A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb

I'm not sure what made me pick up She's Come Undone and rip through it in less than two days, as I've always shied away from it before, thinking of it as one of those books about "Woman's Experience"--a topic which generally makes me cross (as if there could be such a thing).  But I enjoyed She's Come Undone more than I expected to--the narrator's voice is engaging and pulls one right along, and Lamb creates characters and scenes seemingly effortlessly.  The sentences read smoothly, and the novel is sophisticated in its movement.  The final pages made me smile with happy satisfaction at the outcome of Dolores's story. 

But something bothered me throughout my reading, and I'm still unsure of what, exactly, was the problem.  Perhaps it was the relentless parade of wretched human beings in the book, people who seemed uninterested in, or incapable of, love in any of its guises and who were wholly uninteresting except in the specific ways they affected Dolores.  Perhaps it was the wearying way nearly every man in the story was a misogynistic jerk.  Or the disconnect I felt between the experience of Dolores, born in 1952 in Rhode Island, and my mother, born in 1951 in Pennsylvania.  No reason, really, exists to think that two women of the same generation born in roughly the same part of the country would have similar experiences, but Dolores seemed to live in an entirely different world than the one my mother grew up in.  Where were the kinds of good, loving, strong characters who inhabited Mom's stories of growing up in the fifties and sixties?  Why was nearly every adult in Dolores's world so touched by and damaged by The Times In Which They Lived? 

Or perhaps it was that the events of the novel began to feel like a checklist of Bad Things That Happen to Women (I'm going to get a touch spoilery here).  Dolores witnesses verbal and physical abuse against her mother by her father; sees her parents go through a divorce caused in some part by her father's adultery; watches her mother have a nervous breakdown, spend time in a mental hospital, then come home and engage in an affair with a married man; flirts with a handsome neighbor and then is raped by him at thirteen and convinced by him that "their" indiscretion is her fault; becomes mentally depressed and morbidly obese; experiences the death of her mother in a horrible traffic accident; is maliciously and sexually teased by a boy at a college party who then calls her horrible names and destroys her property when she fights back; nearly commits suicide; spends four years in a mental institution; marries a man who threatens to leave her if she does not abort their child; has an abortion she does not want; gets a divorce; and eventually must give up on her dream of bearing children.  While Dolores does learn to stand up for herself and eventually finds happiness; loyal, loving friends; and a good man (and the moments when she has these breakthroughs are satisfying and exciting), this litany of misery began to feel a touch dishonest.  It is not that I disbelieve that all of these things could happen to one person (and I will say that Lamb deals with each one beautifully), but that I began to suspect that these events existed in the novel for reasons that had little to do with story.  And that put me off a bit.      

In the end, I was impressed by Lamb's handling of structure and sentences and, in some cases, character.  But despite the satisfaction I felt in Dolores's eventual triumphs, I also felt manipulated by the novel.  And that will always leave a sour taste in my mouth.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account