The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined.

If you’ve read my review for A Little Life you know how much that novel means to me. Just looking at my hardback copy makes me feel all sorts of intense feelings. So, naturally, my expectations were high for To Paradise. At first, the Cloud Atlas-esque premise did intrigue me. ​​To Paradise is a door-stopper of a book that is divided into three ‘books’. These ‘books’ are united by their shared setting (New York) and themes (freedom, illness, identity, privilege, familial and romantic love, notions of utopia, familial duty vs self, betrayal, desire). On paper, this sounded amazing, and I was looking forward to being once again swept away by Yanagihara’s storytelling…except that it never quite happened.

“Each of them wanted the other to exist only as he was currently experiencing him as if they were both too unimaginative to contemplate each other in a different way.”

The first two books did hold my attention and I even felt emotionally invested in the characters (even if they did pale in comparison to the characters populating A Little Life).
Book I takes place in an alternate America in 1893 where New York is part of the Free States where same-sex couples can marry unlike in the Colonies (ie other US states) and gender equality prevails. The story follows David Bingham who lives with his grandfather on Washington Square. The Binghams are a distinguished and wealthy family and David is accustomed to a life of privilege. While his siblings have married and gone on to have families of their own and/or successful careers, David leads a quiet and sedentary life, keeping himself to himself and mostly interacting with his grandfather. One day a week David teaches art in an orphanage/school and it is here that he comes across the new music teacher, Edward Bishop. David falls fast and hard for Edward in spite of his possible arranged union to Charles Griffith, an older gentleman who his grandfather approves of. David knows that his family would never approve of penniless Edward who has little to no social standing. The two nevertheless become romantically involved and David struggles to keep his dalliance a secret. While he does become more aware of the limitations many citizens of the so-called Free States experience, his naive nature remains relatively unchanged. Readers are made aware that this alternate New York is far from idyllic as class and race play a major role in one’s quality of life. David himself, who is white, expresses prejudiced opinions about POC, and, until Edward, was quite unaware of the realities of having to work for one’s living. Over the course of this section characters or the narrative itself will allude to David’s illness, but Yanagihara refrains from delving into specifics. We see what others think of David’s fragility and solitary lifestyle, and the shame that David himself feels because of his illness. The story, like the following ones, has a very slow pacing. Here it kind of works as we are able to grow accustomed to this alternate America and to the various characters, David in particular. The tension of this story is very much created by David’s hidden relationship with Edward. Various events force David to question whether Edward is genuinely in love with him or whether he’s being played like Millie in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. The melancholic setting is well-rendered and perfectly complemented Yanagihara’s formal yet piercing prose. Nevertheless, overall I was able to appreciate this section, even if the ending is somewhat abrupt and left me longing for a clearer resolution/conclusion. For some reason, I thought that the later sections would fill in the gaps left by this 1st tale but I’m afraid they did not. Also, I wish that the author could have envisioned an alternate past without racial discrimination, or at least, that she could have then dedicated more than a throwaway lines on the issue.

The second section is set in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. David Bingham, a young Hawaiian man, is a paralegal who becomes involved with one of his firm’s senior partners, Charles. Charles is much older and wealthier than David and this often creates friction in their relationship. Charles’ friends, who, like him are white and older than David, do little to include David, often making jabs at his expenses or insinuating that he’s only after Charles’ money. The power dynamic between Charles and David is decidedly skewed. We also learn of David’s parentage and of the weight he carries because of it. There is quite a lot of ambiguity surrounding his difficult relationship with his father who suffers from an undisclosed illness. The AIDS epidemic also forces David to reconcile himself with his own mortality and the failings of the human body. The drama unfolding between David and Charles was compelling. They have led drastically different lives and move in very different circles. David struggles to adapt to Charles’ lifestyle and no matter how hard he tries he feels alienated from Charles’ set. Throughout the course of book II there are some beautiful meditations on life, death, and love that certainly struck a chord with me. Alas, book II is divided into two parts and only the first one follows David (who is the most likeable David of the lot). Part II is structured as a letter/confession of sorts penned by David’s father. Here we move to Hawaii and we learn more about David’s complicated family history and the eventual dissolution of his family.

