Book Review: Bunny

Bunny is a genre-bending novel about an MFA student, Samantha, who feels very much like an outsider to the rest of her fiction-writing cohort. The other girls in the cohort are cliquey, rich, and cutesy, and they refer to each other as “Bunny” – all of which repulses Samantha. But when the Bunnies invite Samantha to their “Smut Salon,” Samantha finds herself inexplicably drawn to their precious world. Behind the Bunnies’ charm, however, there is a sinister darkness; and as Samantha becomes increasingly involved with the Bunnies, she begins to lose herself.

The book: Bunny by Mona Awad
Genre: Contemporary fiction/satire/horror
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The best description of Bunny that I can give is Heathers meets Alice in Wonderland meets Frankenstein meets Stephen King. It’s a very disorienting story that takes several unexpected twists and turns, with some revelations that completely reframe the entire narrative. Because the novel is intentionally disorienting, a lot of things are up to interpretation – I finished Bunny a few days ago and am still bouncing between different potential interpretations of certain scenes. This type of novel won’t be for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it.

A major reason why Bunny worked so much for me is because the writing is hilariously self-aware. My favorite example of this is a scene where one of the Bunnies criticizes her fellow classmate’s story for being too vague, exclaiming: Um, what the fuck is this please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this…TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS.” This could be said of Bunny itself, and I love that Awad acknowledged that. Awad also gently makes fun of the self-importance of graduate students, the weird dynamics of female friend groups, and the way that millennials give ridiculously exaggerated compliments. I felt so seen and so hilariously called out.

I also enjoyed Bunny‘s genre-bending nature. Awad takes on horror, satire, humor, psychological explorations, and more – and she does it all with skill and self-awareness. There are moments where the prose borders on pretentious, but I thought the hints of pretentiousness were perfect for a story narrated by a grad student in a prestigious MFA program.

Bunny was infinitely weirder than I had expected, but I really enjoyed it. If you’re okay with “WTF-just-happened” stories, I highly recommend this book. And I recommend going in with as few expectations as possible, to really let the story take you on its wild ride.

Book Review: Freshwater

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Freshwater is the first book that I read for my black lit challenge, which is a lifelong commitment to listen to and amplify black voices in literature. Freshwater tells the story of a volatile Nigerian woman, Ada, who is trying to make sense of her multiple personalities. After a traumatic experience in college, two of Ada’s personalities materialize and become more dominant, leading Ada to get lost in her mind and make increasingly risky decisions.

The book: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It’s hard for me to review Freshwater because it was such a unique reading experience that nothing I say could possibly do it justice. The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Nigerian ogbanje, or the spirits in Ada’s mind that cause her pain and grief. After Ada experiences a major trauma in college, two of these spirits materialize in Ada’s mind, and become distinct personalities that she calls Asughara and Saint Vincent. The remainder of the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Asughara. I absolutely loved this narrative style, because it resulted in a very nuanced, layered story. Every event that Ada experienced could be viewed from the perspective of Igbo folklore in which spirits manipulate the physical world, and through the lens of Western psychology in which one’s sense of self can fracture in response to trauma.

In addition to being wonderfully nuanced, Freshwater is beautifully written. Emezi’s prose is powerful, lyrical, and engrossing. It is also quite introspective, which results in Ada being portrayed in an immensely compassionate light. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with characters who behave in startling and self-destructive ways, but Ada’s psyche is explored so deeply that it’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for her – all of her behavior makes sense in light of her complex psychological underpinnings.

This is a short review, but I don’t have much more to say about Freshwater. The combination of Igbo folklore with psychological introspection was so beautiful and fresh, resulting in one of the most striking and captivating novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Emezi’s works.

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

12-year-old Jeremy is an aspiring artist in Paris with a genetic heart condition. Finances have always been tight for Jeremy and his mother, but when the family is unexpectedly hit with a hefty inheritance tax, Jeremy’s mother ends up in serious debt. So Jeremy does what any teenage boy in his situation would: he uses his artistic talent to earn money and save his mother from her debts.

