BOOK REVIEWS

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

“All men are the same, they only know how to love themselves and to sit on women.”

His Only Wife is an engrossing story that hooked me from the very first line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.”. The novel tells the story of Afi, a young woman who works as a seamstress in a small town in Ghana. When Faustina Ganyo, her benefactor who also happens to be her widowed mother’s boss, arranges her marriage to her own son, Afi views it as a great honour and a lifetime opportunity. She feels indebted to Aunty and wants to please her own mother. Before the marriage Afi is informed of Elikem’s particular situation: he has a daughter with his a woman from Liberia, whom is hated by the Ganyos. Afi is meant to replace her, to bring Elikem back into the fold of the Ganyo family.
Once in Accra, Afi finds herself growing restless. In spite of her beautiful new apartment and her newly acquired wealth, she questions the validity of her marriage: after all, she only saw her Elikem years previously and has yet to meet him as her husband. Her Aunty, her brother-in-law, and her mother try to placate her anxiety, telling her tall-tales about the ‘Liberian woman’ has brainwashed him and of how Elikem’s daughter poor health. When Afi finally gets to meet her husband she finds herself falling head-over-heels for him. He’s attractive and influential, and Afi is willing to conform to the role of ideal wife for him.
As time passes, and Afi begins studying fashion and bonding with her brother-in-law’s lover, she begins to chafe against the constraints imposed by the Ganyos, who time and again tell her not too demand too much from her husband, and remind her, subtly and not, of the advantages brought by her marrying ‘upward’. When Afi grows increasingly jealous of the ‘Liberian woman’, she begins to disregards the Ganyos’ and her husband’s, desires and demands.

Quotidian spaces and seemingly ordinary conversations lead to fraught disagreements and disconcerting realisations. Afi’s flashy new abode is the setting of many tense scenes, with her husband, the Ganyos’, her mother. The drama ’caused’ by the ‘Liberian woman’ creates a lot of conflict between Afi and her husband (and the Ganyos in general). As Afi grows tired of her circumstances, of being told to be grateful and to sit tight, she begin to crave autonomy and power in her own marriage.

While the tension between Afi and the rest of the characters made for some pretty absorbing scenes, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by Afi. While it made sense for her to be naive, she just seemed to get used to her new life pretty fast (she treats staff poorly). Her devotion, verging on obsession, over Elikem didn’t really convince me. One meeting and she’s seemingly in love? Yet, for the majority of the novel he dons’t treat her nicely, showing ‘kindness’ only once or twice towards the end of the narrative. That she believes all the gossip about his ‘other’ woman also struck me as unrealistic. She’s aware of how the Ganyos treat and speak of the people who ‘wronged’ them, surely she would consider the possibility of those stories being less than truthful? Then it seemed that all of a sudden the idea of this ‘other’ woman was unbearable to her, when she knew from the very start that he was already in a relationship with someone else (making Afi the ‘other’ woman).
Her character development is kind of rushed. At the end she finally seems to get her act together, but by then I was no longer enjoying her narrative.
Part of me wishes that the Liberian woman had also been given a pov, making the novel feel less biased. I also wish that we could have seen more of Afi without the Ganyos (for example scenes while she’s studying fashion would have been nice, or even her socialising with more people outside of her apartment).
Still, Medie does touch upon relevant issues, such the impact and pressure exerted by family and social expectations, and emphasising the double standards in marriage throughout the course of her narrative. Medie also depicts the sexist attitudes of those in Afi and the Ganyos’ circle (a friend of husband says this: “man wasn’t made to be with one woman. You’re a lion, you should have an entire pride!” and I saw red).
Love, jealousy, betrayal, and angst add some spice to the story, making for some mostly entertaining reading material.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflecting glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.”

Milk Blood Heat is a promising debut, one that I’m sure will be well-received by readers who enjoy lyrical proses. While I personally found Moniz’s style to be occasionally a bit too flowery and/or impressionistic (“she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She is vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams” / “my mouth a black cave, ugly and squared” / “I want to swallow my mouth—to fold in my lips and chew until they burst” / “my body felt made of stars”), I was nevertheless absorbed by her rather mesmerising storytelling.
Like most collections of short stories, some aren’t as memorable or well-executed as others, but even in the stories that I didn’t find particularly affecting there were moments or scenes that stood out (in a good way).

