Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

This is a story of three friends who, in their attempt to find their place in the world, try to redefine love and family. Bobby and Jonathon are childhood friends, growing up in Cleveland, and Clare is the woman they meet when they both end up living in New York. The three of them live together for some time in New York and in the process develop a love for one another. Theirs is not a love you normally read about in books, or see in movies. It is imperfect love, and sometimes selfish love. It changes too. By the end of the book, Clare appears to no longer love either of them. Is this not like real love?

Narrated by all three characters, as well as Jonathon’s mother Alice, this book is beautifully and thoughtfully written. All the characters are flawed, and all are looking for something they might be able to identify as love because they believe it will complete them. It is a deeply sad story about the fragility of people and the inconsistencies in people’s characters. The inconsistencies in this novel’s characters, however, unlike those in A Gate at the Stairs (my previous review), did not make the characters unbelievable. Instead the characters became profound, troubled, endearing and real.

As teenagers, Jonathon’s and Bobby’s relationship tipped over the edge of friendship into mild sexual exploration. Since parting ways almost ten years previously when they graduated from school, Jonathon has become openly gay, while Bobby remains a virgin. They are reunited when Bobby is forced to leave Cleveland and decides to seek out his only friend, Jonathon, who is now sharing a flat in New York with Clare. Their embarrassment about past sexual experimentation is assuaged by a new relationship of non-sexual love. One hot day, a most beautiful love scene takes place. This is an example of the overwhelming beauty that seeps through the pages of this book. Bobby is narrating.

We lay side by side on our towels, running the ice over our sweating skins. After a while he reached over and pressed his own ice cube against the mound of my belly. […] We didn’t talk any more about what we were doing. We talked instead about work and music and Clare. While we talked we ran ice over one another’s bellies and chests and faces. There was sex between us but we didn’t have sex—we committed no outright acts. It was a sweeter, more brotherly kind of lovemaking. It was devotion to each other’s comfort, and deep familiarity with our own imperfect bodies. As one cube melted we took another from the tray. Jonathon swabbed ice over my back, and then I did it to him. I felt each moment break, a new possibility, as we lay using up the last of the ice and talking about whatever passed though our heads. Above us, a few pale stars had scattered themselves across a broiling, bruise-colored sky (159-160).

For me, the saddest characters were Jonathon’s parents, Alice and Ned. Ned seemed to have such a heart-wrenchingly pathetic life, while Alice, who finally found happiness and love towards the end, presented a loving but lonely and isolated figure.

Jonathon himself was a very complicated character. In fact, I think he was a little bit too complicated and could have been developed better. It was clear, nevertheless, that he was very confused and was desperate to find his place in the world. Through Jonathon, the novel touches on the effect of AIDS on the gay community in 1980s New York. Themes of death, illness and our fear of them are weaved skilfully into the narration. Jonathon’s relationship with his lover, Erich, is another relationship that is explored with honesty so raw that sometimes it’s difficult to read.

Bobby was the most likeable character simply because he seemed so easy-going and happy to please everyone. The third part of the trio, Clare, who forms a romantic relationship with Bobby, was unlikeable; she was also the least believable of the characters. At times she seemed like a caricature of a fag hag—the older woman concerned with her fading looks who loves to party. And another small complaint: Jonathon’s and Bobby’s narrations were sometimes too similar. I would be reading away and think, ‘Who is this again?’

Apart from these quibbles, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not exactly a feel-good story that will put a spring in your step! But the story is original and though-provoking, and the writing style is incredibly beautiful. The major theme explored by this novel is our sense of always waiting for something better, particularly in terms of finding our place in the world, our ‘home’. This became particularly explicit at the end of the story when Jonathon, after storing his father’s ashes for years, finally decides to scatter them in a field near their home.

I just realized how ridiculous it is to hold on to my father’s ashes until I find some sort of perfect home for them. I’ve decided this is the perfect place (333).

