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 As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn.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: ★★★☆☆

Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

heads up: in this review i will be discussing self-harm

Described as being a ‘sharp’ and ‘witty’ debut Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s Mona At Sea is neither of those things. The novel tells yet another tale about an alienated millennial woman having a quarter midlife crisis. While Mona At Sea is far from terrible it is a novel that is clearly riding the coattails of its betters (to name a few that i liked: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, Pizza Girl, Severance, You Exist Too Much, Pretend I’m Dead, books by Caroline O’Donoghue; to name a few i did not like all that much: Milk Fed, Exciting Times, Hysteria, The New Me, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, Three Rooms, and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody). Not only does almost everything about Mona At Sea read like a poor imitation of these novels—from its trying but failing to be sardonic tone to its ironic characterisation (we have the ‘dudebro’, the rich friend with body image problems, the leery ‘this is a boys’ club’ businessmen) and, the pièce de résistance, its self-sabotaging main character—and doesn’t bring anything new to this ‘alienated women’ subgenre.

Set in 2008 the story is narrated by Mona Mireles, a twenty-three-year-old who majored in finance at the University of Arizona. After the job she was promised at an investment bank in New York falls through due to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Mona, a high-achiever who has dedicated herself to her studies and future career, is unemployed and struggling to keep afloat. She sends hundreds of applications but is unwilling to look for jobs outside the finance sector as she is unwilling to compromise.
What follows is a rather typical narrative in which Mona engages in self-destructive and antisocial behaviour, pushing those close to her away, until she eventually finds herself lowering her ‘expectations’ and getting a job at a telemarketing business and re-assessing why she’s so set on getting into finance.
We don’t learn much about her relationship with her parents, other than her mother seems to have always pressured her into aiming high while her father has encouraged her to take time to ‘find herself’ and pursue something that she actually likes. The two are having marriage problems but these are broached superficially, partly due to Mona’s solipsism, which leads her to ignore those around her, and partly because the narrative just doesn’t seem all that intent on giving depth to those two characters, let alone their marriage.
Her younger brother is a typical dudebro who is far more likeable than Mona herself. The men Mona begins frequenting are similar shades of dickish. Mona’s relationship with her best friend seemed a poor imitation of the toxic one from My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
A clip starring Mona goes viral and she’s occasionally approached because of it (she’s nicknamed ‘Sad Millennial’ as she was crying during this interview which occurred after she discovered that she would not be getting her ‘dream’ job after all).

As Mona struggles to make it through each day, she engages in self-harm. Here the novel became off-putting, especially in its sensationalist approach to this subject matter. Fyi, not that it should bear any weight on the ‘validity’ of my opinion on this (after all, this is my own personal opinion, others readers will undoubtedly feel differently and all that jazz), I used to self-harm throughout most of my teens. Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, ‘artistic’ even as the scars she’s inflicting on her thigh depict Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (and yes, her second name happens to be lisa). Now, I know that there are those who carve words & probably images on themselves however here Mona’s self-harming is elevated into being an artistic expression, she who for so long had focused on engaging and pursuing those kinds of activities that will enhance her career prospects, is creative after all! Wow! Amazing. And (minor spoilers i guess), the guy she dates later in the novel (a douchebag to be honest) takes photos of her ‘Mona Lisa’, telling her the usual patronising bullshit on the lines of ‘your scars are beautiful’ and ‘they show you are survivor’ and pressures her into accepting his request to showcase these photos. When she refuses she also snaps at him for other reasons and is shown to be the unreasonable one (there she is blaming him for her parents’ troubles or her own insecurity or her not so great career prospects). In the end, guess what? She gives in! And it all works in her favor! The guy was right after all. Puah-lease. And I hated that Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, Not Like Other Self-Harmers. I came across an interview with the author where she said that she had no sensitivity readers (quelle surprise) but she did a lot of research on the topic of self-harming and that anyway Mona’s self-harming is atypical. First, I’m afraid I will dislike anyone who shows too much fascination with something like self-harming. It makes me feel like a subject, a rat lab. Second, why, why, why does her self-harming need to be so on the nose? She’s called Mona Lisa and here she is carving Mona Lisa into her thigh. Like, wtf?
The narrative tries to go for this caustic tone, but I found it painfully unfunny and not particularly amusing. Its satire has no bite, its social commentary was not particularly insightful, and its depiction of unemployment, depression, self-harm were shallow indeed.
But the worst offender in this novel is Mona herself. I usually end up loving or rooting for supposedly unlikable characters (they can be vain & cruel like Emma Bovary, or assholes like Ronan Lynch, or fucked up like Moshfegh’s narrator) but Mona was just so annoying. She’s a perfectionist, we get it. She’s been ‘made’ that way, it isn’t entirely her fault. Her mother and her teachers and professors have had a hand in making her so career and goal obsessed. To have a successful and prestigious career is to be happy…right? Except that things don’t go as per plan for Mona and she feels understandably lost…and yet, even bearing this in mind, I still found her insufferable. She wasn’t funny, or clever, or sympathetic. For most of the narrative she’s self-centred, ungrateful, and just painfully annoying. And yes, she does ‘grow’ (supposedly) but even so I did not feel invested in her arc. People call her out on her shit and she learns to be a better person. And could I bring myself to care? No. I did not. Part of me thinks that she had it easy all things considered (especially if we consider that she got to age 22/23 without having to work so that she could fully dedicate herself to her studies…).
Maybe if you haven’t read any of the novels I mentioned above and you are not particularly bothered by how a story handles self-harming you might find this a more rewarding read than I did.

