Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Herd by Andrea Bartz

Having really enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s debut novel, The Lost Night, I had rather high hopes for The Herd. Sadly, not only is The Herd populated by simultaneously unrealistic and detestable characters but it also tells a rather derivative story.

The summary seemed to promise a tantalising story, one that would depict the complicated and shifting dynamics in an all-female co-working space. What we actually get is the usual cliched storyline that focuses on a group of friends, one of whom happens to be more successful/famous than the others.
The plot is predictable and boring, most of the suspense is created by our not knowing the narrators’ secrets. There was no real tension or atmosphere. The HERD centre is never the focal point of the story but a mere prop, one that led to scenes in which this group of friends can go on and talk about ‘the male gaze’ and the ‘patriarchy’.

“The one way to win, the one fucking way to be a woman and do well in this world is to stomp on other women’s backs.”

While originality wasn’t The Lost Night’s strongest point, it more than made up for it by having a striking sense of place and time. In The Herd however New York and the HERD centre fade into the background.
Eleanor Walsh is the classic female character who appears in this type of so-called ‘psychological’ novels. We are told that she is the basic embodiment of the perfect modern woman: beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, a feminist. Being told that she is alluring or interesting doesn’t actually make her those things.
Her disappearance unfolds in a predictable way: her closest friends decide to embark on their own investigation even if there is a detective working the case. Katie and Hana are sisters and both were close to Eleanor. In alternating chapters we read of their amateurish attempts at finding out what Eleanor was hiding. They are also hiding things from one another and they are both trying to forget about a ‘traumatising’ incident from their pasts.
They spend most chapters getting scared by their own ringtones, wondering whether Eleanor is dead, receiving help by their conveniently gifted friends (such as a hacker), and feeling sorry for themselves.
That’s more or less it.
Add two or three attractive and possibly guilty of something or other male characters and there ya have it: The Herd.

The novel tries to critique a certain brand of feminism by portraying how hypocritical certain female entrepreneurs are: in spite of their ‘empowering’ agendas they still encourage their female associates to spend hours on end on their appearances or they are actually profiteering from other women’s insecurities.
If the HERD centre had actually been the focal point of this novel I think that the story could have been a lot more engaging as well as providing us with a more cutting commentary on certain facets of contemporary feminism. What we have instead is a predictable narrative about two sisters, both of whom think that the other one has it better than they do.

Lousy story and characters aside there are a few other things about this novel that really frustrated me:
✖ This group of friends lacks chemistry. Where they even friends to begin with? Why should I care about ‘backstabbing’ and ‘lies’ when they seem to sort of dislike each other from the get go?
✖ The ‘twist’ is almost identical to the one in The Lost Night so I saw it from miles away. Isn’t that a bit of a cheap trick? The reveal and final face-off are incredibly reminiscent of the ones in The Lost Night.
✖ The sisters’ ‘secrets’…one seemed recycled from similar novels while the other one was laughable (view spoiler)[(a husband walks in on his wife cheating with him with another woman and he has a heart attack?! Come on!) (hide spoiler)].
✖ The writing…in The Lost Night there were a few phrases which struck me as very debut-like (examples being “a new thought, opening like an umbrella” and “happiness rushing up through me like froth”). I wasn’t expecting the writing in The Herd to be so much more aggravating. Most pages in this novel have to do with what Katie and Hana feel and think. But they never simply feel or think things. Their feelings and thoughts blossom, billow, plume, or fan out:
-“I said it without thinking, the idea booming out of me like a cannonball.”
-“Fear was fanning out inside of me, working outward from my gut.”
-“The realization that I knew almost nothing about this guy resurfaced like something bobbing up from the bottom of a lake.”
-“It rose through me without warning: a plume of anxiety, neon and strong”
-“The awkwardness plumed, filling up the room like smoke.”
-“Then, pushing through the fug of my worry for Eleanor, a heady sadness that billowed like incense,”
-“The idea bloomed in my skull as if someone else had whispered it to me.”
-“I watched her cry, feeling my impression of her shifting like tectonic plates inside my skull.”
-“A thought like a whisper”
-“sadness billowed in me, threatened to burst out from behind my face.”
This novel is basically pages and pages of purply phrases accentuating the special way in which the narrators think or feel.
✖ Overdramatic. As I’ve mentioned before characters are constantly overacting. They get scared by their phones (“My phone exploded with sound; I jumped so high, I practically bonked my head on the ceiling.”), they think that drums sound like gunfire (“We were looping scarves and tugging on hats when a sudden round of gunfire made us freeze. It started again. Not gunfire—drums, a drum line.”), they gasp at the silliest things in very dramatic fashion (“My mouth gaped open, an oval of shock.”), they are fumbling in their attempts not to let others know that they are actually trying to find Eleanor. A lot of ordinary actions were given a forced sense of urgency: “I was a human whirlwind, somehow whipping out a digital recorder, accepting the call, and putting her on speakerphone all in one scrambling swoop”.
✖ The narrators try really hard to come across as SERIOUS feminists so that as soon as a male character talks they think or say stuff like ‘he can’t understand what is like to be a woman’…more laughable still are phrases such as: “Samantha was washing silverware with the furious concentration of a frat guy playing flip cup” and “I futzed and fumbled, jabbing at the keyhole like an awkward teen during his first sexual encounter, until finally the door clicked open”.
✖ The way these female characters are portrayed promotes a rather one dimensional image of a feminist. While I could get behind the critique of this new wave of feminism, the story never truly delves into the complexities of female friendships or of an all-female workplace. The villain’s final monologue, however cheesy, actually had something interesting to say about the nature of certain female friendships….but that hardly makes up for the novel’s general lack of insight into these ‘female’ dynamics.

