Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

A week or so before reading Monster in the Middle I read Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, Land of Love and Drowning, which I rather enjoyed. I remember being struck by Yanique ’s atmospheric storytelling, by her subtle use of irony, and by her thoughtful meditations on death, love, and everything in between. So, given that I have been known to have a soft spot for intergenerational dramas/interconnected storylines (The Vanishing Half, Commonwealth, The Travelers) I was fully convinced that I would love Monster in the Middle.
Albeit confusing, the opening chapter intrigued me. But with each subsequent point of view, I become increasingly aware of just how disjointed and directionless this book was.
Monster in the Middle tells the love story between Fly and Stela, he’s American and a musician, she’s a science teacher from the Caribbean. Yanique jazzes things up by making their romance, not the starting point of the novel but the very end goal. The storylines leading to their romance give us a glimpse into their parents’ lives and later on Fly and Stela’s own experiences as teenagers and young adults.

The novel opens with a chapter on Fly’s father. He and a white girl are running away together, or so it seems. She comes from a deeply religious family and he too is religious. Fly’s father also suffers from schizophrenia but at this point in his life, he believes that the voices he hears are from God. A chapter from Fly’s mother follows, and here we don’t really gain much insight into what had happened to Fly’s father or that girl. She tells us a bit of their marriage but in a way that didn’t come across as engaging or particularly realistic. The following chapters are about Fly as a teen and his college experiences. I hated that the author focuses so much on Fly feeling horny and whatnot. He eventually comes across a sex tape starring his father and that girl he was briefly with. This tape becomes a guilt secret, as he is ashamed of being turned on by it. He masturbates a lot, which, good for him I guess but I personally could have also done without those scenes (it reminded me of What’s Mine and Yours, where the sections focusing on the teenage boy character are all about him having boners). Fly’s character in these chapters is reduced to his sexuality.
In college, he gets involved with a really religious girl and this character made no sense whatsoever. I found it corny that she was singing or praying while they were being intimate with each other and that she has such a disconcerting approach to sex (it is implied that she ‘uses’ her body to make people straight…?!). Because of course, she would be like that.

Then we get to know about Stela’s mother. Again, there was something off-putting about the characters and the relationships they formed with each other. Same thing for Stela’s father, who is not her biological father (other than that i can’t recall anything about him). Stela eventually comes to the fore and surprise surprise even if her chapters also hone in on her teen years, she isn’t made into a one-dimensional horny adolescent. She grows up in Saint Thomas and eventually goes to study abroad in Ghana where she is the victim of a sexual assault. Years later she marries this blandish guy and then they both, unbeknown to each other, become involved with the same woman. I absolutely hated this storyline. It feeds into existing cliches about bisexual women and it made no bloody sense. I had a hard time believing that this ‘other’ woman would be so deceitful. Then again, the story implies that she is deceitful by nature as she also lies about her background to them. Anyway, at long last Fly and Stela meet and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel for either character and found them very much devoid of fleshed-out personalities. They merely served as plot propellers, enabling the author to give us some superficial love stories and some observations on multicultural and/or interracial relationships. These brief glimpses into the mc’s parents lives did not make them into particularly well-developed characters, quite the opposite. They felt a bit all over the place, as some chapters, such as the 1st one, hone in on a very specific episode, while others have a vaguer timeline.
While the story addresses important issues, it did so rather superficially. Towards the end, the narrative includes covid and the BLM movement but it does so in a rather rushed way. I would have liked less focus on the characters’ sex lives and more moments of introspection.

The writing could also be rather off-putting with cringey lines like: “When he put his hand to her there at the center, she pressed herself hard against him, and she was slick. It made him think of candy gone sticky in the sun.”; “his penis hard and curved, her vagina sticky and warm. They presented these things to each other like treasures: “So smooth,” she said to his; “So sweet,” he said to hers.”; “The primary thing in his life was the ocean of this woman’s insides.”.

Additionally, I did not particularly care for the way the author ‘dealt’ with the rape storyline. And we get some problematic lines such as: “Jerome was flirting, she knew, but he was seventeen and she, frankly, was susceptible at twenty-three.” and “Stela looked around and saw an empty easel erect in a corner. She wished she had a dick. She wanted to be inside this bitch of a woman.”.