Book III, which begins around the 50% mark, is what ruined this book for me. It was a mess. It’s 2093 and the world is apparently beset with plagues. We switch to a 1st person narration and our protagonist is living in this generically dystopian New York that is divided into various Zones, some of which have more access to water and food resources. In a move that screams YA dystopia, our female narrator comes across a mysterious man who is dangerously critical of the government. Interspersed throughout her chapters are letters written by her grandfather to one of his closest friends. They provide a blow-by-blow account of the years leading to this dystopian and totalitarian New York and the crucial role he played in it. This part was boring to the extreme. I found that the author’s old-fashioned prose, which really suited Book I & even Book II to be at odds with her dystopian setting. There is also an attempt at mystery by not using the characters’ names (the narrator refers to her grandfather as grandfather and her husband as my husband and this mysterious man as ‘you’). I had no interest in anything that was being said. There were a lot of pandemics, illnesses, plagues, some science lite and I could not bring myself to care for any of it. I kept reading hoping that this Book III would be the bow that ties all of these books together but it never did. We once again have characters sharing the same names but once again the dynamics are slightly different. They do not share the same personality traits as their earlier ‘incarnations’ which left me wondering why did they even have to have the same names to begin with. At one point in Book II David goes on about ‘what ifs’ and parallel universes when thinking about his relationship with Charles.
But that was more or less it. Why do we get the same characters but not really? The many Davids (spoiler: there is more than 3) populating these stories have little in common. They are all male and feel things (to different degrees i might add). Other than that, I didn’t really believe that they were reincarnations of the same David (a la Cloud Atlas). While I was at least able to appreciate the author’s storytelling and themes in the first two books, the last one spoiled things big time. I had to skim read it (something i am not fond of doing). It was a lifeless and unconvincing story narrated by a one-dimensional narrator who sounds like the classic dystopian heroine who has been indoctrinated by whatever evil government. The dystopian setting is stagy, characterised by tired tropes and severely lacking in depth.

I’ll be honest, I did not get the point of this book. Even if I did find book I & II compelling enough, those stories feel ultimately unresolved and lack direction. Book III was a flop.
A Little Life was a tour de force that left me equal parts awestruck and heartbroken. The characters felt real and so did their individual stories. To Paradise instead never fully convinced me. Even the first two books at times came across as affected. And while the themes the author explores in To Paradise have potential, well, she did a much better job with them in A Little Life. Here, both the characters and the relationships they have to one another, well, they are miles behind the ones from A Little Life. Even the ‘earlier’ Davids struck me as relatively bland and forgettable. The supposed love they feel for their families or partners, it didn’t always ring true to life.

If you are interested in this novel I encourage you check out more positive reviews. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this type of supposedly interconnected narratives…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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edit: it appears that my opening line has been quoted in an article on the new yorker. i would have not minded if the writer of that article had not proceeded to imply that i did not give Yanighara the ‘benefit of the doubt’. mate, maybe next time don’t just quote the first line of my review, especially given that it was a meme, and take time to read my review. i mean, aren’t you supposed to be a ‘professional’? 1) i went quite in depth in regards to the reasons why this book did not ‘work’ for me, i didn’t just write: tHis SUckS, iT iSN’t LiKE A liTtLe LiFE, 2) i did not dnf this, i may have skim-read the last hundred pages i did read it, so to say that i did not give her the benefit of the doubt is, if you’ll excuse my language, fucking bullshit.

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

“It never ends, does it? Loving you never ends.”

Seven Days in June took me by surprise. The romcom tone of this novel’s first pages belies the serious topics and issues it later delves into. Seven Days in June is the kind of read that has you laughing out loud one moment before pulling at your heartstrings next. So on the one hand we have a heart-melting romance and an abundance of hilarious moments, on the other, we have a narrative that explores grief, trauma, addiction, abuse, self-harming, and chronic illness. This could have easily resulted in an uneven blend of romance and tragedy but it is not the case here. Tia Williams flawlessly weaves together moments of lightness and comedic relief with more poignant and sombre scenes.

“They both had their twisted compulsions, different corners of the same hell.”

