O is for Oates

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Rape: A Love Story is a deliberately provocatively titled novella by the prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates. According to wikipedia (which is always true) she has written over fifty novels, earning her Pulitzer Prize nominations. She is also a literary critic, professor, short story writer and a playwright.

The fact that she is a playwright explains why the book is written in a very specific way – half article, half perspective. It’s written in small sections called things like ‘If’ or ‘She had it coming’, similar to newspaper articles. In fact, the title of the book comes from a newspaper headline later on in the book.

The plot is tragic, shocking, and even more affecting because things like that happen every day. Teena Maguire is gang raped and beaten nearly to death while her twelve year old daughter, Bethie, huddles in a corner. The physical injuries are horrific enough, leaving Teena in a coma for weeks and Bethie with a dislocated arm, along with dozens of bruises and cuts. The worst injuries are, of course, the mental ones. Not only do the Maguires have to come to terms with the events of July 4th, but also the fact that the town of Niagara Falls turns against them. Teena Maguire allegedly was drunk, high, a known prostitute – she deserved it, she was asking for it.

As the reader, we’re obviously on the Maguires’ side. Persecuted by the family members of the accused, threatened by the accused themselves, there’s nothing they can do to protect what innocence is left. That is, until Detective Dromoor comes along. For some reason, he’s drawn to Teena and her daughter. Perhaps it’s because he was first on the crime scene, or the sniper training he had in the army made him believe that justice should be done, even if the court fails. The court fails – some hotshot lawyer persuades the judge and jury that Teena Maguire was indeed drunk, high and a prostitute. The evidence found counts for nothing as it’s her word against theirs – they have the law on their side. Again, this is a shocking turn of events, made even more unbearable by the fact that this kind of thing happens all the time.

In the face of this injustice, Dromoor takes the law into his own hands. Some of the accused go missing, get shot, change their minds.

The questions raised are interesting. Is vigilante justice right? Should we rely on the law to protect us? Can we blame Teena Maguire for taking the shortcut through the park after midnight in July, after twenty four hours of celebrations?

I can easily see this as a play – there are definite scenes, turning points, character arcs. It’s told mainly from the daughter’s point of view, in a voice which is sometimes childish and sometimes too adult, as if she’s repeating things she’s overheard. Some of the snippets are told from the future, when Bethie is married. The ordeal still touches her though, she has never told her husband. Her mother never recovers – not physically or mentally.

It’s pretty bleak, to be honest. Despite that, I still enjoyed it. It was thought provoking and it made me angry – a sure sign that a book is well-written. Oates loves language, and plays with it easily and confidently. Her sentences are written with impact in mind.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter or perhaps Alice Walker. It only took me a couple of hours to read, but I have a feeling it’ll stay with me for a while yet.

N is for Noble

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Things I Want My Daughters to Know is one of those books, with the pastel covers and the potentially heart rending plotline. Elizabeth Noble is one of those authors, with a plethora of novels behind her with titles such as The Reading Group and Alphabet Weekend. I know I shouldn’t be dismissive as sometimes an author has little to no control over art work, and publishers know that shoes and pastels sell to women.

The plot is pretty straightforward – Barbara has died of terminal cancer, leaving behind four daughters and a second husband. It becomes almost like a modernised Little Women, with four very different characters vying for attention in different ways, as well as dealing with the absence of a parent.

There’s Jennifer, the oldest and most staid daughter. Her marriage is falling apart because the wanted child has failed to appear.

Then there’s Lisa, the second oldest and the former wild child. Her long term partner wants to get married but she is afraid of the commitment.

After that there’s Amanda, the wandering nomad who is so averse to confronting her issues that she wasn’t even present for her mother’s death.

The youngest child is Hannah, separated from her sister by decades and blood, as her father is her mother’s second husband, Mark. At nearly sixteen, the loss of her mother is perhaps most keenly felt by her as she struggles to cope with the teenage years without her.

The clever thing about the novel is that Barbara is a character of her own, despite being dead before the first chapter. She comes to life through letters she wrote to her family and a journal she kept throughout her illness. It’s full of anecdotes, memories and advice – the titular things she wants her daughters to know. It turns out, though, that there is a difference between the Barbara that her family knew and the one in the journals.

The one in the journals is full of secrets – she makes mistakes and gets things wrong. This is a departure from the saintly mum the girls remember, and the perfect wife of Mark’s memories.

The rest of the story ambles through the ups and downs of basically the first year without Barbara, as all of the women manage their own struggles, with their mum’s advice in mind. Her husband also manages to begin to make a new life by the end of the book, with some advice from her journal.

