This Week, I Read… (2021 #16)

#44 – Decidedly Off Limits, by Stina Lindenblatt

  • Mount TBR: 42/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Not terrible, but definitely underwhelming. My list of complaints:

1. It’s overkill to have the main characters be double-off-limits to each other by both being best friends with the other’s sibling. It takes so much explanation at every point where the conflict is on their minds to say “Not only would love interest’s sibling murder me for this, so would my own sibling.” I don’t think it adds anything to the story to have the forbidden aspect, such as it is, coming from both sides.

2. Subtly LGBTQ+ unfriendly. Sure, an incredibly minor character is gay and has a boyfriend who shows up briefly in a clear display of tokenism, but sprinkled throughout the narrative are really small digs at the idea of a straight character possibly being queer. None of those jokes landed and all of them annoyed me. Worse than that, Kelsey turns down a potential date by blurting out that she’s a lesbian, and later that bites her in the ass because the guy she turned down tries to set her up with his cousin. I could not have rolled my eyes harder.

3. Little major character development. The core conflict–the forbidden aspect of their relationship–doesn’t require them to grow as people to overcome, basically they just have to stop letting it matter. (Ideally it shouldn’t matter, they’re adults, so on and so forth, but I’ve definitely known people to whom this kind of thing does matter, so I’m not knocking the subgenre as a whole.) The individual character arcs are the same–both leads find a fulfilling hobby. Which isn’t exactly deep, and I think has drastically different results in their two cases: Kelsey magically becomes good at photography almost overnight and lands a swanky freelancing gig based on no portfolio to speak of, just the few shots in a steamy calendar shoot that was a major (and majorly silly) plot point in the middle of the story. I think this is bad, because the growth felt artificial and her victory was just handed to her. Whereas Trent decides to take a cooking class to spend time with Kelsey (her first foray into finding a hobby) and is surprised both by how comfortable he feels with it (even before he’s “good” at it) and how much he enjoys it. He spends the rest of the book quietly cooking for himself and occasionally others, and that growth arc caps off with the much more realistic “win” of hosting a huge family Thanksgiving. I really, really like this arc, minor as it is, because it’s such a domestic thing for this workaholic man to find himself enjoying, and only once is there an incredibly small joke about how it might threaten his masculinity. He’s just allowed to enjoy it, and it doesn’t have to give him new career opportunities or fix his self-worth or anything. (But it is so good relative to his counterpart that it makes her personal arc look even worse by comparison.)

4. Too many silly plot points. Did we really need so many romance standards crammed into a single book? The cooking lesson. Kelsey’s female friends giving her a sexy confidence makeover. The sexy photo shoot. The switcheroo shenanigans at the vacation house. The charity date auction. This book was definitely longer than it needed to be overall, but I would have rather had some time devoted to better character development than shoehorn in one more dramatic plot event.

5. Unnecessary jealousy subplots. Trent possibly ending up with Holly instead of Kelsey in the beginning felt integral to the plot, even if I think it went on too long–and did the two leads really need to hide their fling from yet another person, when they were already hiding it from both their potentially murderous siblings? But it made far more sense than the late-game “will Kelsey go back to Owen” fakeout that felt out of place, slowed down the pace of an already beleaguered climax, and came off as entirely ridiculous when Kelsey had to put her old engagement ring back on for yet another “we’re not really dating but we have to pretend” twist on this plot.

I’ve made enough complaints that I’m wondering why my gut says two stars and not just the one, but while I was reading it, I didn’t hate it–it just didn’t impress me. And it’s not substantially worse that other recent books I’ve rated two stars, so I’ll roll with it. Either way, I don’t recommend this.

#45 – Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Mount TBR: 43/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Chapter title page has art (illustrated by the author, no less)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I haven’t had an experience quite like that since I first read Les Miserables in eighth grade. It took me just over a month of steady, dogged reading, and I carried that book with me everywhere–to every class in school, every time I was sitting in the backseat of the car while running errands with my parents, every time I read before bed.

Vanity Fair reminds me a lot of Les Mis, not in tone or subject matter, but in my sheer determination to get through it, even when it’s slow going. Because I started this book in February. The wit and charm and lively characters carried me through the first two hundred pages fairly easily, but then I began to lose steam. I took what I thought was a short break to read something else before going on, and when I went back, suddenly it was hard to read more than a chapter or two at a time. I told myself to keep going. After all, I was still enjoying it–it wasn’t the same feeling of epic struggle to stay interested that I had with War and Peace last year. I liked this book, yet somehow, I couldn’t motivate myself to read it.

Pretty soon it became clear the problem wasn’t Vanity Fair itself, or at least, not mostly. I was just in the worst reading slump of my adult life, because nothing I read could hold my attention long. I took almost an entire month off reading, but when the mood struck to try again, I’d either try a new book and set it down after five pages, or nibble at the edges of Vanity Fair. When I declared (to myself) that my reading slump was over, I was just past 400 pages in.