Most of these stories seem to possess an ambiguous quality, offering little resolution or at times clarity on the characters’ feelings and/or futures. With the exception of two stories, most seem to be centred on either a young girl or woman whose lives are about to change or are in the process of changing. In the first one, ‘Milk Blood Heat’, follows a young girl, Ava, who spends her days playing with her white best friend, Kiera and begins to question their differences: This year she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways. Although Ava’s mother disapproves of Kiera and her wild ways, the two girls are inseparable, or they are until tragedy strikes.
The second story, ‘Feast’, a woman is the deep thralls of depressions after having a miscarriage. She begins to resent her partner, as he seems not as affected by their loss. Moniz renders the uneasiness and sadness that have become backdrop to the woman’s every thought and action, revealing how deeply her miscarriage has altered her state of being. Her grief, the disturbing visions she has, her numbness are hauntingly conveyed through Moniz’s sharp yet poetic language (which in this instance worked perfectly with the kind of story she was telling).
Most of the other stories explore similar themes (grief, identity, motherhood, friendship) without ever seeming repetitive. Two stories seem centred on a girl’s passage from youth to adulthood, one that forces them reconsider their worldview and notions of good and bad (especially in terms of their sexuality), and each one gives us a different take on ‘growing up’.
My favourite stories were probably ‘The Heart of Our Enemies’ (which focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship) and ‘Snow (in which a young woman is having second thoughts about her marriage). The two I liked the least were ‘The Loss of Heaven’ and ‘Exotics’ (which was short and employed a first-person plural perspective, ‘we’, that came across as an exercise for a creative writing class).
Even if Moniz’s prose was a bit too sticky and snappy at times (a la ‘girls are daggers/my eyes are full of stars’), I still was able to appreciate the majority of her stories and I look forward to what she will write next.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

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Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.

The Story
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.

The ‘Future’
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).

The Characters
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Three by D.A. Mishani

Three wasn’t quite the “dark psychological thriller with a killer twist” I was anticipating. The blurb and cover suggests a far more suspenseful and possibly subversive tale that the one D. A. Mishani actually delivers. The novel’s tripartite structure didn’t feel particularly original as it has become quite popular in novels that fall under the ‘domestic thriller’ genre (more than once I was reminded of Erin Kelly’s Stone Mothers). The summary available for Three is really inaccurate. Yes, Three follows three women who live in Israel and meet the same man, Gil, who works as an immigration lawyer. One of them is a divorced single-mother, the other one is a Latvian immigrant who works as a caregiver, and the third one is a married woman who is working on her thesis. While the summary truthfully states that Gil “won’t tell them the whole truth about himself”, it is kind of stretching things when it says that these three women won’t “tell him everything either”. And that last bit about this novel being”a declaration of war against the normalisation of death and violence” is ludicrous.

MILD-SPOILERS BELOW

The first woman begins to date Gil even if she isn’t all that enamoured by him. The second one is under the misapprehension that Gil is an okay guy. The third doesn’t seem to want to take things further with him but then is somehow disarmed by Gil’s nonexistent power of persuasion. The three women don’t meet, and their narrative succeed each other chronologically. The first one is saturated by the woman angst-ing over her ex and her son. The second one portrays an immigrant woman as not all that bright and goes for the stereotype of the ‘foreign caregiver steals’. The third one has slightly more momentum than the previous two, as things by then have kind of escalated, but it didn’t offer any surprisings twists or a satisfyingly cathartic denouement.
Two of the women are painfully naive, prone to hysterics and self-pitying. Gil was portrayed in a vaguely ambiguous manner, but mostly he remains off-page and maybe that’s why I didn’t find his character to be credible.
I could have put up with the novel’s many clichés if it hadn’t been for the author’s writing style: all telling, no showing. There are very few dialogues, and most of the conversations are simply recounted to us. This passive re-telling of what the characters said to each other did little to add immediacy to the story. The third-perspective merely described what the characters do without ever delving under their surface, which had the effect of making these three women rather one-dimensional.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel—especially to those who were intrigued by this novel’s misleading summary—I’m sure that there will be readers who find this kind of storytelling to be entertaining.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane – book review

{BCDD7B8F-9FFC-4D64-A58A-5C4F6BC77B70}Img100.jpgDennis Lehane has written many superb novels, and while Since We Fell demonstrates many of his strengths, the story seems a lot less focused than his usual ones.

