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.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Salem Falls, Jodi Picoult

I've never read Picoult before because I am always wary of novels which seem to be About a Topic (capitals intentional there).  As in, this novel is About Autism.  This novel is About School Shootings.  This novel is About Child Abduction.  This wariness is a clear result of my thoughts on artful fiction, what it should do, and how it works.  I think fiction should arise from discovery and exploration, and little red flags go up for me when I see that a novel is about something specific that we could just as easily be reading in a news magazine.  A novel About Adultery seems to me like a very different thing than a novel with betrayal as a theme.  I suspect the first of being forcibly made into a story about one particular thing because it is topical; I believe the second has a better chance of arising through writerly discovery.  Either book could be terrible.  And either book might be very good, I suppose, which is why I decided to give Picoult a try.

I chose carefully, picking a novel I had heard nothing about and whose topic sounded interesting to me.  And I tried to read with an open mind.  What I found in Salem Falls was better than I expected it to be, but still left me pretty cold.

The novel is the story of Jack St. Bride, who spent eight months in jail as part of plea bargain when an infatuated sixteen-year-old girl on the soccer team he coached claimed they were having a sexual affair.  Jack is innocent, and we are never led to suspect otherwise.  When he arrives in Salem Falls just after being released from jail, he finds a job at a diner and tentatively begins a relationship with the diner's owner.  That Jack is a sexual offender makes its way around town, and a group of fathers in town make it their business to make it clear to Jack (through vandalism and personal violence) that Jack is not welcome.  Eventually Jack is accused of rape by one of the town's teenage girls, a girl who readers already know is mad at Jack (for failing to show a sexual interest in her), craves attention, and was almost certainly high at the time of the alleged rape.  The book then becomes a courtroom drama, with a lot of focus on gathering evidence and the presentation of the case in court.

Picoult writes pretty well.  Sentences are clear and coherent, the story pulls one along, there are few of the kinds of tics that suggest a writer is not taking care with the craft, and the aspects of the story which probably required research ring true enough.  But there is a tendency to overwrite and to over-sentimentalize.  Honest, every action doesn't require a simile describing it, especially not if those similes try to give the actions meaning they don't deserve.  And scars don't form in the shape of hearts on girls whose hearts have been trampled.  Come on.

There were a lot of moments like those, those moments where I thought, "This is manipulation.  I'm being told to feel something here, not being allowed to discover a truth along with the writer."  I have little patience for that sort of thing, but other problems I had with the novel were probably even more important.  These characters were cardboard; there was no complexity to them at all.  Not one of them did a single thing that furthered the reader's understanding of the character or of the situation they found themselves in.  Everyone behaved as expected; nothing ever asked the reader to stretch for meaning or growth.  And that is almost disturbing in a novel whose main focus is a man being destroyed by people who can't seem to conceive of things being not the way they appear. 

At about the two-thirds mark, I started asking myself what the the point of this book might be.  I'll admit to being fairly well engaged--I wanted to know what would happen, I wanted to see if the story would come out the way it should or if injustice would prevail.  And if making me want to turn the pages to find out What next? is all the novel was trying to do, well, then, I'd say it succeeds.  But the flap of Salem Falls claims that Picoult's novels demonstrate "'a firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships.'"  That being the case, I would expect to discover something by reading the book.  The novel tells me (and even, maybe, in some instances, shows me) that teenage girls sometimes become infatuated with older men; that such infatuation can lead to trouble, not least because teenage girls often don't have the maturity to deal with their infatuation or understand the full ramifications of acting on them; that good people tend to believe the worst about people who have been labeled as "bad"; that fathers protect their daughters, sometimes to the point of blindness toward their daughters themselves.  Okay.  Agreed.  But I'd have agreed before I read word one of the novel; the story doesn't help me see anything new about any of this, doesn't help me understand any of it better or more fully.  And without an arrival at some better or fuller understanding, I sort of feel like Salem Falls is just rolling around in Statutory Rape and False Accusations and Witch Hunts in order to pick up the emotions already associated with those topics and pass them on without adding anything worthwhile to the mix.     

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume II

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat," where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  I imagine my packing in three categories: "New to Me," for books I've never read before; "Old Favorites," for past reads I'd like to revisit; and "Just in Case," for one book that can always be counted on to save me if one of the other selections turns out to be a dud.

New to Me

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
A retelling of The Iliad, as told by Patroclus.  Readers of the last installment of "Packing for a Reading Retreat" already know that I am a sucker for retellings.  The Ancient World and all the myths, legends, and epics that go with it have always been on the periphery of my imagination.  I know they are out there, and I know bits of the stories, but, despite being fairly intrigued by them, I've never really dived in.  Perhaps this retelling will inspire me to go to The Iliad itself.  Song has gotten a lot of good reviews (I started hearing good things on LibraryThing almost immediately after it was published), so I'm excited to read this one.

The Cove, Ron Rash
Set during WWI in the Appalachians of North Carolina, The Cove is both a stranger-comes-to-town story and a love story.  I've been meaning to read Ron Rash for a while, and I find myself drawn to stories set in or about the Appalachians since living in Tennessee and Virginia (though I have always lived in or near the Appalachian mountains).

Widdershins, Charles de Lint
I read a novel by de Lint a few years back, and, though I was ultimately somewhat disappointed with it, I was fascinated by de Lint's style, his used of both urban and fantastical settings, and his use of Hispanic mythology and mysticism.  I've been saying I would try another by him since, and the cover of this one drew me in.  De Lint is meant to be one of the masters of urban fantasy (and one of its pioneers), and I think he probably deserves a second go.

Old Favorites

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I read and enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in my early teens, but I've never reread it.  It was a bit of struggle for me at the time, and I know much of it went over my head then.  The setting of early 20th-century New York appeals to me, and I'd love to read this one again with adult eyes.

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I have a hardback, beautifully illustrated edition of The Secret Garden that was given to me when I was six or seven as a Christmas present by a great-aunt who had a reputation for giving perfect presents.  I know I read the story at least once, but my strongest memory of this book is just sitting and looking at the pictures, of reveling in the book as a beautiful object.  I haven't looked at the book beyond a quick glance since middle school, and I plan to sit down with it some day soon and turn every page with relish.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
I love Jane Eyre for the way she stands up for herself and doesn't let fear stop her from doing things.  My recent reading of The Flight of Gemma Hardy has rekindled a desire to read Jane Eyre again.  It's been too long anyway.

Just In Case

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
The retelling of Arthurian legend from the point of view of the women in the story utterly engrossed me at sixteen.  It's still the best contemporary telling of the Arthur stories and would be the perfect book to have along in case of running out of other things to read.

Past Editions of "Packing for a Reading Retreat"

Volume I