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Effect Of Living Backwards [Hardcover]

Heidi Julavits
2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 3 2003
Alice and Edith are sisters, soul mates, and archenemies.

Alice, the "good girl," is everything the stunning, wanton, and morally whimsical Edith is not. Except that both are expert manipulators-a power that is tested and exploited when the plane they are on is hijacked.

There's something decidedly strange about Bruno, one of the hijackers, not to mention his inept collaborators. When Alice is chosen to communicate with the hostage negotiator, Edith decides to take matters into her own hands by seducing Bruno. Alice finds herself growing smitten with the hostage negotiator, even as it becomes harder to distinguish her allies from her enemies in this elliptical airborne game show. When the hostages are taken to a hotel in a deserted Moroccan oasis town, Alice must confront the fact that if she wants to save herself, she will be forced to sacrifice someone she loves.

The Effect of Living Backwards is a comic, heartbreaking novel for our new and uncertain age.

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From Amazon

The Effect of Living Backwards, Heidi Julavits's second novel, is a mess--but a good mess, an ambitious mess. The title is taken from Through the Looking-Glass, and Julavits's narrator--named Alice--certainly wanders into a perplexing wonderland. She and her sister Edith are flying to Morocco, where Edith is to be married. The plane is hijacked by a charismatic, chubby blind man named Bruno. After a time, the hijacking appears to be an extended moral case study: Bruno forces his hostages to consider whether they would give their own life to save another. The hijacking, it turns out, may or may not be real; Bruno may or may not be blind; Alice may or may not be falling in love with Pitcairn, the hostage negotiator who's supposed to save them all. As she unspools her black comedy, Julavits displays a wildly discursive style; the book can seem overwritten. But as her plot gains momentum, so too does Julavits's writing, and her tortuous sentences begin to make sense: they reflect the awkward situation of the heroine. After a supper of candy and punch, Alice tells us she and her fellow hostages "suffered extreme intestinal discomfort, which made the lavatories more unspeakably filth-ridden, and tempers, whose foulness is always proportional to the decrepitude of a WC, began to fester." On one level, this is an unhappy sentence; on another, its very contortions are funny. So it is with The Effect of Living Backwards, which, in its patience-trying elegance, recalls the underrated novelist Nancy Lemann. This is a brave novel, aggressively intelligent and aggressively silly all at once. --Claire Dederer