In Seven Days in June, we are introduced to Eva Mercy, a thirty-something single mom who has authored a paranormal erotica series about vampires and star-crossed lovers. Eva suffers from a chronic illness that often manifests itself through severe migraines that leave her bedridden and unable to move, let alone perform those everyday activities that most people don’t have to think twice about. Eva is meant to be writing the next instalment in her series but finds herself wanting to write about the ‘cursed’ women in her family. Between being pressured by her producer to agree to whitewash her own characters for the film adaptation of her book (here here is a brilliant video essay that discusses white audiences wanting & expecting white actors to play poc characters) and her ‘tween’ daughter, whom she is really close to, getting in trouble at school Eva is feeling understandably overwhelmed. So when award-winning literary author Shane Hall shows up at a literary event she’s taking part in…Eva is less than prepared. More than a decade ago she and Shane spent a passionate love and drug-fueled week together, one that has haunted them ever since. Shane, now a teacher, has been clean for two years. His privacy has lent me an air of mystery in the literary world, and whereas Eva’s books are often seen as popular smutty fiction, his books are celebrated as modern classics. Shane wants to make amends for the way things ended between them but Eva isn’t keen on getting her heartbroken again.
Despite the years that have passed since their short-lived relationship neither of them has been able to truly ‘get over’ the other and soon Eva finds herself wanting to believe that Shane has truly changed. In the following days, the two rekindle their love again, causing quite the stir in the literary community.
Eva and Shane’s chemistry was off the charts. Not only are they on the same wavelength, but they seem to draw strength from each other’s presence. As the days go by they reveal to each other their vulnerabilities, fears, and desires. Interspersed through these ‘present’ chapters are ones that give us a glimpse of their fated 7 days together back in their teens. We learn how Shane became an addict, the neglect they both experienced, Eva’s harmful coping mechanism in response to her chronic pain and home life, and of how the two fell for one another. I loved how Williams is able to show the depth of their feelings for each other without taking away from their individual character arcs.
Williams’ writing flows like a dream, and she easily shifts between tones—from a more tongue-in-cheek one to a more melancholic one—and her dialogues can be either ‘ah-ah’ levels of entertaining to ‘give you all the feels’ levels of devastating. Eva and Shane are of course the starts of the show and their dynamic was truly wonderful.

“Was this being seen for what she really was? Being witnessed? It was heady and terrifying.”

There were things that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this novel. We have the classic misunderstanding that typically occurs in romance novels around the 80% mark, a tertiary character is sacrificed to amp up the tension between our mains, and the pacing in the final arc is kind of off (we get pages and pages of texting). I also wonder about the ‘seven’ days premise…I thought we would be getting a day by day narrative but the story often seems to forget to mention how much time has passed between each encounter (i can only remember that there was a party on Saturday).
Still, I think that Williams has written a great romance novel, one that doesn’t shrink away from tackling complex subjects. While I’m usually not a fan of steamy sex scenes (i prefer the kind of awkward sex scenes that appear in fleabag) Williams’ ones were actually pretty decent, sensual without being corny or icky.

“Eva had been imprisoned in pain for so long, she’d forgotten how good feeling good was.”

Williams’ portrayal of self-harming and chronic illness really resonated with me (we have doctors, strangers, and friends dismissing the severity of eva’s symptoms, how she notices that the people around her make movements or perform activities she is unable to) and I was so happy that Eva’s characterisation doesn’t solely revolve around her pain. Shane’s addiction too isn’t there to make him into the classic ‘tortured’ bad boy and we see how he still struggles to adapt to his new ‘clean’ lifestyle.

“What was it like, the luxury of not hurting?”

Eva’s interactions with Audre—her daughter—and her friends filled me with joy and it was refreshing to see non romantic relationships being given so much room in a romance. Audre was such a delightful character and she has some of the best lines If you are looking for an emotionally resonant and nuanced second chance romance, look no further. Brimming with humor and empathy Seven Days in June makes for a swoon-worthy and heart-rendering romance.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

“Your Boyfriend Called, He Thinks You’ve Joined a Cult, Please Advise.”

Mister Impossible may be Stiefvater’s trickiest novel. I inhaled it in just a day and part of me knows that I need to re-read in order to truly absorb everything that went down. This is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling pretty devastated. It seemed like nothing and everything was happening. Plot-wise, well…Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde go galavanting across Virginia while committing ecoterrorist acts. Sort of.

Ronan and Hennessy are pretty chaotic characters who have a predilection for self-destructive behaviours and self-loathing (a great combo). Ronan’s chapters in Mister Impossible are particularly elusive and hella unreliable. I read somewhere that Stiefvater’s said that this trilogy was about the stories we tell ourselves and ouch…that is exactly what we are getting in Mister Impossible. This was as intense as The Dream Thieves but far more brutal. Things don’t get better, people don’t always learn from their mistakes or know how to break away from vicious cycles…I don’t know, this has me rambling already. Ronan is such a conflicted (and conflicting) character and I found myself wanting to shake him because he does and says some really fucked up shit and whisk him away from Bryde and anyone else who hurts/messes with him.
Declan, Jordan, and Matthew’s chapters were welcome respites. Matthew is struggling to adjust to the fact that he is a dream and is understandably sick of being treated like a child by Declan. I really liked how Jordan and Declan’s relationship developed, their scenes were truly a salve to my weary soul. Their chemistry, their light banter, their art talk. I just loved them together.

