Even though the Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, I’m still working through the longlist. This means I’m reading some books that I already know didn’t make the shortlist – books like Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. This book is a collection of ten interlinked short-stories, each of which is inspired by a famous philosophical thought experiment.
The book:Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward Genre: Literary fiction, short-stories, science fiction Rating: 5 stars out of 5
One of my favorite things about Love and Other Thought Experiments is that it can be read in several different ways. Although the stories in the collection are interlinked, most of them can stand on their own; as such, the book could be read as a collection of standalone short-stories about love and relationships. The links between the stories can also be connected together to form a cohesive and expansive work of philosophical science fiction. Regardless of how you choose to read it, though, Love and Other Thought Experiments is a moving and thought-provoking collection.
Love and Other Thought Experiments is also immensely empathetic. Ward clearly lays out her characters’ flaws and eccentricities, but never passes any judgment on them: the characters are simply human, and none are deemed undeserving of love for their limitations. Even the collection’s most “out there” stories – and one of the stories is so “out there” that I literally shouted “you’ve gotta be kidding me!” at first – are so compelling that it’s hard not to suspend disbelief and become immersed.
**Minor spoiler alertin the next paragraph**
In the final stories of Love and Other Thought Experiments, the book ventures into sci-fi territory and shows the world through a new lens. This reveal clarifies some of the hazy details from previous stories, and allows many of the previous stories to be understood in a new light. I finished this book over a week ago, and I’m still making new connections and realizations!
I feel like Love and Other Thought Experiments is one of those books that you just have to jump into and experience for the fascinating ride that it is, so I don’t have much else to say about it. This book left such an impact on me, but it might not work as well for readers who don’t enjoy philosophical science-fiction.
Chemistry tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose life, from a distance, would appear to be going really well: she is a Ph.D. student in a prestigious chemistry program, and her longterm boyfriend (who is also a chemist) has proposed to her. But her laboratory experiments aren’t going well and she doesn’t feel ready for marriage. All of this pressure – plus the pressure her parents have placed on her from an early age to succeed – causes the protagonist to panic and break down, and then to reevaluate her life as she slowly picks herself back up.
The book:Chemistry by Weike Wang Genre: Contemporary fiction Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Chemistry was such an immersive and wonderfully emotional read. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is so well-developed that I really felt her pain of feeling inadequate and lost in life. At the same time, I found it frustrating and distressing to watch the narrator make one questionable decision after another – I so badly wanted her to make different choices and take better care of herself! The way the protagonist simultaneously evoked frustration and tenderness in me is a testament to Wang’s razor-sharp writing.
I also really enjoyed the writing style and structure in Chemistry. The story is told as a somewhat disjointed collection of the narrator’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. While this might sound like a disorganized or chaotic reading experience, there is a remarkable consistency and flow to the narrator’s voice. The result is that all of the story’s fragments come together beautifully to illustrate a wonderfully complex and compelling character.
On the topic of the novel’s structure, I also want to mention that it doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. Chemistry‘s protagonist slowly breaks down and (even more slowly) tries to find herself and, just as journeys of self-discovery go in real-life, there is no perfect resolution to her journey. The end of this book actually snuck up on me because of that; I had naively assumed that the story would resolve conclusively, and wasn’t expecting it to end in the somewhat anticlimactic way that it did. While anticlimactic, though, the way the story wrapped up was also hopeful and realistic.
In addition to being evocative and compelling, Chemistry is also full of fantastic commentary. Wang touches upon the insane demands of graduate school that inevitably lead people to break down, as well as the unique challenges faced by first-generation Asian Americans. While all of the commentary was excellent, I was particularly touched by Wang’s portrayal of being caught in between two different cultures – one individualistic and one more community-focused – and feeling like you don’t quite belong to either of them.
Note: I live in the greater Boston area, so the next paragraph is very much influenced by my personal biases.