Overall, I could not bring myself to like this book. This novel lacked the strongly rendered setting of Land of Love and Drowning and, moreover, the author’s style was too florid for me. I couldn’t take a lot of what I was reading seriously.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories by Tiphanie Yanique

“Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony presents readers with a collection of interconnected tales that are a blend between the fantastic and the prosaic. Tiphanie Yanique’s prose is striking: her style carries playful, fabulist almost, undertones that perfectly complement the dreamlike quality of her narratives. This sense of surreality is further intensified by the use of repetition and recurring motifs. The characters populating these stories are often at a crossroads, caught between who they want to be and what others (or themselves) think they should be. The choices they make are not always for the best, and they often experience heartbreak, loss, desire, and shame. Yanique explores familial relationships, in particular the fraught bonds between children and their parents. Religion too plays a role in these stories, but each character has a unique relationship to their faith. Many of the stories revolve around characters who are attempting to find out a place where they belong. Death too is a recurring theme, particularly in those stories centred on a funerary home. While the setting remains unnamed and is only referred to as a Caribbean island (presumably Saint Thomas?), Yanique is still able to evoke a strong sense of place and there are some truly vibrant descriptions of the landscapes surrounding these characters. The dialogues too convey a strong sense of place as Yanique is able to capture different lilts and vernaculars. The only reason why I am not giving this a higher rating is that I believe this is the kind of collection that is meant to be re-read in order to be truly appreciated. I sometimes felt a bit disorientated by the way these stories were interconnected.
My favourite stories were the titular ‘How to Escape from a Leper Colony’ and ‘The International Shop of Coffins’. I loved how within these stories Yanique strikes a perfect balance between melancholy and humor. The unresolved nature of these narratives also added to the collections’ overarching magical realist tone.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a promising collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Edwidge Danticat and Mia Alvar. I definitely plan on reading more by Yanique!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

As per usual I was drawn to a book because I found its cover cute. The novel itself has plenty of cute moments, however, various elements prevented me from truly appreciating it.

Before her parents’ separation 17-year-old Evie Thomas was a lover of romance and a believer in happy-ever-afters. When she becomes aware that her dad not only cheated on her mum but left them to be with the ‘other woman’, well, she’s pretty shaken up by it. A newly disillusioned Evie decides to make the very dramatic gesture of getting rid of all of her romance books (i mean, really?). After dropping them off at a ‘little free library’ a mysterious old lady seemingly appears from nowhere and encourages her to take a book titled Instructions for Dancing, a book about ballroom dancing. From then on Evie has the ability to see how peoples’ romances begun and how they will end. They just have to kiss in front of her and wham she gets a That’s So Raven vision that shows her a fast-forwarded version of the couple’s relationship, from their first meeting to their breakup/separation. Her new gift seems to confirm that, as she feared, in real life love always ends in heartbreak (lil’ bit ridiculous, i know…).
She eventually returns the manual for dancing to La Brea Dance. Once at this dance studio she just happens to come face-to-face with the kind of heartthrob guy who is very much the real-life embodiment of the LI in a romance (“For a second, I feel like I’m a character in one of my old romance books. Raising a single eyebrow is such a Classic Romance Guy Characteristic.”). The guy, X, and Evie end up competing as a pair for a dance competition in the Amateur Under 21 category with the intention of promoting the studio.
As you can imagine, in spite of Evie vowing that she’s done with love and romance and would certainly not fall for X because “Tall, hipster-hot and in a band? I mean, he’s the definition of a heartbreaker, right?”, the more they practice together, the closer they get.
The story focuses on their romance and on Evie’s feeling conflicted about love and romance. While the angst is at times outweighed by the sweeter moments, overall, I could have done with the elements of melodrama (between evie & x, between evie & her ‘friends’, between evie & her dad). I do feel bad for not being able to write a more positive review but I’m afraid that honesty always wins out in my reviews so I will be detailing all of the reasons why I was unable to like this novel. If this book happens to be on your radar or on your TBR pile I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Here are a few of the things that dampened my enjoyment of this book, SPOILERS BELOW:

The Magical Element
What was that all about?! At times the story seems to forget all about Evie’s ability to see how other peoples’ romantic relationships start and end. These glimpses into a couple’s story give us very incomplete visions of their relationship (let alone who they are). The visions were jarring, something that stood out against an otherwise realistic & contemporary YA backdrop. Maybe had they remained one of the main preoccupations of the narrative they would have not felt so out of place but as I said mentions and scenes featuring Evie’s power remained very inconsistent. There’s a lot about them in the first few chapters where Evie is immediately able to establish that her visions are real. And that they only serve as a way to add more angst to her character. You see, now she has proof that love is fake and true romance doesn’t exist. It just so happens that, except for one couple towards the end, all of the couples she has visions of break up/separate.

