Book Review: Dominicana

My latest read was Dominicana by Angie Cruz, a coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old girl, Ana, who enters into a loveless marriage with a man twice her age for the opportunity to move from the Dominican Republic to New York City. While the new city and the expectations of being a housewife are a shock to Ana at first, they also transform her: from a child to an adult, from a daughter to a wife, and from a passive person to a decisive one.

The book: Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Based on the premise of Dominicana – a coming of age story and an American dream story! – I had cautiously high hopes going into it. Unfortunately, Dominicana ended up being a pretty big disappointment for me. One of the biggest issues I had with the novel was the lack of character development: the characters weren’t portrayed complexly enough to be interesting or believable. Ana’s mother is strict and authoritative, with not even an ounce of warmth for her children. Ana is passive and obedient, and describes the events of her life matter-of-factly, rarely processing how they have affected her. The most well-developed character might be Ana’s husband Juan – but even his portrayal is limited, and the decision to make the abusive husband the most complex character in the novel didn’t sit well with me.

Interestingly, about two-thirds into the novel, there is a major change in Ana’s home life, and after this point she does become a more compelling narrator, processing her emotions and considering what she wants from her life. This change in Ana’s emotional expressiveness made me wonder if the limited emotionality of the first two-thirds of the book was intentional. Perhaps Ana’s flat narration was meant to demonstrate how emotionally guarded and powerless to express herself she felt, and the shift to more emotionality showed how she became comfortable expressing herself once she became more comfortable in her home? Or perhaps Ana’s willingness to consider her emotions and think about her own needs was meant to signal her transition from an obedient child to an independent woman? These hypotheses are certainly possible, but they also might be a stretch. And even if they are true, I still didn’t enjoy the majority of this book.

I also found much of Dominicana to be predictable and cheesy. Sometimes predictable and cheesy works for me, if the characters are well-developed or the writing style is compelling, but this wasn’t the case with Dominicana. Because the novel was written in the voice of an emotionally flat narrator, I found most of the writing to be lackluster, and even off-putting at times (especially during the sex scenes). My favorite scenes were probably the ones where Ana spends time exploring New York City with C├ęsar – they weren’t exactly realistic, but they were touching enough that I was able to suspend my disbelief. But these were only a handful of scenes in a ~300-page novel.

What I liked about Dominicana was that it shed light on the immigrant experience in the United States in the 1960’s, illustrating the ways immigrants were exploited, discriminated against, and stuck in poor living conditions. The novel also touched upon gender roles and the societal and cultural expectations of women. However, I thought that author Angie Cruz could have gone much deeper in her exploration of these topics. Cruz also had the opportunity to explore the political climate of the United States in the 1960’s, and the United States’ intervention in the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic – but these topics were peppered into the story in a way that felt superficial to me.

If I could sum up my experience reading Dominicana in one word, it would be: disappointing. I didn’t find the characters or the writing style compelling, and the plot was predictable. There were parts of the novel that pulled me in, only for the awkward language (especially surrounding sex!) to push me back out. With all of that being said, Dominicana has over a 4-star rating on Goodreads, so it clearly worked for many readers. It just didn’t work for me.

Side notes:

  1. The plot synopsis that is included on the side of the book cover, as well as Goodreads, basically gives away the entire plot of the book.
  2. Based on the way I rated this novel, I retroactively changed a couple other WP longlist book ratings (if Dominicana is a 2-star novel, which I firmly believe it is, then Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line should be a 3.5 star rating because of how much better it was than Dominicana).

Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble

Last night, I stayed up until 4 AM binge-reading Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The novel focuses on newly divorced dad, Toby Fleishman, who feels liberated after many years of unhappy marriage. Toby views the divorce as an opportunity to reconnect with old college friends, focus on his career, and go on dates with “self-actualized” women. But just as Toby is jumping into this new life, his ex-wife Rachel drops their kids off at his place unexpectedly and disappears. Now, on top of being a hepatologist and newly single dad, Toby must also take care of his children full-time and search for his ex-wife – all while reconciling the emotions that he has tried for years to ignore and deny.

The book: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

I love a good story with an unlikable main character, and Fleishman is in Trouble was no exception. From the first page of the novel, it was clear that Toby Fleishman is an unrealistic and oblivious main character, and that most of his perspectives should be taken with a grain of salt. As the novel progressed, and Toby made one morally questionable decision after the next, it became increasingly clear that the story he told himself about his failed marriage could not possibly be the whole truth, and that he had a lot of unresolved emotional issues.

The psychologically-complicated characters in Fleishman is in Trouble didn’t just stop at Toby: all the main characters in the novel were well-developed and complex. They weren’t always likable, but I appreciated how thoroughly author Taffy Brodesser-Akner explored the roots of the characters’ challenging behaviors. It did take a while for Rachel’s perspective to be explored, though. The first two-thirds of the story revolved around Toby’s perspective, and I found myself impatiently wanting to hear Rachel’s side of the story about halfway through the novel.