The book: The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: DNF

Even though I didn’t finish this novel, I will provide my honest opinion of the first ~33% of it. My favorite thing about The Bridge of Little Jeremy was the immersive setting of Paris. Jeremy and his dog Leon spend a lot of time adventuring around Paris, and these passages are written in such a way that I felt like I was wandering alongside them. At times I felt that the descriptions of Paris were a bit superfluous – some detail could have been omitted and the passages still would have been quite immersive – but at other times these scenes took on an absorbing and surreal quality, which might not have been achieved without such vivid detail.

I also liked the main character, Jeremy. He is kind and compassionate toward people and animals alike, he is confident and charismatic, and he doesn’t let his financial and medical struggles dampen his amazement for life. The fact that Jeremy retains his childlike curiosity in spite of his struggles made him a very realistic child narrator for me (and in this way he reminded me of Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line).

My main issue with this novel was that I just couldn’t get into the writing. There was a lot of focus on the mundane details of Jeremy’s day-to-day life, which worked well at times, but fell flat at others. Based on the first ~33% of this book, I think it could have been considerably shorter. Interestingly, I noticed on Goodreads that the paperback format of this book (which is the format that I read) has a lower rating than either of the Kindle editions – perhaps the intricately detailed writing lends itself better to scrolling on a Kindle? If I ever get an eBook reader, I will try The Bridge of Little Jeremy again and see if the different format improves my experience.

While I enjoyed the immersive setting and compassionate main character, I couldn’t get into The Bridge of Little Jeremy and ultimately decided to stop reading about one-third of the way through. Although this book didn’t work for me, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on Goodreads, so do still check it out if you’re interested! And maybe go for an eBook edition, since that format has higher reviews than the paperback format.

Thank you to Estelle Leboucher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Book Review: The Boyfriend Project

After enjoying Beach Read, I decided to continue with the romance genre and read The Boyfriend Project. The novel opens with young professional Samiah Brooks learning via Twitter that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with two other women. After dumping the three-timing liar, the women become instant friends and vow to spend the next six months investing in themselves. But immediately after making this vow, Samiah falls for a new-hire at her office, and must decide whether she is willing to risk the potential consequences of breaking the pact and starting a workplace romance with someone she barely knows.

The book: The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Genre: Romance
Rating: 2 stars out of 5

I really wanted to like this book because the premise sounded promising, but unfortunately it fell short in many ways. One of my biggest issues was that none of the main characters were well-developed enough. I especially wish that Samiah’s flaws and internal issues had been explored more deeply. For the first half of the novel, Samiah seemed too perfect to be real: she is super successful professionally, has a great relationship with her family, can make friends easily, and loves charity and “paying it forward.” These are all admirable and compelling characteristics, but taken together in the absence of any major character flaws, they don’t make for a very relatable protagonist. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that Samiah is a perfectionist, and that she has difficulty trusting and accepting help from others. But even then, all of these issues are revealed at once, with the author quickly telling rather than showing them. I still liked and rooted for Samiah, but I wish she had been a more deeply developed character.

If the characters weren’t the most relatable but their romance had been compelling, I probably still would have enjoyed this book. But it was hard to feel compelled by the romantic development when so much of it happened “off-page.” For example, Samiah and Daniel first meet and flirt when they happen to take a coffee break at the same time. Their next conversation takes place after they both attend the same work meeting, with the author/third-person-narrator noting that they had taken coffee breaks together for the past couple of days. As the initial basis for Samiah and Daniel’s romance, those other coffee breaks should have been shown! This is just one of many examples of the author telling the reader that something important happened off-page.

Another reason why I didn’t find Samiah and Daniel’s romance compelling was because I thought that Daniel kind of sucked! Some of the reasons why he sucked are spoilers, so I’ll just mention his emotional indulgence. He uses his strong feelings for Samiah to justify selfish and unethical behavior, which is a huge red flag to me. He also does things like show up at her apartment unannounced to “surprise” her, which seems like a problem with healthy boundaries and communication.

