyPussy,” “AssLuxury,” and “TotalSurrender” (the last are, of course, panties designed for ease of removal). But, while that’s certainly part of the story, Shteyngart isn’t boring or passé enough to pass judgment on a single generation or segment of society. Nor, I should mention, is he sexist in his portrayal of women in this society—he just confronts the reader with some truly depressing ideas about what society expects of women, then extrapolates from there. No, if you think this author wants to take any one group down a peg, back up—he’s knocking the whole damn ladder down, with everyone on it. Enter our protagonist, Lenny Abramov, a self-concious thirty-nine-year-old man working in the “Post-Human Services” division of the biggest corporation still on the map. Lenny’s lust for a youth already gone may seem painful at first, but that’s before you realize that it’s entirely the norm for people in his society, and that his bombastic opening-line claim that “[He is] never going to die” isn’t just for show. Lenny’s division actually sells “indefinite life extension,” a number of lines of research all leading to theoretical immortality for the extremely wealthy — despite being little more than a glorified salesman, Lenny wants to join them. Not only that, but he wants desperately to be hand-in-hand with Eunice Park, a Korean girl with an abusive family and a tendency not to put up with Lenny’s bullshit. Their romance is awkward, to be sure, but while they’re both a little bit terrible, they’re also well-meaning, and tend to complement each other, even in the context of their fifteen-year age gap. What’s more, both manage to be perfectly representative of their generations as the novel defines them, but with just enough receptiveness that they can, at times, realize exactly how wrong everything has gone.
The novel is divided between entries of Lenny’s diaries, rich with Shteyngart’s wit and excellent prose, and more minimalist — but at least equally engaging — examples of Eunice’s communiqués with friends and family via social networking sites. Both sections are brilliant and hilarious, but they’re also heartfelt. Whether it’s Eunice’s divide between filial piety and familial strife or Lenny’s conflicting attachment to outmoded media artifacts (Books) and contemporary ideas of youth and exuberance, they both remain characters, rather than caricatures. Ultimately, you can’t help but feel for them, even through their faults, as the unerring idiocy of the government — under the Bipartisan Party — brings them ever-closer to rupture and collapse.
Three quotes that sum at least a few things in the book rather well:
1) “In short, I felt both paternal and aroused, which is not a good combination.”
2) “If only beauty could explain the world away. If only a nippleless bra could make it all work.”
3) “Only spoiled white people could let something so good get so bad.”
Ultimately, I’d recommend Super Sad True Love Story for anyone who likes things that are good, even if they’re a little bit uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but remember my experience watching Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, while I was reading — Dunham attacked my discomfort as a soon-to-be college graduate at every turn, just as Shteyngart goes after my discomfort with the world as it is. Perhaps there’s something quintessentially Oberlin about that awkwardness that the two alums latched onto. Then again, I’d like to think it’s something more universal than that.
Either way, the most pleasant part of the resemblance is this: both Dunham and Stheyngart realize that, no matter how stupid things get, we’ll still be here at the end of the day, and we’ll still have something to say about it.
Well, not really. I could barely care less about the Pulitzer, and that’s mostly because awards are shiny and I base a lot my self-worth on external validation. That, and I really like books. Just so you know, dear readers, that’s really the only criterion you’re going to get, in terms of what I review on this blog. I won’t even guarantee that I’ll like the books I’m talking about week-to-week, just that I like books in general. The Pulitzer doesn’t have any more specific criteria than that, so neither will I. What?
Still, I thought that I’d begin my inaugural entry with at least some pretense of authority and talk about something with significant supposed artistic and literary merit: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer prize winning novel for 2009 (hey, I said some pretense of authority, so sue me).
In defiance of a literary market saturated with coming-of-age stories, childhood dramas, or, at the oldest, midlife crisis narratives, Strout’s titular character is an aging retiree, often bitter and cantankerous in her autumn years (she’d probably hit me for using a phrase as trite as “autumn years”—actually, so would I—ow). Further, while the book in part features aspects of the family history novel, Strout continues to flip off tradition, leaving most mysteries buried, and her characters’ youths out of view—this is, ultimately, a story about getting old.
It’s also a story about your children being ungrateful little shits who don’t call enough, but that’s not really the point.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the fact that its characters don’t go through any profound epiphanies or dramatic, overblown attempts to remake their lives: they’re largely settled, and in this way disturbingly real. Even when someone does take action and make a change, it’s often either so small or so invisible to the rest of the world, even in the tiny town of Crosby, Maine, that it may as well have never occurred at all.
The book’s structure only helps contribute to this sense of quiet, the almost blasé notion that life goes on (another idea that would earn a rebuke from Olive, however much she contributes to the point). I’ve been calling it a novel, but that’s mostly because the internet seems to think of it as a short story collection (Oh yeah, that’s just the kind of maverick craziness you can expect from me—never know what I’m gonna do next!). You could call it a short story collection—some sections barely feature Olive at all, or relegate her far into the background, but she’s still there to play a role. Even in stories like The Piano Player, where she doesn’t even speak, there’s a lingering sense that the story is a part of something larger, that I think disqualifies it from the loose linkage that characterizes most collections of short stories.
TL;DR—(seriously, I’m talking about a fucking book and you want a shorter version of the review? Come on) All of this has left out the fundamental question: is it good? I would say yes, but if you’re like me, 21 and balking at the future, even without the prospect of aging into irrelevance and an endless sense of being in others’ way, it makes for a disquieting read. If you want to hear about the subtle beauty of advancing age, this is not the book for you. This is a book that says: life sucks most of the time, but even after it’s sucked for six or seven decades, you don’t want it to end—which is comforting…I guess? With a few exceptions, this is a book about how real life works, and even if it’s beautiful, it’s not always easy to hear.
Also, as an ungrateful little shit who doesn’t call home often enough, parts of this book made me very uncomfortable. Is that why you gave it to me, Mom?