One of the biggest strengths of Fleishman is in Trouble was the way it scrutinized the unfair expectations that American society places on mothers, and women in general. I loved how, through the perspectives of her characters, Brodesser-Akner called out men who take advantage of the invisible labor of women, as well as the unfair double-standards that American society places on women. Through the experiences of the two main female characters in the novel, Brodesser-Akner demonstrated how American society judges women for choosing to become housewives or stay-at-home moms, yet also punishes women and mothers for being too ambitious in their careers.

I also liked the way the novel was narrated. Fleishman is in Trouble is narrated by Toby’s college friend, Libby, who retold Toby’s and Rachel’s stories as they had been told to her. Sometimes she infused her own commentary and life experiences into the narrative, too. While some parts of the story might have worked better coming directly from Toby’s or Rachel’s perspective, I thought that Libby’s insights added a nice depth to the novel. In many ways Libby is a counter-example to Rachel: her experiences showed how women who sacrifice their ambitions to become mothers are judged just as harshly as those who are unabashedly ambitious. I also think that because Libby is less self-absorbed than Toby or Rachel, her narration was able to capture nuances that neither of theirs would.

My biggest issue with Fleishman is in Trouble was the characters’ insane wealth and privilege, and the way that was barely addressed. Rachel believes that being poorer than her wealthy classmates was the source of her unhappiness as a child, and is therefore determined to make sure her children are never excluded from top-tier social-status the way she was. She realized early on in her marriage that Toby’s salary would never be sufficient to afford her children the best opportunities, so she went back to work as a talent agent to become the breadwinner of the family. This might have worked for me…if Toby’s “insufficient” salary wasn’t a doctor’s salary of over $250,000! Especially given that the novel is narrated by Toby’s friend who has given up on professional ambition and ladder-climbing (and has moved from New York to the suburbs in New Jersey), I was disappointed by the lack of commentary on wealth, privilege, or materialism.

Overall, I thought that Fleishman is in Trouble was a great, page-turner of a novel. The characters were frustrating and oftentimes unlikable, but they were deeply developed in a way that really worked for me. I also enjoyed the novel’s commentary on gender roles in society, and the way it showed the importance to listening to both sides of every story.

Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

My latest read for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. This novel, told from the perspective of 9-year-old Jai, tells the story of several children from an impoverished neighborhood in India, all of whom disappear around the same time. Inspired by the detective shows he has seen on TV, Jai decides to investigate the disappearances with the help of his two best friends.

The book: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

One of the biggest strengths of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is that it compassionately draws attention to major issues in present-day India, including: disappearing children, poverty, wealth inequality, religious tensions, and police corruption. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear how these issues are interconnected and part of a larger systemic problem. All of this is shown through the perspective of a 9-year-old child who doesn’t quite understand how the world works, but is still impacted by all of these issues.

Prior to reading this novel, I had been skeptical about the story being narrated by a 9-year-old child. After reading the novel, though, I don’t think it would have worked from the perspective of an adult. By telling Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line from a child’s perspective, author Deepa Anappara is able to highlight serious issues of corruption and wealth inequality in contemporary India, without ever seeming preachy or self-righteous. And by developing realistic child characters with unique backgrounds, perspectives, and dreams, Anappara prevents the disappearing children from being viewed as just statistics.

Note: there are potential spoilers in the paragraph below:

While this novel was eye-opening and brilliantly written, the story itself was a bit slow. I thought the plot especially lost momentum around the second half of the novel, when more children continued to disappear but Jai and his friends got no closer to making sense of the disappearances. And while the book’s ending was certainly realistic, it was also disappointing. I think this was intentional: just as I was left wanting more resolution from the story, the families of missing children are left wanting answers about what happened to their children.

All in all, I recommend Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. The characters are compelling, the setting is immersive, and the book draws attention to societal issues in contemporary India (in a compassionate way). The book may leave you feeling unsettled, but it is well worth the read.

Book Review: The Dutch House

This week, in continuing to read the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I read The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. This novel centers around two siblings, Danny and Maeve, who grow up in a beautiful estate in suburban Pennsylvania. When Danny is 15, the siblings are forced to abandon the Dutch House, leaving them with a trust for Danny’s education, memories of their childhood home, and an unbreakable bond with each other. The Dutch House shows how the siblings’ experiences in their childhood home shape the people they become as adults, and the decisions they make over the course of their lives.

