Since Robert Heinlein's death, I have been looking for anyone who could sustain Heinlein's ability to project the reader into an imagined future and then to build sympathy with the characters. Lethem has the critical ability to establish empathy essentially with his every character, and few do this as easily as he. I have just completed Amnesia Moon, where Lethem tries on empathy with a clock and a potted plant as (metamorphosed) primary characters - and he makes even that work. Therefore, I found Pella, her family and friends, and the alien race in particular (not to mention the planetary ecosystem), to be so sympathetic that it was somewhat wrenching to put the novel down (the same was true of Amnesia Moon, though in that case, the characters were not intended to be quite so sympathetic). The last time I felt this way about a book was reading Heinlein (and in this case, Heinlein's earlier rather than later novels). This is perhaps the only book I have ever read about which I still experience literal pain due to the fact that there was so much more of the story to tell, and it is virtually certain that the sequel (or sequels as I imagined them) will go unwritten. (By the way, I found the analogy to Lolita to stretch credibility. I have read both books, and they are entirely different projects. At the most fundamental level, Lolita was about Humbert Humbert - not really about Lolita at all. This novel is about Pella - more akin to a project such as Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, but with Lethem's mastery of empathetic character development.) In short, the single best science fiction book I have read since Heinlein.
on July 20, 2004
I like Lethem or at least the books I have read by him so far: Motherless Brooklyn and Gun, with Occasional Music. However, Girl in Landscape is not just one of Lethem's lesser works but a horrible novel in general. The book fails to solidify, while allegedly a mixture of sci-fi and western, the book is just another western with all the standard clichés in tact. The sci-fi part could be thrown out and no one would be the wiser; substitute Indians for aliens and nothing changes. Also while the back cover of my book mentions "the sexual tension of Lolita" let's not kid ourselves Lethem all but lifts entire passage from Lolita. The book does not capture "the sexual tension of Lolita" rather it paraphrases entire parts (Compare the scene with Pella and Efram on Efram's couch and Humbert Humbert and Lolita on Humbert's couch). People have commented on the originality of this book I just don't see it. After reading about 30 pages of the book one should be able to tell how the book will end and how all the characters will play out. Furthermore, I don't know if it's just me but if this novel is an accurate portrayal of a 13-year-old girl then the human race is doomed.
on October 8, 2003
I hardly know how to describe this novel. Lethem is a difficult author to categorize, and Girl in Landscape is even dodgier to quite nail down. On the surface it is: a science fiction story, a modern day western set on a strange planet, a coming of age story. The best possible description of this novel is that it is a normal story told on a strange world. It is easy to be distracted by the setting, a strange world that was formed by the Archbuilders, who built up the society and world and then left, leaving only a remnant from their society. The world of the Archbuilders is the new frontier, the new western.
Pella Marsh is thirteen years old. Her mother has recently died and the rest of her family is moving to the planet of the Archbuilders. There are only a handful of other settlers there, people who are there for a variety of reasons. Some express an interest in the Archbuilders, others a xenophobic fear. Upon arrival on the planet, the Marsh family is told that they will have have to take pills to conteract the virus in the atmosphere. The father chooses not to. The virus does not make Pella ill, but rather makes a change so that, as the Archbuilders say, the children can learn from adults.
This is a fascinating story that I hesitate to rank among the best of Lethem. Even though there is a minimalist western feel to the story, it also almost feels like Lethem is trying to do too much, tell such a branching story that something is lost. Don't get me wrong, this is a good book and a good story, but compared to Lethem's best, it falls short.
on January 31, 2002
First let me say that I greatly admire Jonathan Lethem. No one can fault his ambitious and aggressive imagination and creativity. He possesses a truly unique worldview and writing style. He has written some truly wonderful novels--most notably Gun, with Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn.
However, all of that notwithstanding, he is also a very frustrating writer in that his body of work is very uneven. There are ideas that no doubt looked quite tempting in the conceptual stage that should have been dumped in the writing phase as it should have been clear it wasn't going to work as a novel. Girl in Landscape is a case in point.
