Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Report: The Good and the Bad

Last week, I was reading a chick lit book that really irked me and wondering if I'd outgrown that sort of thing or if it was just that book. It may have just been that book because I re-read one of my old favorites, and I loved it just as much as when I first read it, if not more so. I suppose as with any genre there's going to be good and bad, and I have fairly specific tastes even within the good books of genres I like. Unfortunately, re-reading this one made me want more like it, and that's kind of hard to find (again, specific tastes).

The old favorite was Making Minty Malone by Isabel Wolff, and it was one of the very first chick lit books I read, not long after Bridget Jones's Diary. Minty (short for Araminta -- she was named after her grandmother) has the perfect wedding to the perfect man (well, aside from a few controlling tendencies, and some shallowness) planned, until they reach the part in the ceremony where the minister says, "Do you take this woman," and he says, "No," before giving a lame excuse and then walking back up the aisle and out the door. She spends the next year coming to terms with what happened, with the sometimes dubious help of her bossy novelist cousin who comes to her for a place to stay after her own break-up. I would classify this as a kind of coming-of-age novel because while there is a romantic plot, the main story is really about a woman figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. One of her problems is that she's a bit too nice, and not in a good way. It's not so much that she's a caring person who always thinks of others, but rather that she's terrified of conflict and of having anyone be mad at her, so she gives in, only to quietly resent it. A big part of her journey is learning to stand up for herself, say what she's thinking and ask for what she wants. Meanwhile, she's surrounded by a hilarious supporting cast of wacky characters, including a radio presenter with a speech impediment and a talent for mangling phrases, her grandmother's parrot that talks like a polite elderly English lady, her cousin with her crazy attempts at boosting her own writing career and her mother, who has a serious addiction to running fundraising campaigns. Re-reading this book reminded me of when I first read it, when the genre didn't even have a name (this one was published first in the US in mass-market paperback as a romance, so it was even before the trade paperback size was established for the genre) and when I knew I wanted to read more like it and write something like that. It made me want to move to London, or at least to a downtown area of a city where I could walk to restaurants and have cute, flirty encounters with men I run into on the sidewalks.

Okay, so I can walk to restaurants where I live now, but I don't encounter anyone on the sidewalks because everyone else is driving, and it's too hot to walk anywhere right now, anyway. It was a rather nice blast from the past. I've got one other book by this author that I'll have to re-read, and then I'll have to add her name to my list of authors to scour used bookstores for, as that sort of book has pretty much become unavailable elsewhere. Sometimes I can luck into a British edition that way. It's frustrating to get into a reading mood that can only be fulfilled by something that's either not readily available or that I've re-read the life out of. But that's publishing for you, all or nothing.

It did seem to me like the American publishers missed the point when they got into the genre. They were trying to do something closer to Sex and the City, but the early British books that established the genre weren't about shopping and shoes and dropping designer names. I don't even think they were all that edgy. There may have been drinking, sex and swearing, but there was an underlying sweetness and niceness. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the British heroines tended to be struggling underdogs, while the American heroines tended to be goal-oriented go-getters. Maybe it's a cultural difference.

Since that re-read, I started trying to read a book that intrigued me because it involves a region I'm familiar with. It got a lot of critical acclaim (including a review in our local newspaper and reviews in national magazines) and was a bestseller. And it's probably a good thing I don't work on the other side of the desk in publishing because I'd have guessed wrong. I'd have rejected this book before I finished the first chapter. The writing was on the level of a first-time manuscript written by someone who'd just decided to write a novel. The entire first chapter was an "as you know, Bob" conversation. That's when two characters exchange information they both already know, purely for the benefit of the reader. This book opens with an entire chapter of the family attorney telling the matriarch her family's history -- and it isn't redeemed by her turning out not to remember it or her saying acidly, "Yes, I know. I was there." It's just pages and pages of, "Your family bought this property and your grandfather started this business, where you've worked your whole life, blah, blah, blah." (Details made up to protect the guilty.) I kept thinking it had to get better, or the book would have never made it past an editor, but I reached page 70 and decided that life was too short. Even if it turned out to be enthralling later and even if the characters stopped talking like no person ever does and turned into people who might have been a tiny bit realistic, I'm still surprised the editor didn't make the author fix that opening. I barely even took in the information because I was so busy rolling my eyes at such a blatant bit of "as you know, Bob."

I'm very confused about this industry. I don't see how something so amateurishly written not only got bought but got given the bestseller treatment. I wonder how many of the people who bought copies of this book after hearing the hype actually read the whole thing. Now I'm tempted to look at the Amazon reviews to see what readers thought, but I'm afraid that there will be tons of raves and I'll be even more confused. I run across a lot of books that fall into the "not for me" category, where I just don't like them but can still recognize that they're competently written. With this one, the subject matter appealed to me, but the writing was too bad for me to read it, and yet it's a lot more successful than anything I've ever written, and without any of the usual hooks like a thinly veiled celebrity connection or sexy vampires.

But I'm feeling much better now, since I decided to re-read a Terry Pratchett book instead. There, I totally understand the success.

No comments: