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.

Month in review: March 2020

So…March was…strange (as I’m sure you can all relate to). My husband and I are now on day 20 of quarantine, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I worry about things like finding a new job and being able to go to my friend’s wedding this summer. I also miss hanging out with friends and going to my favorite community spots, and I feel general anxiety over the state of the world. But in the grand scheme of things, I am only moderately inconvenienced by the quarantine, and (although I feel spoiled saying this) some positive things have come out of the extended time off – like realizing that it actually isn’t too complicated to work remotely, and having more time than usual for yoga and reading.

Books read:

Books in progress/April reading goals:

I’m currently reading Actress by Anne Enright. So far, I am loving the author’s writing style; the plot has not compelled me as much as the writing, but I’m not very far into the book so things can still change. I also plan to read Red at the Bone, The Most Fun We Ever Had, and A Thousand Ships this month.

Posts that stuck with me:

I also want to shout out the bloggers who are reading through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! It has been wonderful to read their takes on the novels, and to feel a sense of bookish community. You can find some great WP longlist coverage on Rachel, Callum, Gilana, Naty, Hannah, and Corey‘s blogs.

Cat photos!!!

Book Review: Dominicana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side notes:

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

Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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

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

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

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

Note: there are potential spoilers in the paragraph below:

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

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

Book Review: The Dutch House

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

The book: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Weather

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

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

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

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

Bonus picture: my cat reads Weather.

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