Time Travel, Story Structure, and Unconvincing Women [book reviews]

It’s been several months since I’ve posted book reviews.  Here’s what I’ve been reading….

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

This novel has an extremely interesting structure, on which is hung a story that doesn’t need to be told this way, if it needs to be told at all.  Each chapter is narrated by a different person who has some connection to Eva Thorvald.  Unlike The Truth About Alice (reviewed here), in which everybody talks about Alice until she herself speaks to us in the final chapter, Eva Thorvald’s own perspective is represented only in Chapter 2, and after that we’re with people who are mostly telling their own stories and may have only a brief and tangential connection to Eva.

Some of these people’s stories are interesting, each chapter is well-structured like a short story, and the dialogue is very realistic–but overall, the book fails to present a full picture of who the adult Eva really is or why so many people think she’s so great as a person as well as a chef.  It just seems like the author has a huge crush on Eva Thorvald and feels that the rest of the world should, too, but he can’t quite explain why.

Also–especially for a story about cooking–this book contains far too much vividly depicted vomiting.

As a palate cleanser, I reread a book by my favorite mystery writer.

One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell

Maud and her late husband managed to save up some money, which she intends to leave to her only child, Vera.  The trouble is that Maud dislikes Vera’s husband Stanley, a shiftless type who drifts from job to job while Vera diligently works at a dry cleaner to support their modest lifestyle.  (This is 1971 Britain, when working-class people might own a small house yet not own a refrigerator!  It’s fascinating how often this comes up in the story and how it subtly affects their daily lives.)

Maud is now living with Vera and Stanley, handing over her monthly pension toward household expenses but refusing to touch her savings, smugly planning to leave that money to Vera alone–and she rarely misses a chance to complain about Stanley.  Maud is excitedly planning for a visit from her longtime friend Ethel, whom she hasn’t seen in years.  Ethel shows up early, while Maud is napping and Vera’s at work.  Stanley’s handling of the situation sets off a chain of events that he thinks will bring him riches, but things keep going wrong….

The story works perfectly, with some good twists.  What makes Stanley more interesting than your average greedy layabout is his fascination with crossword puzzles.  Don’t mistake his laconic career for a sign of low intelligence; this guy has quite a mind, and the things that gallop through it in moments of high stress are amazing.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

I wanted to love this book with its interesting premise: Greta Wells, despondent over her twin brother’s death from AIDS in 1985, tries electroconvulsive therapy and wakes up in another time.  Turns out that Greta Wells in 1918 also tried the equivalent of ECT, and so did Greta Wells in 1941.  Each version of Greta Wells lives in the same Manhattan apartment and has/had the same twin brother, boyfriend/husband, and beloved aunt.  We stay with the 1985 Greta as her ECT treatments rotate her through these three lives and she learns about herself and her other selves.

Unfortunately, the way this plot unfolds disappointed me in a lot of ways.

Greta is much too quick to accept and vaguely explain what’s happened to her: She awakens in 1918 on page 27, and by page 31 she’s decided that this isn’t time travel really but travel between parallel worlds, and “…everyone knows this: That the impossible happens once to each of us.”  Convenient.

1918 Greta’s need for extreme mental health treatment isn’t anything like adequately explained.  The crisis that would push her over the edge doesn’t happen until after the time-traveling cycle has started.

There are some anachronisms and some things that are just wrong in any time period, like the little boy “three or four years old” whose treasured possessions include a box of shed baby teeth.

Greta never quite seems like a real person, and neither does her aunt; their feelings and ideas and motivations serve only to drive the plot.  It’s her brother and her boyfriend, and also her other boyfriend and her brother’s boyfriend, who are the real people; it’s loving them, and choosing to value one of them above the others, that motivates each Greta’s decisions.

One thing I did like about this book was that when Greta woke up in a different version of her own body, she had a different physical experience; the conditions of a different life had changed some things about her body.  Also, I was very interested in this version of time travel and thinking about how it might work for other people’s stories.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Now, here is a male author writing women who seem like real people!  Virginia Woolf in 1923, a woman reading Virginia Woolf in 1949, and a woman at “the end of the twentieth century” (funny how she didn’t get a specific year) whose longtime best friend nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway after a Virginia Woolf character–these three women’s stories, told in alternating chapters, are loosely related to one another.  It’s an interesting way to structure a novel and works very well until it’s partly mashed out of shape in the somewhat unsatisfying ending.

My partner Daniel and I have an ongoing debate about which books and movies are most interesting: I favor stories about “people and their feelings,” while he prefers those in which “something explodes.”  The Hours is one that’s a little too much “people and their feelings” even for me.  Yes, it does have a major event as the Climax of the plot, exactly at the point where you’d expect it based on the weight of the book shifting from the right side of your hand to the left, and any ninth-grade English student could outline the Rising Action and Falling Action attached to this Climax, yet I felt the book was not really about that so much as it was about the three women feeling things and experiencing the world while nothing much really happens.

That said, it was very interesting reading about these three women’s feelings in Pulitzer Prize-winning prose.  I both loved and hated the descriptions of Virginia Woolf’s sanity-threatening headaches–perfectly evoking how it feels to be plagued by recurring headaches but also giving me chilling reminders of my own experiences.  At least this one ends on a reassuring note:

She can feel the headache creeping up the back of her neck.  She stiffens.  No, it’s the memory of the headache, it’s her fear of the headache, both of them so vivid as to be at least briefly indistinguishable from the onset of the headache itself.  She stands erect, waiting.  It’s all right.  It’s all right.  The walls of the room do not waver; nothing murmurs from within the plaster.  She is herself.

Crazy by William Peter Blatty

Aargh.  I thought this was going to be another interesting time-travel book.  It did inspire me to think some more about the possibilities inherent in a relationship where one character’s timeline is out of sync with another’s as they meet repeatedly–but if you want a good book about that, read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Don’t bother with this one.

Joey is a Catholic schoolboy living with his widowed father in 1941 New York City.  One day he meets Jane, an energetic girl who spends several fun days with him before disappearing.  She’d said she was in a different grade at his school, but she’s not; nobody’s ever heard of her.  A year and a half later, on a school trip to Coney Island, suddenly a much younger Jane is there to pal around with Joey.  What’s going on?

Most of the book is actually about Joey and his life’s story, and it turns out (without giving away the details) that the sole reason for Jane’s existence is to make Joey a very slightly better person.  He isn’t that great, even so, and isn’t as interesting as he thinks he is.

To set the “crazy” mood, this book is littered with ridiculously long and convoluted sentences that drag in all sorts of irrelevant tangents.  Here, I’ll select one from a random page:

Right away I understood that I was going to have to grovel, but having so recently seen Gunga Din telling Victor McLaglen, “Din only poor beasty, Sahib” in a moment of breathtaking cinematic cringing designed never to be equaled, or even approached, until the sun grew cold and, long before that, the last executive at any TV or cable station running ads about erectile dysfunction and the state of one’s colon at the family dinner hour, had been shot, disemboweled, and given no rites, I knew exactly how to do it to perfection, which I’m sure Sister Joseph would have told me was just more evidence that “there are no coincidences with the Holy Ghost.”

The best thing I can say about this book is that the commas are in the right places.

Check out Quick Lit for other writers’ book reviews!

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