my rating: ★★½

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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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The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade

“Is this what motherhood means? Being suddenly able to pity the adults in your life?”

Set over the course of a year in Las Penas, New Mexico, The Five Wounds is a novel about failure and progress. Unsentimental yet moving The Five Wounds details the everyday lives of three members of the Padilla family. There is Angel who is sixteen and pregnant. After her mother (who was also a teen mom) fails her in the worst way imaginable Angel moves in with her deadbeat father (who still lives with his mother). Amadeo is thirty-three, self-involved, jobless, and expects his mother to look after him. Yolanda, in her fifties, who has always been the family’s ‘rock’ has little time for either of them after receiving an end-of-life diagnosis.
The narrative focuses in particular on Angel and Amadeo. Angel is attending a special program for teen moms and hopes that she will be able to carry on her studies while also looking after her son. Yet, the adults around, even her loving grandmother, seems to be too occupied to offer her any real support. Her mother tries to make amends but Angel is unable to forgive her. She becomes close with Lizette, another girl from the group, who is in an even more disadvantageous position than Angel herself.
Amadeo spends most of his days blaming others for his less than stellar life. He drinks too much, does very little for other people, and acts like a child around his sister who is one of the few people who calls him out on his shitty behaviour. Amadeo is indeed proves himself time and again to be a bit of shit. He often calls women bitches, he’s blind to his mother’s failing health, and takes pleasure in knowing that if he wants he could get his sister off his back by appearing intimidating (and he knows that she was in an abusive relationship). In many ways, he was a Frank Gallagher sort of figure. We do see that he does try now and again to be there for his daughter, but as soon as things don’t go his ways he defaults to blaming others for his own failures and shortcomings. He feels some sense of purpose when he plays Jesus in the Good Friday procession but it does not last as it seems to briefly give him a conflated sense of himself (he habitually compares himself to Jesus, sometimes hilariously so: “Amadeo imagines windshield repair is a trade Jesus might get behind. It is, essentially, carpentry for the twenty-first century).

I appreciated that Angel is not made into a caricature of a teenager (even if the author makes the point of making all teen girls in this novel unable of applying makeup: their faces are caked with foundation, their lashes clumpy with mascara…). She clearly wants someone she can look up to, and she briefly thinks that Brianna, who is in charge at that teenage mother’s group, but more often than not she’s left disappointed. Even Lizette proves to be less than dependable and it was saddening to see how few people are there for Angel.

The author’s style is very matter-of-fact but also capable of piercing observations or touching exchanges. The tragicomic tone succeeds in making occasional fun of the characters, Amadeo in particular, without belittling them and allowing us to sympathise with them and their efforts to be better or improve their circumstances. Some may not like that the story leaves quite a few storylines unresolved but I thought that it fitted with the novel’s realistic and dry storytelling. What lessened my reading experience was the way Yolanda was pushed on the outskirts of the narrative so that her presence in the story seems minimal. While I understand that the story was making a point, showing us how self-involved Amadeo and Angel are not to notice that Yolanda is also going through a difficult time, we could have had more chapters following Yolanda perspective. Instead, we get unnecessary passages centric on Brianna, one of the novel’s least believable and interesting character. Lizette’s portrayal too was a bit wanting (in particularly her self-harming) and I could have done without the adults drinking breastmilk scene (if I had a nickel for every time I came across this sort of scene in a book, I’d have two nickels, which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice).
Part of me also wishes that we could have had less homophobia (“He’s not gay. That’s gross”) or that at least the narrative could have challenged some of those comments. I get that it was ‘realistic’ but the story just seems to confirm that there can be no happy (or at least functional) queer couple.

