Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Lacklustre and monotonous, not only did How High We Go in the Dark fail to grip my attention but it also failed to elicit an emotional response on my part. It was a bland and repetitive affair, which is a pity given the hype around it. It didn’t help that a few weeks ago I read another ‘Cloud Atlas-esque’ novel. And while I didn’t fall head over heels in love with To Paradise, I cannot deny that Yanagihara’s prose is superb. Here instead…Sequoia Nagamatsu’s prose brings to mind the word turgid (examples: “Moles and freckles dance around your belly button like a Jackson Pollock painting, and I fight the urge to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what, if anything, I really meant to you.” and “your ass the shade of a stray plum spoiling behind a produce stand”).
Additionally, to compare this to the work of Emily St. John Mandel seems misleading, as How High We Go in the Dark lacks the atmosphere and subtlety that characterizes her books (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a devoted fan of hers). Anyway, even if I were to consider How High We Go in the Dark on its own merits, well, the verdict isn’t good. While this is by no means the worst novel I’ve read, it has been a while since I’ve been confronted with a novel that is so consistently and thoroughly mediocre. I will likely forget about ever having read this in a few days. Already I struggle to remember most of its stories (let alone its characters).
Even if I was tempted early on to DNF this, I kept on reading hoping that the next story/chapter would deliver something more substantial than its predecessor but no such thing happened. I guess I could say that it was ambitious? I mean, it doesn’t pull off what it’d set out to do but at least it had aimed high? Of course, as we know, if you aim too high you end up crashing down (a la Icarus).
Ugh, I’m really trying to think of some positives to say about How High We Go in the Dark but it seems that I have nothing good to say about it other than it has an ambitious premise (whether it actually delivers on its premise is up to debate…). I guess, I like the book cover…not sure if that counts as a ‘positive’…

So, to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect: How High We Go in the Dark takes place during and after 2030. A lot of the population is decimated by the Arctic plague which is unleashed onto the world after some scientists ‘stumble’ upon the thirty-thousand-year-old remains of a girl. Additionally to the plague climate/environmental disasters are causing further chaos. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story. While some characters, we learn, are connected, or even related, to each other, these stories ultimately fail to come truly together. By the end, what we have isn’t a tapestry but a series of samey fragments that don’t really succeed in bringing to life the characters or relationships they are supposedly focused on. Out of 14 stories only 4 are centred on female characters. If the characters we are reading of are shown to be in romantic and or sexual relationships, these will be painfully heteronormative ones. It seems that Nagamatsu’s vision of the future has no place for the gays, let alone for those who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth. That we get so few female voices also pissed me off. Like, come on, 4 out of 14?

Anyhow, the first two stories actually held some promise. In the first one, we follow a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, died while ‘unearthing’ of the thirty-thousand-year-old human remains. This father goes to Siberia to resume his daughter’s work. Here we hear the first echoes of the plague: after these remains are found the facility goes under quarantine. Like the majority of the stories in this novel, this first one is all about parents & their children. There is the dynamic between the narrator and his now-dead daughter as well as reflections on his daughter’s (non)parenting of his granddaughter.
The following one, ‘City of Laughter’, almost succeeds in being memorable but ends up falling similarly short. The central character is once again a bland and inoffensive man, just an average Joe who is only slightly interesting because of his job. This guy works at a euthanasia park. The plague initially affects children and those with vulnerable immune systems (i think? we never gain an entire picture of this plague so what do i know) so some governor proposes the construction of “an amusement park that could gently end children’s pain—roller coasters capable of lulling their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts”. The main guy falls in love with a woman who is there with her son. The juxtaposition between the amusement park setting and the true purpose of this ‘park’ does give this story an air of tragicomedy (at one point a distraught and grief-stricken parent hugs our protagonist who is wearing a furry animal costume).
The following stories are harder to set apart from each other. There is one with a scientist/lab-person who has lost his son to the plague. He ends up forming a father-son bond with a talking pig whose organs will be used to save/help those with the plague (once again, i don’t entirely remember because it wasn’t made very clear). You would think that the talking pig storyline would be far from boring but you’d be wrong. That this ‘son-figure’ is a pig is a mere gimmick. The pig could have been a monkey or a doll or a robot. I would have preferred for the pig to be more of a pig. This story has even the gall THE Pig movie (with the scientist telling the pig: ‘that’ll do’). Anyway, once again the author explores this, by now, rather tired parent-child dynamic: what does it mean to be a good parent? Do you protect your child from the harsh realities of their world? Maybe if he would have allowed for more subtlety in his storytelling and character interactions, maybe then I could have felt more connected to the parents and their children. But that wasn’t the case. The conflict is made so obvious, that there is little room for interpretation or even nuance.

