This Week, I Read… (2018 #42)

146 - Water for Elephants

#146 – Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

As a work of historical fiction, this book is fantastic. In every scene, I could feel the grit in the air, could smell the animals, could hear their cries and roars and hooting. I couldn’t help but get a sense of the desperation that drove the circus; which was necessary to underline and illustrate the rampant cruelty of it, the way the animals were usually more valuable, more cared for, than the people.

In a lot of ways, it was disgusting and disturbing–but it always felt real.

However, as a story, this book has a shoestring plot filled with stock characters. Jacob, the narrator, has enough depth and backstory and personality to carry the novel forward, but everyone else might as well be a cardboard cutout. August is charming and cruel, prone to violent mood swings; his wife Marlena, Jacob’s crush/obsession, is a classic damsel in distress, trapped in an abusive marriage. Big Al, who runs the circus, is a greedy man who values success more than basic human decency.

These characters are all so broadly drawn they could have come from any other story about a down-on-its-luck circus (or abused wife Marlena from nearly anywhere at all), and since I’m the type of reader more concerned with character than atmosphere or even, sometimes, plot, I’m disappointed none of them have more meat on their bones. The “romance” between Jacob and Marlena was laughable, basically no more than some longing looks and, on her part, a desperate desire to get away from the horrible man she’d tied herself to. Marlena never convinced me she loved Jacob, only that she saw him as a savior figure and wanted what he represented–freedom from abuse.

Which is a low bar to set for a relationship, but then, this is also set long before the modern women’s rights era, so maybe it really was the best she could hope for.

Yet I still enjoyed the book, even after I realized how thin the story was, because of its strong anti-cruelty themes. Both people and animals are abused, but the abusers get what’s coming to them for it, and the novel ends happily, even if that ending felt obvious and somewhat contrived. But Jacob repeatedly put himself in danger to prevent an animal being harmed, or a person from being hurt or killed.

Am I so hungry for male narrator characters to be fundamentally good human beings that I liked this book despite its flaws? Yes. Yes, I am. Which saddens me, that there aren’t more of them out there.

147 - Sharp Objects

#147 – Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

This was a surprisingly quick and breezy read for a story that dealt with such deeply disturbing and unhealthy issues.

Like Gone Girl, this is led by a female anti-hero, a character type still rarely seen even with Flynn championing it. Camille is mentally ill, an alcoholic, a fairly casual drug user (what she lacks in frequency she makes up for by doping up with her younger sister); she’s led a sexually adventurous life in the past; she has distant and toxic relationships with her family members.

All of this loaded on a male character would be pretty standard, but it’s still unusual to see a female one so unrepentantly unsympathetic.

I value that for its own sake. I also love that as a female reporter, she should be saddled with a male editor who’s breathing down her neck and dismissive–instead we get one who’s avuncular, even fatherly as the story progresses, and who values Camille’s mental health and well-being far more than the stories she’s supposed to be producing. It’s a great subversion of every reporter story ever.

But for all Sharp Objects does well, it’s still annoyingly flawed. The pacing is off, with the plot moving in a slow-burn thriller style for so long that it made me wonder how it could possibly be resolved to my satisfaction when there was only 50, then 30, then 20 pages left. The ending crams so much into so little space that it dulls the double revelation of first one killer, then two; everything is laid out to explain how it worked in such rushed and flat detail that I felt cheated.

In addition, because every female character is so complex, flawed, and ultimately horrible, the three prominent male characters come out of the story close to squeaky clean, revealing a bizarre sort of sexism. Don’t get me wrong, I want more female anti-heroes and villains, but not if their stories have nothing but near-perfect men in them, because the end result is that only the men are portrayed as “good” while the women, while intriguingly written, are all “bad.”

148 - The Birth of Venus

#148 – The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant

Not as impressed with this as I was with the two previous Dunant works I read.

Alessandra is a boring heroine. The basic plot is already predictable from her situation given in the blurb, and then the prologue actually spoils most of the book. I’m all for prologues that tease with a bit of mystery where the story is going, but this gives that up for the shock of a nun having a tattoo? Disappointing.

I will say that I didn’t expect Alessandra to be a beard in her marriage, but that twist makes the rest of the book about the horrors of organized religion in power, with its condemnation of sinners; in this case, sodomites. Individual characters in the book prove themselves tolerant of homosexuality while society rages against it under the zealotry of a charismatic Catholic friar; but a story that seemed to be about a woman’s struggle for freedom from her gendered expectations takes huge break from that to shallowly explore the historical Italian equivalent of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Inserting modern values into this time period is impossible, and I don’t expect it; but I don’t think it’s valuable to spend so much time on what they really did think. Especially as Alessandra’s husband and brother do get to run away together, which would usually be a happy ending–but only after her brother is caught and tortured, with her husband’s letter of goodbye implying that her brother is basically a broken man. Not so happy.