Overall this was a realistic portrayal of a less-than-perfect family. The characters are flawed, they say and or do offensive/unlikable things, their circumstances are less-than-ideal, their relationships with each other can be frustrating and messy. The author succeeds in not only depicting the day-to-day lives of the Padillas but she also captures, for better or worse, their community in Las Penas. The novel’s religious undertones did not feel distracting nor did they take away from the narrative’s factual style. There was something about this novel that really brought to mind Showtime’s Shameless so if you a fan of that show you might want to give The Five Wounds a try.

my rating: ★★★½

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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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After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan — book review

49218727.jpgFrom its heartbreaking first pages, to its lump-in-your-throat epilogue, After Elias is an emotionally charged novel.

“People can bring you pain, but nothing will hurt more than the pain you inflict on yourself.”

Grief, guilt, regret, and fear dominate Tan’s narrative. Coen Caraway and Elias Santos are meant to have a fairy-tale wedding and live happily ever after. One week before their big day, the airplane piloted by Elias crashes into the Arctic Ocean, leaving Coen, who had just arrived on the idyllic Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding, bereft.
When the authorities begin speculating whether the crash wasn’t accidental, Elias becomes a prime suspect. His cryptic final words, “Pronto dios” (“soon god”) disconcert an already grieving Coen.
While his family and friends plead for him to return home, to Vancouver, Coen refuses. His stay on the island however does not keep his doubts at bay. In spite of his insisting that “he is fine”, Coen finds himself spiralling. In the passing days he tries to make sense of this unimaginable tragedy and of his own relationship with Elias.
As the narrative moves from past to present, readers begin to gain a picture of both Coen and Elias.

“Life is nothing more than an elaborate house. It starts out small, a simple shelter. Then we build upon it, room by room, believing in the necessity of every expansion, every renovation. By the time we realize it is no longer a shelter but a tomb, it’s too late.”

Coen’s grief, confusion, and uncertainties feel strikingly authentic.Tan allows his readers to witness and understand the depth and magnitude of Coen’s discordant feelings. Coen’s thoughts, emotions, and impressions are articulated in a subtle yet lyrical language.
I was often surprised, and spellbound, by Tan’s arresting imagery.

“The only sounds in the room are my pounding heart and fitful breathing. I am Lazarus returning from the land of the dead, a corpse trapped by life.”

Tan renders Coen’s pain with exceptional compassion, without sensationalising Coen’s—and other characters’—grief and desperation. What particularly struck me was how ‘real’ Coen felt. His fears and anxieties are depicted with incredible authenticity. The way he simultaneously wants and doesn’t want to confront the darkest aspects of his relationship with Elias, his dormant yet inherent conviction that he will never be happy, his inability to express how he feels…everything about him felt real.
Other characters, such as his two best friends, Vivi and Decker, his brother, Clark, the hotel’s bartender, Gabriel, are just as believable. Decker in particular has a complex relationship with Coen, one that will undoubtedly make some readers tear up (I certainly did). These characters are flawed yet capable of change. While readers may not come to know them as well as they do Coen, they will get an impression of what kind of person they are (or want to be).

Although Tan doesn’t provide lots of descriptions when it comes to the appearance of his characters or the island itself, his narrative is remarkably atmospheric. Tan’s discerning prose relays the mood or quality of a certain conversation or moment.
The distinctive and deceptively dream-like setting of the island, as well as Coen’s own dreams, reminded me of certain novels by Ann Patchett, in particular State of Wonder and The Magician’s Assistant. The way in which Tan approaches painful themes bear resemblance to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s own approach in his more adult novels, such Last Night I Sang to the Monster and In Perfect Light.