I’ve spent most of this review being critical, so now I want to focus on what I did like. I loved the way the novel started with a friendship, and how the importance of non-romantic relationships was emphasized throughout the book. I also liked the tongue-in-cheek commentary about corporate culture at startup companies, and the complex dynamics between coworkers. And I really appreciated the messages about the importance of recognizing one’s own advantages, using those advantages to help others, and just generally paying kindness forward.

I wanted to love The Boyfriend Project, but it just wasn’t for me. The romance at the center of the novel didn’t compel me, and I thought that too much important action happened off-page. I also thought the book was a bit too long. There were multiple points before the book ended where I thought “the story could end right here and it would be perfectly fine”…but then it continued on.

Even though this book wasn’t for me, please don’t discount it based on my review if you are interested! There are plenty of 4 and 5-star reviews of The Boyfriend Project on Goodreads, and its average rating is currently at 3.72. If you read this book and liked it, I would love to know what aspects of it compelled you.

Book Review: Beach Read

I recently hit a reading slump after reading back-to-back-to-back literary fiction novels, and Beach Read seemed like the perfect book to pull me out of it. At the center of the novel is January Andrews, a romance novelist who writes happy endings because she genuinely believes in them. But after a tumultuous year including the death of her father and a break-up with the man she thought she would marry, January hits a writing slump. She spends the summer at her late father’s beach house in North Bear Shores, Michigan, only to find out that her neighbor is her college-rival – the acclaimed literary fiction writer Augustus Everett. The two strike a bet in which January must write a somber literary fiction novel, while Augustus will write a romance novel with a happy ending. But maybe the real romance will be the one they find with each other?

The book: Beach Read by Emily Henry
Genre: Romance
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

An important thing to understand about this novel is that, although it features two writers who are both writing outside their genres-of-expertise, it is much more heavily focused on their relationship than anything else. The book touches on some interesting themes – like how female writers aren’t taken as seriously as men, even if they’re more accomplished; or why people get hooked on romance novels – but it doesn’t focus on these themes for long. This initially disappointed me, because I had hoped to see more glimpses of January’s literary-fiction-writing process and more excerpts of the novel she ultimately writes. Once I came to terms with the fact that this book was almost exclusively focused on its characters, though, I really enjoyed it for what it was.

It’s also important to know that while this book appears to be a light, fun summer read, it gets somewhat heavy at times. This is because author Emily Henry deeply examines the events that shaped the protagonists’ perceptions of the world. I personally liked this, and thought that the exploration of the characters’ backstories made them more realistic. Without this exploration, Augustus would have just been the stereotypical brooding, difficult-to-know commitment-phobe, and January would have been that person who masks their pain with unrelenting and inflexible positivity. Both characters do come across as the aforementioned stereotypes at times, but the psychological explorations allow the reader to see the characters in a more nuanced and realistic light.

WARNING: the next paragraph contains potential spoilers!!!

As for the romance between January and Augustus, I really liked it! Their initial flirtation is all-at-once sharp, funny, and charming. As the two spend more time together, they both open up and grow emotionally, owning up to personal shortcomings and unfair assumptions they made about one another. The only aspect of the romance that I took issue with was Augustus’ repeated profession that he has “wanted” January for years. This word didn’t sit well with me, because it makes it sound as though Augustus is only interested in pursuing January as some sort of sexual conquest. This turns out not to be the case, but that phrasing still felt more predatory than sexy to me.

Okay, we are past the spoilers now.

I found it interesting how the book moved between deep emotional development and the characters’ cute and flirty romance, with both protagonists using snarky humor as a means of flirtation and a coping mechanism for their internal issues. As someone who frequently uses humor to diffuse tension and negative emotions, the shifts between flirty fun and seriousness felt natural to me. However, I can also see how those transitions might seem jarring or inappropriate to other readers.

Overall, I really enjoyed Beach Read! I thought that January and Augustus made a great couple, and I liked how they both developed emotionally over the course of the novel. I also appreciated how the book balanced humor and flirtation with serious emotional development. My main criticism is that I would have liked to see more commentary on what it was like for January to write a literary fiction novel, and more excerpts of the novel she ended up writing. Still, Beach Read was a fun and endearing romance!

Side note: for a book called Beach Read, the characters spend VERY little time at the beach.