The book: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I have conflicting opinions about The Dutch House. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Danny reminiscing about his life experiences, especially his shared experiences with his sister Maeve. A lot of Danny’s reminiscing is non-linear, which makes it realistic (who really recounts their entire life history in chronological order?), but a bit hard to follow at first. I also thought that some of Danny’s memories were told boringly – certain descriptions and details could have been omitted or at least shortened.

I also have mixed feelings about The Dutch House‘s main character. Danny was sometimes a frustrating narrator, because he was so oblivious to and disconnected from the world around him. I can’t decide if this was a weakness of the writing, or an intentional reflection on Danny’s emotional stuntedness and the limitations of his memory. Still, Danny’s obliviously selfish behavior was sometimes difficult to read.

Also, because Danny was the narrator, the other characters in the novel could never be well-developed enough. The only deep relationship Danny has is with his sister, Maeve, and even then he often fails to see things about her. I would have loved to see more of Maeve’s perspective, but because Danny is so oblivious that is impossible. I also would have loved to understand the character of Danny’s step-mother, Andrea, better – she is portrayed very one-dimensionally.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Dutch House. Although the main character is frustrating, the novel is very character-driven (which I almost always enjoy). And the novel left a lot for the reader to think about, like: would I characterize Danny as a good person or not? How would the story have been different from Maeve’s perspective? Do “saint-like” people get a pass on being bad parents? The Dutch House clearly raised some interesting issues, and has stuck with me a lot in the 36 hours since finishing it. I just wish that the narrator had been even slightly less oblivious – his one-dimensional view of the world resulted in under-developed supporting characters.

Book Review: Weather

I kicked off the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist with Weather by Jenny Offill. The novel centers around Lizzie, a librarian and self-proclaimed “fake shrink” who tries to help everyone around her while devoting little time to herself. When Lizzie agrees to answer questions for her ex-mentor’s podcast Hell and High Water, she slowly spirals into an obsession over the changing climate and doomsday prepping.

The book: Weather by Jenny Offill
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I expect that Weather will be a polarizing read due to its writing style. The book is written as a collection of distinct (yet ultimately interconnected) thoughts, a sort of inner narrative. As such, there is not a lot of action in the novel – instead, the reader infers what has happened by reading the narrator’s internal processing of events. I personally loved this, because it allowed me to connect with the narrator in a very intimate way, almost like I was in her head experiencing her thoughts.

I also loved the way author Jenny Offill captured the heightened climate anxiety that is so characteristic of our current time. Through the listener questions that Lizzie answers for the climate-change-focused podcast Hell and High Water, we get a sense of the despair and fearfulness that is overcoming society. That sense of potential impending doom seemed especially poignant and relevant now, as people worldwide are actually panicking and doomsday prepping over the coronavirus.

Bonus picture: my cat reads Weather.

The reason why Weather wasn’t a 5-star read for me is because – although the narrative style largely worked for me – the novel felt a bit boring in places. That being said, I still appreciated seeing the world through the lens of the narrator’s semi-mundane life. And I do recommend this book (while knowing that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea).

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Longlist Reaction

This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced and I am so excited! I learned about the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, when many of the book bloggers that I follow posted their reviews of books on the 2019 longlist. Based on their reviews, I read some of the longlisted books (including ones that never would have made it onto my radar otherwise) and found some unexpected gems! In fact, my favorite book of 2019 was Lost Children Archive, which I heard about because so many of the book bloggers I follow were posting about it as part of their WP longlist review.

This year, it is my goal to read every longlisted book before the winner is announced on June 3rd. Before I announce my reaction to the books that were longlisted, I wanted to mention a few books that didn’t make the longlist:

  • Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: this book is critically acclaimed, but has a low rating on Goodreads. It has been on my TBR for almost a year now, but I can never seem to get to it. I had hoped it would make the WP longlist to give me the push I needed to read it!
  • Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid: this is another critically acclaimed book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while! This book is topically relevant in 2020, and I’ve heard great things about it from other book bloggers.
  • Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson: another topically relevant book that is really hot right now. I’m in the minority of people that didn’t like this book (it was “meh” for me). But I thought that given the novel’s takes on feminism and the future of humanity, its positive reception, and its Booker Prize nomination, that it would end up on the WP longlist.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I didn’t care for The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it 10 years ago, and I don’t care to read the sequel now. I’m glad this book didn’t make the longlist because it doesn’t need any extra hype.
  • Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh: I had wishfully hoped this book would make the WP longlist because 1) this book is already on my priority TBR, and 2) I love Moshfegh’s writing.

And now…the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 longlist!

