Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Shortlist Reaction

This year I decided to read my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve currently read 10 out of 16 of the longlisted titles, with plans to read four more. Today, the six books that advanced to the shortlist were announced; they are:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
My rating: 5 stars out of 5 [review]

This was my favorite read from the WP longlist, and I would have been furious if it didn’t advance to the shortlist. I found this book to be so fresh and ambitious. From the writing style, to the social commentary, to the complex characters, everything in this novel really worked for me. And of all the books on the longlist (that I’ve read so far), this one painted the most nuanced picture of womanhood. I would be very happy to see this win the Women’s Prize.

Weather by Jenny Offill
My rating: 4 stars out of 5 [review]

This was one of the more polarizing reads on the longlist, due to the novel’s inner-monologue writing-style and lack of plot. While I thought it was brilliantly compelling and intimate, other readers found it boring. Despite its mixed reception, this book was very skillfully written, and its focus on coping with uncertainty in a rapidly-changing world makes it an unsurprising choice for the shortlist. That said, I’m still not rooting for this one to win the prize because it wasn’t nearly as impactful as Girl, Woman, Other.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Currently reading
Current rating: 4 stars out of 5 (subject to change)

Another unsurprising shortlist choice, since the WP judges seem to have a soft spot for Greek mythology and Trojan War retellings (last year both Circe and The Silence of the Girls advanced to the shortlist). I do think A Thousand Ships deserves its place on the shortlist, though. While perhaps not the freshest novel, it is well-written and features well-balanced characters and nuanced takes on womanhood.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz
My rating: 2 stars out of 5 [review]

This was my least favorite read from the WP longlist. Dominicana had the potential to tell an immigration/American Dream story in a nuanced and historically interesting way…but instead it followed all of the tropes that you would expect. I won’t launch into my disappointment over this novel all over again (I already did that in my review), but I am surprised to see the WP judges shortlist a novel where the most well-developed character was the abusive husband.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
TBR

I’ve read nothing but positive reviews for this novel, so I’m excited to see it on the shortlist (and equally excited to read it soon).

The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel.
TBR

I’m not surprised to see this on the shortlist. I’ve seen overwhelmingly positive reviews for this book, and the first two books in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy received a lot of literary acclaim. I’m really looking forward to reading this, and seeing if it lives up to the hype! And since the winner announcement has been postponed until September, I actually feel confident that I’ll be able to read the entire Wolf Hall series by then!

With only one seriously objectionable book (Dominicana), this year’s shortlist doesn’t seem so bad if you look only at the individual books that comprise it. Given the number of longlisted books that were just fine, but not particularly inspiring, memorable, or insightful, the judges did a pretty good job in advancing only deserving contenders to the shortlist.

But looking at the shortlist as a whole, I wonder: are three historical fiction novels really necessary? And do all three of the shortlisted HF novels need to be Eurocentric? Specifically, I wonder why How We Disappeared or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line weren’t shortlisted? Of all the books on the WP longlist, these were two of the most universally well-received by fellow WP bloggers. And with three historical fiction novels written by white authors on the shortlist, their exclusion feels especially weird.

Speaking of white authors, this shortlist is not very diverse in terms of authorship! One author is Dominican-American, one is British and black, one is a white American…and the remaining three authors are white women from the UK. The inclusion of How We Disappeared or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line not only would have made the shortlist more interesting thematically, but also more diverse in terms of authorship.

So while (most of) the individual books comprising the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist do seem to merit their spot there, the list as a whole feels redundant and somewhat lacking. I guess this shouldn’t come as a shock, since the longlist could also be described as redundant and lacking (that’s another post for another time, though). I will be rooting for Girl, Woman, Other to win, but I suspect that it won’t be chosen since it already won the Booker Prize. The book that I think will actually win is The Mirror & The Light.

To end on a more positive note…one of the best parts of reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been reading the posts of fellow book bloggers who are also following the award. I probably would have burnt out on the longlist weeks ago were it not for daily engagement with fellow bloggers. If you’re not following them already, definitely check out Gilana, Callum, Naty, Emily, Rachel, Hannah, Beth, and Corey‘s book blogs!

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).