Through his prose, which is in turns lucid and opaque, Tan showcases his capacity for empathy and compassion. He offers insights into grief, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, and trauma.
After Elias is an artful and heart-wrenching novel. Although it doesn’t make for ‘easy’ reading material, its cathartic narrative and underlying message of hope are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

PS: I’m so grateful to NetGalley for having accepted my request to read After Elias. I’m not sure I would have ever read this novel if I hadn’t spotted on NetGalley’s ‘recently added’ page.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote

46142949._SY475_.jpgTW: mentions of self-harm

Not only was Too Much not enough but what little it offers is wholly problematic.
This book would have made slightly more sense if it had been published in 2010 instead of 2020. Its analysis of the social norms and literature emerging from the Victorian era are far from insightful or innovative. There are so many referencers to films that are now considered outdated and of little cultural relevance. Cote’s theory of too muchness is unclear and indecisive, and her chapters do not have clear topics.
Also, rather than normalising women who are viewed or have been viewed as ‘too much’ Cote glorifies them while tearing down women who do not fall under this category. What about female solidarity?
But I could have looked past all of this. After all, feminism is ‘in’, and there is nothing wrong with jumping on the feminist bandwagonexcept that I soon picked up on something rather disconcerting: Cote romanticises and idealises mental illness and self-harming.

From my rating, and my ranty review below, you can probably guess that I disliked this book, a lot.
For those readers who want to read some interesting, and feminist, analysis of Victorian literature I thoroughly recommend you check out Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
If you have the time I also recommend Cynthia Nixon’s Be a Lady They Said in which she reads a poem about the impossible and contradictory standards society imposes on women.

My Review

In Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today Rachel Vorona Cote’s sets out to address the way in which mores and literature emerging from the Victorian era still bind women today. Combining cultural criticism with personal experiences Cote examines Victorian classics as well as fiction, films, and songs from the last and the current century. Throughout the course of Too Much Cote turns to her theory of ‘too muchness’. These perceived excesses—which range from emotional (such as crying) to the physical (from one’s physique to one’s hair)—make women undesirable within their society. Cote doesn’t clearly specify whether these excesses are seen as excess because they belong to or are originating from a woman, and would not therefore be seen as excessive in a man, or whether these excesses are a perfect response to existence in a patriarchal world.

In her introduction Cote writes that Too Much “draws significantly from nineteenth-century literature and culture, grounding its discussion in a historical period when women’s too muchness underwent vigorous medical scrutiny, routinely receiving a specific, vexed verdict” and that she will turn to Victorian works in order to gain accesses to female perspectives (Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) as these works convey the Victorian period’s anxiety regarding ‘the woman question’ (from their bodily autonomy to their legal rights and their role in a marriage dominated culture).
What I don’t understand is why Cote stresses this Victorian connection when in actuality she includes works by Jane Austen and dedicates almost an entire chapter to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels. Her introduction and the title of her book suggest that Cote will specifically compare Victorian literature and culture to ‘today’s’…why then dedicate entire chapters to Montgomery, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), or Britney Spears?

Cote’s analysis of these Victorian classics offer no new insights into these works or their authors.
After the introduction there are two chapters, ‘Chatterbox’ and ‘Nerve’, which seem to focus on the same subject: girls who are seen as ‘passionate’ in literature (Jane Eyre and Anne Shirley). The next chapter focuses on female friendships in a rather inconclusive manner. Is Cote telling us that female friendships are bound to have an obsessive if not toxic nature? Is she criticising Noah Baumbach’s Francesca Ha? Why then add her own personal experience with a friendship with another woman which was ‘too much’? Especially since in her case she suggests that one of the reasons why this friendship ended was because of her more-than-friendly-feelings towards her friend?
Cote writes of the sisterly bonds in Goblin Market and The Woman in White, suggesting that both of them have sapphic undercurrents (while I can see why the sisters in Rossetti’s poem can be seen as being lovers, Wilkie Collin’s sisters are merely affectionate with one another). Then she seems to complain about the way in which Anglo-American society would view a close bond between two women or sisters as sexual…and yet she is doing exactly the same thing. More importantly, this chapter also includes a long winded and unnecessary analysis of Heavenly Creatures a film that is rather dated, does not portray a typical female friendship, and most importantly, was based on the 1954 Parker–Hulme murder case. Why focus on this long-forgotten film instead of more recent releases which focus on female friendships? She mentions Elena Ferrante…so why not write more about her series? Or question the trend of female doubles in domestic thrillers?
We then have a chapter on the ‘Body’, and Cote once more writes her own personal experiences, this time with the notion of being ‘too fat’. Here she examines Victorian’s romanticisation of thin female bodies and the way in which a small physique and lack of appetite often denoted one’s altruistic and morally upright nature (such as Charles Dicken’s Dorrit). Once again Cote seems to criticise Victorian’s ideal of femininity and beauty, implying that one’s physical appearance (such as one’s natural hair) should not be regarded as reflecting one’s personality…and then she goes on to praise Lena Dunham from Girls for a nude scene in an “aesthetic defiance”: Lena “someone larger than a size two” possesses a body that “is not tame” but is “thick, firm, implacable” and “try as you might to sidle next to her in a murky bar or tug her arm on a dance floor or nudge her to the side on the subway, she will not budge”.
She finishes the chapter with the following:
“But when we are fat, when our hair defies gravity, when our noses are not perfectly pinchable, we’re interpreted as wild and unruly, and often foreign. This—I know, I feel—is good. We remind all those buttressed and soothed by patriarchy that we cannot always be trusted to comply and, thus, we become threats, fuses primed to be lit.”
Throughout this chapter Cote criticises the way in which previous centuries have dictated the way in which a female body should be like maintaining the argument that women should not be judged on the basis of their appearance…and then she goes on to do exactly the same, merely flipping this idea over so that women who are not skinny, do not have perfectly symmetrical faces or bodies, or have gravity defying hair cannot be tamed: they are ‘stronger’, more unruly, more confident…women who straighten their hair, go to the gym, get plastic surgery are ‘less’, they are tame, happy to let a patriarchal society dictate the way in which they should look. It appears that Cote is judging women on the basis of their appearance. Mmh…there is something vaguely phrenological about this way of thinking.
Also, Cote seems to gloss over the fact that it is often women who police other women’s bodies+appearance…then again, she is doing exactly the same thing.
I have ‘wild’ curly hair, and I always dislike when strangers or friends assume that it is indicative of my personality. It isn’t…tis’ my hair, nothing more, nothing less.
Cote also misses out on discussing why women are made to feel so aware of their appearance and why ideals of beauty are constantly changing (apropos the Victorians she could have pointed out that small waists are back in fashion).

