Sunday, November 5, 2017

Commonwealth

Commonwealth
Ann Patchett, 2016

I finished this book in hopes that there was going to be some payoff at the end for the long slog it was.  But I am still mystified at the heaps of praise it has received – “exquisite” (NYT), “a transporting experience” (LA Times), and on and on.  What is there that has captivated this A-list of critics, other than the inevitability of praise for someone who has won all the accolades this writer has?  Book reviewers seem to have the same herd mentality that we associate with Wall Street and silicon valley and fashion week.

Because what it is, is simply a long saga exploring different states of siblinghood.  Two couples that divorce, remarry, remarry again, as seen through the eyes of their children from their first marriages, over the course of their lives.  Threading it, to provide some suspense, is the death of one of the teenage sons under circumstances that are hinted to be transgressive and shocking but in the end are finally revealed to be comparatively pedestrian, if still sad and unfortunate.  Where are the “keen insights”, the “minimalism” that the esteemed critics see?  I am bemused.

The main sibling characters mostly failed to arouse my sympathy – and worse, the two girls whose pov is taken (Jeannette and Franny) are almost indistinguishable in their voices.  As is often the case in novels like these, it’s the men who are the worst, either selfish (Bert, the philandering father), blind (Fix, the cuckolded father), addicted (Albie, the confused son), hopelessly angry (Cal, who drugs Albie), or manipulative bastards (Leo, the famous older writer who Franny falls for). 

The women can be catty or overwhelmed, but not fundamentally flawed or malicious.  And in that sense, I suspect that is why the novel itself is weak.  It subconsciously guides us to take the side of the women, and in doing so loses the power that comes to a narrative from villains and flawed heroes – since these are actually located in the other gender. 

The characters that did intrigue me were in fact some of the side roles: Bonnie, the easily drunk, good-looking sister overshadowed by her movie-star beautiful sister Beverly; the priest who dances with her at the christening party in the opening chapter; Jeannette’s Guinean husband and baby; Franny’s Indian husband and kids.  Unfortunately, these are merely cardboard characters, quickly sketched and equally quickly discarded.  In fact the characterizations of Jeannette’s and Franny’s husband skate close to being convenient, multi-culti tokens designed to make the narrative feel contemporary and the wives seem liberally open-minded and “interesting”.

The actual storyboarding is technically skillful.  A complex set of family relationships is sketched with interleaving and nested flashbacks and flash-forwards.  It doesn’t always work – until the end I had difficulty keeping straight which kids belonged to which parent, and the last chapter, somewhat irrelevantly, brings in still more siblings out of the blue – but generally it is quite accomplished.  The suspense of the teenage son’s death is dosed out with great finesse,  Perhaps that is what the reviewers were responding to.  But, for all the technique, and all the finesse, there seems to be nothing substantial at the core.  Inadvertently, that may be the real message, the emptiness at the center of fragmented, confusing, modern American lives.

2*
Nov 2017

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover
Isabelle Allende, 2015.


I was looking for confident, grown-up, sophisticated writing, and as usual Allende provides that.  However, it is just not sufficient.

The novel's premise and indeed, storyline, is fascinating.  Alma, a young Jewish girl, is dispatched to safety from wartime Poland by her parents, into the arms of a distant but loving uncle and his family, the wealthy Belascos of San Francisco.  The girl knows, with precocious and insightful intuition, that she will never see her parents again.  In her new life she works hard to attach herself to her cousin, trying to recreate the adoring and close relationship she had with her brother in Poland.  Her cousin's best friend is Ichimei, the son of the household's Japanese gardener, who becomes the eponymous Japanese lover.

The novel traces Alma's maturing into a young woman, her eventual marriage, and her decades long affair with Ichimei.  There is a parallel thread of the young companion she hires, Irina, herself a displaced and damaged refugee, and her involvement with the Belascos.  Along the way there is a description of the shameful Japanese internment as experienced by Ichimei's family.

In this way the novel is similar to Allende's other books, that cover generations and national histories.  But somehow the story is curiously flat.  There are pages of descriptions of Alma's clandestine passion for Ichimei, but no passion itself.  The story is told from the vantage point of the end of Alma's life, when she seems aloof, condescending, and dried up; unattractive central characters are hard to take in a novel of this sort.  Irina -- bright, energetic, sympathetic -- could have been the grease for the skids, but her story is allowed to peter out.

In the end I found I had lost interest in Alma, and the other characters were not fully developed enough for me to be hooked.  There was also a strange anachronistic quality to the writing which further created distance.  Somehow it felt like the story belonged to the 1940s, or even to the mid 1800s, and from time to time I would be jarred by references to very current dates and events, up to and including this decade.  (Interestingly, the cover art reinforces this sense.)

Most disappointing, though, was the description of the relationship between Alma and Ichimei.  Here is rich material, that can be mined for all the nuances of the potentially explosive differences of class, race, religion and national origin -- exactly the kind of material that D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forester and Henry James mined to such great effect, in a prose and style that seems to be from the same epoch as Allende's.  But all of this is skimmed over, touched on lightly or in passing, as if it were a bad romance novel -- but without the bodice heaving.

2*
Mar 2016


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Leap Year

Leap Year, dir. Anand Tucker, 2010.
Starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.


What a waste of Amy Adams.  How could she go from her luminous, affecting, authentic performance in, say, Junebug, to this forced cliche?  She tries her best to carry the film, since her co-star, Matthew Goode, is just good looks and fumbled, mumbled Irish accent.  The camera lingers on the curve of her cheek and the sheen in her eyes, but in the end it's hopeless.

This movie adheres pretty slavishly to the classic romcom roadtrip plotline (spoiled rich girl meets cynical laconic man who falls for her during the course of numerous plot twists and reversals).  Since It Happened One Night there have been probably dozens of retellings, including in Bollywood.  Some of them felt quite fresh at the time (such as A Sure Thing, in 1985, with John Cusack at the height of his ragged, boyish charm).



Perhaps the only thing different here was that the female lead gets most of the screentime.  But otherwise predictable, boring, and uninspired.   In fact, it seems Matthew Goode went on record as saying that he reckoned this film was the year's worst, and he took the part only as it allowed him to fly back to London on weekends.

What a waste.

1*
2015