The intriguing prologue leads into a story which follows Rachel Childs. In the first 1/4 of the novel we follow her quest for her father. I found this part interesting and I believed that it would relate somehow to the prologue or to later events…it did not. This whole section seems to belong to a different novel altogether, and this ‘disjointed’ impression became stronger as the story ends up becoming close to an action-film.
There are many things that I enjoyed. Lehane’s writing style is propelling enough so that even in the the slower chapters I remained interested in the storyline. He can create nuanced and memorable characters with just a few sentences, and his ability to capture different personalities is, as per usual, amazing. Rachel’s character arch was compulsive and Lehane manages to trace and contextualise many of her weakness and traumas back to her childhood and to one fateful trip she took as a news reporter to Haiti.
What didn’t ‘grab’ me was the romance. The relationship between Rachel and her husband…so much remains unexplained that I found the ending to be hugely underwhelming. So many pages are wasted on things that have little to no bearing to the story and then in the last act of the novel things just ‘kick-off’ in a mad series of action and chase scenes.
Overall, this novel was less than the sum of its part. There were some brilliant moments that brimmed with suspense, but there were also many scenes which felt silly and over the top.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker : review

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In spite of its intriguing premise Cassandra at the Wedding is a novel that is obscured by an impenetrable and confounding narration.
The story is divided in three sections, two of which are from the point of view of Cassandra. Her narrative reflects her state of mind and she reports things with a puzzling intense yet unfocused perspective. Her mind jumps from thought to thought, and she often provides no context—or reason—for what she thinks or observes which leaves readers trying to navigate her increasingly mystifying thought-pattern .
The novel is very much focused on Cassandra and her identity. Characters describe her personality in a way that suggests that she is much more alluring and passionate than she actually is. Cassandra spends way too much time exploring her sense of self, providing little information or motivation in the situations that would actually benefit from more clarity on her part.
She is depressed, unhappy, unfixed. Her life seems to have spiralled out of control after her sister moved away from their shared apartment. While the confusing style does reflect her skewed perceptions it also distances readers from her experiences. So much is unsaid that it was hard to find reasons to sympathise with her or her struggles.
Her sexuality is only vaguely hinted at which given the time the book was written in, it does ‘make sense’ but then…why include this aspect of her character if you will barely acknowledge it? Moreover, Cassandra’s obsession with her twin sister seemed far too undeveloped and unexplained. Her fixation seems the drive of this narrative, yet there seemed little substance to her relationship with her sister.
In conclusion, I was hoping that this novel would be far more innovative and entertaining than it actually was.

 

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Loving Donovan : Book Review

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Loving Donovan
by Bernice L. McFadden
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

The title of this novel is somewhat misleading. While yes, there is plenty of love to be found within these pages, it is almost obscured by the many harrowing scenes that make up most of the novel.
McFadden’s writing is both direct and expressive which made her story all the more vivid. The narrative follows Campbell and Donovan from the childhood to their adulthood. Although we know from the prologue that these two characters will at some point meet and fall in love, most of the novel (say 60%) is focused on their ‘history’. In chronicling their lives McFadden also brings into the picture the lives of their families and friends. The novel presents us with two complex and layered families as well as with a community that is divided by love and hate. There is cheating, jealousies, prejudices, and an array of other things that make their way into these relationships.
While I was absorbed by these characters much of what happens to them is horrifying and not easy to read. Pedophilia and rape mark the lives of many of the characters, and we see just how traumatising their past experiences are and the effect they have in shaping the rest of their lives. While there were many moving and touching moments these were almost obscured by the brutalities that occur throughout the narrative.
I wish that we had seen more of the relationship between Campbell and Donovan. The last section of the novel seemed hurried, especially when compared to the rest of the story. The ending was somewhat unsatisfying and left me wanting more out of the whole thing.

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