This Week, I Read… (2021 #37)

#108 – A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, by Jean Thompson

  • Mount TBR: 89/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Even for a thoughtful and ponderous character study novel, this was slow-paced. My interest was low enough in the beginning that I wondered if I would have the mental fortitude to wade through all of this depression and misery to the finish, but fortunately for my sake, events did pick up in the middle for a while.

But ultimately, this is a fairly unrelenting parade of sadness and grief, lightened only by stupid decisions.

As a family saga, it makes its point effectively that women of one generation often reject the norms and values of the one that came before: Evelyn felt trapped by an unwanted marriage and was an indifferent mother at best; her daughter Laura overcompensated by trying to be the best of all Susie Homemakers; and her daughter Grace basically rejected the notion that she had to have goals in life at all, or to stay connected to her family.

Unfortunately for all three of them, the men in their lives were demanding, whiny assholes of one sort or another.

As interesting and valuable as it might be to reframe the Great American Lit Novel of Total Misery–a staple we simply can’t seem to stop producing–with women front and center, this is still mostly about men; how men rule and shape women’s lives and prevent them from being happy. It’s also still the same brand of generic middle-class Americana, look at all these sad white people. Nothing about it felt original or noteworthy.

Many women in different phases of life, with different life experiences, could certainly see themselves in aspects of these characters, and I don’t want to criticize anyone who found some sort of emotional revelation or catharsis within its pages. But I think this story tries and fails to have a hopeful ending, tacked on to the misery, and that left me disappointed.

#109 – Sheltered, by Charlotte Stein

  • Mount TBR: 90/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked it, even if it’s not exactly good. It’s incredibly basic, actually–the plot couldn’t be thinner, and the bad boy/sheltered religious girl dynamic is doing a lot of heavy lifting to get the reader to assume stuff that’s never actually specified.

The writing is often vague and ominous, and spends a lot of time inside Evie’s head where she’s constantly imagining danger and indulging fears that aren’t real, which has the detrimental effect of making me unsure how seriously to take what’s clearly supposed to be the real fear and danger she’s living under–her father’s authoritarian household regime.

Where this story shines, and why I ultimately do like it despite its many flaws, is that the dialogue between Van and Evie captures perfectly the dynamic of two people with wildly different lived experiences somehow coming to realize they’re a great deal alike. It’s awkward and sweet, with a lot of false starts and even more misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, I do believe that these two weirdos are actually falling in love (which is a low bar that so many other romances still fail to clear.)

#110 – Captivated, by Charlotte Stein

  • Mount TBR: 91/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A collection of polished but eclectic stories about sex. How much you “like” these may vary wildly based on what kinks you enjoy reading about, but even when the story’s Thing was not necessarily my Thing, I appreciated that these were well-constructed and vivid little pieces of fiction–I’m tired of reading short “stories” that are really just overblown scenes that have no point, no direction, no closure.

As a collection, though, I feel that a few of them felt out of place with the others, aberrations of tone or genre–in particular, the tale of a dream “machine” that had a Victorian fantasy vibe that was unique among all the stories. Maybe I’m biased because I didn’t like that one nearly as much as some of the others, but I did question why it was included.

Since I just came to this from one of Stein’s novellas, I’m actually impressed by the difference in the quality of the writing–everything felt smoother and more purposeful. Maybe I just had a slightly lackluster title as my first, or maybe she’s just better at crafting short stories than novels or novellas. I have another novel of hers on my TBR from ages ago, based on a recommendation, so I’m definitely interested in reading more.

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