Book Review: Hex

Written as a series of journal entries to her ex-mentor Dr. Kallas, Hex examines botanist Nell Barber in the months after she is expelled from her PhD program and breaks up with her boyfriend of two years. Nell devotes herself to her research on the detoxification of poisonous plants (which she conducts in her bare-bones apartment) and to Dr. Kallas.

The book: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

My favorite things about this book were the prose and the protagonist’s voice. I loved the run-on sentences, and the narrator’s realistically distracted thought process. It was also just fascinating to be inside Nell’s head; she has such a sharp, insightful, and funny world view. While I normally don’t prefer books to be written in the second person, I thought that it worked here. Nell is so obsessed with and devoted to her mentor, Dr. Kallas, that the idea of her writing a confessional journal to her was totally believable.

In general, I found Nell to be a sympathetic character. She makes decisions that no perfectly-functioning adult would make, but that are understandable given how lost she feels after being expelled from her PhD program and breaking up with her boyfriend. The way she clings onto her research and ex-mentor makes complete sense for someone whose sense of self came from working exceptionally hard and serving her advisor. With that said, it was clear that Nell was lost and lonely even before starting her PhD program. I think that Nell’s character would have been even more interesting if the underlying reasons for her unfocused nature had been explored more deeply.

Something else that I liked about this book was that it focused on a science grad student. Prior to Hex I had never read a novel focused on a female grad student in the sciences, and it was nice to see that representation! Some of Nell’s snarky comments about her (former) academic department had me laughing out loud because they rang so true to me. For example: The goal of the party was that it should seem, pretty much immediately afterward, that there had never been any party. I also related to Nell’s assessment that she had worked pathologically and unsustainably hard at her research before losing steam; this was really common in the department where I used to work, and I suspect that most people who have gone through demanding graduate programs can relate.

The main reason why this wasn’t a 5-star read for me was because some of the characters’ relationships weren’t very believable. Nell, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend, her ex-advisor, and her ex-advisor’s husband quickly became enmeshed in a way that felt unrealistic and unsettling to me. There was one romance in particular, toward the end of the novel, that developed from seemingly out of nowhere; it felt like a convenient but not particularly compelling way to wrap up the arcs of both characters involved.

If you like stories with lost and slightly unlikable characters, I definitely recommend Hex. The writing is gorgeous and funny without being dense, and getting a glimpse into the narrator’s foggy mind was a uniquely fascinating experience.

Book Review: Red at the Bone

My latest read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Told in vignettes, the novel opens at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony at her grandparent’s house in New York, where she is surrounded by friends and family. As the book moves through various family members’ perspectives and memories, Woodson illustrates an intricate family history.

The book: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This novel was surprisingly deep and delightful! Despite its short page count, Red at the Bone is powerful and almost instantly immersive. Woodson writes from the perspectives of five characters (Melody, her mother Iris, her father Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Po’Boy) in an intimate and compelling way. While some characters are explored with more depth and nuance than others, I never felt like the novel suffered from lack of character development – an impressive feat for a novel that fits five distinct voices into just 200 pages.

Red at the Bone also compassionately explores topics including intergenerational trauma, sexuality, ambition, class and privilege, and parenthood. I thought that Woodson’s exploration of parenthood – largely done through the character of Iris, who became pregnant with Melody when she was 15, but still had ambitions for herself beyond motherhood – was especially skillful. I loved the way that Woodson flipped the script on some of the common tropes around teenage moms, and instead portrayed a mother who wanted to provide what she could for her child, but ultimately had the ambition and agency to realize that she wanted more from life. This portrayal worked well for me not only because it was different, but also because it was so compassionate: Woodson never insinuates that Iris is a bad person for choosing ambition over motherhood, nor does she suggest that Melody is inherently damaged from not having a close relationship with her mother.

