#153 – Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King
- Read: 10/22/20 – 10/27/20
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a place name in the title
- Mount TBR: 131/150
- Rating: 4/5 stars
For most of the first half of this book, I was enthralled and convinced it was going to be a five-star read. Though this came earlier, in many ways it reminded me strongly of Under the Dome, which I read several years ago and LOVED. Stephen King likes to put small towns through absolute hell, and I’m here for it.
Ultimately, though, this had issues I couldn’t ignore.
While I don’t mind a large cast of characters in general, this one felt too big, the subplots surrounding them too repetitive. At first I was intrigued by the mini-portraits of these flawed people, any one of whom could have been the focus of a much more developed character study, some of whom could even be the protagonist of their own novel. But others were less interesting, and eventually the pattern of “goes to the shop, gets hypnotized, makes a deal with the devil” simply got old, especially when we had a parade of truly minor characters doing it in addition to the main ensemble. Did we need to see so many people wander into Gaunt’s lair and hear the specifics of their agreements? Could we not have glossed over any of them to pick up the pace?
Also, I found the end incomplete and less than ideal. In the final act, after being a non-issue for most of the book, the Casino Nite Catholic/Baptist rivalry escalated into an all-out brawl, and I simply wasn’t invested in it enough to enjoy the amount of space it took up, because none of the primary cast (even as large as it was) were involved. It was filler-disaster, to add to the body count, but it wasn’t gripping compared to how much I wanted to know what was happening to Alan and Polly. (I did read The Dark Half prior to this, by chance, not knowing Sheriff Alan Pangborn was going to have a starring role in a later book. It was nice to see him again, and I like him better now. TDH was only an “okay” book for me.) The very end itself was not to my taste, making a near deus ex machina out of Alan’s idle habit of magic tricks, and cutting off without any insight into what will happen to the town in the wake of dozens of its citizens dying in a single day. The denouement I was hoping would explain even a little bit, show even the tiniest hint of the rebuilding process beginning, simply wasn’t there–hard cut to a brief epilogue that mirrors the opening and implies Gaunt has moved on to victimize another town. I don’t object to that aspect of it–of course he did–but the complete absence of any resolution, any aftermath to the destruction he left behind, was unsatisfying to me.
Did I mostly enjoy it? Yes. Am I glad I read it? Also yes. Did it stick the landing? Not really. Maybe I’ll like it better down the road when I get around to rereading it–I often do with King novels.
#154 – An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, by Annejet van der Zijl
- Read: 10/27/20 – 10/29/20
- The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in the 1920s
- Mount TBR: 132/150
- Rating: 2/5 stars
I sometimes have this problem with fiction, but never before with nonfiction: this work has a name in the title, but it’s not about that person. Allene Tew is our nominal protagonist, so to speak, but very little in this tale is actually about her, instead following the lives of her husbands, children, ex-husbands, “adopted” children, and in some cases, her husbands’ or ex-husbands’ friends.
Obviously she interacted with many people in her life, but apparently she did so little herself of note that the bulk of her “story” is actually about other people and what they did before/after becoming a part of her life. How many times did we cut away from a narrative about a man to return to Allene, who was “shopping in London” or “buying and furnishing a new house” or “writing letters”? Listen, I understand that the lives of high-society women were circumscribed quite greatly at the time, and this woman in particular did manage to flout the system in many ways (like having five husbands and marrying into royalty) but a history built on social climbing isn’t inherently interesting if the person doing the climbing is basically a non-entity in the narrative who exists to marry the next husband.
The few personal details we get are thin and repetitive: she loved surrounding herself with active young people. She stopped caring about being fashionable when she gained weight in her later years. Look at how high this woman has flown when she was born in a backwoods town with basically nothing.
Even the big selling point of the concept–a Dutch writer takes on the tale of an American “princess” because of her connection to the Dutch royal family–isn’t much of a payoff, because the baptism ceremony where Allene becomes a royal godmother was apparently incredibly boring to her, and then we breeze right past it to tell the rest of the story, which again, is mostly about men.
I realize this is coming across as harshly critical in ways I don’t necessarily mean it to be–this book is obviously well-researched, and sources from the era would naturally be more inclined to discuss men than women in their pages (rampant sexism we’re still fighting today, of course.) So it’s not surprising that there’s so much information available on all five of Allene’s husbands and her son and her stepson. But this circles back to my point about putting her name in the title and making me (and other readers too, judging from other reviews) expect that the book is actually going to be about her and not an endless set of vignettes about every man in her life? Why frame the narrative this way when she’s basically a shadow we follow along through the history while watching other people actually do things? The only chapter that is truly about her in any substantive way is the final one about her death, and even that’s sharing space with the fight of her heirs over her will.
I didn’t find this particularly interesting or satisfying and basically only bothered to finish it because it was short.