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Noble concept poorly executed.
on June 21, 2004
Shortly after I finished reading this book, I heard an interview of the author that improved my opinion of the book. Wait, how's that? Am I reviewing the book or the author? Good question. What I should say is that the interview with the author made me respect what the author was attempting to do in the book. It's a noble venture. And don't tell me that outside information, including other's opinions, doesn't affect your own opinion about a book. That's what book clubs are about, after all, and incidentally, this is one of Oprah's pick. All hail Oprah, patron saintess of new authors. JC Oates isn't a new author, though.
What was I saying. Oh yes. The author's intentions were noble. To hear her talk about the book surely makes one want to read it. It's the story of a father who loves his daughter so much he disowns her, and then lets his love for her destroy his marriage, career, and life. It's a story of a tragedy that affects the victim less than it affects those around her. (am I spelling "affect" right? should it be "effect?") It's a story of how, for one character, botched revenge brings more relief than perfect revenge. Doesn't that sound compelling?
The problem is, it's not all that compelling. I got tired of the characters: all of them, starting with the sunny sweet mother, then the overly analytical Patrick, than the overly aggressive, angry head in the sand father, and finally the oh-so-innocent. Basically in the order the focus shifts, I grow tired. And more than the characters, I grew frustrated with the author's techniques. It drove me crazy that sometimes Judd told the story and sometimes Judd was a character in the story (Judd did this, said that, instead of I did this, did that.) And it drove me doubly crazy that every time the characters neared a turning point, the author pulled away from them. Patrick gets his revenge, and something changes inside him. What? How? I don't know. The author doesn't say. All we know is he quits school and only sends random postcards to his family. And Maryanne, after running away for so long, finally allows herself to be loved. How? I don't know. We cut from "the cat's not the only one that loves you" to married with children. I begin to feel that Oates is afraid of these, the most challenging moments in the stories of her characters, afraid of being trite and pedantic and heavy-handed, so she shies away from them. It's true, those are all dangers, but those are the great challenges of writing a good book. By not living up to those challenges, the heart of this story is left out. What we get, basically, is a sketch of a family that can't solve its problems, until somehow, vaguely, it does, and then there's a picnic happy ending.
This could have been a great book. It almost is a great book. It's a great concept. But the execution falls short.