Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Walter and Patty Berglund were classic gentrifiers of St. Paul: present, communicative parents, advocates for healthy food and a better environment, model citizens.  The two were the envy of their neighbors–a perfect example of a happy marriage.   In the new millennium, though, things have started to go awry.  When their teenage son moves in with the neighbors, Walter quits his job to work for Big Coal, and Patty seems to go a little batty, people start to wonder about what has happened to their neighbors.

Franzen is one of those divisive writers people either love or love to hate.  His follow up to The Corrections is an ambitious, epically sprawling novel that tries to encapsulate the feelings of the new millennium through a nuclear family, but it falls short of its ultimate goal.  Despite an intriguing premise and an intricately-woven narrative (told in alternating perspectives from some of the book’s characters), Franzen’s novel ultimately feels a little unsatisfying.

Part of the problem is the novel’s own self-involvement.  Although Franzen’s main point–that the word “freedom” has become a sort of a catch-all for the pursuit of individual liberties–as well as becoming synonymous with “power,” the novel ends up so obsessed with the word “freedom” that every time the word (or a version of it) appears, it seems to scream “LOOK! THEME!  THEME! THEME!”  The fact that Franzen beats the reader over the head with his point is not particularly endearing.

Neither, then, are his characters.  While they are certainly compelling characters (with, perhaps, the exception of the Berglund’s son Joey, who is slimy and weaselly and completely disgusting), none are particularly likable.  The characters are richly drawn and deeply flawed, but their flaws make them whiny, selfish, and annoying.  It doesn’t seem as though any one of them learns a thing about themselves, and in a novel this long, that’s…a difficult pill to swallow.

All of this isn’t to say that this reader didn’t enjoy the novel.  Parts of it are particularly enjoyable–Franzen’s tour through parts of the Twin Cities are fun for Minnesotans especially.  Rich writing and well-developed characters make for an interesting (if not always completely engaging) read.  However, Franzen’s tone–which goes from sardonic and archly ironic to flat-out tragic–makes the book’s ending hard to take.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2010.  Purchased copy.

Book Review: Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

For Isabella, Mary, and Lauren, life is full of bridal showers, wedding showers, and weddings.  It seems as though every girl they know is getting married.  They play their roles as bridesmaids and friends well, but they also struggle with their own lives and what they want.  All three girls struggle with careers, boys who are less than worthy, and the very real fear of never getting exactly what they want–if only they could figure out what it is that they want.

Jennifer Close’s low-key coming-of-age novel about three girls who face their twenties with apprehension, wit, and a lot of alcohol is fairly entertaining fare.  Told from the alternating perspectives of all three girls in loosely connected chapters, Close’s novel is lightly sardonic and often poignant.  It is chick lit for readers who like smart novels.

By far the strongest aspect of Close’s novel are her undeniably believable characters.  The girls in Close’s novel feel like people I know (and maybe even am, sometimes).  Although the characters feel a little indistinguishable at times, there’s no denying that they are authentic.  Close fills her novel with humor, heartache, and a bit of optimism (careful optimism, though).  The events that transpire are illustrative of life in your 20s.

Despite the lightly sardonic tone that Close keeps in her prose, there’s no denying the hint of melancholy that runs throughout the novel.  All of the characters are searching, and though each girl seems to find at least a semblance of happiness at the end, the reader can’t help but feel the uncertainty that the future holds.

Recommended.  I enjoyed this one even though it made me sad in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close.  Knopf: 2011.  Library copy.

Book Review: Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Three generations of Kelleher women descend upon the family’s property in Maine for an unforgettable summer.  Alice, the family’s matriarch, reflects on her life and the past 60 years of the summer home.  Kathleen, the black sheep daughter, struggles with her decision to never go back East again.  Ann Marie, the dutiful daughter-in-law with a martyr complex, fuels her marital frustrations into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush.  Maggie, 32 and newly pregnant, works to understand what it would mean to raise a child without her childish boyfriend.

J. Courtney Sullivan’s sophomore effort delves into the innermost lives and secrets of these four women.  The women are part of a dysfunctional family whose tragedies and heartbreaks are like those of other families, but Sullivan manages to craft a novel that is thoughtful and often meditative.  It is also really, really entertaining.