The book is essentially an experiment in a change of context--in this case, a classic "western" set in a sci-fi context; instead of the classic American Western we have the classic Alpha Centuri (or whatever) western. This is not a new conceptual vehicle for Lethem; Gun with Occasional Music also followed this model. However Gun was a focused novel--a detective story first and foremost. Girl, on the other hand, is an unfocused mess. Is it a "coming of age" story or a "displaced" western? Unfortunately, it tries to be both and succeeds in being neither.
Whereas in other Lethem novels the weird tableau of scene and character support and enhance the story, here they seem to take it over. In the end, the scenery is more compelling than the character and story.
I suppose it's a small price to pay--a few unmemorable and disappointing novels one must endure to experience the true joy of Lethem's extraordinary, first rate novels, but I think both reader and author would be better served by a more disciplined approach that sidelined marginal efforts such as this one.
on October 10, 2001
I was very amazed and moved by this book, "Girl in Landscape," where Jonathan Lethem writes about a fourteen-year-old girl named Pella Marsh from Brooklyn, who has to move to a recently discovered planet. Since her mother has died, and she hates her father, she is virtually left alone with no one to talk to besides her two brothers who are way to young to understand her. At the new planet, the struggle and fighting between the humans and the Archbuilders (the original inhabitants of the new planet) shows that human nature itself is corrupt and that humans have a bad habit of leaving out people or "things" that are different. In a way this book reminded me a little of the book "The Lord of the Flies" because of the way Lethem shows human nature as not being so pretty, and because of the violence that goes on in the book. Pella is the kind of person that hates the fighting that goes around her and wants to change it. Her actions are so powerful that it is unbelievable she is only fourteen. She is forced to be strong and mature because of what goes on around her. But it is not just her that is powerful, but also the setting, plot, and characters are all powerful.
This book is really good because Lethem makes the planet and the inhabitants so real. The way he makes up all the setting makes me really surprised that someone can make such a realistic setting out of his or her imagination alone. I also enjoyed the story, because while the book was about science fiction, Pella's life makes it a drama as well. The one thing that I did not enjoy was the fact that the ending was a little bit rough. I did not think that the book should have ended that way, even though others may differ. I thought that the book would have a little more of a nicer conclusion to it. But other than that, I really loved and enjoyed this book. When I read this, it made me feel like reading all Lethem's other books as well. When I finished the book, I knew that I made the right decision to read this book. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a good and powerful book, because it really changed me and sticks with me. I think that this book will amaze anyone who reads it.
on September 15, 2001
I hardly know what appealed to me most about "Girl in Landscape"- what I do know is that when I finished the last page, I wondered if I would ever again feel as powerfully moved by a novel. Lethem's alien world is an exciting, engaging setting. The Archbuilders themselves evoke laughs at some times; at others they seem deeply unknowable and therefore deeply frightening. One of the implications of the novel, however, seems to be that human nature can be infinitely more frightening than alien nature. Indeed, the object of Pella's tormented, adolescent affection, Efram Nugent, is a stormy, violent, iconoclastic man- but that mix is the source of his strange magnetism(who hasn't been drawn to the loner, the wild and untamed in the midst of the mindless herd?). The combination of disgust and attraction Pella holds toward Efram is pulled off convincingly- I was just as disgusted as she by his actions, but Lethem's skill is such that I never questioned her attraction.
"Girl in Landscape" works on many levels- as a frontier tale, a science fiction novel, a coming-of-age story... though like many others I found the ending unsatisfying, the book is well worth reading. I wanted to see the Archbuilder landscape with my own eyes and, in all honesty, to meet Efram, to fully undergo the power of his spell. The book is an exciting, moving read.