We have a couple of stories where boring men fall for boring women and vice-versa (here the writing veers into the overwrought). Some do so online, but the author doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the VR experience. I mean, if anything, these VR-focused ones read like subpar Black Mirror episodes. Social media goes largely unmentioned…
We then have quite a few that go on about new funerary traditions because apparently so many people have died of the plague and cemeteries cannot contain so many bodies. Here Nagamatsu tries to be inventive but I found the idea of funeral hotels and funerary towers rather, eeh, underwhelming? Even that one chapter that follows a spaceship on its way to make a new Earth failed to be interesting. There are two chapters that try to subvert things: one is intentionally disorientating in that the narrator and some other people are someplace else, another one tries to tie things back to the 1st chapter, to give this novel an overarching story, but t it just came across as jarring.

I don’t understand why the author chose 2030 as his starting point. The future he envisions feels generic and wishy-washy. There are self-driving vehicles (i think?) planet earth is dying, and this plague is decimating the human race. How refreshing. Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction but the sci-fi & dystopian elements of How High We Go in the Dark felt tame, vanilla even. Been there, done that kind of thing. While Nagamatsu strives to achieve that quiet realism that characterizes the dystopian novels of authors such as Mandel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ling Ma, he misses the mark. Tone-wise too these stories seem lacking, especially if I were to compare them with the unsettling work of John Wyndham. In addition, the future he envisions pales in comparison to the ones you can find in the stories penned by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout my reading experience of How High We Go in the Dark I just kept being reminded of better speculative books & films.

Almost all of the narrators sounded exactly like the same dude. Which was odd given that these characters are meant to be at different stages of their lives. Additionally, it seemed sus that all of the characters used the same vocabulary, articulated themselves in identical ways, and they all shared a love for ‘vintage’ music (we have the Beatles, Patti Smith, The Strokes, Smashing Pumpkin, Siouxsie and the Banshees). The story is set in 2030. The characters are in their 20s, 30s, possibly early 40s. Yet, they all came across as belonging to the same generation. While I know that the whole idea of there being different generations is somewhat reductive, you can admit that people who are born in the same time ‘periods’ and in the same countries (the majority of the characters are Japanese American and live in America) share certain experiences/similarities. Here, none of the characters came across as believable older millennials or gen-zers. The popular media that is mentioned too was ‘old’. Why not then set your Artic Plague during the 90s or early 2000s something? It would have been made for a far more convincing setting. At least then the characters (from their worldview to their vernacular) would have not felt so out-of-place (come on, these guys do not sound like they are born in the 2000s).

The parent-child conflict that was at the heart of so many of these stories was cheesy af. We have a parent trying to connect to their child. The child is like, NERD. Okay, I’m joking but still, you get the gist. The children are grieving and confused, the parents are grieving and confused. Yet, what could have been a touching book about human connection reads like a parody, starring difficult children who wear headphones 24/7 and answer back because of teenage angst, and emotionally repressed parents who happen to be scientists and because of this, they are cold and clinical. On that note, there is one character who is not a scientist and is in fact ‘an artist’ and her art was beyond ridiculous (it gave me the impression that the person who had created said character had only a vague and clichéd idea of the kind of person that goes on to become a painter).
This book is full of grieving people, which should elicit some sort of reaction from me but nada. Nothing. My uncle and grandfather died respectively in November and December. I was unable to attend one of the funerals due to travel restrictions. The other died soon after testing positive for covid. Surely a book about losing your loved ones to a pandemic should hit close to home….except that it didn’t. I felt at a remove from the characters who were often defined by their job and or whether they had children.

The world-building, as mentioned above, was full of lacunae. Some of the gaps in the world-building seemed intentional as if to provide us with too much information on the plague and the state of the world during and after it would take away from the ‘human’ relationships and the existential quandaries experienced by the characters….but still, I could not envision this future nor could I bring myself to believe in it. One of the stories seems to suggest a lack of resources but later on, this doesn’t seem the case. I also found it hard to believe that the relatives of those who could easily be seen as culpable of this whole plague (the wife and granddaughter of that first scientist) would be allowed to go off to Earth 2.0 (as far as i can recall of course, maybe the narrative does address this…).