The narrative is very much about self-divide, art, forgery, reality vs dreams, miscommunication (or even 0 communication), loneliness, chronic illness, and not so great coping mechanisms. A sense of unease permeates the narrative, Ronan’s chapters were especially anxiety inducing.

The writing was Stiefvater-levels of clever (funny, exhilarating, surreal, fairytalesque), the pacing was relentless (even if nothing seems to happen…tis’ a mystery how she does it), and the characters are as compelling as they are frustrating (Ronan, please, stop breaking my heart).

SPOILERS
And that ending,wtfStiefvater, who told you to go all Fight Club/Mr. Robot on us?

my rating: ★★★★★

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All’s Well by Mona Awad

“I thought tests led to something. A diagnosis led to a plan, a cure. But tests, I know now, never lead us anywhere. Tests are dark roads with no destinations, just leading to more dark.”

All’s Well makes for an entertaining if somewhat flawed romp. The novel is narrated by Miranda, a theatre professor in her later thirties, who is not doing so well. After falling off a stage during her early acting career Miranda has been left in a state of perpetual pain. Bad surgeries, failed recoveries, inept physiotherapists have all left their mark on her body and Miranda now struggles to even move her right leg and suffers from chronic pain (her back, hip). She’s divorced and has no friends left.

“I was always busy. Doing what? Grace would ask. Getting divorced. Seeing another surgeon, another wellness charlatan. Gazing into the void of my life.”

Not only are her colleagues disbelieving of her pain but even her doctors treat Miranda’s ‘failed’ attempts to improve as something she ought to be blamed for. She decides that her class should stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well since not only did she herself act in that play years previously (giving a brilliant performance) but elements within its story (such as helena’s ‘cure’) appeal to her. Alas, her students are not so keen, wanting instead to stage Macbeth. Briana, who always gets parts not because she is talented but because her parents’ generous donations to the college, seems particularly intent on making Miranda’s life difficult. When Briana ‘mutiny’ succeeds Miranda is equal parts furious and despairing. Not only does she have to deal with her body being in constant pain but now she feels that her life has reached its lowest point, with no one believing her about her chronic pain or even respecting her.
At the local pub, she comes across three mysterious men in suits who not only know all about her professional and personal life but they also seem eager to help her. One golden drink later and Miranda blacks out. Wondering whether she is really losing it Miranda goes to rehearsals where after an ‘altercation’ with Briana she finds herself feeling increasingly better. Not only is her pain gone but she can once again move her body with ease. And, it just so happens that she can stage All’s Well That Ends Well after all. So what if Briana has fallen gravely ill? Not all gifts have to come at a price….right?

“Still sick, so we hear. So sad. We are all terribly sad about it, turly. Truly, truly.”

In a similar fashion to Bunny, All’s Well present its readers with an increasingly surreal narrative. From the start, Miranda’s voice is characterised by a note of hysteria, and as the story’s events unfold, her narration becomes increasingly frenzied. She’s paranoid and obsessive, one could even say unhinged. Yet, even after she’s crossed, leapt over even, the line I found myself still rooting for Miranda. I loved that detail about her ‘asides’ being overheard by others.
The latter half of the novel does fall into the same pitfalls as Bunny. The language gets repetitive, the weirdness feels contrived, and we get this surreal sequence that could have been cut short (a joke that goes on for too long ends up being not all that funny).