  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: I’m cautiously optimistic about this book. I absolutely loved Circe, which was also a feminist re-imagination of a Greek classic. And more generally, I love books that give voices to those who have previously been silenced. So this sounds like something up my alley.
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams: I was so pleasantly surprised to see this on the WP longlist! I already read this book and really enjoyed it. It is a story about a young 20-something trying to find herself and heal from a traumatic childhood…and it is really well-executed. So happy to see this novel getting more well-deserved attention. (PS – you can read my review of Queenie here)
  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel: I am not going to read this book. It is historical fiction that takes place in 1500’s England AND it is close to 800 pages AND it is the 3rd book in a trilogy that I haven’t read. Hard pass.
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: this is another “cautiously optimistic” one for me. It is a WWII book, but it is more about the aftermath of the war on a family relationship, which could be really interesting. I have also heard great things about Ann Patchett’s writing, so I’m excited to read her for myself!
  • Actress by Anne Enright: I’m neutral about this book. For some reason, I usually don’t like books about actors or writers…but I did like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (a book about an actress). Could work for me, we will see.
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: another book that I feel neutral about. I don’t quite know what to expect based on the official description, so we will see.
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara: I am pretty excited about this mystery/thriller novel that takes place in contemporary India. It sounds unlike anything I’ve read before, in a good way. My only potential reservation is that it is written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy; whether or not this works will depend on the author’s execution.
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee: I’m not sure how I feel about this book. It sounds like it will be a difficult read (because of the subject matter), but since the novel is written about Singapore by a Singaporean author, I think the book is more likely to be written from a compassionate perspective than an exploitative one.
  • Weather by Jenny Ofill: another book that I’m excited for. Based on what little I know about it, the characters sound compellingly complex, which is something I love in a novel.
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo: a multigenerational book about family relationships and secrets, this one could go either way for me. I am intimidated by the book’s page count (532), but hopefully it will be a good read!
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz: another “cautiously optimistic.” The novel is about a woman who enters into a loveless marriage for the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, and what comes of her life after she moves. It sounds like this book contains a lot of elements that I typically like: socially-relevant themes, complex characters, and morally difficult decisions.
  • Girl by Edna O’Brien: I am pretty hesitant about this book. It is a story about Nigerian girls who were abducted by Boko Haram…and it is written by a white author. Major red flag for me, as books about marginalized people written by non-marginalized people often end up in the realm of exploitation/trauma-porn.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, it is a 1500’s period piece, which is not at all my thing. But on the other hand, it is a re-imagination of history from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife, which sounds like it has the potential to be amazing!
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: lukewarm about this. It low-key sounds like the debutante ball episode of Gilmore Girls, but spun into a novel.
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: cautiously optimistic? I think I’m the only person who isn’t mad about this book making the WP longlist. I love a novel with an unlikeable main character, and books where unrealistic characters are forced to change their way of thinking. So it sounds like this book has a lot of potential to work for me.

Are you following/reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction? What are your thoughts on the longlist? Do you agree or disagree with any of my takes? What books are you most excited for? I’m so eager to discuss!

Book Review: Circe

The book: Circe by Madeline Miller
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This weekend, I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe. This story takes the mythological figure Circe – the Greek goddess of magic who is most famous for turning Odysseus’ crew into swine in The Odyssey – and imagines her life story from her own perspective. In the novel, Circe is banished to an isolated desert island as punishment for using witchcraft to turn a mortal into a god. Alone on the island, she hones her magical abilities, entertains and helps visitors, and ultimately discovers who she is.

I tend not to read many fantasy novels, but I really enjoyed Circe! While the novel is centered around Greek mythology and contains many fantastical elements, the story is about so much more than fantasy and witchcraft. Circe is a book about finding yourself and staying true to your personal values.

One of the things I liked most about Circe was how author Madeline Miller characterized many of the famous Greek gods and heroes as power-hungry and narcissistic, while showing Circe as soft and compassionate. This portrayal spoke to me a lot, because in history (and in present-day America) we tend to glorify those who become powerful and successful, even though those people are not necessarily morally good. Circe shows that the people we deem “witches” might just be misfits who were never given the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

Circe also demonstrated how any person can thrive when they are in the right environment. Amongst the gods and goddesses, Circe is considered powerless and unlovable by her family, who generally ignore her. It is only after she is banished to the island of Aiaia – away from the influence of her destructive family – that she realizes that she is, in fact, powerful. As she hones her witchcraft on the island, she learns how to protect herself, express herself, and help others. This message is important, too: just because some people don’t see your worth, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

The reason why I didn’t give this book 5 stars was because the plot was slightly too long-winded for me. Specifically, I thought that the scene where Jason and Medea visit the island could have been omitted, because it didn’t add that much to the story (in my opinion). Also, I’m not sure there needed to be two intense run-ins with Scylla…but that might be my disinterest for action scenes speaking.

Overall, I really enjoyed Circe, and the way it retold the story of a supposed evil witch. The book is full of self-discovery and growth, as well as many beautifully inspirational quotes, including this one: “All my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.