The rotating perspectives in the novel provide fresh insight into old wounds.  Sullivan manages to create distinct voices and personalities for all four Kelleher women, but she succeeds the most with Ann Marie, the only narrator to marry into the family.  Ann Marie’s a woman bored with her domestic life and obsessed with miniature dollhouses.  She goes out of her way for people and resents them when they don’t do the same for her.  Her zig-zagging thoughts are a nice reprise from the other Kelleher women’s rehashing of old family wounds.

The character of Alice is also remarkably well-drawn.  It is somewhat surprising that she is so much more strongly filled out than the young writer Maggie, whom Sullivan would be most likely to identify.  Alice’s memories of her past life haunt her and propel her drinking and devout Catholicism.  The observations of generational changes in the lives of these women are painful and particularly astute as Alice reflects on what her life could have been in a different time.

Slow to start, Maine builds upon itself into a beautiful novel.  Sullivan really hits her mark once all the women are in Maine, away from the rest of their lives and families.  It is here that the narration comes to life, the story picks up its pace, the dialogue starts to sizzle.  When the novel ends–summer not yet over–the reader can’t help but what will happen in July and August.  A reluctance to leave these women is the mark of a truly compelling story.

Highly, highly recommended.  I loved this one.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan.  Knopf: 2011.  Library copy.

Book Review: Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

For Rebecca, the abandonment by her mother when she was a small child is something that she’s never been able to reconcile.  Something of a lost soul, she finds herself in Athens after a short stint as a flight attendant.  It is here that she meets George, a linguist who loves alcohol, and later meets Henry, a man who has come to Athens to dig.  These three lonely people become mixed up in each other’s lives and find that they are inextricably linked.

If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Simon Van Booy’s debut novel is going to polarize readers.  Full of rich prose (seriously, really good stuff can be found here) and aimless, lost characters, the novel harkens back to an age when Greece was a destination for young, idealistic wanderers (who come from a background of privilege, to be sure).  There’s something vaguely Hemingway-esque about Van Booy’s characters, and it’s all very intentional.  The polarizing of readers will happen when they think about the novel, though.  Some will consider it nostalgia that’s completely overdone while others will hail this book as a contemporary masterpiece.

I fall somewhere in the middle.  The language in the book certainly is beautiful.  Van Booy’s characters are rich and definitely layered, full of strange little idiosyncrasies that make them all the more real.  The plot moves fairly quickly, and it will definitely suck readers in.  Van Booy is often in danger of romanticizing grief, but it never fully spills over.  There is definite substance here, and it’s worth investigating.

Yet I could never shake the feeling that Van Booy was trying too hard.  It feels as though all of the nostalgia that Van Booy evokes with his rendering of a long-past Athens (set in present day?) is too intentional.  The comparisons to Hemingway and Fitzgerald are likely to continue to roll in, but when you feel like that’s what the author was going for when he wrote the story, it takes something out of it.

That doesn’t mean that the book won’t find an audience.  It’s going to resonate with readers who take pleasure in stories full of rich prose and vivid characters.  Van Booy is a talented writer, and his career is one to track.

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy.  HarperCollins: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

(#32) Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

In the not-too-distant future, a virus has made everyone over the age of eighteen infertile.  People pay teenage girls to get pregnant and give birth as Surrogettes, and this has made teens quite the hot commodity.  The better one’s genes are, the more money a girl can potentially earn with each pregnancy.  Going professional means entering the highest echelon of society, and that is exactly where Melody’s parents want her.  They’ve groomed her for it, and she’s days away from bumping with an equally-desirable boy.

When Melody meets her long-lost identical twin sister Harmony, the two girls realize that each of them has been living a life in complete opposition to the other.  While Melody has spent her life preparing for her role as a Surrogette, Harmony has been living a quiet, chaste life in religious Goodside.  The two girls could not be more different, but as they get to know each other, they start to feel a sort of affection for one another.  The entrance of Jondoe, a professional sperm donor, complicates things, and both girls will have to make some hard choices.

Hailed as McCafferty’s first official YA novel, Bumped is not the next Jessica Darling novel.  Fans of McCafferty’s awesome and hilarious series should know that going into this one.  Where the Jessica Darling novels were grounded in reality and humor, Bumped is an incredibly satirical look at the present state of our culture and the sexploitation of young girls.