Storyline
This ties to the 1st point. I would have liked the storyline to be more consistent. At first, we get a lot about her visions and her ‘i don’t believe in love anymore’ act, before switching to the dancing side of things, before honing in on her romance with X and her arguing with her friends. Personally, I would have liked more family dynamics. She hates her dad because he cheated on her mom, which is fair enough, but that this made her go through such a dramatic ‘i’m getting rid of all of my romance books/love doesn’t exist/in case you didn’t notice i’m a cynic now’, well, I just a hard time putting up with the same information being repeated over and over again. We get it, she feels betrayed by her dad (even if one could argue that, given that she’s nearly 18 and about to leave for college, she should not feel so involved in her parents’ relationship with each other…they are individuals of their own). She spends most of the novel dissing her dad and acting like he’s a monster before arriving at the classic plot-point where she tries to understand his perspective etc. Like, why did she have to be so immature? Her character development was predictable and her relationship with her parents would have benefited from more page-time. Her sister too! They were at one point close and yet for extended periods in the novel the sister is very much forgotten.
Speaking of family dynamics I would have loved to see more of x and his own family (as opposed to him mentioning a call or two from his dad). His grandparents (as far as i can recall) own the dance studio where they are training at and yet we don’t learn too much about their relationship with one another.
The point is that to me, the story meandered too much and had one too many unnecessary ingredients that ended up ruining the final product. We have Evie angst-ing over her parents’ break up and her dad cheating, we have the little library and the visions, we have the dancing sessions, we have her romance with X, we have the fights with her friends, we have miscommunication and reconciliation, and then, in a very soap-opera-ish move, bam, a tragic, but ultimately entirely forced bittersweet ending that teaches Evie a valuable life lesson (that just because something comes to an end does not make what came before worthless or any less meaningful). It all felt vaguely calculated and moralistic while at the same time, we get sudden changes in the storyline direction that amount to a less than cohesive story.

Evie
While not wholly unsympathetic, I found her selfish and immature to the point where I wanted to finish the book so I could get out of her head.
Supposedly 17, Evie is as emotionally mature as a 10-year-old. So, she caught her dad cheating and is traumatised, and begins acting like he’s some heinous human being and seems to believe that her mom owes her an explanation on why their marriage ended like this. Evie refuses to talk to him and acts like a brat. Her newfound attitude towards love and romance contributed to my impression of her being far too childish for her actual age. I would expect this over-the-top behaviour from a Disney movie, not a contemporary YA novel that is so clearly striving for depth and, visions aside, realism.
Her visions confirm her love ends in tears stance (i mean, at one point she throws at us the following: “Heartbreak = love + time”…which is something i could have written in one of my angsty poetry phases i went through aged 13 or so). Her dad betrayed her mom so it makes for her to seemingly overnight dismiss the notion of love/romance. I disliked how intrusive she was when it came to her parents’ relationship but I actively hated her behaviour towards two of her friends (one of whom is the nasty-type-friend, usually white and rich, that is all the rage in contemporary YA). They become a couple during the course of the novel (their personalities remain very much one-dimensional and their romance is rushed indeed) and Evie sees them kissing so of course she gets a vision that ends with them breaking up. She decides that they shouldn’t date because their eventual breakup will break their friendship group…so what does she decide to do? She refuses to see them! She isn’t all that concerned for them and their relationship, no, what worries is how their romance affects her. Selfish much? And the narrative goes on to prove that Evie was right and that of course, their failed romance ends up ‘breaking up’ their clique (really?).
It was just so frustrating to read her constant whining about her dad or making childish statements on how love ends in heartbreak yadda yadda. Why was it so hard for her to realise that yes, over the course of your life you will likely be with multiple people (as opposed to having only one ‘true love’)
And then her romance with X…yeah. At first, I found their interactions cute and understood to some extent why Evie was somewhat hesitant to admit her feelings towards him (after all, didn’t she swear off love?). But then, his presence in the novel amounts to serving as a plot device. He exists to teach Evie that it’s okay to fall in love and that even if said love ends with heartbreak that doesn’t change what came beforehand. What irked me the most is how his death is utilised by the narrative as the final step in Evie’s ‘learning to trust/love again’ arc. It wasn’t believable, it was clichéd and predictable from those rounds of questions earlier on in the story (where evie & co + X asks each other supposedly ‘philosophical’ questions that amount to: would you want to know when you are going to die or is true love real?). His death enables Evie to ‘grow’ as a character. That her reaction to learning of his approaching death is that of ghosting him…shit. Evie, sei una vera stronza. But it’s all good cause someone comes and tells her that she should not always be focusing on the end of things and think about the memories you make along the way (cheesy af). She apparently spends the next few months with him knowing that he will die but not telling him because earlier on he said that in a what-if scenario he would not want to know when he’s going to die….I mean really? She doesn’t even tell him to go to the doctor?