I also liked how Woodson acknowledged some of the clichés and potential criticisms of her novel through the voices of her characters. In the vignette where Po’Boy describes falling in love with Sabe, he says “some people don’t believe that you can meet a person and know that’s the person for you for the rest of your life. I’m not going to try to argue with them on that.” Not only does this sentence convey Po’Boy’s love for Sabe, but it also acknowledges the cliché of the “love at first sight” trope. Woodson demonstrates this same self-awareness when Melody is recalling one of her earliest memories: “They say you don’t remember the early stuff, that you’re suddenly six and having your first memories. But that’s not true. I can go back to five and four and three.” That being said, I’m not sure that this kind of meta self-acknowledgement was sufficient to justify the “characters remembering their own birth” trope.

Overall, I really liked this book. While there were a couple things that didn’t quite work for me, and a couple topics that could have been explored more deeply (Iris and Melody’s mother-daughter relationship, for one), I found Red at the Bone to be a powerful and compelling read. The fact that Woodson managed to develop the novel’s characters and their intricate dynamic in under 200 pages makes it even more impressive. While I’m not actively rooting for this one to make the WP shortlist, I certainly wouldn’t be upset if it did. Based on my experience with this novel, I’d like to check out some of Woodson’s other works in the future.

Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Alright, I’m back at it with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had follows the close-knit Sorenson family through a tumultuous year of family secrets and tensions. A secret son reenters his mother’s life fifteen years after he was put up for adoption, causing old tensions to resurface between the two sisters who concealed his existence many years before; another daughter is left by her boyfriend shortly after she becomes pregnant with his child, although she won’t tell her family why he left her; and the youngest daughter, physically isolated in Oregon from the rest of her family in Illinois, tells a white lie that spins into a massive web of lies from which she can’t extricate herself.

The book: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

I have such mixed opinions on this book, but one of the things that generally worked for me was the writing style. I especially liked the author’s use of trailing and stammering sentences in characters’ conversations around challenging subjects; I thought it made the dialogue more realistic. At the same time, though, there were several dramatic scenes and dialogues where the emotional impact just wasn’t there for me, so I suppose the dialogue wasn’t entirely believable. Also, this may be petty, but there were a few instances of the author using science terminology in a way that didn’t quite make sense – e.g. “the building was shaped like a genome” – and it really irked me.

The structure of the novel worked for me at first, but eventually became frustrating. The chapters alternate between past and present, with the past-focused chapters moving chronologically closer to the present, and each chapter featuring multiple characters’ perspectives in that moment in time. This worked at first, because it helped to establish the main characters and their complex relationships with each other; and some of the backstory provided in the past-focused chapters clearly provided valuable insights into the complicated family dynamic. Over time, though, the constant perspective and time shifts became jarring: a scene would start to become compelling and intriguing, only for the plot to be interrupted by a past-focused chapter that didn’t add much nuance to the story.

Thematically, The Most Fun We Ever Had did a great job demonstrating that things that look perfect on the outside rarely are. By providing inside looks into the Sorenson parents’ picture-perfect marriage, as well as the lives of the seemingly successful Sorenson children, Lombardo highlights the characters’ desires to appear that they are doing well, when in fact they are all lost in their own ways. Lombardo also depicts how some characters feel less anxious after owning up to their mistakes. This seems to be an endorsement for living honestly and authentically rather than pretending to have it all together, and it’s a message that I really appreciated, especially in a social-media-driven world where there is pressure to only share the most appealing parts of your life and your self.

Beyond that, though, I wasn’t sure what messages to take away from the novel. So many of the problems laid out in the book were specific to this one wealthy, enmeshed, and seriously complicated family. And some of the family’s problems were resolved in unsatisfying ways – like a years-long sibling tension being “resolved” because one of the siblings in the relationship apologized for her part in a fight, letting the other sibling off the hook; or an adult giving her child a shallow apology that focuses more on how much she is struggling, rather than acknowledging and validating her kid’s emotions. I suppose the takeaway in these unsatisfying “resolutions” might be that family dynamics are complicated, and that sometimes complex family conflicts aren’t resolved in a satisfying way. But still, these underwhelming resolutions – and really, the book as a whole – left me wanting more conclusiveness.