There is no perfect place or time. There is no perfect love, no perfect family. Perhaps instead of waiting for perfection, the path to happiness is to decide that what we have right now is perfect.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs is a coming-of-age tale narrated by a 20 year old university student called Tassie. Tassie is the daughter of a boutique potato farmer in Dellacrosse and has come to Troy to attend a liberal-arts university. The story spans one year, and during this year, Tassie experiences a lot, including working as a nanny to a ‘biracial’ adopted child called Mary-Emma, and falling in love for the first time with a fellow student.

One thing I should mention before reviewing this book is that I am Australian and have never been to the US. What I know about the US I have learnt from television, movies and a couple of American friends. I have a feeling that most of the cultural references and a lot of the humour in this book went over my head.

It is difficult to describe Tassie’s character because I didn’t really get a good idea of what kind of a person she was. What I did feel, however, was that she was extremely annoying. The same could be said for the entire book. I was irritated by it for almost the whole time. If I weren’t reading it for the book club I’m in, I would have abandoned it halfway through. This story is self-indulgent, very boring in places, all over the place plot-wise and littered with characters that are unbelievable.

The story would often be interrupted by a thought process that would take us off on tangents, sometimes lasting for pages. At these times all I could think was ‘why am I being told this? I want to return to the main story.’ There were also many off-putting puns scattered throughout the narration.

The book was also written in such a self-congratulatory, wink-wink-aren’t-I clever kind of way that it was completely distracting. In some places, it was also plain lazy.

‘Not bad for an old gal, eh?’ said Sarah, breathlessly grinning and pink in the cheeks. I made a kind of smile—I have no idea what kind—and we them moved quickly to … (77)

‘I have no idea what kind’?? I’m not sure whether this grates because it’s lazy or because it’s unnecessary. On the one hand, I think that Moore was lazy to not attempt to describe what kind of smile it was, but on the other hand, I think she should have just allowed us to conjure up an image of a smile by simply leaving it at ‘I made a kind of smile’. By inserting the unnecessary extra line my imagination never makes it that far. Instead, my imagination is distracted. And I am annoyed.

Tassie was not the only character I had trouble believing in. Sarah, the adoptive mother to Mary-Emma, was also depicted in a confusing and superficial way. Sarah and Tassie could have been the same character such was their lack of defining qualities. Sarah was initially depicted as somebody who liked to be in control, someone who was desperate to be a mother. Yet she walked away from the hospital after picking up their new baby without looking at the baby’s health records, instead leaving it to her husband, Edward. This was completely unbelievable. But if you don’t develop your characters properly or give them any defining qualities, I suppose you can get away with allowing them to do anything!

The pages-long dialogues that wafted up the stairs to the playroom on Wednesday nights when Sarah and Edward hosted the support group for parents of biracial children were excruciating. Surely there is a better way of getting your point across. I skipped most of these clich├ęd conversations.

Tassie’s foray into love was an absurd twist on the story. If a story is a house, then this subplot was like a renovated bathroom with a chimney in it. I can understand the point of including a love story in a coming-of-age story; I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a romance in a story about a 20 yr old woman starting at university. I actually enjoyed reading about Tassie’s neediness and clingy desire to be loved, because that’s what I was like when I was younger (I like to think I’ve grown out of it?!), and it felt real. But what happened when the relationship ended was ridiculous, clumsy and completely transparent in its attempt at saying something profound about Islam, terrorism and the US. After this, the book went further downhill, spiralling into something that was almost unbearable. I didn’t care what happened anymore; I didn’t care about Tassie’s family; I didn’t care about Tassie herself.

The main plot about the adopted child Mary-Emma and her parents Sarah and Edward was intriguing and I think Moore should have kept the plot limited to this. There was a lot she could have done with this situation. Tacking on two other subplots (the romance and one other, which I can’t mention without spoiling it) was a mistake.