My only critique of Chemistry is that I wanted more from the setting! Wang sets the novel in Boston, but aside from mentioning a few Boston landmarks (and I use the word mentioning very intentionally; she does not describe these landmarks in much detail, not even the Arnold Arboretum in the Fall), there is not much that gives the story a distinct setting. And yet…I have to acknowledge that despite the lacking setting, I still found Chemistry to be a completely captivating read because the narrator’s internal experience was so immersive.
Overall, I loved and highly recommend Chemistry. There were so many things about this novel that don’t normally work for me, but the novel was SO well-written and the protagonist so realistically compelling, that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I tend not to reread books, but I would reread this one for the experience of feeling so absorbed in the main character’s mind.
Last weekend, I read Paradise Cove as part of a read-along with Melanie. In the novel, Dr. Nora Walsh moves from Toronto to the tiny town of Moonflower Bay in the aftermath of a painful breakup. She plans to stay in town for only a couple of years, but there are compelling reasons for her to stay longer, including her developing chemistry with local fisherman/fix-it-man Jake Ramsey.
The book: Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday Genre: Romance Rating: 4 stars out of 5
I enjoyed this book in much the same way that I enjoy Hallmark movies. The story is set in the (fictional) small town of Moonflower Bay, Canada, where everyone knows everyone and the elders love to gossip and meddle in the young adults’ affairs. The town reminded me of Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, and like Stars Hollow, Moonflower Bay worked so much for me because I so badly wanted it to be real!
To continue with the Hallmark movie comparison, I thought that the key elements of the romance in this story were great. From the meet-cute in a hair salon, to the town emergency that forces Nora and Jake into each others’ lives, to their undeniable chemistry despite their firm assertions that they don’t have time for romance – it was all very compelling.
I do think that Paradise Cove offers a bit more than just an indulgent, escapist romance, however. Nora and Jake’s relationship is built not only on lust, but also on their deep emotional connection and their ability to listen to and support each other. Jake supports Nora by helping her with the chores that her demanding career makes it hard for her to keep up with, and Nora supports Jake by being an excellent active listener as he processes a traumatic event from his past with her. For all the time spent on Jake and Nora’s sexual chemistry, Holiday spends just as much time (if not more) focusing on their emotional intimacy.
Both protagonists also have meaningful relationships besides their romantic relationship with each other. Nora has an incredibly sweet relationship with her sister and grandmother, and she also makes fast friends with the residents of Moonflower Bay. Jake has lifelong friends in Moonflower Bay, who accept his need for lots of personal space, but also intervene when they recognize he is making self-destructive decisions. By giving both protagonists healthy friendships and familial relationships outside of their romance, Holiday shows that friendships and romantic relationships are not mutually exclusive – a message that I really appreciated.
I only had a few small issues with Paradise Cove. One was that the writing felt a bit cliched at times. There is one scene where Nora is feeling insecure about her ability to satisfy Jake sexually, and he thinks “Someone should just reach into [my] chest and pull [my] heart out right now. Stomp on it and throw it in the trash. Because this woman thought she was not sexy.” My other issue was some of the language used in the sex-scenes – language like “burrowed through her folds” – which not only felt actively unsexy, but was also vague and conceptually confusing.
Overall, though, I enjoyed Paradise Cove. It was easy to set aside the small issues when, on the whole, this novel was so heartwarming and bingeable. There’s another novel in the same series as Paradise Cove, plus a new novel in the series coming out in 2021 – I will most likely read them both based on my experience with Paradise Cove.
Remember the Women’s Prize for Fiction?! So much time has passed since the longlist announcement back in March that the prize hasn’t been on my mind as much in the past couple months. But the winner was announced today, and it is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell! While I hadn’t been rooting for Hamnet to win, I can appreciate that it is a gorgeously written and thoughtful work of historical fiction. You can read my full review of Hamnet here, but the tl;dr of it is that, while beautifully written and quite moving at times, the book spends over 200 pages leading up to an event that the reader already knows is going to happen (based on the synopsis). For other takes on Hamnet, check out Callum, Emily, Naty, Beth, Rachel, and Fatma’s reviews!
