This Week, I Read… (2019 #47)

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#150 – All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

  • Read: 11/8/19 – 11/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (98/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book recommended by a celebrity you admire
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

After being engrossed with this book for several days, I read the last hundred pages this morning and feel oddly disappointed.

I’m left with the feeling that despite the 500+ pages of plot points I could outline for you, the things that clearly happened over the course of the novel, in the end, none of it actually mattered. That this was a story where nothing was accomplished, bad things happened to good and bad people alike, and nothing at all is resolved in the end.

It’s not that I expected a happy ending for Werner, with or without Marie-Laure. I’m a romantic, but I’m not an idiot. I wasn’t surprised by Werner’s death, though I was surprised it was so anti-climactic. That set the tone for the entire denouement–unsatisfying.

What the ending drove home to me was how shallow the engagement was at any given point with a character, how quickly their trauma could be unfolded and repackaged, how atmospheric the prose aimed to be at the cost of character development. Because the language is beautiful, I can’t argue with that common bit of praise for this work. It’s gorgeous and tactile and evocative. But if you look beneath that, the story is conveyed in incredibly short bursts, constantly switching between points of view, never allowing us to settle too long with one character and really get to know them before we’re jerked into someone else’s story.

And nothing really happens that matters. Marie keeps the jewel safe only to Titanic it at the last minute, and she never finds her father. Werner does find the source of the mysterious broadcast and eventually saves Marie’s life (which is just about the only thing worth justifying this amount of time spent on the two of them getting to this point, fair enough, that plot point matters) but wanders off to die after that. The minor characters as a whole don’t fare much better–Volkheimer survives the war and serves as the messenger-carrier for Werner’s belongings, to wrap things up neatly. Von Rumpel fails to achieve his goal, which is arguably okay because he’s the closest thing this work has to a villian, but it still doesn’t feel satisfying when he’s foiled. We check in with Frederick and he’s still mostly a vegetable. Strangely enough, it’s one of the other minor characters that gets the most growth, since circumstances force Etienne to overcome his agoraphobia, and he actually gets one of the happiest endings, where he travels the world.

Most damning/upsetting/disappointing to me, and perhaps most emblematic of just how shallowly we engage with the actual characters, was the brief scene post-war that is included to show Jutta learning of her brother’s death, that also includes her rape at the hands of Russian soldiers, for some reason. Why? Yes, rape is a horrible thing that goes along with basically every war, but did we have to see it? Did it have to happen to her specifically? Does it have any meaning or reveal anything about her character? No, it’s there because rape happens in war so it has to happen to someone, right, and Jutta hasn’t been important for half the book so it’s okay to do it to her. It doesn’t have any bearing on her epilogue scenes, it doesn’t have any bearing on the main plot of the novel, it’s just a footnote of suffering that is completely unnecessary. Jutta’s story doesn’t lose anything if that scene was just her and the other women she lived with going hungry and working at pointless jobs and feeling directionless as their country collapsed post-war. That gets the point across just fine, but oh, no, let’s have them raped too.

I’m angry about that, because not only was it unnecessary, it also completely blindsided me. Rape as a vague threat, as dread and fear, was used early in the book when some bullies are teasing Marie about her blindness, saying that when the Germans come they’ll take her first because of her infirmity, and horrible things will happen to her. That was fine, in context. That’s a thing exceptionally cruel bullies would bring up, and that’s an understandable fear for a young woman. And then… rape literally never comes up again until it happens to Jutta. Ninety-nine percent of the book is free of the specter of sexual violence, and honestly, from a white male author writing about war that’s kind of amazing.

But then Jutta is raped, right at the end, and I thought, “Really? Now? You did so good up to here. Why?”

So it would be easy to say the ending ruined the book for me, but this isn’t a case where everything was wonderful until the wheels fell of the wagon at the last second. Rather, the ending made me realize what had been wrong with the book the entire time, only I hadn’t seen it because I was trundling along hoping for some amazing ending to justify the four hundred pages of tense setup. All that anticipation had to lead to something, right? Only it didn’t.

If anything, I’ve come away from this book thinking that maybe the Sea of Flames jewel actually was cursed, because Marie had it for a long time and she lived while awful things happened around her, just like the curse said. And that gives this historical fiction a taste of magical realism that I don’t think suits the tone at all. Especially because the Sea of Flames got its own scene in the epilogue section, and I was like, “Really? Why?”

The language is beautiful, I can still say that unequivocally, but the story is just pointless in the end, and I read books primarily for the plot and characters, not for the prose.

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#151 – A Garden in the Rain, by Lynn Kurland

  • Read: 11/12/19 – 11/14/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (99/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This romance couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Is it time-travel? Is it paranormal? Is it a vacation getaway romance? Why not try all three at once, and throw in the most cartoonish ex-fiance bad guy ever?

There weren’t a lot of good things about this novel, but by far, by absolute farthest, the worst part is Bentley, the heroine’s recent ex. Their backstory is a jumble that focuses on how they ended, but as I got to know Bentley and discovered that he wasn’t a person, he was a stack of evil tropes in a trench coat, I wondered more and more how they got together in the first place, because he’s just the worst from the very first moment we meet him. There’s no tale of their wooing, there’s no fond reminiscences of before the breakup, there’s no sign he was ever a good person or a decent boyfriend/fiance at all. He is unrelentingly horrible, immoral, narcissistic, hypocritical, and cruel, and the backstory gives me no reason to believe he was ever otherwise.

And because of that, it makes me question just how stupid the heroine is. Not that she acts particularly stupid during the course of the novel itself, she’s not suffering from Too Stupid to Live Syndrome, though she does rely on the hero to rescue her a lot from Bentley’s horrible attempts at manipulation, the constant stealing of her hotel reservations and later her possessions, and eventually, a 14th-century dungeon, because time travel. But by painting the ex as a totally irredeemable ass, you have to wonder why they were together in the first place, and what’s changed since that makes the heroine capable of making better choices this time around.

As for the hero, he’s… okay? He’s tall dark and deadly, and his backstory is similarly sketchy for most of the book, and his occupation (expensive bodyguard) is never really explained, but seems more an excuse for the travel he does (with or without the heroine, as the plot demands) even though we never see him actually working, just going away or coming back.

The time-travel stuff and all the stuff about the hero’s family would probably have made a lot more sense if I hadn’t jumped into the middle of the series. I’m willing to give that a pass, because by book 4 the author shouldn’t be over-explaining it, so I’m not complaining that the world-building wasn’t there.

And I could have accepted the time travel just fine as the central thrust of the novel’s oddities, but then we got ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Lots of pushy and irritating ghosts. Ghosts who apparently have been hanging around the hero’s castle for ages but only decided to appear and harass him into moving the plot forward after the heroine walks into his life.

Can you hear that? The sound of me rolling my eyes so hard? I hated the ghosts almost as much as I hated Bentley.

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