Choppy and repetitive, How High We Go in the Dark is a rather subpar novel. I would have almost preferred it if had just been your bog-standard speculative fiction book but no, this one aims higher and it shows (not in a good way). The dystopian elements are gimmicky and given our current pandemic…derivative (apparently the author wrote this before covid but i am reading it now so..).
The writing vacillated from decent to unintentionally hilarious to plain bad (“Aki still avoided speaking to me when he could avoid it.”…this book had an editor? really?!). We get a few clumsy attempts at the 2nd person which were…the less said about them the better actually. Nagamatsu’s prose was not my cup of tea.

This was not the genre-bending novel I was hoping for. The supposedly interwoven storylines did not feel particularly ‘interwoven’. There are characters who are mentioned in more than one chapter, or we read of someone who is close to a character we previously encountered but that’s about it. These chapters and characters failed to come together in any meaningful way.

Anyway, just because I thought this was an exceedingly bland affair does not mean in any way that you will feel the same way. If you loved this, I am happy for you. At least one of us was able to enjoy this book.
If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.



View all my reviews

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

“There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was no getting used to.”

Boasting her signature writing style State of Wonder is a captivating and thought-provoking read. Ann Patchett’s quiet yet graceful prose drew me in from the very opening page and I found myself enthralled by the calm rhythm of her storytelling. As with many of her other novels, State of Wonder portrays the aftermath of the death one, capturing the shock, grief, and sorrow of those affected by loss.
Patchett’s restrained style belies the complexity of her narrative—from the characters to the story. In spite of the unassuming quality of her prose, there are many moving passages to be found in State of Wonder, nuanced characters (who cannot be easily labelled as being either good or bad), realistic dynamics, and thought-provoking reflections (on death, life, love). The realism created by her unadorned prose is counterpoised by a dreamy ambience, one that gives the narrative an almost palpable sense of melancholy. There is also a sense of the fantastical, but, as with anything Patchett, it is not overt, and its subtlety …
The story follows Marina Singh, a 42-year-old scientific researcher. Other than an unremarkable affair with Mr. Fox, her company’s C.E.O, she leads a fairly uneventful and sedated life. However, when her colleague and friend Dr. Anders Eckman dies of a fever in a remote part of Brazil, she reluctantly embarks on a journey to the Amazonian jungle to complete his assignment; she has to find her elusive and former medical-school mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will allow women to bear children well past their seventies.
So we follow Marina deep into the Amazon, on a physical journey that also involves embarking on an emblematic quest: in fact, the repercussion of her friend’s death combined with her ‘task’ raise a series of questions and doubts in someone, who is—from the very start of the novel—in a perpetual state of uncertainty (over a past accident in her medical career, over her future with Dr. Fox).
On top of that, the psychological side effects of the antimalarial medicine Marina must take during her search give her vivid nightmares. While in her sleep Marina faces past fears, when awake she voyages into an unknown future. And it soon becomes apparent that to reach Dr. Annick Swenson, she can no longer rely on past resolutions. More than once she is forced to reassess herself, especially when faced with morally problematic scenarios.
Alongside Marina there are many vibrant and memorable characters, all of whom, regardless of their roles, are incredibly believable: Patchett captures their essence, giving us glimpses into their inner turmoils, their fears and desires, or simply conveying the kind of person they are through the way speak and/or comport themselves. The individuality of her characters is all the more genuine because of their inconsistencies. Each type of relationship that Marina experiences, wherever it is that of a brief exchange with the passenger next to her in her flight to Brazil or with the indigenous child, who is under the care of Dr. Swenson, leaves a mark on her story.

Marina herself is one of the biggest strengths of the novel. And it is precisely because Marina is far from perfect that she feels so genuine, so incredibly real. Her authenticity made it easy to relate and care for her. This just goes to show Pratchett’s brilliant characterization: despite her main character being rather introverted, it was impossible not to connect to her. Although Marina does change in the course of her ‘adventures’, she does so in a subtle, and most importantly, convincing way. Moreover, she is still herself at the end of her journey.