The narrative’s dark, sometimes offensive, humor brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh, Jen Beagin, and Melissa Broder. The side characters were a bit unmemorable, Miranda’s colleagues in particular, and I wish more time had spent on getting to know the students (we only learn a bit about three of them) or to see them rehearsing the play. My favourite scenes were the ones with the three suited men, I really loved the way they are presented to us. They gave some serious David Lynch and Shirley Jackson vibes.
I wish that Miranda’s visit to that sadistic doctor could have been left out of the novel as they felt a bit heavy-handed. Then again, this not a nuanced or complex novel. It is absurd, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining. The novel’s exploration of chronic pain did not feel particularly thought-provoking but there were instances that I could relate to (i happen to suffer from a seasonal autoimmune disease and i’ve had to put up with patronising doctors dismissing the severity of my symptoms). It seemed a bit weird that no one believed Miranda (or that crutches and walking sticks do not exist in this universe so characters are constantly ‘hobbling’ with their leg dragging behind them). Still, we do get spot-on passages like this:

“But not too much pain, am I right? Not too much, never too much. If it was too much, you wouldn’t know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That would just be bad theatre, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if I need be.”

I appreciate Miranda’s journey, from being the who is wronged to being the one who wrongs others, and I liked her hectic OTT narration. Yes, Awad’s style has this sticky extra quality to it that I am still not 100% fond of but here I found myself buying into it more. If unlike me, you were a fan ofBunny you will probably find All’s Well to be a pretty entertaining read. Those who weren’t keen on Bunny may be better off sampling a few pages before committing to All’s Well (some may find it irritating or unpleasant: “all of them gazing up at my body, lump foul of deformity”). Personally, I found All’s Well to be far more well-executed than Bunny and Miranda makes for a fascinating protagonist.

Side note: I don’t want to nitpick but Italians use ‘primavera’ to say ‘spring’ (if you want to argue about the etymology of ‘primavera’ ‘first spring’ would not be incorrect but Awad does not make that distinction so…).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert — book review

43884209.jpgI feel cheated by the cutesy illustration on the cover of Get a Life, Chloe Brown.
Having recently finished a romcom novel with a similar cover (If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane) I was under the misguided impression that Talia Hibbert’s book belonged to the same genre.
While Get a Life, Chloe Brown certainly starts out like any other romcom, with the promise of a delightful enemies-to-lovers romance, after the first fifty pages or so I realised that this book was going to be a lot more explicit than I’d anticipated …still, I wasn’t prepared for the sex in this book to be quite so
cringeworthy
.

The Good Stuff

After escaping unscathed what could have been fatal accident Chloe Brown, a thirty-something-year-old whose fibromyalgia has led her to live a fairly controlled and risk-free life, decides to ‘get a life’. She makes a list (with things such as ride a motorbike, go camping, have carefree sex) and finally moves out of her family’s house.
The first few chapters of Get a Life, Chloe Brown were thoroughly entertaining.
While we know that Chloe has a lot to contend with, her upfront and amusing inner monologues, and her awkward exchanges with others were diverting and uplifting.
Chloe’s reserved demeanour and cutting humour cause the superintendent/handyman of her building to form a not so great opinion of her and sees her as a haughty snob. Chloe herself dislikes Redford ‘Red’ Morgan because of his laid-back attitude and for the easy way in which he can charm others (including her younger sisters).
After Red rescues Chloe from a tree (in what was her attempt to rescue a cat) the two strike up a deal: Red will help Chloe with her list and in exchange she will build a website for Red’s art. At this stage of the book I found their dynamic amusing and I sympathised with both of them.
I was particularly looking forward to reading about Chloe’s story arc as I also suffer from chronic pain. Talia Hibbert articulates the in congruencies that come with chronic illness: Chloe’s craves independence and freedom, she does not want to be see in the light of her condition…yet she simultaneously wishes that others could understand that the everyday activities, actions and movements they might take for granted are impossible or cause incredible pain to her. I loved it when she tells Red that she isn’t hurt, she is hurting. Her condition is a constant. Yet, she doesn’t let fibromyalgia dictate everything that she is or does. Chloe has so much else going for her: her job as a website designer, her sense of style, and her humour.