There was nothing really wrong with this book, I just didn’t really find it engaging. I also tend to be unaffected by so-called tear-jerkers (unless they’re the donkeys on TV, but I blame the anthropomorphic slant on the advert) and so got to the end of the novel dry eyed. The sisters were all consciously ‘different people’ but I felt that it was a bit too conscious. Maybe I’m just being pernickety – after all, it’s a fictional story, of course it’s going to feel like someone made it up.

People who enjoy an easy read, with familiar characters, will enjoy this. Personally I was looking for something more – deeper, more well rounded characters and less predictable plot lines.

Next week – Joyce Carol Oates’ Rape: A Love Story. Looks like a fun read.

M is for Musso

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I’ve been waiting to read Will You be There? by Guillaume Musso for ages. I caught a very small review of it over a year ago, and for some reason I felt compelled to read it. I’m a sucker for a time-travelling relationship story. Before you go on, I’m probably going to tell you the plot so please only read the last paragraph and not the middle bits.

The basic premise is that Elliott is a sixty year old, incredibly successful surgeon who lives in San Francisco. He has a twenty year old daughter and a best friend whose friendship has lasted forty years. At first glance he has it all, until it’s revealed that he has terminal lung cancer. He has also never gotten over his first love, Ilena, who died in an accident thirty years before.

A chance meeting with an old Cambodian witch doctor (in Cambodia, not San Francisco, so not that chance, I guess) leads Elliott to ten small golden pills which will grant him his final wish – to see Ilena again. Once ingested, each of the pills transports him to his thirty year old self for around twenty minutes. His thirty year old self is a bit taken aback. Sixty year old Elliott ends up blurting out that Ilena dies to his younger self, who immediately demands to save her. A furious tangle of time and emotions ensues, where Elliott at 60 doesn’t want his daughter’s life compromised (as she is not Ilena’s) and Elliott at 30 wants Ilena back more than a daughter he’s never met.

I know. Haven’t they ever seen Back to the Future? Don’t they know what meddling with the past can do? People disappear! Actually, they don’t. Ilena is saved from a killer whale type animal biting her head off because young Elliott keeps an appointment he’d cancelled the first time around. However, part of the pact with his double was that he had to save her and break up with her, to make sure his daughter would still be alive. The break up results in Ilena throwing herself off the Golden Gate Bridge, and miraculously surviving. This is probably because old Elliott is there to point out the blood leak in her brain which they missed the second time around, so she died anyway. So, third time around Ilena is alive but every one of her limbs is crushed. And Elliott isn’t allowed to see her anyway. Brilliant.

Added to that, he falls out with his best friend Matt because for some unfathomable reason he isn’t allowed to tell him anything more about his double or the pact they made. As if time wasn’t messed up enough already.

So, in the present time Ilena’s alive but alone, Matt’s married and rich and Elliott’s a terminally ill single dad. So far, so good. With only thirty pages left though, Musso needs to wrap it up to a slightly happier ending pretty quickly. So Elliott dies of cancer, leaving Matt with a journal which explains everything, quite handily. Through a convoluted pathway Matt finds the LAST golden pill and realises that Elliott meant for him to take it. Matt drives to Ilena, gives her the diary, explains to her what he’s going to do (bring Elliott back) and then takes the pill. He finds himself in hospital where his younger, former best friend is far from amused. He’s on the roof, smoking, so Matt has just enough time to warn him against cigarettes and stub it out before being dragged back to the present. At which point, Elliott is alive and walking along the beach, where Ilena meets him. Yay.

It felt like a long ASH advert. I felt cheated. As if stopping smoking would mean he’d be alive thirty years later – he could’ve been hit by a bus, exploded with stress or taken the gateway drug to heroin and overdosed. I also didn’t care about Ilena and Elliott.

It was a novella, really. The story felt too big for this but too small for a proper novel. It could have made a cracking short story, nestled in amongst others along similar lines – fate, destiny, love, life. There were really only three characters in the story – Matt, Ilena and Elliott and to be honest, I kept waiting for the wife swapping to happen. It never did. Perhaps that would have made it more emotionally involving.

The story was interesting though, but I felt that it’d been semi-covered so many times before that I may as well watch Back to the Future.

There were some odd points in it too, though. Time travel aside, I expected the older Elliott to recall when he was younger Elliott that the older Elliott came to see him nine times. Except he didn’t, or at least he didn’t appear to. Matt’s memories changed, but Elliott’s didn’t. Old Elliott talked to old Matt before being told that they hadn’t talked in thirty years. There didn’t seem to be a solid theory for how memories work in the ever changing timeline.

I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a bit of a departure from standard boy meets girl, boy cheats on girl pastel covered novels, but don’t expect a philosophical masterpiece, will you.