The book that I was rooting for to win was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I became a (slightly) harsher reviewer after reading it, because Girl, Woman, Other showed me that one book really can do it all: profound social commentary that feels completely organic in the context of the story, excellent characters, beautifully poetic writing, and a fresh premise. Even though a couple of the stories in the collection weren’t as compelling as the rest, I was astounded by the book as a whole. I also would have loved to see Evaristo, and her alone, take the prize after having to share the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.
I also would have been very happy to see How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee win the prize, but unfortunately it didn’t even make the shortlist (I have already ranted about this once, and won’t rehash that again here). Despite being such a powerful and evocative novel, How We Disappeared has NOT gotten the attention it deserves! On Goodreads, How We Disappeared has 2,748 ratings and 475 reviews, compared to Hamnet’s 9,042 ratings and 1,547 reviews. Winning the Women’s Prize could have brought so much well-deserved attention to Jing-Jing Lee and How We Disappeared.
Looking back on my experience reading through the Women’s Prize longlist this year, I have to say that it was a bit disappointing. I made the decision to read the list in (almost) its entirety this year, because of how much I loved the WP books I read last year. Last year, I read eight books from the WP longlist, and gave them an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. This year, I read thirteen longlisted books, and rated them 3.7 stars out of 5, on average. Obviously, I can’t make statistically meaningful comparisons here, and I know that 3.7 stars out of 5 isn’t that bad. But 1) I am the type of reader who rates most books as 4 stars out of 5, and 2) I just didn’t have that deep connection with many of the books on this year’s longlist, even ones that I thought were well-written.
Part of my problem with this year’s longlist might have been the huge thematic focus on motherhood. While I’m not actively opposed to books about motherhood, I’m also not really interested in reading a dozen books about motherhood in the span of three months. I wonder why the judges centered the longlist around this theme, when surely they recognize that women have so much to contribute to the world besides motherhood? I also wonder what WP-eligible books were omitted from the longlist because they didn’t fit the theme?
Other themes that came up throughout the longlist were family sagas and family secrets; mental health, trauma, and grief; reimaginations and retellings of history; and “rich people problems.” I was particularly surprised that the longlist included three “rich people problems” novels, especially when only one of those novels (Fleishman is in Trouble) offered any type of meaningful social commentary.
I’m getting a bit ranty here, so I want to make sure that I also acknowledge the positives that came out of reading this year’s WP longlist. The best thing was connecting with other bloggers. I loved having reading buddies to exchange opinions and (especially in the case of Dominicana and The Most Fun We Ever Had) commiserate with! Also, I did rate quite a few books as 4-stars or higher. I most likely wouldn’t have read all of these books – especially Weather, Red at the Bone, How We Disappeared, and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – if it weren’t for the Women’s Prize.
tl;dr Although I was rooting for Girl, Woman, Other, I’m not mad about Hamnet winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I was a bit disappointed with the longlist on the whole, but loved connecting with other book bloggers over the Women’s Prize, and ended up reading some great novels that I otherwise might not have. I will most likely do it again next year 🙂
The Death of Vivek Oji opens with the title character’s corpse being dropped off on his mother’s doorstep in Nigeria. The story that follows is a non-linear exploration of Vivek’s life leading up to his death, and the impact of his death on his friends and family.
The book:The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi Genre: Fiction Rating: 4 stars out of 5
I started The Death of Vivek Oji with lukewarm feelings, but the book grew on me over time. One aspect of the book that initially underwhelmed me was the writing. Perhaps the breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical prose of Freshwater (Emezi’s debut novel) unfairly heightened my expectations, but I felt that the writing in this novel (especially the dialogue) left a lot to be desired. As I read on and let go of my expectations, however, I found things to appreciate about the writing: there were some beautifully evocative passages that pulled at my heartstrings, and Emezi’s infusion of Igbo language into the dialogue helped to keep me immersed in the setting of Nigeria.