This book suffered not only from the messiness of its plot, but also from the lack of plausibility in its characters and its irritating, self-indulgent narration. If this is the kind of work that is shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, I don’t think I’ll be taking that prize very seriously anymore.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

My writer friend lent me this book saying ‘I can’t believe I haven’t lent you this one yet. It’s possibly one of my all-time favourite books’. Coming from her, this was a big claim, so I was intrigued and little bit excited. Another reason I looked forward to reading this book was that I had only just finished The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett about two weeks previously, and I had enjoyed it (I will write a review for it soon...promise).

Bel Canto story is set in a fictional country, somewhere in South America where there is a jungle, where Spanish is the common language and where the President is an ethnically Japanese man by the name of Masuda (I think it's a thinly veiled Peru). The setting is the residence of the Vice-President Ruben Inglesias, where a dinner is held for Mr Hosokawa, the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan. An American opera singer, Roxane Cross—the most renowned opera singer in the world—has been invited to sing at the dinner, specifically to lure Mr Hosokawa from Japan for he is a devoted fan of her work.

The lavish dinner is interrupted by terrorists who take the entire party hostage, mistakenly thinking that President Masuda would be there. When they realise their bad luck (he stayed at home to watch his favourite soap opera) they fail to come up with a counter plan. Lacking the violent aggression of other terrorist groups, this band inadvertently allows the situation to develop into a home away from home for both themselves and the hostages. The situation lasts for over four months, during which time relationships develop. After most of the staff members, women and children are released a couple of days into the siege, the only remaining women are two terrorists and Rozanne.

This is a love story, a story of love. The strange and beautiful situation that hostages and captors find themselves in enables them to forget that what they are experiencing can only ever end in disaster. In forgetting this, they open themselves up to life and love as they probably never would ‘outside’, in their ordinary lives. No one tries to escape. No one wants to. ‘Bel Canto’ means beautiful singing. It is Roxane’s beautiful singing, and eventually the young terrorist Cesar’s as well, that brings together the unlikely crowd of hostages, most of whom are wealthy, important political or public figures, and terrorists, mostly uneducated youths from the jungle, led by idealistic but thoughtless generals.

It is not only the music that brings this group of people together. Coming from different countries, they cannot communicate with each other. Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s interpreter becomes the most important person in the whole scenario. He is the consummate professional interpreter—like a machine he lets most conversations barely lick the surface of his mind, let alone touch his emotions. But he is now in a situation like no other interpreting job he had before, for his life is at stake, as is his employer’s for whom he has a deep respect. Gen’s sense of diplomacy, his calm thoughtfulness and his brilliant mind makes him an excellent conduit for everything from requests from the terrorists to the Red Cross, to love declarations for Roxane from long-winded Russians.

I was actually a little bit bored for the first part of the book. The pace was a touch too slow for my liking and I found myself only getting through about 10 pages before putting it down. I can’t be sure when in the story it was, but about halfway through, something pulled me in and I started to see what my friend was raving about. I finished this book last night and it has stayed in my mind. It is written in a most beautiful way. Each character is endearing and the unlikely bonds they forge are amusing and heartbreaking at the same time. The following paragraph captures this.

Mr Hosokawa and Roxane were standing at the sink. It was odd the way they never spoke and yet always seemed to be engaged in a conversation. Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them reading cookbooks.

Thibault is a French hostage who wears his wife’s scarf around his neck and misses her openly and unashamedly. He has taken responsibility for the cooking. Patchett manages to bring each character to life with warmth. Unlike The Patron Saint of Liars, whose initial narrator I ended up hating, I liked every character in this story. Even Beatriz, the sullen teenage terrorist who at first appeared as though she would, in a fit of temper, pull the trigger at the slightest provocation, had endeared herself to me by the end.

I was very surprised by the epilogue and a little confused about it. I tried to understand it in the big scheme of things, but had a bit of difficulty. Perhaps a different epilogue would have suited, or no epilogue at all.