From Publishers Weekly

When contentious half-sisters Alice and Edith board a jetliner en route to Morocco, where Edith is to be married, they step unknowingly into a vortex of international intrigue when the jet is hijacked-or is it? As events unfold, the motives for this act of "terrorism," apparently a high-stakes stunt being pulled by one of two factions from the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, become ever more murky. In the futuristic and fantastical world of Julavits's second novel (after The Mineral Palace), which takes its title and epigram from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the political and familial machinations we recognize from our own contemporary lives scramble into a kaleidoscopic puzzle. Julavits's rambling surrealism is overlaid and intensified by a strong dose of paranoia … la Pynchon, and the political and the familial merge in the form of a game from Alice and Edith's childhood called "shame stories," in which others are convinced to tell their darkest secrets. These tales, told by the sisters' fellow travelers, are fascinating excursions, a blend of the bizarre and the everyday. But as Alice's wastrel father tells her, "People don't want to be surprised. They want to hear the same story. Tell them the same story and they'll listen," and Julavits follows this advice herself. Beneath its absurdist trappings, her larger tale is surprisingly conventional, its real focus the sibling rivalry between Edith and Alice, shadowed by the terrorism subplots and the veiled references to September 11, or the "Big Terrible." Neither the novel's imaginative framework nor Julavits's cool, unerring eye for detail can quite compensate for its curiously mechanical emotional trajectory.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
BUT LET ME DESCRIBE what Edith was wearing on that day we boarded Flight 919 from Casablanca to Melilla, where, fifty or so hours later, she was supposed to be married: a pale-blue cotton blouse with white threading and sanded wood buttons, an oatmeal wool skirt, a camel's-hair coat folded over her arm, cabled stockings, and a pair of sturdy leather schoolgirl shoes, because my sister believed in the erotic possibilities of cloddish, thick-knit, nubbled apparel. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Hardcover
This novel is very different. The story premise is unusual, timely and interesting. It is a black comedy describing a pair of sisters involved in an airline hijacking experience. You never know if the hijacking is real, staged or something in between.
I really wanted to love this book. There is so much promise in this writer. Her prose is amazing; she seems to understand and utilize words that sound almost musical in her sentences. I found myself looking to the dictionary on multiple occasions, fascinated with the vocabulary and syntax. Unfortunately, the plot and story development, do not demonstrate the same level of maturity.
Author Heidi Julavits' shows she has extraordinary potential, having a remarkable ability to piece together interesting phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the plot of this novel was more substantial, or the two sister's characters were better developed, this would be a very good work. Instead, we are left with an interesting book, that leaves you puzzled about what you read when you reach the finish.
I generously rate this book at 2.75 out of 5.00 stars, rounded up to 3.00, for beautiful use of language, creativity in subject matter and a nice job in approaching the story. However, it rambles on in its linguistic beauty instead of really delivering a strong plot or climax. If this writer learns to finish as well as she starts, I believe we will see many other interesting works to come.
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Format:Hardcover
This novel is very different. The story premise is unusual, timely and interesting. It is a black comedy describing a pair of sisters involved in an airline hijacking experience. You never know if the hijacking is real, staged or something in between. The critical elements of the book concern the relationship between the sisters, rather than the interplay around the hijacking. (...)
Author Heidi Julavits shows she has extraordinary potential, having a remarkable ability to piece together interesting phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the plot of this novel was more substantial, or if the two sister's characters were better developed, this would be a very good work. Instead, we are left with an interesting book, that leaves you puzzled about what you read when you reach the finish.
I generously rate this book at 2.85 out of 5.00 stars, rounded up to 3.00, for beautiful use of language, creativity in subject matter and a nice job in approaching the story. However, it rambles on in its linguistic beauty instead of really delivering a strong plot or climax. If this writer learns to finish as well as she starts, I believe we will see many other interesting works to come.
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3.0 out of 5 stars weird, weird, so very weird. March 15 2004
Format:Hardcover
I can definitely understand the 1 or 2 star ratings being given this book by other amazon.com reviewers; I have very mixed feelings about it myself. There were parts I enjoyed: the interplay between the two sisters, the interesting post-Sept.11 theorizing, the fact that the confusing plot did draw me in and didn't want to let go. What I didn't enjoy was that the reader can never distinguish what is real and what is not, who is "good" and who is "bad," whether the whole hijacking was set up as a study on how passengers react to certain aspects of terrorism or whether the whole BOOK was set up to see how readers react to certain aspects of bizarre and overzealous writing.
I liked the terrorist attacks on the US being referred to as "The Big Terrible" (which Julavits credits to Thomas Freidman in her acknowledgements) rather than the ubiqutous "9-11," and I also liked the creative hijacking story of a rugby team overpowering their captors and crashing the plane when it wasn't necessary (resulting in stickers posted in all airplanes saying WHEN TO OVERPOWER YOUR HIJACKERS). However, much of the writing about the terrorism school seemed contrived, as though Julavits was trying a little too hard, and the battle between the two factions there didn't make a lot of sense to me.
_The Effect of Living Backwards_ certainly held my interest, and in all I'd say that it was a good read. At times the writing was just a little hard to wade through... and I'm still trying to decide if the effort was worth it.
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1.0 out of 5 stars The Title Says It All Oct. 8 2003
Format:Hardcover
I was given this book by a girl in attempt to impress me with her literary choices. As I told her I spend weekeings reading.
I wasn't. Subsequently, I becamed worried about my newspaper's hiring practices as we both work for the local paper.
After reading 40+ pages the only thing I could think of is that The Effects Of Living Backwards must result in writing like this. Which is awful. I read some of the other reviews and didn't realize this book had such polirizing qualities, which is even more ironic than the title; as it attempts to tackle terrorism which could produce an intriguing book, but treats the subject matter in a juvenile manner that reminds me of coversations in the vein of "what if" situations that I had when I was stoned out of my mind in high school.
For instance:
A man takes a bong hit.
He says, "Hey man, what if a blind man hijacked a plane."
His friend takes a hit and says, "Yeah, like all terrorists don't see what's really going on, man."
Both men congradulate themselves for thinking in such profound terms.
I hope Ms. Julavits can straighten out her life and write in a more serious tone. I'm sure her publisher would appreciate it.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Good Ideas that Don't Take Off
An ambitious book that ultimately bites off more then it can chew. Could the author be too much of a brainiac? Read more
Published on June 25 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars (...)
what a messy, mess, mess this book is!
there's a/are terrorist(s) on board a plane- but the reader is let in on the beginning that the terrorism isn't real- in fact there's... Read more
Published on April 4 2004 by lady detective
1.0 out of 5 stars The Cover Art Is Pretty
The cover art is masterful. A subtle blend of childhood sentimentality, middle-aged nostalgia, interspersed with a certain girl-power aesthetic a la Oprah Winfrey. Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars Postmodern Style but not Postmodern
Whereas Gravity's Rainbow is purely postmodern and a grand masterpiece, The effect of Living Backwards is very superfically postmodern, and attempts to be, but has so little depth,... Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2004 by Adam Hardin
5.0 out of 5 stars It makes one a little giddy at first ...
" 'That's the effect of living backwards,' the [Red] Queen said kindly: 'it always makes one a little giddy at first. Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2003 by R. Mumma
1.0 out of 5 stars Very much to be missed
Again, this author attempts to use word-play to stand in the place of substance. Shame on her editors. Read more
Published on Sept. 5 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but sometimes hard to follow
The banter between the sisters is great here, but I was disapointed by the story in the end. Great premise, written well, but confusing.
Published on Aug. 8 2003 by M. Filleul
2.0 out of 5 stars vlad would dig these sentences, and yet...
regularly, exquisitely, i relished the sentences and searing insights in this novel. they're of the sort that mr. nabokov himself would linger, titter, tear up over. Read more
Published on Aug. 7 2003
2.0 out of 5 stars Funny, but doesn't ring true
I couldn't decide whether this is meant to be a witty novel or a satirical account of our response to 9/11. Read more
Published on July 23 2003 by Jack Pratt
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