The novel’s structure is another area that I disliked at first but came to appreciate. At first, I felt like the book’s focus on many characters’ perspectives came at a detriment to nuanced development of any individual character. But the benefit to having so many different main characters is revealed when their stories come together to paint a beautifully complex portrait of the title character, Vivek, and of Nigerian society as a whole. While I do still think that a couple of the side stories could have been omitted, I loved the way Emezi weaved disparate narrative threads together to reveal a powerful bigger picture.
On the note of threads being woven together, I loved this novel’s imagery and symbolism. There were many references to plaiting (i.e. braiding) throughout the novel, which I appreciated given the novel’s braid-like narrative structure. I also really liked the theme of pictures: the novel opens and ends with references to photographs, and pictures end up playing an important role in the novel’s plot.
And speaking of the plot, I found the story itself to be compelling. The novel opens with Vivek’s corpse being dropped off at his parents’ house, so it is no secret that he is going to die, but the circumstances surrounding his death are unknown. As the novel progresses and the pieces of the story come together, Emezi drops hints and signs about how Vivek is going to die, but they keep the true story behind his death a mystery until the very end. For me, Emezi’s storytelling successfully built intrigue, dread, and suspense – which is definitely what I want from a novel with mystery elements.
Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Death of Vivek Oji. While I had some issues with the dialogue and character development, I feel that Emezi’s conclusion to the novel made the entire read worth it. And to those who read and loved Freshwater, just keep in mind that this is a very different novel!
Just a couple days into September, and it’s already starting to feel like autumn in my corner of New England! Looking back on August, it was probably my best month of the year. The warm weather made it possible to socialize with friends IN PERSON (outdoors and distancing, but still!), and to go kayaking TWICE. I also got to have some nice virtual hangouts, including a Zoom pickling sesh with my little sibling and a couple lovely video chats with Melanie at Grab The Lapels! And while I didn’t achieve all of my reading goals (which were unrealistic to begin with), August was still a great reading month: I finished 7 books and rated most of them 4-stars or higher.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi – 4 stars out of 5
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – 5 stars out of 5
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison – 4 stars out of 5
Books in progress/September TBR:
Honestly, I have no business setting a reading goal of 10 books for September…and yet…here we are. This month’s reads are primarily inspired by the Booker prize longlist, books that I think would work well as audiobooks on my commute to work, and a fun read-along that Melanie at Grab The Lapels is hosting.
Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’ve been interested in this book for so long, yet never seem to prioritize it. I even incorporated it into my June reading plan, and still didn’t read it! But now I’m FINALLY reading this and really enjoying it so far!
Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday. For Melanie’s read-along! A romance novel set in the tiny town of Matchmaker Bay, this seems like the book we need in 2020. There’s still time to join and read along if you’re interested!
Chemistry by Weike Wang. This has also been on my TBR for a while! I started it yesterday and find it incredibly moving so far!
We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. I wanted to read this in August, but fell a bit behind on reading. Very excited to get to this in September.
The Book of Notby Tsitsi Dangarembga. Last month I read and enjoyed Nervous Conditions, so I’m really looking forward to the sequel!
Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestionsby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A short feminist manifesto by an incredible writer? Sounds like a powerful and necessary read!
Transcendent Kingdomby Yaa Gyasi. This was my September BOTM pick! I checked BOTM literally just a couple hours after TBRing this book, and it was such a pleasant coincidence.
Apeirogonby Colum McCann. This Booker longlisted novel seems like it will either be hit or miss for me…so hopefully it is a hit!
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. Another Booker title. This is one of my most highly anticipated Booker reads, but I’m trying to keep my expectations in check so I don’t overhype it.