In the following chapter ‘Crazy’ she discusses mental health. Here she starts with an over-analysis of lyrics from Lana Del Rey’s songs, and seems to view Lana’s songs as autobiographical (why are female musicians/singers always questioned about their lyrics in a way that their male counterparts are not? Can’t women write a song that is unrelated to their own life experiences?).
You would think that Cote would mention ‘the Woman in the Attic’ trope—popularised in Victorian literature—but before writing of Jane Eyre she discusses Pride and Prejudice…which is confusing given that 1) it is not from the Victorian era, 2) does not have a ‘crazy’ female character. According to Cote however it is Mrs. Bennet who is seen as ‘crazy’….wait, what? I don’t think many readers have ever regarded Mrs. Bennet as an example of the ‘crazed’ female. Mrs. Bennet says that her ‘nerves’ are delicate but to me it seems quite clearly an excuse to get other people to do what she wanted them to (in fact she reminds of Frederick Fairlie from The Woman in White). Also, Cote seems to have forgotten that P&P is a work of satire…
When Cote finally addresses the most ‘famous’, or infamous, ‘mad’ female character from Victorian lit. her reading adds nothing new, she unearths no new depths in the implications of her portrayal. She then discusses Britney Spears…at length. She seems aware that celebrities do not reflect the experiences of a ‘normal’ person…so why spend so many pages on the “plight of Britney Spears”? Wouldn’t it have been more relevant to examine why so many women are mis-diagnosed? Or why female neurodiversity is only now being openly talked about? Why bother criticising Silver Linings Playbook because it pays more attention to its male protagonist than Jennifer Lawrence’s character? And once again discussing celebrities such as Demi Lovato? Anything and everything that a celebrity does is magnified, so surely we shouldn’t compare their experiences to the rest of the female population?
Only in the last page does Cote mention ‘positive’ portrayals of female mental illness: Crazy Ex-girlfriend, Tuca and Bertie, and Jessica Jones. What about the thousands of YA books that openly discuss mental illness and addiction? Or the rise in novels that focus on female characters who are on the autistic spectrum?
As pointed out by
Emma Sarappo in her review of Too Much, Cote seems devoted to “the cult of the difficult woman”. In this chapter Cote hints that women who are labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ experience the world more keenly than those who aren’t. Depression shouldn’t be regarded as a medal of valour or some such nonsense. Those who struggle with their mental health or substance abuse should not be shamed nor should we romanticise or fetishise their struggle. Yet Cote seems to equated ‘troubled’ with ‘special’.
Also, in this chapter Cote suggests that alcoholism is condoned in men…which…really?!