The ‘herd’ analogy appeared now and again but for the most part was largely underused. This novel wasn’t fascinating or chilling, it just was. If you haven’t read Bartz’s debut novel and you don’t happen to have a low tolerance for cringe-y proses, you might actually find The Herd to be entertaining.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg took me by surprise. While I did enjoy reading two of Konigsberg’s previous novels, Openly Straight and The Music of What Happens, they certainly didn’t affect me as The Bridge. This is the kind of novel I wish had been around when I was sixteen and contemplating suicide.
While there are quite a few novels that expand on ‘what if’ scenarios, Konigsberg’s diverging timelines are far from gimmicky. The first scene in The Bridge, regardless of its different outcome, plays a pivotal role in each section of the novel. Within the first pages of this novel we are transported to George Washington Bridge where two teens, Aaron and Tillie, strangers to each other, are planning to jump. In the first section, titled ‘A’, Tillie jumps, while a traumatised Aaron returns to his home, unable to forget what happened. As we become acquainted with Aaron, reading of his relationship to his extremely supportive father, and of the anxiety and depression that made him go on the bridge, we also read of the repercussions that Tillie’s suicide has on her adoptive parents and younger sister, as well as the guilt felt by those who in their own way contributed to her decision to end her life.
In ‘B’ it is Aaron who jumps and Tillie who survives. Aaron’s suicide destroys his father, leaving him bereft, while Tillie confronts the people who have hurt her the most—a former best friend, her ex-boyfriend, and her emotionally distant father. In ‘C’ they both die, and Konigsberg doesn’t repeat himself, offering his readers instead with just how everlasting is the grief and guilt experienced by the relatives and loved ones of suicide victims. He goes as far as envisioning the people Aaron and Tillie would have met, loved and helped, had they stayed alive.
‘C’, which for obvious reasons was my favourite, depicts a world in which they don’t jump, forming an unlikely bond, and finding comfort in each other’s despair.
I can’t stress enough how well-written and structured this novel is. However heartbreaking the various narratives were, I loved reading them. Konigsberg injects plenty of humour in his novel, alleviating somber scenes without making light of any of the subjects he writes of. Trough his portrayal of mental health Konigsberg demonstrates extreme empathy and sensitivity, never offering one-sided arguments or easy definitions. Both his adult and his teen characters are given their own distinctive voices, and regardless of what they say or do, they aren’t demonised or easily labelled as ‘bad’. Some of the parents in this novel are terrible. They are extremely unsupportive or blind to the pain their actions or words cause to their children. Our protagonists too are more than capable of making mistakes and or of jumping to conclusions.
Konigsberg is particularly perceptive when it comes to the effect that offhanded remarks can have on vulnerable young people. He doesn’t offer magical cures for Aaron and Tillie’s depression, and in the narratives where they do not jump, their lives aren’t depression or suicidal-thought free.
Konigsberg dialogues and his characters felt strikingly real. While each narrative navigates painful realities, The Bridge doesn’t succumb to the dark thoughts or difficult circumstances of its characters. Aaron’s relationship with his father and the bond between him and Tillie truly made the novel.
Unlike the other books I’ve read by this author The Bridge is a novel that will stay with me (as clichéd as that may sound) and I can’t wait to re-read this. If you are looking for a piercing and emotional YA contemporary read, look no further.