And they are meant to be teenagers?
The teenagers in this novel were so unbelievable. Their banter, as well as the ideas and opinions they express, were so vanilla. As I said earlier, with the exception of one or two lines here and there, these teens would have been better suited to a Disney movie. I guess they will appeal to fans of Netflix’s teen romance/drama/coming-of-age movie. The novel’s message too felt more in line with those kind of movies.

Self-Aware Romance (?)
Because Evie is a romance connoisseur she often lists tropes of the genre of says things on the lines of ‘it feels like i’m in one my old romance books’ or ‘he’s behaving like the LI in a romance’…yet, despite this supposed self-awareness the novel still implements many tired clichès and plot points.

The Dance Angle + Fifi
I liked the dancing sessions but after the halfway mark the dancing aspect of the novel seems largely sidelined in favour of angst between characters. Which, in my mind, is a pity. I would have preferred the novel to be more about dancing (esp. given that title + cover).
Fifi is X and Evie’s instructor and boy-oh-boy isn’t she a walking caricature. I struggle to understand why American authors (i’m looking at you casey mcquiston) write Eastern European characters this way. Not only do they have a thick accent but they have a funny way of expressing themselves and say borderline offensive/inappropriate things but it’s all good because accent + foreign = lol.

All in all, while now and again there were moments or exchanges that I found sweet (mostly between the main couple or evie and her bff martin), on the whole, I did not ‘vibe’ with it. I’m sure many others will love it and the points above are merely expressing my very subjective impressions of said book. Maybe the novel’s target demographic will have a more positive experience with it than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican: Stories is a promising debut collection that focuses on the Jamaican diasporic experience, highlighting cultural and generational differences and providing us with some wonderfully realized vignettes. Alexia Arthurs’ prose is engaging, unsentimental yet lyrical, and she’s fully able to bring the places she’s writing of—be it America or Jamaica—to life. Many of her stories hone in on familial relationships, depicting the misunderstandings and differences between Jamaican-American children and their Jamaican parents. While the parents are often shown to be more traditional than their children and are vocal in their disapproval of their lifestyles, their professions, their sexuality, their ‘Americaness’, Arthurs allows them to be dimensional individuals, without resorting to one-dimensional stereotypes.

‘Light Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’, the first story in the collection reminded me of Danielle Evans’ novella, The Office of Historical Corrections. Both stories explore the relationship between two Black women who are unable to bridge the gap created by their different upbringings and financial situations. In ‘Bad Behavior’ a despairing mother sends her misbehaving teenage daughter back to Jamaica to live with her own mother (the girl’s grandmother). While the stories depict different situations and people they are united by their shared themes (of acceptance, guilt, self-divide). Within these 11 stories, Arthurs underlines the difficulties experienced by those who are dealing with family expectations and pressures or living in predominantly white spaces or feeling torn between Jamaican and American customs & cultures.
I appreciated and could relate to the nostalgia and homesickness that affects many of these characters and how sometimes they view their ‘new’, in this case, American, environment as ‘alien’.
Easily, my favourite was ‘Island’. This isn’t all that surprising as it follows a lesbian who has become more and more aware of how her best friends are visibly uneasy at any mention or confirmation of her sexuality. It was sad but this particular story really spoke to me.

