Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).

Month in Review: April 2020

Woman Shrugging on Samsung

Woohoo, we have all survived another month! I don’t have much to say about April, other than that I spent it almost entirely indoors and all the days kind of bled into each other and I shirked a lot of responsibilities. Now onto the bookish things!!

Books read:

Books in progress/May reading goals:

I’m currently reading Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s a little slow, but I like the immersive setting. I also plan to read My Dark Vanessa and Beach Read; I’ve heard great things about both books, so I’m really excited to get to them. And I got a copy of The Bridge of Little Jeremy, so I hope to get to that this month as well.

I also plan to read a couple more titles from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist: How We Disappeared (which didn’t advance to the shortlist but seems to be a fan favorite), and Hamnet (also a fan favorite).

And I am tentatively planning to start Mrs. Jack – a biography of the American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner – as a buddy read with a friend. I’m a little nervous about this one, because I struggle with biographies and because art history and famous wealthy people are not exactly “my things.” But I will try to reserve judgment until I start reading it!

Some of the posts I enjoyed this month:

CAT PHOTOS!!!

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: A Thousand Ships

“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all.” A Thousand Ships is an all-female retelling of the Trojan War, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different woman.

The book: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Thousand Ships was an uneven reading experience for me: some sections were incredibly compelling, while others felt dry and repetitive. For example, the Penthesilea and Laodamia chapters were short, and the respective protagonists of those chapters barely reappeared in the novel, so those chapters didn’t add much to the story for me. On the other hand, the longer chapters (like the Clytemnestra chapter) and the characters that reappeared throughout the story (like Cassandra) were well-developed and compelling.

Even if not all the individual characters in A Thousand Ships were well-developed, the role of women as a whole in the Trojan War was well-explored. With great detail and compassion, Haynes demonstrated that the women of the Trojan War were more than just wives and daughters of the warriors who normally take the center stage in Trojan War stories: they were complex women who experienced loss, anger, grief, and devastation. I did wish at times that Haynes had been more subtle with this message, though: there were points when it felt like she was beating the reader over the head with the message that the Trojan War was also a woman’s war. The message is important, but it would have been effectively communicated without repeated statements like: “But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind” or “he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die” or “When a war ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.”

Something that surprised me (in a good way) was the familiarity of some of the novel’s themes and characters’ behaviors. From overpopulation stressing the Earth’s resources, to egomaniac leaders who are power-hungry yet incompetent, to women attacking other women when their real issue is with the men who hold unfair amounts of power over them — I appreciated how Haynes presented an ancient story in a way that felt somewhat relatable.

Although I normally don’t enjoy “uneven” reading experiences, A Thousand Ships was an overall enjoyable read for me. Even when the story got dull or repetitive, the prose was lovely. And certain chapters (like Clytemnestra’s chapter, which explores her emotions and motives in a beautifully written and moving way) were so powerful that they made it easy for me to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. I liked this all-female retelling of the Trojan War, and would certainly read more of Haynes’ work in the future (especially if she ever wrote an entire Cassandra or Clytemnestra book).

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: 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.

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 César – 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.