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: Historical 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.

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: 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).

Book Review: And I Do Not Forgive You

The last book I read before delving into the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks. This collection of short stories is a contemporary take on fairy tales, myths, and ghost stories – most of which are united by undertones of sadness, bitterness, anger, and redemption.

The book: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks
Genre: Contemporary fiction, short-stories
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

My favorite thing about And I Do Not Forgive You was that it gives validity to the “undesirable” emotions that women are not “supposed” to admit they feel. The women in Sparks’ short stories are unabashedly sad, bitter, and sometimes enraged. Some want revenge, some long to connect with lost loved ones, and some just want to be left alone. I appreciated that Sparks wholly embraced these “undesirable” feelings that probably all women have felt, yet rarely get to openly discuss.

I also liked that Sparks’ stories featured perspectives from people that society generally ignores: families living in trailer parks, women who were historically important yet barely remembered, cult survivors, children of broken families, and more. Because the characters’ perspectives may be unfamiliar (or even taboo) to readers, I think some of the stories come across as Weird. But I don’t know that the characters in And I Do Not Forgive You are any weirder than me or you or people that we know; they’ve just had starkly different life experiences.

With all of that said, I only liked about half of the stories in the collection. Even though I appreciated what Sparks was doing – and even though I just defended the weirdness of the book – some of the stories were still too “out there” for me. As in, I tried to read them deeply but still had trouble processing and finding meaning in them. Other stories were moving and razor-sharp, though! My two favorite stories were “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park” and “The Language of the Stars.”

Overall, I am glad that I read And I Do Not Forgive You. It was very different from the books I usually read, and it challenged me to think deeply about its various characters and story-lines. If you are looking for something “weird” or different, or if you want a surprising blend of magic/mysticism and contemporality, I recommend this book!

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: Stubborn Archivist

February has been a great month of reading: we’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already finished four (!!!) books! The latest book I read was Stubborn Archivist, a novel about a young, half-British/half-Brazilian woman navigating adult life in London, and trying to make sense of who she is.

The book: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Stubborn Archivist was an interesting read, and one of the reasons why was its use of language and formatting. There are interesting line breaks throughout the novel, and also (very intentional) omissions of punctuation. These features give the book a very poetic feel, and even give some parts of the novel a sort of surreal quality.

I also liked how – through the lens of the protagonist’s experiences – author Rodrigues Fowler portrays the challenges of looking “different” or “foreign” in your own country. Without having experienced any of the micro-aggressions portrayed in the novel, I really felt for the protagonist, who repeatedly deals with men exocitizing her because of her ethnicity, and people making assumptions about her ability to speak intelligently. Books that demonstrate these challenges are vital because they give voices to cultural phenomena that are common and important, but still not discussed enough in mainstream media.

At the same time, many of the protagonist’s experiences were familiar to me (someone who is not considered “different” looking in their own country). Being steamrolled or ignored by well-intentioned people who assume you have nothing to say, passing up invitations to socialize and drink with coworkers because alcohol upsets your stomach, obsessing over what if situations before a date – these were all so relatable! These relatable moments illustrate how some experiences and feelings are universal, and have the ability to transcend culture, language, and geography.

My main critique of Stubborn Archivist is that it feels…unfinished. The whole novel is so ambitious: in the stories it tells, the timelines it follows, and the creative formatting and language it employs. But at times it feels like Rodrigues Fowler sets out to do so many things, that sections end up feeling incomplete and blurry. The gaps in the novel may be intentional (the title of the book gives me reason to think it is), but I personally prefer less “blurry” narratives.

Overall, I enjoyed Stubborn Archivist and appreciated its story and main character. I recommend this book, because it is a different read, and because it shares interesting perspective that many people could benefit from reading. Just know in advance – if you do read this book – that the formatting is a bit surprising at first and that some parts of the novel have a sort of unfinished quality.