The Girls by Emma Cline

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On the outside, The Girls by Emma Cline is a fast-paced, nostalgic novel loosely based on the Manson family. And it is all those things, but there’s more here than meets the eye. It explores the messed up ways girls crave affection, attention, and someone to devote themselves to. It’s a literary novel about women and violence: the violence acted against them and the violence they are capable of enacting themselves. The violence of jealousy, desire, and faith.

The main character, Evie Boyd, is an awkward, lonely 14 year old in the late 1960s, and a lonely middle aged woman in the present day, reminiscing about her strange coming-of-age. Evie is a constant observer, and she never feels like she fits in. She craves affection from boys who don’t reciprocate. She is, basically, perfect cult fodder. One day she sees a group of effortless, ethereal older girls in a park, and she wants so badly to be one of them. The leader of the girls, Suzanne, enchants Evie the most, and that enchantment continues darkly as the plot of the novel takes off.

In the ride to bring Evie to meet Russell, the cult leader, the girls wax poetic about him. “He’s not like anyone else. No bullshit. It’s like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right.” But the hero worship doesn’t go very far, because Evie is the observer, and you get the sense that she doesn’t buy into Russell’s greatness. She hangs around, simply, for the girls; specifically, for Suzanne. All we know about Russell is that for some reason the girls love him, he wants a record deal, and he has a slight temper.

It never feels like a true crime story. The best parts were the scenes where present-day Evie is looking back on the past.  She still looks at teenage girls with a sense of fractured awe. She is an observer to the end, still on the outskirts. We are lead to wonder what responsibility those on the outskirts of evil have to stop it. 

The Girls will get a lot of press because it’s a fictionalization of the Manson murders, but it may be wrongly advertised. It’s a slow-burn of a novel, and beautifully written. It examines the way women are manipulated, and in the same sentences exposes how women can be just as destructive and evil as the men who control them. If you like lush language and you’re interested in literary fiction about teenage girls, you will find something valuable here.

The Girls is out June 14th. Thank you Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy to review.

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The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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The Art of Being Normal begins in the point of view of David, a closeted transgender teenager and adorable bundle of teen anxiety. If you think this sounds like a literary after-school special, you’re right. It reminded me of a U.K. version of Degrassi, all bright colors and dramatic music playing at the end of chapters. Besides worrying about how to come out to his loving parents and hoping to be able to transition before puberty makes it harder, David hangs out with his two cardboard-cutout friends, gets bullied at school, and lazes about. He is the definition of a normal teenager. Then he meets the mysterious Leo Denton, the new boy at school with a bad boy edge, and things start to change.

I would recommend this mainly for middle schoolers or freshmen in high school. Any older than that and this novel is too wholesome. There’s slight drinking and the mention of sex but the characters still have the wide-eyed wonder of middle grade characters. The plot twist about what Leo Denton’s deal really is was cheap and easily guessed. The value in The Art of Being Normal is that it’s a book about a transgender person with a sunny perspective. Stories like this are important for young people struggling with gender identity. We get a lot of harsh stories about how hard it is to be different. The Art of Being Normal tells young people that there is hope in community.

My only big complaint: I’m not an expert on the subject, but I think this story made physical transition with hormones seem both accessible and affordable for teenagers, and that doesn’t seem true to me.

If you’re just an adult reader looking for an interesting YA novel to read, I’d look elsewhere, unless you really have your heart set on something with a transgender main character and have read everything else. If you’re an English or Health teacher, this is a decent book to consider reading or assigning to your teenage students.

The Art of Being Normal will be in bookstores in the U.S. on May 31, 2016.

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

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In Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny has written a collection of short stories about the inner life of unfaithful women. Check out the quote from Lena Dunham on the cover – I was expecting something similar to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mother’s, Tell Your Daughters, but Heiny doesn’t write about women with the same broadness – Single, Carefree, Mellow is full of stories about a very specific type of woman. The characters suffer mainly from their own boredom. They are mistresses and cheating wives, and they have little remorse, nor does the narrative suggest that they should.

In the title story, the main character, Maya, is a woman waiting for the right time to dump her boyfriend. It’s complicated by the fact that her dog is dying, and she relies on the emotional support. In the end she decides to just stick it out, even if she doesn’t really love him. The two characters show up in later stories, except then the dog is dead and Maya is having an affair with her boss. And she’s still with her boyfriend who bores her. I couldn’t really relate, so maybe that’s my fault for expecting that I was going to.

During her affair, Maya muses about “come facts” – little bits of trivia the men she sleeps with mention to her after sex. Her second story begins with the line: Here is what Maya’s boss said to her after they made love the first time: ‘Did you know that peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite? It’s a unique way to play on the “Men Explain Things to Me” frustration. But as far as any other commentary on the relationship between men and women, this collection offers little else except that it all seems miserable.

The characters in Single, Carefree, Mellow are all frustrated by the men in their lives, and the major failing is that Maya’s musing on how men are always telling her silly facts after sex is the only time any of them seem to kick up any fuss. They instead react to their frustration by being cheaters, and that is aggravating.