While I loved the author’s breezy prose, the authentic flow of her dialogues, her rich examination of Jamaican and Jamaican-American identities (the stories follow people who are united by their heritage but are ultimately living very different lives) as well as her realistic explorations of parenthood, siblinghood, and queerness, only two or three stories really stood out to me. This is one of the cases where less would have been more (to me, of course). I would have found this to be a stronger debut had it had fewer but longer stories. Nevertheless, this was a solid collection with some real hits. If you enjoyed Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain or you are a fan of Danielle Evans’ short stories. I look forward to whatever Arthurs publishes next.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Felix Ever After is a refreshing, relevant, validating and super-inclusive YA novel. This also happens to be one of the few YA books (the only other one I can think of is Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen) that focuses exclusively on queer teens (there a few straight parents in the background). Kacen Callender’s portrayal of adolescence is strikingly realistic: there is a lot of angst, pressure to succeed, confusion about your identity and your place in the world, jealousy towards other people your age, one or two crushes…and things are kind of messy.
As a Black, trans, and queer teen Felix understandably feels like the odd are stacked against him. He’s seventeen and hopes that signing up to his school’s summer program will increase his chances of getting into Brown University. Although he loves art, lately he’s been feeling a bit stuck, and he’s hasn’t been working on his portfolio. His feelings of anxiety and guilty over this really resonated with my own experiences. His relationship with his father is strained and his mother is no longer in touch with either of them, and Felix feels like it’s all too much.
Because of this Felix spends a lot of his time at his best friend’s house, who unlike him comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Felix and Ezra are incredibly close, and they both are on the summer program. Alongside them are a lot of other queer students, some of whom act like they are woke when in actuality they are incredibly transphobic and bigoted.
Things take a turn for the worst when someone exhibits photo of Felix pre-transition, captioning these photos with his deadname (kudos to Callender for never actually using Felix’s deadname on the page). Felix is crushed. Thinking that he knows who is behind this awful act, and the offensive messages he’s been receiving, he wants to get back at them.
Felix, however, finds himself growing fond of this person…which kind of complicates his plan.

To begin with Felix got on my nerves. While I wholeheartedly felt on his behalf, he acts in a pretty self-centred way. He thinks that because every other student has it ‘easier’ than he does, they can’t complain about anything. When Ezra, Felix’s incredibly supportive best friend, tries to voice his own fears and anxieties, Felix is totally dismissive of them. His whole cat-fishing too was kind of cringe. I’m no longer a fan of these kind of deceptions although I understand the appeal of getting revenge (when I was fourteen I actually helped my best friend briefly catfish his bully…something I’m not very proud of, but alas, the youth). I also thought that Felix wasn’t really trying to connect to his father. While I get that Felix is totally right to feel frustrated by his father’s remarks and deadnaming, I did think that he never gave him a chance to explain himself or really apologise.
Thankfully, Callender does an amazing job in terms of Felix’s characterisation. Over the course of the novel, Felix begins to reassess his past behaviour. During the summer he does a lot of growing up, and while certain scenes were quite painful, Felix’s humour and his friendships often uplifted the mood of the narrative.
Callender depicts believable teens who are as capable of getting high or drunk as they are of discussing morality, art, and the pros and cons of labels. I also appreciated the way in which Callender allows their main character to question and explore his gender identity.
Plus, it was so nice to read so many scenes set in LGBTQ+ spaces (such as the LGBT Center Felix attends or Pride).
Felix Ever After is a coming of age that is guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’. We have a nuanced protagonist, a super cute romance subplot, drama, and a story that touches upon serious issues with tact and understanding. I will definitely be checking out Callender’s future work!

My rating: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up to 4)

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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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Afterlife by Julia Alvarez — book review

Afterlife.jpgAfterlife is a slim novel that covers many topical and important issues, like mental health, in a not always satisfactory way. Alvarez’s style was at times a detriment to her story. While I could have moved past the lack of quotations, I had a harder time buying into the recursive narration. I sort of understood what Alvarez was going for, trying to render Antonia Vega’s inner monologue in what seemed to be a slightly less sporadic take on stream-of-consciousness, but I can’t say that it worked (for me). Antonia’s observations, reflections, and various thoughts often seemed far too contrived. For one, she was perpetually baffled: each interaction she has with another person has her wondering why certain customs exists, why society expects us to behave a certain way or why we adhere to certain etiquettes. At times it seemed that she had lived under a rock for the entirety of her life, when in actuality she was a teacher and therefore must have accumulated some life experiences.
While I appreciated that she wasn’t portrayed as inherently selfless, I wish we could have seen her in a more positive light. Her relationship with her sisters and husband seemed to reinforce this image of her interacting with them not because she wanted to or because she cared for them but because it was expected of her. Her two younger sisters merged into one blurry character, while her older sister’s personality was entirely reduced to the being the ‘problematic’ one. Alvarez presents us with a rather simplistic take of mental disorders and the sister who is possibly bipolar was a mere plot device that would enable Antonia to embark on her ‘new life’.
The book does pose some thought-provoking questions, especially regarding what people owe to each themselves and each other, but stylistically it just wasn’t for me. I hope other readers will be able to connected with Alvarez’s story and her characters more than I was.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

