Day 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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Day 978: Eileen

Cover for EileenJust by coincidence, I read Eileen before it ended up on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. So, unusually for me, I have already read a book on the list and can publish a review shortly after they announced it. Since I have only read one book on the 2015 short list so far for my project, this is really getting ahead of the curve for me.

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Eileen is an astounding combination of character study and thriller. What is more astounding is that very little happens until the end of the novel, which still draws you along and builds suspense.

Eileen is an unhappy young woman who lives with her alcoholic, verbally abusive father in a suburb of Boston. She is deep in self-hatred and combines an ignorance of the world with a fascination with grotesque and ugly things. She is outwardly prudish but secretly obsessed with sex and bodily functions. All-in-all, she is deeply unpleasant, but we still manage to have some sympathy for her and understand how she got that way.

Eileen works at a prison for boys, where she has a crush on one of the guards. She spends a lot of her free time stalking him.

link to NetgalleyBut then she meets Rachel and becomes completely infatuated. She does not realize that Rachel is not the person she seems. Eileen’s occasional comments from many years later indicate that she has only a few days more in her hometown, and the suspense builds as we wonder why she left. One thing we know is that it involves Rachel.

This novel is a masterful character study of a deeply troubled person. She is all too human and believable.

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Day 290: The House of Velvet and Glass

Cover for The House of Velvet and GlassThe House of Velvet and Glass is a slow starter, which I don’t usually complain about, because if I’m enjoying a book enough, it can move as slowly as it wants. Nevertheless, considering how much I enjoyed Howe’s first book, I was surprised at how impatient I became with this one.

The novel begins with Helen and Eulah Allston, two entirely trivial women, mother and daughter, journeying back from a European husband-hunting expedition–on the Titanic. Although we’re told which ship they are on only at the very end of the first chapter, as if it were an ironic or surprising fact, the ship’s identity was very clear from early in the chapter.

Three years later, Sybil Allston is comforting her grief and anger at the death of her mother and sister on the Titanic by visiting a psychic. She is wholly convinced that she is receiving messages from the afterlife. On one of her visits, the psychic gives her a piece of crystal called a scrying stone.

Sybil’s father Lan Allston is a wealthy man who made his money through shipping, but he seems to spend all his time in his dark back parlor. Her brother Lanny looks as if he may be entering the life of a ne’er-do-well gambler and womanizer.

Not everything is as it seems, but I became extremely impatient waiting for the novel to go somewhere while we occasionally skipped backward in time to Lan as a young man in Shanghai or to Helen and Eulah on the Titanic.

Eventually, the novel becomes about a woman discovering her own powers, and the second half of the novel is much better than the first. But I did rebel against one thing. I particularly dislike it when characters in historical novels behave like modern people. I felt it would be extremely unlikely that Sybil would urge her father to bring home a woman they both think is a prostitute (and by their lights, is one) just because she has her brother’s blood on her dress. And I certainly don’t believe that her father would encourage Sybil to get to know her, although there turns out to be a reason for that. Completely unbelievable is the scene where Sybil takes her to her club or the scene where she goes, however, unwittingly, with her to an opium den.

So, a very mixed reaction to this novel. Ultimately, it became interesting, although the much-vaunted twists at the end were largely foreseeable.