A lot of readers will dislike these stories just because of the infidelity, and I get that. I’m a little more forgiving with unlikeable or morally questionable characters, but even I got sick of reading story after story of women having affairs. The characters all blend in together into one relatively attractive and dishonest blob of a woman. Heiny has a good comedic voice, and a little more variety in subject matter would have helped this collection along quite a bit.

Many thanks to Goodreads and Vintage Books for sending me a giveaway copy of this novel for review.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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I spent April reading one of the most hyped literary fiction books of the last year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. At over 800 pages, it wasn’t a quick read, but neither was it as laboring and upsetting as everyone said it was going to be – maybe I have a heart of stone. I had trouble putting it down, which was surprising because based on reviews I was expecting this book to be ROUGH. I can’t remember the last time I read a better, more engaging novel. The review I am about to write is evidence that this novel demands serious thought.

So, what did I NOT like about it? The novel suffers because of it’s own hype. The parts everyone waxed poetic about (the extreme abuse and mental anguish the main character, Jude, goes through) were the parts of the novel that I felt were overdone and vaguely exploitative.

It felt like a betrayal at times, that a novel so expertly written made me feel the exact opposite of what the author was trying to make me feel. If you google A Little Life you will see an outpouring of emotion regarding Jude. You will also see a lot of hints of the horrific abuses he faces, which is why people label this novel “hard to read”. I got the sense with every escalating horror Jude lives through that Yanagihara was trying really, really hard to make Jude into a Christ figure. It felt like too much, mostly because I didn’t believe it. I don’t believe that one person can suffer all that abuse and then become an extremely rich and successful corporate litigator, for one thing. Sadly, I also don’t believe that someone can be as self-destructive as Jude and still hang on to a loving group of friends. I’ve heard Yanagihara say in interviews that she wanted A Little Life to be slightly off-kilter, like a fairy tale, and she’s right. I don’t believe that someone like Jude could have loving friendships and a successful career while also avoiding professional help. That’s a fairy tale, and it aggravated me.

The main feeling I felt towards Jude by the middle of the novel was annoyance at how he was written. There is so much glamorization of mental illness and suicidal people in fiction. What isn’t glamorized is the people who suffer and listen when their friends ask them to get help. This is serious – I am so sick of reading narratives about the beautifully suffering mental ill person who won’t get help. I resented the characterization of Jude, who is a complete martyr to the image of a mentally ill person who is brilliant and lovely in every way except that they keep trying to destroy themselves.

I nearly rolled my eyes out of my skull every time a character had to take a break in their interior narrative in order to think about how wonderful Jude was. When the novel isn’t focusing on Jude , it follows his group of college friends as they become very wealthy and successful in New York City. We are made to believe that these dudes are somehow exceptional, and I hated that.

It seems like I’m really tearing this book apart, but I do so out of love. I highly recommend this book, but I don’t want to join the chorus of people gushing over Jude and his friends. I am side-eyeing the tacky A Little Life tote bags – I just don’t get it. But, certainly, if you’re looking for a long read by someone who can write, and I mean really write – pick up A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara is an immense talent for sure.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

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Full disclosure, I listened to Landline as an audiobook, which may have heightened my irritation. Annoying characters in fiction are one thing, but when they are talking straight into your ears, they’re doubly annoying. But I won’t pull any punches, either. I didn’t like this novel very much, and I don’t think I’d like it much better if I had read it. I want to love Rainbow Rowell – Fangirl is one of my favorite YA novels in recent memory – but she keeps BORING me.

Landline suffers from the same thing that Eleanor & Park suffered from – boring characters with a boring love story, worrying about their boring conflict. Conflict that could be so easily solved if the characters just communicated with each other, and not in a charming sitcom way.

There were times where I was physically annoyed at how boring the narrative dared to be in Landline. No, I don’t want to hear a drawn out chapter about the main character being hungover, waking up at noon, not brushing her teeth, and then taking forever to get to work because she had to have a flashback memory about meeting her husband. The flashback memory? A boring conversation that more or less showed that the man she chose to marry, Neal – fucking Neal – is actually someone who has purposely disliked her their entire relationship. Not only is that boring, it’s MADDENING.

Georgie, our main character, is a wife, mother of two daughters, and TV comedy writer. She sounds cool, right? At the start of the novel, she and her writing partner, Seth, are offered a chance to write a new sitcom for a major producer. Not only that, it’s a show the pair has been dreaming of writing for years. The problem comes in when Georgie needs to stay in LA to write the show and attend meetings over the week of Christmas. She had originally planned to go with her family to visit Neal’s mother in Nebraska. And, the plane tickets are already bought, so Neal makes the executive decision that the family will still be going to Nebraska. Without Georgie.

Alright, I thought. Sounds sensible. Except Neal spends the next week IGNORING HIS WIFE’S CALLS LIKE A SAD THIRTEEN YEAR OLD BOY.

