Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mini-review: Lauren Kirshner's Where We Have to Go

After taking a few days off from novel reading upon finishing Anna Karenina - I'm usually anxious to pick up the next book in my reading queue after turning the last page on a book, but I wanted to digest AK, and not muddy my thinking with a new work - I took the library-loaned hardcover of T.C. Boyle's The Women from my bedside table, laid on my bed, and turned to the first page. I had read a review of it a few months back, and it sounded like an ideal read (largely because I'm fascinated about the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright). I'd also read a couple of Boyle's short stories in the New Yorker, and figured I should give one of his novels a shot. Unfortunately, I was barely able to get through the first few pages. I chalked this up to simply not being in the mood for it - it's nobody's fault, sometimes that happens with me with books. (Not to compare Boyle to a legend, but it's my usual routine with Hemingway. My readings of Hemingway are "do overs," after I've barely managed to make it through the first 20 or so pages on my first attempt.) So I'm not-yet giving up The Women; in fact, I may give it another shot this week.

I then tried Arthur Phillips' new novel, The Song is You. Again, this is another book I'd heard much about, and again the subject matter seemed to be in my wheelhouse: any book that relies so heavily on music, one of my great loves, to help propel the plot must be interest. Not to mention that Phillips is a much-lauded stylist. The opening of the novel, about the protagonist's father attending a Billie Holiday concert just before being shipped out to the Pacific theatre in the second world war, is a wonderful little introduction. Yet, it's been downhill from there. I've managed to make it to page 87, but I've since put it down. Not only is the story a disappointment - it reads too much like a middle-aged man's fantasy, of being a muse to a young, beautiful and up-and-coming Irish singer/songwriter - but Phillips' writing style does nothing for me. (I was warned early on when he twice refers to the arm of a turntable as a "tone arm." Ugh.)

Giving up on one book is acceptable; two in a row, and I'm ready to dial 911.

Mid-week, Toronto writer Lauren Kirshner's first novel Where We Have to Go was waiting for me at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the TPL. I didn't know much about Kirshner or the book, except that she was a graduate of the MA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, and I have a very minor association with the program (as well as Kirshner's mentor from the program, Margaret Atwood.) But I enjoy reading books set in my city, Toronto, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

It's been a joy to spend a few days with the narrator, Lucy Bloom, and a good way to cleanse my system after two disappointing efforts at reading a new novel. Kirshner's voice is wonderfully assured, and her Lucy leaps off the page from our first introduction to her at age 11. She goes through some typical (but not trite) growing pains, including an eating disorder, that revolve around acceptance and the eventual discovery of self (aided by her high school friend Erin). It brought me back to my own adolescence - while I didn't suffer from an eating disorder, I did struggle with issues dealing with popularity (or lack thereof) and finding my place and "voice." (It wasn't easy at a school that reeked of old money, that had fraternities and sororities, and where one's popularity was often defined by how well you played football.) The big difference in Lucy's life is, while she's having to cope with these adolescent issues, she's also dealing with a family that seems to be falling apart. I was especially captured by her father's story: a one-time photographer who was now working as a travel agent in a dreadful office in a nondescript strip plaza. It got me thinking of that thin wedge between success and failure, and how high aspirations can give way quickly to crushing disappointment. The theme that kept replaying in my head was hope and promise vs. defeat and dead-ends. Even though Lucy suffers through a tough adolescence, there's still so much hope and promise in her future. It's never stated in the novel, but I imagine her biggest fear is ending up like her parents. The novel's conclusion, however, doesn't suggest that: as a reader, I felt Lucy was going to make it.

The novel is not perfect. (What novel is?) There were some over-wrought metaphors and some details that left me wanting (how was it, for example, that Erin was living alone in the city when she was around 15?). But these are minor quibbles. One major quibble: McClelland & Stewart needs to employ some better proofreaders. I caught at least three glaring errors, including this groaner on page 318: "But Mom never sped. You know, she would press the break when she went through the intersection, even when the light was green." Also, what's with not having numbers on the verso pages?

Highly recommended.

So in case you're curious, I'm going to make book reviewing a regular feature of this blog. For the two or three of you that actually read it... Next in the queue: Saul Bellow's Herzog.

Something to add to the "what an idiot I am" scrapbook: I thought I was taking out a Sigur Ros CD from the TPL. (I thought to myself, "Hmm, I've never seen this CD of theirs.") But I misread the cover: instead, it was a recording from the band Sugar Ray! Whoops. I'll give it a listen though, out of sheer curiousity.


Anonymous said...

NOOOOOO!!!! Don't do it to yourself, just drop the sugar ray!

writer_guy said...

Don't worry, Sugar Ray has been dropped. Tossed might be more apt.