Like magic, once I’d warmed up with a few light reads, the pages began to fly by again. I could finish several chapters in a sitting, and genuinely want to read more.

But this is a book review, right? Not the story of my reading slump. So what was it that was giving me difficulty, specifically, about this work?

The names. Formal name etiquette in British high society is just the pits. Our main character, Rebecca, probably showed up in the text under about a dozen different names or epithets throughout the course of the story, because she’s got her first name, her full name, her nickname, her married name both formally as Mrs. Husband’s Name and Becky/Rebecca Husband’s Name, and of course any given description posing as a person that Thackeray wanted to attach to her. Eventually at the very end she’s mostly Mrs. Becky, which I didn’t recall being used much before. On top of that, there were other instances when a change of status caused me some confusion, because first we have Pitt Crawley, no title attached, son of Sir Pitt Crawley, but when the elder Crawley dies, of course Pitt becomes Sir Pitt because the title passes on, even though that’s also the name of the now-dead character. Any male character in the military might be referred to by his rank rather than his name, and when multiple military figures are in the same paragraph (as they often are) they are all referred to by an inconsistent mix of their names and ranks.

And all of this is happening constantly through the entire nearly-700-pages of the novel. It’s exhausting.

When this was published, I have no doubt this was common enough that readers had little issue with it. Now? I often had to stop to parse who was who because of the constant flux of designations.

If I could strip that stylistic inconsistency out, that would fix a lot of my problems with reading this right away. However, there were still others. While the core cast of characters is relatively small compared to some epic classics of this length, Thackeray does like to veer off on tangents frequently and spend a chapter or three detailing the life and situation of a minor character. That’s something I remember loving in Les Mis, which, again, is the thing I have read that is most like this book; but here, somehow I was never as fascinated by these little portraits as I was when Hugo did it. Here I was invested in Becky and Amelia and William Dobbin (in fact, the resolution of his story is the primary reason I finished this book at all–I was hanging on for that happy ending.) But I did not find myself particularly interested in Lord Steyne or Mrs. Major O’Dowd or the Gaunt family. The minor characters were not completely without charm to me, as I particularly liked the single-page tale of Becky’s little French maid abandoning her. What the girl took, what became of her, how she fared after Becky’s tyranny, that was all grand. But it was also short, and seeing as it came immediately after we read of Becky’s downfall, it felt timely and appropriate. Many of the other, larger tangents from the main story line left me scratching my head about why I was suddenly learning new names or jumping to a different country. I admit to skimming some of the side bits that seemed less relevant or interesting, in order to get back to the “good” parts.

How do I feel three months later now that I’m finally done? It was a long walk to that happy ending I was 95% sure was coming. I’m pleased to be finished but not particularly eager to try any other Thackeray works, because while I liked many things about his style–the wit and humor, the insertion of himself as narrator into the story (occasionally) as a character, the biting satire–there’s also simply too much dead weight to carry in order to get to all of that. I’m glad I read it, but I never need to reread it. It’s rare for me to find myself finishing a classic novel without either loving it to pieces (My Antonia, Les Mis, Jane Eyre) or hating it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (too many to name.) But I found this book simply good–not great, not terrible.

#46 – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

  • Mount TBR: 44/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 72, just past 10%, as per my usual cutoff.

I read Kostova’s The Swan Thieves several years ago, long enough that I had to remind myself from my review what I thought about it, but I actually picked up The Historian only a year or so after I read it, I’m still so backlogged. I gave Thieves three stars and said of it (briefly paraphrasing) “The mystery was dull but I liked the way she talked about art and artists, and that carried me through.”

I found no similar luck with this novel. Even viewing it as a sort of fantasy work rather than historical fiction, I found it plodding and frustrating. (So did the unknown person who began annotating my secondhand copy–the first sixty pages are full of questions and notes and exclamations, but then they begin to thin out, and I leafed through to see how long they last. They’re completely absent after page 150 or so, and I can’t find any indication the previous reader finished the book, either.)

There’s one central failure that’s most responsible for hampering my interest. I thought I was prepared for Kostova’s wordy style, having read another of her novels, if a later one where she might have refined her prose somewhat. But this is verbose to the point of preciousness, especially in Rossi’s letters, one of our three parallel narratives. The other two–Paul and his daughter Siena–are also pedantic narrators, but the letters are full of dire melodrama and ostentatious phrasing. (I guess to make them sound like they’re old, but I found it more irritating than archaic.) Setting that aside, I also wish Paul and Siena hadn’t basically sounded like the same person, not because I had any trouble differentiating their chapters from each other–the content usually made that clear very quickly–but because I think a middle-aged father and his teenage daughter (or her older self in some cases) shouldn’t speak or write exactly alike. I feel like that’s a basic ask from an author, to make separate narrators sound like different people.

If the mystery had been more compelling or the pace of the plot quicker, I might have been able to grit my teeth and deal with these issues, but in putting all those problems together, I don’t think it’s likely I’ll enjoy the next six hundred pages any more than I did the first seventy-two.

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