SOUNDS LIKE A KEEPER, RIGHT?

Instead of spending the next week writing an awesome television show and realizing her dreams, Georgie spends the week frantically trying to get in touch with her man child of a husband who is punishing her for having the nerve to choose her career over going to Omaha for four fucking days.

Basically, the whimsical part of the story is that Georgie, in her frantic husbandless state, goes to her mother’s house and tries to call Neal on a landline telephone. And–MAGIC ALERT–she reaches Neal. But it’s NEAL FROM THE 90s! College Neal. Neal before he proposed. So, the rest of the novel is Georgie talking to her old boyfriend. And, surprise: he was a miserable man child back then, too!

“Neal, neal, neal,” Georgie purrs, over and over again, so happy to hear her husband’s voice. And I’m thinking – why? Rowell gives us nothing to go on – why a funny, successful woman would be so in love with someone who keeps punishing her emotionally for being a funny, successful woman is beyond my understanding. A house husband who resents living in LA, resents Georgie for hanging out with TV writers, resents Georgie for working late nights, resents Georgie…for being Georgie. I hate that Rowell tries to pass this off for a love story. If this is what love is, I’d send it back.

This is where Landline completely falls. No amount of magic phones can make a story with such an unlikeable couple interesting to me. But I’m rooting for Rainbow Rowell. I like her characters, sometimes. Georgie and Seth were awesome. She just makes some poor choices – Neal, Neal, Neal. And, we never do find out if Georgie’s TV show gets picked up–which is just disheartening.

So, unless you love chapter-long telephone conversations about nothing in particular and stories of women choosing their unsupportive husbands over their careers, give this one a pass.

 

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman is about a black family that moves into a research institute to teach a chimp sign language. Throughout their stay, the institute’s history of eugenics experiments involving black people comes to light, and the main character, a teenage girl named Charlotte, starts to have the suspicion that history is repeating itself.

I find monkeys to be inherently unlikeable characters – don’t ask me why – and Charlie Freeman, the chimp in this novel, sort of proves my point. He’s a jerk. (On the subject of how nobody wants to read an adult novel about a chimp, here is my favorite review of this book on Goodreads so far.) But it turns out the novel isn’t really about him.

Nor is it really about Charlotte, who is a likable and smart teenager, but ultimately forgettable. The character I will remember from this novel is Charlotte’s mother, who was perplexing. The Freeman family was involved in the experiment at the mother’s insistence, and her relationship with Charlie quickly becomes sickeningly close. I had trouble grasping why the mother did what she did throughout much of the novel, but the novel is peppered with little tidbits about her that left me wanting more. She used black sign language out of principle. She was aspiring for career success and saw the experiment with Charlie as a way to prove her own importance. I was intrigued by her, but by the end the reader sees her the way her family sees her: through a lens of confused horror.

Still, Greenidge covers a lot of ground: eugenics, the way the scientific community can slant with prejudice, the racist depiction of black people as apes, and the limits of language when it comes to race. There is a lot to unpack here, which is why I was confused by how rushed it all felt. Like with the mother’s characterization, I wish she had spent more time going in depth about the experiments, and the way they reverberate into the culture. She goes there, but doesn’t always deliver.

Overall, though, it’s a solid debut effort. I will be watching to see what Kaitlyn Greenidge writes next.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

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Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart (out February 9th in the U.S.) was a hit in France under the title Réparer les vivants. According to Google Translate, the one and only most accurate translator, that means “Repair Living” (?).

It starts out describing a group of boys out on a surfing trip which ends in a car accident. All of the passengers are injured, but the story focuses on Simon, who enters a coma and is declared brain dead at the hospital. For a novel that starts out with such a horrible tragedy, the victims sort of fade into the background from that point on. Simon himself becomes more object than character – he is known only through the memories his family and girlfriend have of him. And then there’s the matter of what to do with his body.

Organ donation is sort of a hot-button topic, one that a lot of people feel strongly about, so I think a thoughtful novel about the subject will find a lot of readers. My main problem with The Heart is the way it’s wired: the writing style just fell flat for me. I just can’t stand overly descriptive writing, writing that flows like water out of your hands. Kerangal chooses lush, overflowing language over characterization. The narrative mind-jumps, going from character to character, and I had trouble keeping them all apart, characters that should have been so distinct – Simon’s mother, his father, his girlfriend, his little sister. I don’t feel like I know anything at all about them. With all that, the lack of dialogue, the run-on sentences, jumping from one point to the next, I just couldn’t get a grip on this story.

If you’re a fan of ruminating literary fiction, and you enjoy the writing style, The Heart may be a great read for you. I would suggest reading the first few pages, and if the writing style seems good for you, keep going. Objectively I think the writing is impressive, but sometimes things are overwritten in such a way that it is a disservice to the story, and that’s how I felt about The Heart. I was a bit bored. After all, when I’m reading a novel, I don’t want to be impressed – I want to be taken away. The Heart did not do that for me.