Hood Feminismby Mikki Kendall. This seems like it will be a great follow-up to So You Want to Talk About Race (which had one chapter about intersectional blindspots of feminist and progressive movements).
I Contain Multitudes is science journalist Ed Yong’s deep dive into the world of microbes. By examining diverse scientific studies under the umbrella of microbiology – from studies of animals that literally do not survive without microbial symbionts, to the (widely accepted) theory that our own Eukaryotic organelles evolved from bacteria – Yong illustrates how microbes are interwoven into every facet of life as we know it.
The book: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong Genre: Science nonfiction Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Note: I read I Contain Multitudes as an audiobook, which likely played a major role in some of my opinions of it.
When I read science nonfiction, I want to learn and be filled with a sense of wonder and amazement: I Contain Multitudes achieved both of those things. Even though I do microbiology research, I didn’t know that most animals can’t survive without microbes, or that the human body hosts tons of non-pathogenic viruses, or even that the majority of viruses are non-pathogenic. Throughout this book, I found myself marveling at the specific things that microbes can be responsible for (like triggering deadly auto-immune responses in organisms across the tree of life), as well as their involvement in virtually every ecological niche on Earth.
While the book was successful in conveying the importance of microbes, however, some of the specific studies that Yong cites felt dryly written to me. I found it hard to keep track of acronyms and hyper-specific jargon, and to wrap my head around certain ecological interactions. I read I Contain Multitudes less than a month ago, and I’ve already forgotten several examples from the book because I couldn’t fully grasp them to begin with.
I also felt like I Contain Multitudes could have been made shorter by omitting a few of the scientific studies. While all the microbes that Yong covers are interesting in some way, it’s not clear that every study was strictly necessary for the book. At times, the book felt less like a cohesive story about microbes, and more like a collection of examples of microbes that do cool things.
Something that Yong handled very well was addressing the nuanced nature of scientific research. I appreciate that Yong steered away from oversimplified or misleading scientific claims, and that he called out mainstream news companies that do oversimplify or sensationalize microbiology research. I also like that when Yong presented controversial studies, he addressed the limitations and critiques of those studies. I respect and appreciate that Yong showed the nuance and complexity of scientific research – even though it sometimes came at a cost to my own understanding.
Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from I Contain Multitudes. While I found some of the science to be inaccessible and some examples unnecessary, I thought that the book clearly and excellently communicated the abundance and importance of microbes. And I also have to point out again that some of my negative takes on this book are very likely the result of trying to read science nonfiction as an audiobook!
Both a coming-of-age novel and cultural criticism, Nervous Conditions examines the effects of “post-colonialism” on young African women. The novel features Tambu, a young girl who gets the opportunity to be educated at a Christian missionary school after her brother dies. Initially, Tambu believes that eduction is her path to a better, brighter future; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the white man’s education has devastating effects on Tambu, her cousin Nyasha, and society as a whole.
The book:Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga Genre: Fiction Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Nervous Conditions is an incredibly smart and thought-provoking novel. While the story starts off a bit slow, it picks up nicely after Tambu gets sent to school in her late brother’s place. What makes the novel interesting isn’t the plot, but Tambu’s analysis of the world around her. During a scene where her wealthy and educated uncle Babamukuru lashes out at his daughter (Tambu’s cousin) for coming home late, Tambu realizes that toxic masculinity isn’t unique to poor families like hers: The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.”
While much of the social commentary is told rather than shown, I think it works well in the context of this coming-of-age novel. From a young age, Tambu has been led to believe that education is the solution to all of her family’s problems – that education will lift her out of poverty and make her more worldly and civilized. The longer Tambu spends in school, however, the more she sees that the education she so desperately wanted is problematic. Not only is the sexism that Tambu resents still prevalent in school, but education at a missionary school revolves around the idea that African lifestyles and traditions are inferior to Western ideals – an idea which many of the students internalize, leading them to look down upon their own culture. As a young woman who is slowly realizing that education is not the panacea she was promised, I think it makes sense for Tambu to explicitly articulate those thoughts.