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“The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”

This was such a wonderful and poignant collection of short stories.
In a interview on LitHub Edwige Danticat said that one of the reasons why she loves the short story form is that it allows her “to magnify smaller moments and to linger on these small epiphanies in the smaller interactions that mean so much”, and indeed each one of her stories seems to prolong a particular moment in her characters’ lives.
Given the brevity of her stories Danticat doesn’t wast any words. And yet, while her writing could be described as both economic and simple, her prose also demonstrated a richness of expression that resonated with the feelings and scenarios experienced by her characters.

Through the wide range of her narratives Danticat examines similar themes in very different ways. Within her stories Danticat navigates the way in which bonds are tested, broken, or strengthened in times of crisis. Most of Danticat’s narratives are concerned in particular with the diasporic experiences of Haitians in America, and she emphasises the feelings of longing, loneliness, and displacement experienced by those who are forced to adapt to a new country and a different culture with poignancy and clarity. They are never reduced to the status of ‘outsider’, and while their shared heritage does mean that they may have had similar experiences, each one of them has a distinctive voice and a particular relationships with the countries they currently inhabit.
With seeming ease Danticat imbues her characters with their own history and personalities, so that within a few pages we would feel as if we’d know them personally, so much so that to define them as characters seems almost an injustice.
Within these narratives the ordinary moments that make up everyday life can carry both enlightening and tragic overtones. These stories centre on the characters’ anxieties, hopes, and fears they may harbour for themselves or their loved ones.
In “Dosas” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant, is betrayed by her husband and her own best friend. Months later her now ex-husband calls her and begs her to help pay the ransom for his kidnapped girlfriend, who happens to be Elsie’s former friend. His increasingly desperate calls threaten to disrupt the course of her life.
In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” a woman who has returned to Haiti to run a hotel with her husband is confronted with her own privilege when her young nanny is diagnosed with AIDS; the woman has to reconcile herself with her own misjudgement regarding her nanny’s mother and with her preference for a white doctor over a local one.
In “Hot-Air Balloons” we observe the bond between two young women, one of which has started to work for Leve a women’s organisation in which she witnesses the most brutal aspects of humanity. Still, even when we are presented with these stark accounts of abuse or suffering the story maintains a sense of hope in the genuine relationship between these two women.
Another story that examines the bond between two women is “Seven Stories”. After publishing a short story a writer is contacted by her childhood friend Callie, the daughter of the prime minister of an unnamed island. After her father’s assassination Callie was forced to flee from the island and years later our narrator is invited by her friend who has by now married the island’s new prime minister.

“I didn’t have to think too much about this. I already knew. I am the girl—the woman—who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor. I am never going to forget that I can easily lose everything I have, including my life, in one instant. But this is not what I told her. I told her that I was going to be the kind of friend she could always count on.”

The characters in Danticat’s stories are often confronted with impossible choices. Within their realities they are forced to contend against betrayal, illnesses, the devastating earthquake of 2010, medical malpractice, kidnappings, and the risks that come with being ‘undocumented’. They are made vulnerable by their status or haunted by the knowledge that the world can be a terrible place. Still, while there were many moments of unease, the stories always maintain a vibrancy that made them hard to put down. Her characters demonstrated empathy, love, and compassion so that her stories never felt bleak or hopeless.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. These stories were both upsetting and moving, and within each narrative we follow how a certain ‘change’ forces each character to reassess their own existence. The crisis they experience are depicted with subtlety and consideration. Danticat interrogates serious themes (identity, mortality, grief) whilst focusing on ordinary moments. Phone conversations and dinners become the backdrop for larger debates. Her narratives illuminate the complexities faced by those who are born, or raised, in a country that is now in crisis.
A heart-rendering collection of stories that provided me with a lot food for thought and which I will be definitely reading again.

2nd reading:
I have now read it again and I found as compelling as the first time. This may be the first collection of short stories I’ve ever re-read and it surprised by how many details had stayed with me from the first reading.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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