on October 8, 1998
Finished reading Jonathan Lethem's "Girl In Landscape" on Monday. Wanted to read his "As She Climbed Across The Table" book but settled for this one after repeated attempts to find that earlier work locally ended in failure. "Girl" started out nicely, with quick, wispy sketches of a family and a planet in crisis, but it soon became bogged down in rather conventional plotting. Lethem has a nice facility for limning the interactions between children, but his adults all seemed two-dimensional to me - like the grown-up characters who put in cameo appearances in a kiddie lit novel or (at worst) as the shrill musical voices of a Peanuts special. He does a good job of setting up his alien planet with intriguing ruins, gentle aliens who have a goofy way with words, and ghostly "house deer", but then he never really explores its possibilities. The sexual tensions of a girl going through puberty are touched upon too obliquely to provide insight, and the violent ending seems a starkly unoriginal importation from conventional fiction - an importation thrust into a world that cried out for something better and more imaginative. I had high hopes for this book, given the good things I'd heard about "As She Climbed Across The Table", but I finished it feeling cheated of what it could have been. What magic it did contain was, in the end, overshadowed by the lingering taste of unpleasant events and hopeless relationships. Maybe if the book hadn't both begun and ended with a pointless death. Maybe if Lethem hadn't thrown in yet another in the middle for good measure....
on October 2, 1998
Jonathan Lethem has shown an amazing command of different genres, from the pulp "Gun, With Occasional Music" to the road trip "Amnesia Moon" to the twisted romance of "As She Climbed Across the Table." To call Lethem a Science Fiction Author is to do him a grave disservice by limiting the great scope of his small body of work.
"Girl with Landscape" is a of coming-of-age western set on a dreary planet with the ruins of an alien civilization. Pella Marsh, the central character, represents innocent youth, but also the strength of youth that most adults refuse to acknowledge.
The characters are all too real, especially in their bigotry and hatred, and the aliens are well-thought out, garnering are sympathy and occasionally our irritation and even disgust.
No lines are drawn clearly and no easy routes are taken in this novel. It's dreary and dark, but a brilliant work worth reading by anyone who likes good writing and a good story.
on June 13, 1998
Pella and her family, leave behind an underground earth, their fathers political defeat, and their mother's unexpected death for the planet of the archbuilders. The great civilization built by the archbuilders is left in ruins, and the currenct archbuilders are deemed poor copies of their once great ancestors by the immigrants. In a dusty frontier "town" with a few other families, archbuilders, and the unspoken leader, Effram, Pella finds herself a political pawn. First to her father as he decides she and her brothers will not take the medication to protect them from the archbuilders virus. Then to Effram who is trying to undermine Pella's fathers' place in the town as a leader, and kill the remaining archbuilders. The adults fear and prejudice toward the archbuilders prevent them from understanding the archbuilders, and leads to violence in the town. These actions rip the town apart and damage the fragile community. Finally Pella, her family broken by the move, and tired of watching the destruction of the town by Efframs' anger at the remaining archbuilders, begins to fight for justice. For herself and the others. Pella's transformation by the events in the town and the archbuilders virus, and Efframs anger at the current archbuilders and obsession with their ancestors make for two compelling characters. Tension, anger, voyeriusm, and grief color this story making it wonderful and at times suspenseful read.
on April 24, 1998
This is what novel writing is all about, a truly imaginative exploration. Lethem may have been pegged as a science ficiton writer, but he is one of the most intriguing young American Fiction writers working today regardless of genre. "Girl in Landscape" should be one of those crossover type books the people who like to label writers are always so eager to discover.
At first I was struck by some similarities in a novel I read 2 years ago ("Straitjacket & Tie" by Eugene Stein), but as Lethem's story progresses the clash between Archbuilders and humans becomes less of an alien/Earthling struggle and more of a metaphor of all explorers in new worlds, both on land and in the heart. It is hard to ignore the essential American frontiersman and Native American analogies that Lethem's story evokes as well.
What makes this book so compelling is that we discover the Planet of the Archbuilders and its secrets as Pella does. Discovery is part of the novel's rich landscape. Pella - a growing teenager confilcted with herself and family - tries so desperately to find a new place in a new world that she can call her own and, as a result of the alien virus, floats out of her body becoming a literal outsider - sometimes looking in on herself. There is also the alien's discovery of the English language and the way the Archbuilders (particularly Hiding Kneel) make use of its poetry and even learn to make jokes.
This is a novel that speaks to our very humanity forcing us to look at how we treat each other, how we exclude others because of difference, how we all keep looking for a new home - a better place where we can finally belong.