McCafferty is at her best when allowing her natural humor to show through.  She’s a sharp, funny writer, and her observations about culture are astute and spot-on.  Although the jargon starts to wear a little thin as one reads through the story, the underlying purpose is clear and it never feels completely gratuitous.  There isn’t a ton of world-building, which will frustrate some readers, but there’s enough so that one never feels too lost.

Told in alternating perspectives between Melody and Harmony, it was sometimes difficult to remember who was who, even though the girls have very different personalities.  Both girls are smart and articulate and driven in their own ways.  One wouldn’t expect anything less than some strong female characters from McCafferty, though.  Unafraid to tackle sex straight-on, this book deals with teen pregnancy and teen sex in a real way while also keeping its satirical edge.

Although it starts off slow, readers who can get past the first 50 pages or so will be rewarded.  It’s a fun read on the surface with some deeper meaning hidden below.  An examination and critique of pop culture are present here, and McCafferty is sure to delve even deeper into those issues with the follow-up, which she is writing  now (yes, there is a little bit of a cliff-hanger).

Bumped hits shelves on April 26, 2011.

Bumped by Megan McCafferty, Balzer + Bray, 2011. Electronic galley accepted for review.

(#29) Book Review: Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Three years after the accident that killed Mia’s entire family, she’s a rising cellist star at Julliard, and her ex-boyfriend Adam is the frontman for popular rock band Shooting Star.  He’s the subject of much tabloid-scrutiny and is falling into the cliche of tortured rock star: popping pills, drinking before noon, having what amounts to a pseudo-existential crisis.  When Adam and Mia cross paths in New York the night before they’re both due for performances in other countries, the two begin to open up to each other after years of silence.

I read Where She Went the day after I completed If I Stay.  There was a lot of anticipation on the internet about the release of the sequel to Gayle Forman’s excellent novel about a young girl on the brink of death.  While I really enjoyed If I Stay, this one didn’t have the same emotional connection for me.  Ultimately, I was left a little cold by this one, readers.

It’s not that Forman isn’t a talented writer.  She is, without a doubt, a strong writer, both technically and emotionally.  She manages to create characters that are flawed and emotionally raw.  Both Adam and Mia make connections to each other and the reader that are important and real.

Telling this story from Adam’s perspective was clever, and it offered a fresh take on the story.  It allows the reader insight into his actions and thoughts in a way that wasn’t possible with the first book.  The problem with reading the story from Adam’s perspective, however, is that the reader has no idea what Mia is thinking or feeling, and this distance that is created is a bit isolating.  Of course, that might be the entire point: Adam is in the dark about what happened to his relationship with Mia three years ago, and his mounting frustration and anger have to build up in order to be released.  Even so, reading the two books so close together made this harder for me to deal with as a reader.

Many readers are going to genuinely enjoy this story and the continuing saga of Adam and Mia.  There are a ton of gushing and glowing reviews out there already.  It’s not that I didn’t like this book–I did–but something about it didn’t connect for me the way the first one did.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is missing.  I could have done without the super-emo lyrics at the start of the chapters, that’s for sure.

Overall satisfying, fans of If I Stay shouldn’t miss this one.  It’s definitely worth a read, despite my reservations.

Where She Went by Gayle Forman, Dutton Juvenile: 2011.  Electronic galley provided by publisher.

(#28) Book Review: Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz

Over the course of four summers at his family’s beach house, Chase McGill grows up.  He falls in love, discovers sex and lust, and watches as his family changes and evolves in front of his eyes.  He and his siblings mark their lives by their summers, but as they grow up, their relationship to the beach house and to each other begins to change.

Hannah Moskowitz is still in college, and this is her second novel.  Setting aside my serious envy about that particular life achievement, there’s no doubt that she’s a talented writer.  The story she’s crafted here is a dark, complex, layered look at the slow disintegration of a family and what happens as a result.  Full of prose that is at times sparse and very often beautiful, this is a novel that is meant to be read slowly and savored.

Chase is a character who is torn between clinging to his childhood and the nostalgia he holds for the way his family once was while also racing towards adulthood.  In this way he eclipses his older brother Noah as the caretaker of the rest of their siblings, and he struggles with trying to be the glue that holds his family together.  As Chase grows up over the course of the four summers at the beach house, he realizes that despite his nickname “Everboy,” he cannot remain a child forever.