Like the social commentary, the characters in Nervous Conditions are brilliant and nuanced. Not only are they complex, but they act as vehicles for further social commentary, as they are each the product of their unique upbringing. Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru, for example sees himself as superior to his family members because he is more educated and financially successful than they are – but it’s clear that this belief is the result of being raised and practically brainwashed by white missionaries. Nyasha’s outspoken nature and unwillingness to be seen as inferior to her male peers is the result of spending some of her formative years abroad, which gave her the unique opportunity to observe and question cultural differences at a young age. It’s hard to see any main character in this novel as better or worse than one another, when they are all trying to survive the effects of colonialism.
Overall, I really enjoyed and appreciated Nervous Conditions. The beginning was a bit slow, and the ending a bit abrupt – but I can give the abrupt ending a pass knowing that there are two sequels to this novel. Nervous Conditions is a cutting and compelling critique on colonialism, and I think it should be required reading for high-school or college students. I highly recommend this novel, and can’t wait to read The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.
Another read from the Booker longlist! Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black 4th-year PhD student in a rigorous and predominantly white biochemistry program at the University of Wisconsin. Taking place over a particularly eventful summer weekend, Real Life illustrates the pain of trying to fit into white spaces as a person of color.
The book: Real Life by Brandon Taylor Genre: Literary fiction Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Real Life is a novel that somehow manages to be compulsively readable, incredibly moving, and full of brilliant social commentary. The story takes place over a single summer weekend, dissecting the way each event – from failed laboratory experiments, to microaggressions by his well-intentioned white friends – contributes to Wallace’s frustration and mental fatigue. Because the emotional impact of Wallace’s experience is so deeply explored, Wallace is a very well-developed character despite the novel covering such a short timespan.
In addition to being beautifully written and intimate, Real Life is also full of excellent social commentary. Taylor shows how Wallace is subjected to dozens of microaggressions on a daily basis, how his white friends make him carry their white guilt, and how even his non-white friends make conversations about Wallace’s struggles about how they are struggling too, stop being so selfish! These dynamics play out in Wallace’s friend group, with his lab-mates and graduate advisor, and even in his most intimate relationship. Taylor demonstrates the massive mental and emotional toll this all takes on Wallace: Wallace is aware of the casual racism in the spaces he occupies, and he recognizes the behavior of his peers as unfair, but he doesn’t stand up for himself because having to experience that casual racism on a daily basis is already exhausting enough.
Real Life also provides great commentary on how racial trauma compounds other traumas. Wallace finds the casual racism in his friend-group and graduate program emotionally exhausting, but he is dealing with other stresses too: unresolved childhood traumas, the death of his father, and the pressures of his demanding graduate program. When Wallace talks to his white friends about his problems, though, they respond by sharing the ways in which they relate to him, implying that their experiences are the same (which of course, they aren’t). This point – that being a graduate student or healing from trauma isn’t stressful for Wallace’s white classmates in the same way that is for him, because Wallace has to deal with racism on top of everything else – was something that I really appreciated, and I thought that Taylor did an excellent job of clearly showing this without explicitly stating it.
I took one main issue with Real Life, and that was the single chapter of the book that is told from Wallace in the 1st-person (the rest of the book is written in the 3rd-person). In this chapter, Wallace is telling the story of a traumatic childhood event to the guy he is hooking up with. It is a beautifully written chapter, but as a story that Wallace is supposed to be telling to someone he doesn’t know that well, it just wasn’t believable for me.
*Minor spoiler in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!*
I also want to mention that one of the relationships portrayed in this novel is extremely unhealthy. The scenes involving this relationship were particularly painful to read, and because Taylor’s commentary is shown rather than told, Wallace never explicitly grapples with the fact that the relationship is abusive. While frustrating and heartbreaking to read about, I do think this relationship brilliantly (and horrifyingly) illustrates the way Wallace has been conditioned to endure pain. In So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says that being Black in America is like being in an abusive relationship, but the abuser is society as a whole – Wallace’s unhealthy relationship in Real Life definitely brings this point to mind.