My rating: 4 ½ stars of 5 stars
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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

Little Fires Everywhere is a thought-provoking vivid portrayal of a small community split by a heated custody battle. Ng’s style – which reminded me of Ann Patchettis almost prosaic: it has a gentle rhythm; there is a softness to her phrases, her casual observations are always affecting. Ng’s writing is elegant and engaging.

The fog mirrored her state of mind so perfectly she felt as if she were walking through her own brain: a haze of formless, pervasive emotion, nothing she could grasp, but full of looming thoughts that appeared from nowhere, startling her, the receded into whiteness again before she was even sure what she had seen.

The novel broaches many difficult topics, ranging from parenthood, motherhood in particular, to race.

It came, over and over, down to this: What makes someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?

Characters are realistic for they are quite flawed: they can be hypocritical, selfish, obstinate. The Richardsons especially, they all are incredibly self-absorbed. They do not see how truly privileged they are. Yet they are not wholly dislikable: they think, feel and say things that are quite relatable and or understandable. Mia and Pearl Warren are equally multi-faceted. Mia’s love for art, and for her daughter, play a strong role in the novel.
Tensions start emerging between Mrs. Richardson and Mia: their different lifestyles and parenting echo ideas of order vs. disorder; Mrs. Richardson exalts control while Mia is a free agent, and it is only natural for the Richardsons ‘children’ to feel a pull towards this woman, so unlike their mother. I didn’t particularly love any of the characters. The teenagers behave…well, like teenagers. Making stupid mistakes, fighting over nothing…Moody, I felt was written off towards the end. I wanted a bit more of his character, especially given that I didn’t feel like we get a full picture of him. Izzy I liked, for the most part. I was curious of the way she acted and her role as the ‘black sheep’ of the family. Lexie and Pearl were a bit less likeable but they nevertheless showcased depth. Mrs. Richardson is a difficult one. On one hand, we come to understand her ways, on the other, we also see just how false and self-righteous she could be. Mia, well, I understood why she unnerved Mrs. Richardson, but I could also see why Izzy was so taken by her.
Now, on the difficult custody case: there isn’t a real right or wrong, not in my mind. Ng’s gives us an unbiased narrative, that doesn’t claim to know what the best solution is. Yet she is far from dispassionate. We come to feel for both the adoptive couple and the biological mother. Similarly, Ng compares the Richardsons and the Warrens. And within the families themselves we see different attitude and ethics, which in turn creates conflict between the characters.
Lastly, despite the deliberately slow storyline, tension underlines most scenes: it is a thoroughly engrossing novel.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

“She was a monster but she was my monster.”

Despite addressing ‘heavy’ topics, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a fast read.
Earlier this year I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For the most part I liked it (I gave it 3 stars) but I wasn’t too taken by it. So I was quite surprised by how much I ended up liking Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . Although liking perhaps is not the right word. I didn’t like reading about Winterson’s painful childhood and of her more recent ‘troubles’. However, I did think that her words, and story, heartbreaking. I found her memoir to be incredibly affecting. Her words struck a chord. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a poignant and heart-rending memoir that explores love, family, loss, happiness and many other things.

“Love. The difficult words. Where everything starts, where we always return. Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love.

Winterson’s voice relates here past in a genuine and matter-of-fact way while also being able to make her past behaviours and to make sharp reflections.
Her self-examination is honest. She does not shy away from writing about all of it: the good and the bad, and the downright awful.

“I have always tried to make a home for myself, but I have not felt at home in myself. I have worked hard at being the hero of my own life, but every time I checked the register of displaced persons, I was still on it. I didn’t know how to belong.
Longing? Yes. Belonging? No.

An emotional and contemplative journey that offers many acute observations.

“Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not all the same as being happy– which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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