This Week, I Read… (2018 #9)

33 - How Stella Got Her Groove Back

#33 – How Stella Got Her Groove Back, by Terry McMillan

The things I didn’t like about this far outweigh the things I enjoyed.

Since the good list is shorter, I’ll start there. I’m not a black woman in her early forties, and I don’t have an ex-husband or any children, so I was surprised how readily I could relate to Stella. She’s neurotic and image-conscious and a “strong” career woman who’s nevertheless socially somewhat insecure. I liked how unexpectedly falling in love–even if she denied that was what was happening to her for 3/4 of the book–turned her on her head and shook up her life. Which, obviously, is the point of the novel.

Also, since I *am* old enough to get most of the ’90s references, this is a work solidly grounded in its time, and it made me nostalgic for quite a few things. I was more like Quincy’s age at the time, listening to tons of music and playing video games. (Also, I do like the Stella-Quincy relationship, he seems like a great kid, but he’s by no means abnormally perfect.)

However, Stella’s neuroses are displayed in the narration two ways, both of which rapidly became exhausting to me as a reader: run-on sentences/lack of punctuation in itemized lists (two forms of the same grammatical styling choice) and incessantly repeated self-criticism/doubt. The former started off to me as a way to signify Stella’s mind going a mile a minute, which is another reason I can relate to her–sometimes my brain won’t shut off, either. But it wasn’t reserved for moments of stress or intense emotion–it was all the time. And when I noticed other characters didn’t have commas in their dialogue, the same way Stella’s internal narration worked? Nope nope nope. If that’s a characterization thing, it needs to be limited to her. If it’s a style thing for the whole work, it’s even less effective.

The endless cycle of self-criticism and doubt was even more infuriating, because there was simply no reason for it past a certain point. It was reasonable for Stella to be nervous, for example, when she sent the plane ticket to Winston as a surprise–how would he react? was she being too forward, taking this too seriously? But whenever he didn’t contact her within a specific time frame (usually an unreasonably short window) she would instantly devolve into hyperbolic, frustrated anger at him which quickly became an examination of her supposed flaws that would cause him to abandon her. Even at the very end of the book, she’s still doubting him! Why? He’s flawless.

And that’s my final problem. Winston is portrayed as perfect, except for his age. That’s the only conflict. The long-distance aspect of their relationship doesn’t count, to me, because the whole thing moves so quickly, they’re not apart for long; also Stella spends a prodigious amount of money to see him again, first with the return trip with the kids, and then flying him out to stay with her. The separations are short and relatively insignificant.

But in all other ways, Winston is shown to be an ideal man. Maybe not to everyone’s individual tastes, but he doesn’t have any serious issues. He’s polite to a fault, handsome, sweet, apparently great in the sack well beyond what Stella expected, and so on. Towards the end, Stella goes on an internal rant nitpicking the flaws she sees over the course of his extended visit, but they’re all a) shallow; b) consequences of living somewhere unfamiliar/with someone new, that could be easily straightened out through communication; or c) not really flaws at all.

He’s so perfect, he’s boring. And in what is supposed to be this topsy-turvy romance, a boring love interest doesn’t cut it.

34 - The Children of Men

#34 – The Children of Men, by P.D. James

I saw the movie maybe a year or so after it came out, ie, a long time ago. I couldn’t have recited for you the exact order of events, but some things have remained fixed in my mind: the deer in the abandoned elementary school, the revelation of the pregnancy, Theo doing his utmost to get the child to safety even at the cost of his own life.

In terms of the plot, I did not recognize this book as the same work at all. Major changes were made for the film, especially at the end, and because I enjoyed the movie so much I can’t help but prefer its story.

However, the one thing they share is an ambience, or an aesthetic, I suppose. The vivid descriptions of the slow moldering of Britain in the book recalled to me the exact feel of the movie, a shabbiness, a despoiling, a pervading hopelessness that for some solidified into dread.

If you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie without having read the book, I wouldn’t recommend reading it afterwards. It felt exceptionally slow and ponderous at the beginning, and book-Theo is dreadfully boring with his long-winded introspection. The second part is livelier, more gripping, because there are some actual stakes; but the worldbuilding is the best thing about the book, if you’re into ruined worlds the way I am, and then I’d just recommend watching the movie instead.

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