Overall, I thought Real Life was phenomenal. The writing was strong, the main character was complex and well-developed, and the social commentary was incredibly moving. Although I had a couple minor issues with it, I am so glad that I read Real Life, and am excited to check out whatever Taylor publishes next. I highly recommend this novel.
I’m continuing my way through the Booker Prize longlist with How Much of These Hills is Gold. The story centers around two young Chinese-American siblings, Sam and Lucy, who become orphans during the peak of the American Gold Rush. After their Ba dies, the siblings set on a journey to bury him, and to find a home for themselves beyond their poor mining town.
The book: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang Genre: Historical fiction Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
I have mixed feelings on this novel, but I’ll start with what worked for me. Structurally, How Much of These Hillsis Gold was very interesting: the novel is divided into four sections, which are non-linear and not all narrated by the same person. Non-linear timelines can be so hit or miss for me, but Zhang executed this one beautifully; I particularly liked that the family’s history prior to Ba’s death wasn’t described until after Ba’s passing. Things are going well for the family in the second part of the book, but it is clear (to the reader) from the first section that their luck is going to turn – this dramatic irony left me with a sense of suspense, dread, and impending doom.
I also really enjoyed Zhang’s writing voice, which manages to pack subtle, yet powerful, commentary into seemingly simple sentences. Through Sam and Lucy’s experiences, Zhang depicts the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the intense racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 19th-century. Some of the prejudices that Lucy and Sam experience – particularly the way they are fetishized and exoticized, and the way their teacher talks about “domesticating” them – felt like they could have been written about contemporary times, rather than 170 years ago.
The character development is where I start to have mixed feelings. Lucy, who I consider to be the main character of the novel, is portrayed as lacking agency and a strong sense of self, while her sibling Sam is full of swagger and personality. Surprisingly, I thought Lucy was more well-developed than Sam: the driving forces behind Lucy’s reserved nature are deeply explored, whereas Sam is portrayed as bold but somewhat hard-to-understand. I would have loved to see more of the novel from Sam’s perspective! At the same time, I can appreciate that Zhang decided to focus more on the internal workings of someone reserved and insecure, who in real life might be overlooked next to their spunky sibling (or maybe I’m just projecting my middle-child baggage onto a fictional character).
I feel even more conflicted about the portrayal of Sam and Lucy’s Ba, who for the first two sections is characterized as an intimidating, prideful, and at times violent alcoholic. Then, the third section of the book is narrated by Ba himself, and Zhang shows the family history from his perspective, as well as the pain and trauma behind his abusive behavior. While this chapter was incredibly moving, and added layers of nuance to the story, I also found it troubling. Yes, the abusive character in this novel is obviously struggling with his own trauma, but why should that mean that he gets to be the most complex and well-explored character in the novel? When authors do this, it almost feels like they are excusing abusive characters for their atrocious behavior.
Where I took the most issue with the book, though, was the ending. Without spoiling anything, How Much of These Hills is Gold ends with a character making a huge sacrifice that (to me) felt completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of that sacrifice wasn’t well-explored, either, so the ending felt abrupt and unsettling. On top of that, the last sentence of the book leaves things open-ended, so the novel’s ending is not only jarring, but also vague.
As you can probably tell, How Much of These Hillsis Gold was a rather mixed bag for me. Although this review focuses more on what I didn’t enjoy, I really liked the majority of this novel. I found the prose and main characters complex and compelling, and the commentary intensely powerful. But the aspects of this novel that didn’t work for me really didn’t work for me. With a different ending, this book would have been a 4-star read, but because of the vague and abrupt ending, I’m rating it 3.5 stars out of 5.