The story carries a sense of the outwordly, of the magical, which is emphasized by both the remote and ‘unfamiliar’ (to marina and me at least) setting and by the artful analogies Pratchett makes with mythological tales. This surrealism is carefully balanced out by the authenticity of her scenarios. Patchett deftly juxtaposes simple concerns against a unique backdrop. Once in the jungle, Marina is forced to confront in person the ethics of Dr. Swenson’s studies, showing that in spite of the woman’s claims, her presence is interfering with the Lakashi, or that under the flag of ‘for the greater good’ other doctors there will readily resort to unethical practices. Marina too sees the Lakashi as ‘other’, and struggles to reconcile herself with their customs and ways of living.
Patchett’s prose is exquisite, both for its clarity and for its ability to transport me alongside Marina on her journey. By honing in on those ordinary moments and interactions, not only did Marina’s story become all the more vivid but we also come to realise how often these ‘small’ everyday instances can and will affect us.
The slow but affecting story, the atmospheric and evocative writing, the author’s careful descriptions and observation make State of Wonder an enthralling tale in which I will gladly lose myself again into.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

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

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

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

 

 

“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. It still didn’t help him much, my love, she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That’s how I knew she was magic.”

 

I was hooked by Libertie’s opening paragraph. Set during and after the American Civil War Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel is narrated by Libertie the daughter of a Black female doctor. As the child of a free-woman Libertie is born free at a time when slavery was yet to be abolished. But whereas Libertie’s mother, who is a light-skinned woman and was able to study medicine by ‘passing’, Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and because of this experiences both racism and the prejudices of those who are ‘colorstruck’. Cathy, although not a demonstrative mother, clearly cares about Libertie and has trained her since a young age in the medical arts. But, as Libertie discovers, some conditions and or people cannot be cured. When one of her mother’s patients, a man Libertie had grown fond of, fails to recover, Libertie begins to question her mother’s abilities and grows increasingly disillusioned by her profession. Sensing her daughter’s detachment, Cathy enrolls Libertie at Cunningham College in Ohio where she will be the only female medical student. Libertie, who by this point had already begun to chafe against her mother’s expectations, is far more drawn by the music department, and in particular, by the voices of Louisa and Experience, also knows as the Graces.

“Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.”

Libertie longs to belong to them, but, in spite of her attempts to form a friendship with the Graces, the bond between the two women is impenetrable. Greenidge’s articulates Libertie’s loneliness and yearning with lyric precision. It was easy to understand and sympathize with Libertie, her wish to be free of other people’s visions of who she should be. We also understand how complex her relationship with her mother is: having grown without a father or other relatives Cathy is everything to Libertie.

I found this first half of the novel to be but poignant and engaging. Greenidge does not shy away from discussing the realities of slavery, racism, colorism, or sexism. Yet, her narrative does not dwell on pain and suffering. There are many moments of beauty and empathy, and I found Libertie’s voice to be utterly captivating.

The latter half of the novel is where things get a bit messy. Libertie becomes entangled with Emmanuel, a young man from Haiti. While their first interactions had both chemistry and potential, their romance happens way too fast. Libertie’s feelings toward Emmanuel aren’t clearly addressed, which was weird since up to that point readers were privy to her innermost feelings and or thoughts. And then, bam, all of a sudden Libertie is in Haiti with Emmanuel and things there take a vaguely Jane Eyresque turn.
While the descriptions of Haiti, from its history to its physical landscapes, were vivid, and there were many thought-provoking discussions on religion and culture, I remained unconvinced by Libertie’s motivations to move there. I wish the story had kept its focus on her and Cathy or her and the Graces, as I did not really feel the ‘love’ between her and Emmanuel. Their relationship was rushed and once in Haiti it never truly develops or progresses. His family drama steals the limelight, and although it did allow the narrative to touch upon some compelling issues, I just could not bring myself to believe in Libertie or Emmanuel’s motives. Cathy’s presence is relegated once more to letters that Libertie chooses not answer. The finale was both predictable and left a few too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed Greenidge’s writing. I found that the inclusion of poetry, music, and fragments from Libertie/Cathy’s letters added a layer of depth to the story.
While I wasn’t blown away by the latter half of the novel nor its conclusion I would still recommend this as it is written in lyrical prose and it presents readers with a nuanced mother-daughter relationship while also delving into America’s history, racism, colorism, sexism, grief, and, as the title and heroine’s name suggest, freedom.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”

First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy.
John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain.
John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern.
Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path.
The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her.
John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away.
If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

 

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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