The Not So Good Stuff
As I said, the relationship between Red and Chloe started well enough as it promised to be more of a slow-burn. Boy, was I wrong. After the first 50 pages Red is already masturbating and fantasising about Chloe (this after 1 sort of amicable/very banter-y interaction). Soon, the novel completely focused on Red and Chloe and their shared physical attraction.
What about Chloe’s sisters? Her parents? Her grandmother? They seem forgotten. The sisters have a cameo or two but that’s about it. I wanted to see more family interactions…especially since we are told that Chloe spent the last ten years of her life interacting and socialising with her family and has 0 friends. Surely she would have thought about them more?
Red…I wanted to like him…but I just couldn’t look past his creepy behaviour. He barely knows Chloe when he makes a pass on her. She was vulnerable, and he seemed to take advantage of that. He also had this weird ‘I’m a nice guy’ act which had him behaving like a woman’s idea of the ideal man (sensitive, funny, attentive, artistic, and most of all: HUNKY). Because we will be reminded time and again that Red is BIG, he is HUGE. Red is basically a tall and ripped walking breathing Greek statue.
Most of the book is about Red and Chloe fantasising about one another and having sexual encounters. There is some predictable miscommunication towards the end and that’s about it.
I don’t mind the odd sex scene or so but when the narrative is nearly entirely focused on the physical attraction between the two leads well, I begin to loose interest.
Hibbert’s portrayal of class is simplistic and superficial. Part of me was annoyed by the fact that Chloe never acknowledges her privileged background. Having fibromyalgia does not negate one’s wealth/education.
More than anything, I was disconcerted by the incongruent tone of this novel: on the one hand we have this very cutesy story in which both leads seem to act in a very childlike manner (with Red thinking and saying to Chloe things such as “you are too cute”, nicknaming her “Button”, and their silly email exchanges) on the other we have scenes upon scenes of cringe-worthy sex scenes that seemed closer to bad porn (is there such a thing as good porn? I doubt that) that a romance novel.

The Not Good At All Stuff (heads up: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE BELOW)
The scenes leading to their sexual encounters try to come across as hard-core, filled with dirty, and frankly crude, talk: the actual sex scenes however are anything but sexy or ‘steamy’ and I had a hard time keeping a straight face as they made me laugh my head off. They manage to be a weird combination of tawdry and hilarious.
These are some of unintentionally funny descriptions of Chloe and Red’s sex scenes:
➜ “her hot pussy fluttering around him” (fluttering?)
➜ “He gritted his teeth as his orgasm came barreling at him like a freight train” (I am dying with laughter. Like a freight train? Chloe better watch out!)
➜ “She melted, and he licked up her wetness like nectar.” (Chloe sure does melt a lot)
➜ “Her orgasm was so powerful she thought she might black out.” (their orgasms sure are powerful, better watch out for a concussion)

There were however also a lot of antiquated, and out of character, moments in which Red orders around Chloe (up to that point Red has been depicted as the embodiment of kindness, and whose inherently serene disposition make everyone around him, himself included, refer to him as a ‘nice guy’; whereas Chloe strives for independence and has a strong sense of integrity and justice).
Maybe if their ‘dirty talks’ had been more in line with their established personalities and dynamic (with Red reffering to Chloe as Button and Chloe calling Red Mr.Morgan ) I wouldn’t have found it so trashy. But here we have two supposedly ‘modern/different’ individuals who during their sexual encounters take up antiquated, outdated, and inherently misogynistic roles in which the man commands the woman:
➜“Who was she? Apparently, the kind of woman who thrilled at coarse orders like that, and broke a little bit when they were followed with hoarse manners.”
➜“I want to hold you open like this when you take my cock.”

And the worst thing is that this kind of talk starts when their friendship is still uncertain. Red, our supposedly tranquil and empathic guy, tells Chloe that “I want to put my hand under your skirt and feel how hot your pretty cunt is. But I bet you wouldn’t let me do that in public” when they still don’t know each other very well when they are out on a Chloe’s first night out.
There is also a scene following their first amicable encounter where we get a fully detailed depiction of Red masturbating while he fantasises about Chloe, a woman who until the previous morning he had disliked and whom he barely knows.

As much as I wanted to love this novel, I found the characters’ sex scenes to be vulgar and obsolete. One may have certain fetishes, whatever floats your boat, but why do so many ‘romance novels’s feature a woman who is happy to be spoken about in such a way? ‘Thrilled’ to be ordered and commanded, made to ‘beg’ until her manly man finally grants her the gift of his almighty ‘penis’. Also, how many women who come from a background similar to Chloe’s would refer to their vagina as their pussy? There is nothing wrong with the word VAGINA. It exists, use it.

I just wasn’t a fan of the way in which Hibbert would describe her characters’ desire. Most of the time her expressions and metaphors are either questionable or unfunny:
➜“She was dissolving like sugar in hot tea.”
➜“Her middle melted like chocolate fudge cake.”

Final verdict
What started out as a witty romcom ended up being closer to erotica with sex scenes which are both disempowering and unintentionally hilarious.
I have learnt my lesson: never trust a book cover.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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