Also, as other reviewers have mentioned, there were too many main characters in this novel. There were 7 different perspectives being followed throughout the story: the Sorenson parents, their four daughters, and a daughter’s once-secret son. While I appreciated seeing the intricate family dynamic from so many different angles, I also thought that some of the character development suffered from the author trying to do too much. Specifically, the two youngest daughters of the family, Liza and Grace, and the no-longer-secret son, Jonah, all seemed underdeveloped to me. It was especially disappointing that Jonah was an underdeveloped character, because as an outsider to the Sorenson family in many ways, he is able to provide a fresh perspective on their strange dynamic, as well as their wealth and privilege. In my opinion, the entire story could have been told from the perspective of three or four main characters – with one of those perspectives being Jonah’s – and nothing substantial would have been lost.

This review is actually turning out to be more negative than I had intended. Overall, I thought The Most Fun We Ever Had was an enjoyable and entertaining read. But given the book’s length and scope, I expected more from it! And speaking of the book’s length, I didn’t explicitly address this yet, but the book could have been at least 120 pages shorter. Anyway, I recommend this book for a fun read, but I don’t quite see it as a contender for the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. Minor spoiler alert, but this book had WAY too many scenes where characters get caught/watched having sex (or foreplay that is going to lead to sex). And, yes, there was more than one scene like that!
  2. I’m surprised by how many of the WP longlist books feature “rich people problems” – this is the third book I’ve read from the longlist to do so.

Book Review: Actress

Yup, another novel from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! Actress follows Norah – adult daughter of the (late) superstar Katherine O’Dell – as she looks back on her mother’s life history and tries to figure out why Katherine went mad and shot her colleague in the foot. In retracing her mother’s history, Norah uncovers old secrets and reflects on how her mother’s stardom affected her own life.

The book: Actress by Anne Enright
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out 5

One thing that immediately stood out to me about Actress was the writing. The prose is beautiful, intimate, and sometimes cynically funny. Structurally, the novel had a non-linear timeline, and shifts in whose story the novel was telling (Katherine’s and Norah’s stories are intertwined throughout the book). These are both elements that don’t always work for me, but Actress was so well-written that these elements felt natural in the context of the story.

I’ve seen mixed reviews on whether or not Norah was a good choice of narrator for this story – I thought she was. Norah is the person that Katherine was closest to, and therefore the best person to write about her in all her complexity. Because of their close relationship, Norah is able to write about her mother in an unflinchingly honest way, while also expressing tenderness and compassion. The only thing about the narrative that didn’t work for me was it being written in the 2nd-person to Norah’s husband; I think using the 1st-person (still with Norah as the narrator) would have made more sense.

A weird experience that I had reading this novel was immediately loving the writing, but not finding the first ~100-or-so pages of plot to be particularly interesting. I wasn’t that compelled by Katherine’s family history or her childhood exposure to stardom, but at the same time, I could appreciate that it was exceptionally well-written. The remainder of the book – Katherine’s young adult career, her rise to stardom, the way that fame changed her, and Norah looking back and figuring out what broke her – really pulled me in. This could be because Norah, who was born when Katherine was 23, tells the parts of Katherine life that she personally remembers with more warmth, intimacy, and nuance. Or it could just be some personal bias that made it hard for me to get into the story at first!

Another strength of Actress was the historical commentary. Throughout the novel, Enright weaves in historical details about old Hollywood and The Troubles in a way that is believable, immersive, and pertinent to the story. I thought that the impact of certain historical events, especially the political violence of The Troubles, could have been given a bit more consequence…but having just read Dominicana, where major political events were simply mentioned without being meaningfully woven into the story at all, I thought that Enright captured the political climate of 20th-century Ireland in a way that made sense to the story as a whole.

Overall, I thought Actress was a beautifully written novel featuring a realistically complex mother-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if the first ~1/3 of the book was actually slower or less interesting than the rest, or if it was just me. Regardless, once I did get into the story, it absolutely captivated me. I would be very happy to see Actress advance to the WP shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. The summary of this book (the American version) on the inside of the cover contained what I thought were major spoilers. This was on the physical copy of the book only, not in the Goodreads summary.
  2. Once again, this book led me to retroactively change another WP longlist book rating. I keep rating books in a way that makes sense to me at the time, but then doesn’t hold up when I directly compare/rank the longlisted books.