On Wednesday we officially hit the midwinter mark. Hurray! I’m halfway through my first Midwestern winter and it’s not so bad. Of course, by saying that I’m just asking for trouble.
Unfortunately, while the weather has been cooperating, my reading has not. I’ve finished a number of books I discussed on my episode of Sarah’s podcast and in my own Winter Preview post and the news is not great. It’s not dire, but none of it lived up to my expectations. Here then are the books causing my midwinter doldrums.
Small Days and Nights is the first of the ten books I was looking forward to this winter. I wish I could say it delivered, but this story of Grace, an Indian-American woman who returns to India after her mother’s death never connected with me. She inherits her mother’s beachfront home in a small village in Madras. She also discovers she has a sister with Down’s Syndrome who has spent her life in a nearby facility. Grace is determined to create a new life with her sister in their mother’s house.
There are interesting ingredients to Small Days and Nights—caretaking an adult with a child’s abilities, trying to reconnect with one’s homeland, navigating life after marriage, but they never come together. Everything is relayed in a way that feels leaden, flattened. I wanted to be pulled into Grace’s story, but never was.
I don’t want to blame a writer for what might be poor electronic formatting, but Creatures has paragraphs transposed, sentences cut off, and bits of information inserted at odd intervals. If this was Crissy Van Meter’s intent then it did not serve the novel well. Beyond formatting, the novel’s timeline is far too fluid for my taste. Set on a small island off the California coast, it begins with Evie in the days before her wedding. She is confronted by the fact that the stench of a dead whale permeates the island and is likely to ruin her day. But then it leaves this visceral scene and leaps all the way ahead to the long years of her marriage. By the time we find out what happened to the whale the scene’s impact is long gone.
The novel is reminiscent of Where the Crawdads Sing —virtually nonexistent parents and a love for the natural world, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead, of a small story, simply told, Creatures piles plot points upon plot points amidst a tangled timeline that left me detached and confused.
I had high hopes for Marie Benedict’s Lady Clementine, but they didn’t pan out. I’m not sure whether it was Benedict or the material she had to work with, but I anticipated learning more about Clementine’s life, either before her marriage to Winston Churchill or after, but she marries him at 23 which is the beginning of the novel and the story only goes through WWII. Sigh.
Basically, this was a very traditional marriage with Clementine devoting herself to Churchill to the exclusion of all else, including their children and her health. It wasn’t until she was in her 50s, in the midst of the war that she began to create work she was passionate about. Even then, Churchill not only demanded an extraordinary amount of her time, but he downplayed and even ignored the important work she was doing. Sadly, I felt as if I learned more about Winston than Clementine and none of it was positive.
The narrator in Topics of Conversation is unnamed. The novel begins when she’s 21 and spans the next twenty years of her life. I had high hopes for this novel, but as I read I grew more and more confused about who this woman was and what happened in her life. That confusion may have been meant to mirror what we go through as women, with the choices we make and the choices that are forced on us, but it didn’t translate well on the page. The narrator came off as so unreliable I didn’t trust her and without trust it was hard to care.
The novel is such an accurate representation of women’s dialogues that it suffers from the same fate at certain points. A chapter begins, a character is introduced and begins to speak and several pages later, whatever their relevance may be to the greater story is lost. I recognized and appreciated what some of the women were talking about, but with little understanding of how they were all related. Or what was the greater meaning. It felt as if Popkey had literally reached into her own head and jotted down bits and pieces of verbal memories. There was no sense of a novel or theme or story arc, aside from the passing of time. What was clear was that the older women outgrew the need to please or placate and instead broke forth with their real feelings on various aspects of their lives, but this was not enough to make Topics of Conversation a meaningful novel for me.
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