After all that, Alessandra doesn’t get a happy ending either, really. Her illegitimate daughter gets to leave the convent with the painter, aka the father, but that’s also when they exit the narrative; after that, Alessandra’s death closes the book, but poorly, not on a life well-lived or an otherwise satisfying contrivance.

I don’t understand what this book was trying to be.

149 - No Perfect Fate

#149 – No Perfect Fate, by Jackie Weger

I had so many issues with this; I expected a romance, and I did not get one.

1. Cleo and Fletcher have zero chemistry. He keeps throwing fancy words and smooth lines at her–his “lawyer talk”–and she tries to fight back but never rises to the occasion, or to his level of witticism. The dynamic made me uncomfortable; lots of successful partnerships have one person who is smarter/more intellectual than the other, but this was just rubbing my face in it. Especially with how Cleo’s ex-husband is also a lawyer, wouldn’t she be more gun-shy of someone like Fletcher? And if that’s not supposed to be a conflict standing between them, why does he share his occupation with her ex? Why write that in if it doesn’t matter?

2. Most of the book is not actually about Cleo and Fletcher. If Katie’s illness and eventual passing were supposed to be a moving sub-plot, they take up far too much time and distract from the romance; even going so far, at the end, as to speed the lovebirds into marriage. Was I supposed to cry there? Am I heartless? Because it all just struck me as a terrible idea, and I didn’t like Katie. She was irritating, entitled, and petulant; yeah, dealing with a terminal illness that young does things to you, but if I’m supposed to like Katie just because she’s dying, I don’t. Maybe she was a great kid before that. Maybe she wasn’t. I don’t have any reason to be invested in her, especially since she’s clearly supposed to be the star of the book, when I thought I was getting a romance between adults instead of a shallow sob story about a brave little dying girl.

3. Back to Cleo and Fletcher–their lack of chemistry is highlighted by the abrupt cut-away from sex scenes. I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of romances that don’t have explicit sex, or don’t include sex at all; but given how Fletcher constantly talked about it (past a certain point in the courtship) and loaded all his innuendos for maximum titillation, I was honestly surprised when the first time they did it read as this is happening! [paragraph break] afterward, they were mellow… If an author chooses not to write sex scenes, for whatever reason, fine; but write around them convincingly, instead of leaving gaping holes in the narrative where they’re supposed to be.

4. Katie’s parents entrust their dying daughter to Cleo for an open-ended length of time while they take a “romantic, let’s forget our daughter is dying” getaway? WHAT?!? You’ve known Cleo how long? Disclaimer: I’m not a parent. BUT WHAT THE HELL WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? HOW IS THAT A GOOD IDEA?

5. The original reason Cleo and Fletcher are introduced, as well as the original conflict–the joke book he wrote about marriage–is forgotten for most of the story. Cleo eventually reads it, brings it up once in conversation (after Fletcher has already summarily decided and announced that they’ll be getting married, this is it for him) and then poof! not a problem anymore. Fletcher, at that point, is clearly a changed man, even to my eye (bored and jaded by this story as it is) but his change actually all comes from within–meeting Cleo was the catalyst, but he fell so hard for her (for whatever reason) that he decided to chuck all his anti-marriage ideals and become good husband material for her. EVEN THOUGH SHE DIDN’T INDICATE SHE WANTED HIM TO. This whole thing reads like he railroads her into marriage; especially with the added weight of the dying-goddaughter sub-plot. Which is gross, and does not a romance make.

6. Cleo’s ex-husband. She caught him cheating with a man. Now, points where points are due; when Fletcher hears the story, he refers to the ex as bisexual, the “b” word that almost no book ever uses. However, it’s not clear whether the ex is or not, because Cleo describes their sex life as dull and infrequent, implying that he didn’t find her attractive; but whether that’s personal to her, or a sign of distaste for women in general, is not made clear. It’s also not clear what’s the worst issue at play: a) the cheating itself; b) that the “other woman” was a guy; or c) as stated by a single line and never referenced again, that the guy was significantly younger, possibly a teenager. I’m on board for breaking up over cheating; I’m on board for having a rational discussion about the ex’s sexual identity and possibly ending the relationship because they’re not compatible; I AM DEFINITELY ON BOARD FOR CHUCKING OVER A PEDOPHILE. But which is it? Because they’re not all equal!

7. Minor, but worth mentioning; the cover. I bought this ebook for cheap on sale on the strength of its blurb, not because the cover caught my eye; it’s odd for a romance, and definitely cheap-looking and basic. Having read the book, now, I know those are Katie’s angel wings on the cover, that she was so obsessed with getting upon her death that her shroud-dress had slits for them–another sign, right on the cover, that this book is less about the romance and more about Katie than anything else.

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