My Relationship Status is Complicated With: These Summer Reads

What do you do when you are tongue-kiss-me-all-night-long infatuated with one aspect of a book and slam-the-door-in-its-face-multiple-times-I-never-want-to-see-you-again-pissed with another component of that same book. You have a COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP with that book. Just like on FACEBOOK!

Below, two of my complicated relationships from this summer.

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

I was nuts-crazy-excited about reading this one. I loved Patchett’s earlier BEL CANTO. The plot had been described to me as a female HEART OF DARKNESS- the only fem-spin-on-a-classic that could have got me more excited would have been, I don’t know, CLOCKWORK ORANGE? MOBY DICK?  FIGHT CLUB? Anyway, I was really excited about HEART OF DARKNESS with vaginas. And the whole thing takes place in the Amazon. I’ve actually been to the Amazon! Personal investment points!

The basic plot is as follows- pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh (or Charles Marlow with Ovaries, for those of you Excel spreadsheeting the HEART OF DARKNESS/STATE OF WONDER cross-reference diagram) reluctantly ventures into the Amazon to discover what happened to a fellow researcher who died mysteriously while checking up on the research progress of Dr. Anneck Swenson (Mistah Kurtz He Dead with Boobs!)

So the first part of the book ramps up great, going from the frigid winter of Minnesota to the humid misery of jungle border towns and finally the bizarre and wonderful and terrifying puzzlebox of the jungle itself. Stakes are sky high and the prose is down-to-the-last-word gorgeous. And then… and then… the stakes just kind of melt away into the jungle heat. Dr. Anneck Swenson is less  Kurtz and more Bitchy Grey’s Anatomy Doctor With Secret Heart of Gold. Every once in a while something vaguely interesting happens, like a kid almost getting strangled by an anaconda (emphasis on almost), but mostly we’re just hanging out in the jungle marvelling at the miracles of the Amazon til the very end where the plot wraps up way too quickly and neatly, like a kid who has two more minutes to play with her Barbies before dinner. The prose itself continues to dazzle and stun at every turn. But the characters and the plot drag. In the end, it’s all in the title. HEART OF DARKNESS is about descending into the darkest heart of both Africa and the human spirit. STATE OF WONDER is about standing around wondering at things. I mean, which book do you want to read?

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amos Towles

I snagged this book on Audible because all the editors over there were having multiple orgasms about it.  The book takes place mostly in late-1930′s New York, with brief bookended trips to the mid-sixties, and follows Katey Kontent, a secretary with a literary future, and her triangular relationship with her mercurial bestie Eve Ross and Tinker Grey, the rich dude they both want in their panties. The complicated war dance for his affections continues throughout the book until a dark secret is revealed regarding his past and present. The book has been compared with everything from GREAT GATSBY to BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S to Dorothy Parker’s witty observations to Edith Wharton’s novels. With good reason. The prose and vignettes that make up this story are rich and engaging. It’s a well-researched period piece, a deftly-woven plot, the wit is laugh out loud hilarious as opposed to smile-because-you-kind-of-get-what-the-joke-was-supposed-to-be-funny.

So what was my problem with the book? Well, I didn’t HAVE one til I got to the end and found out what Tinker’s secret was. I was not impressed with Tinker’s secret, or the tepid fallout that came with the revelation. The pacing had already been dragging a scoch since the three-quarters point. And then the climax wasn’t really all that climactic. I get that it was thematically appropriate, I get that it answered its own dramatic questions or whatever, but the ending, for me… I’m trying to think of how to say this… okay, I know how to say this… it just wasn’t awesome enough. Endings have to be awesome enough. That should be a literary rule, along with minimizing descriptions of natural settings to short paragraphs and being super sparing about using adverbs to describe dialogue, and by sparing, I mean, of course, don’t do it.

So ladies and gentleman and everyone in between— what have been some of your complicated reading relationships as of recently-late?


12 Comments on “My Relationship Status is Complicated With: These Summer Reads”

  1. THE TIGER’S WIFE.

    Some damn fine writing. Interesting, fable-like backstories. But virtually no “front-story.” Felt like half the book was missing, but not sure which half.

    Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut——-makes me really look forward to her second novel. Lotta potential.

  2. I really liked State of Wonder, but from your review I see your point.
    I recently read No Time to Wave Goodbye, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. It’s the sequel to her first novel, Deep End of the Ocean, which was a blockbuster and literally the book that started Oprah’s book club. But the sequel is practically a rewriting of the first book. The characters grew up and changed, but we don’t see any of the changing. The plot is suspenseful, but when you look over it, there’s no REASON for it to be suspenseful except that the plot seemed to call for suspense. Bizarre.

  3. Oh my god, I’m so happy to find someone else who was less than completely impressed with RULES OF CIVILITY. I may have had a few more issues with the book than you did, but I’m still trying to suss out what they all were, and some of them are print-specific and would have been solved had I listened to the audio. Still. THANK YOU.

  4. Laura says:

    Awesome reviews. I am always hearing great things about Anne Patchett, but I’ll probably start with Bel Canto. I usually hate the endings of books, because I’m kind of crabby like that. I think it is hard to make them satisfying.

  5. Meg says:

    Rules of Civility has been ALL up in the internetz lately, so I’ve been very hesitant to read it — though the plot intrigues me. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind if I muster up the courage to pick it up!

  6. Katie (Blog from Bookstores) says:

    Even though you’ve stated your qualms with both, you’ve still made me curious about both of these books. Even if it’s anti-climatic, now I want to know what Tinker’s secret is! And I also LOVED Bel Canto and am a huge Heart of Darkness fan so I think I’m going to have to pick up State of Wonder too!

  7. THE BLIND ASSASSIN – because it is summer, and I’m all wrapped up in summer things, and the library keeps wanting it back before I can get through it.

  8. [...] I’m a BEL CANTO fan, but I had very mixed feelings about this summer’s STATE OF WONDER. I give Patchett some props and then talk some smack here.  But all is forgiven because girl takes a hammer and NAILS it with this short and sweet memoir that [...]

  9. I’m with you on “Bel Canto”- loved that book. For some reason the description of Patchett’s new novel keeps screaming “Barbara Kingsolver!” to me… and makes me depressed just thinking about reading it.

    I really wanted to love “Entwined” by Heather Dixon- a rewrite of the Twelve Dancing Princesses? Seriously? It just never grabbed me and entertained the way I expected. More like if the Duggars had had all girls and named them after foliage.

  10. meg rosoff says:

    I loved Bel Canto and Heart of Darkness but could not get on with State of Wonder. Plus….throwing away the malaria pills? Mobile phone getting lost? Whack me over the head with plot plants why don’t you.
    And ending? Hmph.
    In other words, I concur.

  11. Abby says:

    Thank you! I knew I wasn’t blown away by Rules of Civility but I couldn’t put my finger on quite why. You basically said everything I was thinking but not saying.


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