Moskowitz is at her strongest when exploring the family dynamics of the McGills.  It’s clear that Moskowitz is interested in dysfunctional families.  Everyone in the family has a problem, and the problem is making them pretty unhappy.  The misery of his parents is palpable.  Noah’s propensity to take off for days creates a tension both in the family and in the reader that lingers even after his abrupt, unexplained returns.  Little sister Claudia’s way-too-early sexualization and impatience to grow up seem to be ignored by nearly everyone.  Gideon is almost eight and despite being completely deaf, still doesn’t know how to read or sign properly.

As I said before, this is a dark story, and intuitive readers will be able to sense that bad things are going to happen to this family. Readers beware: things are going to get much, much worse before they get better.  It’s an emotional read, and the sense of  foreboding will follow you to the end.  While I was reading, I kept hoping for a happy ending, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case.  (I should have known, what with the way the characters kept quoting Camus all the time.)

There were several problems I had with the book.  Although Chase sounds like a teenager, I never really bought the fact that he was a teenage boy.  His relationship with his brother Noah, the way that he related to him and the way that he related to others and expressed his thoughts never quite worked for me, and I couldn’t help but feel like Chase was too much a product of Moskowitz’s own thought process to be completely natural.

While some reviewers have talked about struggling with the characters’ obsession with reading and quoting Camus, I don’t share that opinion.  I’m willing to overlook and even buy into an obsession like that because Camus was a gorgeous, melancholic writer, and because teenagers get obsessed about things like that.  Is it pretentious?  Of course.  Are they children playing at being adults?  Yes, obviously.  That’s part of youth.  For me, the Camus-laden paragraphs were a nice touch and added even more beauty and melancholy to the story.

What I struggled with was the fact that none of the characters were ever fully developed.  This was more frustrating than usual for me because Moskowitz obviously spent time developing these characters, we still never go deep enough into their minds and lives to better understand them.  Many of the actions of the characters didn’t make sense, and this made it harder for me to accept parts of the story, especially when it came to Chase and Noah both sleeping with Melinda (yeah, there’s an ick factor there).  Neither one of them seems to have a normal reaction to this, and that really, really bothered me.

Invincible Summer is not a simple beach read, despite what the (somewhat irritating) cover wants to tell you.  The novel is actually a complex family drama being marketed as a summer-romance angst-fest, which could actually do it a disservice.  Those looking for a fun, sexy read should look elsewhere, because this book is about as depressing as a Camus story.  However, it would be silly of me not to recommend picking up a copy of this when it hits shelves on April 19, because it’s a thought-provoking read that is going to sit with me for a long, long time.

Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz.  Simon Pulse: April 19, 2011. Digital Galley accepted for review from publisher.

(#27) Book Review: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

When seventeen-year-old Mia’s family is involved in a terrible car accident one snowy morning in Washington, she doesn’t feel the impact of the crash.  One minute she’s driving along with her family, and the next she’s standing next to her body as emergency workers try to save her life.  Stuck in an in-between state, Mia watches as the people who love her sit by her side in the hospital.  As she flashes back over events in her life, she has to decide whether to let go or stay.

Gayle Forman’s beatiful, sparse novel about love and loss and growing up is at times poignant, funny, and heartbreaking.  Forman is a strong writer whose technical skill is matched by her ability to create vivid, whole characters.  This is not a book about death so much as it is a book about celebrating life.

Forman is at her best when writing the tender, funny scenes between Mia and her family.  Although they are not a perfect family by any means, it is clear that they love and respect one another.  This is a family that genuinely enjoys the company of each other, and they have had a lot of happy times together.  Each character was well-developed and had a chance to become real to me as a reader, a rare but welcome experience.

This is a book that should be read slowly and savored.  Although it’s not long, Forman’s writing is deliberate and focused, and each memory that Mia relates to the reader is important in shaping who she–and the people around her–are.  Rushing through it won’t do a reader any good, because much of the meaning will be lost.  This is an ultimately uplifting book that will leave readers feeling emotional.

Highly recommended.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman: Dutton Juvenile, 2009.  Library copy.

