Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Marriage Plot


Every once in a while my husband and I muse upon what we think would be the best job ever. He supposes a third string NFL quarterback would suit him just fine—as long as QB A and QB B would remain injury free...allowing the third-stringer to stay on the sidelines, keeping stats and collecting a nice salary. I, on the other hand, fancy myself a movie critic…a regular ole Siskel or Ebert, using that most sophisticated analytical metric: thumbs up or thumbs down. I'd only have a slight hesitancy to sincerely critique. That's not true. I'd have an enormous hesitancy to sincerely critique. It's just not my forte, bringing me to my point. (Sorry, to take such a circuitous route to get here.) I agonized whether to write a book review of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Because despite the rave reviews of this Pulitzer Prize winning author, I didn't love the book.

I imagined what I’d say if I ever met Mr. Eugenides–if he asked me his opinion of his book. First of all, I doubt he’d care about my lowly opinion. But, if he did, here’s what I’d say.

“Well, Jeff, (May I call you Jeff? Or, do you prefer Jeffrey?) you’re obviously a bright man, well-read in a miscellany of subjects. As a matter of fact, I think your scholarly disposition might precisely be the reason why I couldn’t connect to any particular character in the story. Blame it on my blue-collar upbringing. But I assumed I’d relate to a few characters, since I was, after all, an English major. But no. I actually found most of the players...tedious–even those in the infamous love triangle–Maddie, Leonard, and Mitchell. (And believe me, I really adore a good love triangle. Who doesn't? As a matter of fact,I think a person's obsession with a love story might actually be a premise for this novel.) Anyway, I need to temper my comments a bit. No one with a name like Mitchell Grammaticus can be too uninteresting! Gosh, I hate this critical hat.

"Anyway, Mr. Eugenides, within the first couple of pages I have to admit that I was enamored by the literary references. Then I began to feel a bit intimidated about the holes in my knowledge. Perhaps I was the dumbest English major to ever graduate, despite my relatively high GPA. (Oh, you say, it's because I didn't attend Brown? I'll try not to take offense...) Or, perhaps one needs to be indelibly erudite to truly enjoy the novel.

“Anyway, Jeff, the story was still compelling. You're obviously masterful in creating believable characters, moving a plot and intertwining contemplative themes. I think I would've enjoyed the prose if I could've just cared more about those characters. (I should've felt sympathy toward Leonard and his mental illness, but I simply didn't! Typically, I'm not so insensitive.)

"Ultimately, I felt the the denouement of this novel was strange, yet I gather this was a grand design that perhaps was over my head. I didn’t feel a sense of closure at the end. Maybe I was too dull to comprehend it. Either way, I think I might've liked the ending better that was perhaps more...I hate to say it...romantic, as opposed to realistic. I know, some probably would argue that it did end romantically...and real! But, somehow I wasn't quite satisfied...”

(By this time, J. Eugenides probably would've have walked away from me.)

I bought this book because I had read many great reviews of the novel. Quite honestly, the title captivated me. "The Marriage Plot." Brilliant.

I found this interview with the author and found him to be quite engaging and...modest! ButI tend to think he writes in a different sphere as me.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lean on Pete

Pictures of Hollis Woods. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Book Thief. To Kill a Mockingbird. Number the Stars. Did those titles make your throat tighten a bit? Or perhaps make your heart palpitate?  Each of those coming-of-age novels has a special place in most everyone's bookshelf–except the occasional pretentious scholar. I believe it to be a rare and precious find when an author can create a credible, yet distinct, young adult book that resonates themes beyond the shallow. I believe those aforementioned books conjure brilliant imagery while spinning poignant narratives–and I wondered when I would once again hit upon a YA book that resides in that category. I was pleasantly surprised to find it in my most recent read: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.

Charley Thompson is a fifteen-year-old kid being raised by his shifty father in the setting of Portland, Oregon. Together, they barely scrape together enough to eat–and that's kind of tough for an athletic boy who is "hungry all of the time." Charley ends up finding a job at a racing track nearby, and naturally feels a connection to the race horses who don't always have it so easy–much like himself. Then tragedy strikes and sends the young boy on a dicey journey with...one of the horses named Lean on Pete. The adventure is fraught with strange characters–some despicable, some relatable, and some comical.

Throughout the novel, of course, I wanted to advise the poor soul on his choices which didn't always pan out so well. But the tale is about a boy who'd been brought up so independently, he had no one but himself to rely upon. I, myself, forget that there are teens who aren't connected via the Twitterverse or their precious cellphones. Yes, there are children in our great country who are hungry–so hungry they must steal for food. The story made my heart ache. Great fiction does that.

While this underdog story is heartbreaking in many ways, the ending doesn't disappoint. And as I noted above, the novel–with its voice, pace, and sensory details–compared to some of the greats as I listed above, paving it's way into an eventual classic.