The last few chapters talk about female sexuality, cheating, ageism…and cutting. The chapter on cutting is the most problematic chapter in this book. Here once again Cote mixes her personal experiences with her analysis of Victorian classics and contemporary culture. She writes of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and finishes off by discussing Prozac Nation, Sharp Objects, and Girl, Interrupted. Here, I was momentarily fooled because finally, Cote seemed to be praising shows that do not romanticise mental illness or self-harming. Sharp Objects and Girl, Interrupted are personal favourites of mine so I was glad to see that their portrayal of self-harming resonated with Cote. Sadly, Cote completely destroys her previous arguments—in which she stresses that self-harming should not be used as a gimmick or idealised—by writing the following:
“A confession: I cut myself in the midst of writing this chapter, old habits quickened, I suppose, by the barb of memory. I am still learning that self-harm is not narcissism. A woman who is cutting is not indulging; she is carving out a route to survival, the only one that’s perceptible to her. And although she is no culprit, although she owes neither defense nor apology, she is already ashamed.”

Let’s remember that this is not a memoir about self-harming. This book focuses on cultural criticism and Victorian literature. Cote’s personal experiences can be somewhat relevant but they should not dominate the narrative of Too Much especially if she uses them romanticise mental illness and self-harming. Surely she is aware that her audience will be mostly composed by impressionable undergraduates? Surely she knows that this last ‘wink wink, old habits die hard’ comment is wholly inappropriate? Is she suggesting that the only way to write and understand self-harming is by doing the same thing? Or that once a self-harmer, always a self-harmer? That self-harming is an understandable response to existing in a patriarchal world or being labelled ‘too much’?
After reading those lines I felt nauseated. Her words were incredibly triggering and I had to take some time off reading. When I once again picked up Too Much I merely skimmed through the last chapters.

Cote’s popcorn feminism is simplistic and superficial. She tries to keep up with today’s woke language but ends up expressing antiquated ideas: that women should be judged on the basis of their appearance, that we should idealise mental illnesses, addiction, and self-harming, that being sexually active is more empowering than being inactive….generalisation after generalisation, Cote’s theory of ‘too muchness’ does not expand on why there are so many words, in the English language, with bad connotations, which are used almost exclusively to describe women’s behaviour/attributes/traits. Not all of these words point to ‘excess’: take prudish for example. Surely, women today are not only constrained by notions of too muchness but by the possibility of not being enough. Victorian’s ideal of a woman is no longer popular. While Victorian reviewers criticised Jane Eyre for being a bad heroine, modern readers adore Jane. If anything we criticise heroines who strike us as passive, as not being enough. Yet, Cote seems stuck in the early 2000s.
There are so many shows and books shows that depict in a non-judgemental way female desire, addiction, mental illness, friendships, and even masturbation.

I’m not sure what else to add…and I have nearly run out of characters…Too Much was problematic, inconclusive, and perpetuates outdated ideas.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson — review

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Brave Face was not an easy read given that it delves into some of the darkest moments of Shaun David Hutchinson’s life. The memoir focuses in particular over his teenage years where he struggled with reconciling himself with sexuality and with his own personality (who he is, how others perceive him, what others expect him to be…). We see how a lot of the popular culture of his time presented him with demeaning portrayals of his sexuality (which saw gay men as little more than jokes or as sick figures to be pitied). Hutchinson evokes with clarity the way these misconceptions influenced the way he felt about his sexuality, fuelling much of his self-hatred. It was painful to read of the way in which he closed himself from the world, and the way in which his bitterness, hatred, and loneliness seemed to spiral out of control dominating this period of his life.
Hutchinson also captures the awkwardness of being a teenager. The pressures of ‘fitting in’, or belonging, of finding the ‘right path’…he does so in a frank manner, and there were many instances where I felt embarrassed, sad, or frustrated on his behalf. His depression, self-harm, and anxiety are not easy to read of. Perhaps because I share some similar experiences with him, I felt particularly affected by his story.
Another thing that made this a powerful read is that it was realistic. There is no magical cure for depression, and sometimes we grow apart from the people we cared for. Or at times, we care for people who are rather horrible.
My only quibble is that the final chapter rams in too much of Hutchinson’s life. Compared with the slow progress of the rest of his memoir, the last chapter seemed to be trying to narrate the rest of his life, which was a tad overwhelming and definitely all-too rushed.
Still, this is a memoir that will definitely resonate with a lot readers and I fully recommend it.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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