 

(#14) Book Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Amy is frozen alongside her parents and placed as cargo upon the spaceship Godspeed.  The journey is supposed to last 300 years, but when Amy is awakened 50 years early, she finds herself aboard a ship where life is very different from the one she’s known.  The spaceship is run by a tyrannical dictator who has spun a web of lies to keep the ship’s inhabitants calm and complacent.  When someone on the ship starts unplugging other frozen people on the ship and leaving them for dead, she realizes that her awakening wasn’t accidental, and she has to work to figure out who’s behind it before it’s too late.

Much has been made about the fact that true-blue science fiction is a rarity in the YA world these days, and that Beth Revis’s Across the Universe may exactly the cure for that dearth of genre fiction.  Many people are fed up with the paranormal romances that crowd shelves these days, and are looking for other outlets to explore.  In that way, Revis’s debut novel offers a fresher perspective, for sure.  However, the final product isn’t quite as great as it could be.

The novel is told in alternating perspectives between Amy Martin, frozen-girl-wonder, and Elder, the future leader of the ship.  Because Revis is a talented writer, she is able to pull off this gimmick.  A less technically skilled writer would struggle with this narrative choice and the story would flounder as a result, but Revis keeps the pace moving along at a clip and the plotting is tight.  It’s a long book, but most readers will devour it in large chunks (or even one sitting) because the suspense builds effectively enough to keep readers engaged.

Also worth mentioning is Revis’s ability to create a subtle world of horrors on the spaceship.  Her slow unveiling of the seedy underbelly of the ship’s goings on builds tension and disgust within the reader, and it makes for a compelling story.  Instead of pulling from other authors who have covered the dystopian genre, Revis manages to go deeper within her own story, carving out a space in the genre and creating a complex world where there are no easy answers. However, there are things that didn’t quite work for me, either.

The voices of Amy and Elder were well-developed, but Elder was the more interesting and complex of the two characters.  Amy seemed a little too every-girl for me, and her blandness made her passages less interesting than Elder’s.

Not every part of the story gelled for me, either.  There were some issues with characters and realistic actions.  These moments required a suspension of belief, which I always have trouble swallowing, but I understand why Revis took the liberties she did in order to make the story compelling and exciting. The book is set to be part of a trilogy, and while I’m sure I’ll pick up the next volume, I don’t think I’ll be in a terrible rush to do so.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis. Razorbill: 2011.  Library copy.

(#5) Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

For five-year-old Jack, Room is all he’s ever known.  The 11-by-11 soundproof room that he and his Ma live in is where he was born and where they do all their playing.  To Jack, it’s home, but to Ma, it’s the prison where she’s been held by her captor Old Nick for the last seven years.  As Jack becomes more inquisitive about the outside world, Ma becomes more desperate to break free of their prison.

What is remarkable about Donoghue’s novel is that she explores the different kinds of restraints present in Jack’s situation: the limited point of view that he possesses, and the physical limitations that he and Ma face in their tiny room, which is both a prison and Jack’s whole world.  As the reader, we can only see what Jack sees, and we only know what he knows.  Because of this unique approach, the dramatic tension is immediate, and the pace, which could be slow, isn’t simply because Donoghue creates rising action that sucks the reader in and doesn’t let them go.

Jack’s voice is what sets this story apart from others in a similar vein: Donoghue manages to keep Jack’s voice authentic but not precocious.  This is an essential skill if one is writing a book that is told entirely from the perspective of a five-year-old, because many readers would not be able to maintain an interest in the story if the narrator was too grating or unrealistically mature.  Indeed, some readers still took issue with Jack’s voice and laid criticism on his naming of objects with capital letters, making them proper nouns.  Bed, Wardrobe, Toilet, and Rug were all objects in Room, and while some readers found this irksome (as they also found some of his syntactic tendencies), it makes sense that he would see these things as living beings in a way, because they are all he knows in his world with his Ma.

It is impossible to review this book without revealing some mild spoilers, so it is with that warning that I continue on.  Once Jack enters the outside world, there is a lot to take in, and the tone of the novel changes slightly.  Seeing the familiar world through the eyes of someone completely new to it adds dimension and complexity.  Donoghue navigates this extremely well, and it’s clear that she’s considered the consequences of Jack’s early life in Room thoroughly before placing him outside of it.  The novel as a whole is an entirely engaging, thoroughly riveting read, and it comes highly recommended from this reader.

Room by Emma Donoghue.  Little, Brown & Company, 2010. Borrowed Copy.