BOOK REVIEW: LUSTER by RAVEN LEILANI

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Image result for Luster by Raven Leilani

I feel like Luster is another installment in a series of books that I’m gonna call Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional—which theoretically, I’m all for, but in actuality I’ve been disappointed by more often than not, this novel included. (Update: I ended up writing a whole post about Messy/Dysfunctional women in literary fiction.)

Luster is Leilani’s debut book, and there are definitely glimmers of sharp, wry writing to be found here. One of my favourites: “In the time we have been talking, my imagination has run wild. Based on his liberal use of the semicolon, I just assumed this date would go well.” (lol)

That being said, I can’t really say that I enjoyed this novel.

This is a novel that is immensely bogged down by its own moroseness. The main character, Edie, undergoes humiliation after humiliation with no break and nothing even close to resembling happy to temper that humiliation. I think the novel articulates its own spirit when Edie thinks,

“…the debris around the drain not enough to deter me from lying down in the tub and being dramatic, humiliation being such that it sometimes requires a private performance, which I give myself, and emerge from the shower in the next stage of hurt feelings.”

And that’s exactly it: reading this novel feels like reading a performance of humiliation (“performance” in the sense that it’s a presentation of humiliation, not in the sense that that humiliation is performative or “fake,” somehow). And the writing compounds this performance to the novel’s detriment. Leilani’s writing is simultaneously too verbose and too clipped, both over- and underwritten: at times she elaborates on moments that don’t need to be elaborated on, and at others she breezes through monumental emotional moments as if they were nothing. It felt like the novel was working at cross-purposes from what I wanted.

Of course, what all of this means is, this book was written in a style that wasn’t to my taste. And I think that there’s definitely people for whom this book’s style will work. If you liked Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation, or Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, you’ll like Luster. I will also point out the fact that Luster is an ownvoices novel told from the perspective of a Black woman, whereas all those books I just mentioned are from white women’s perspectives.

Thanks so much Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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BOOK REVIEW: AUSTEN YEARS by RACHEL COHEN

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Austen Years by Rachel  CohenMy problem with Austen Years is twofold.

First, the writing. Cohen’s writing is flighty, lacking in solidity. It wants to be poetic and expansive but accomplishes neither. In Austen Years there is always a line or two that disrupts the flow of the entire passage, and oftentimes those lines are ones that are supposed to clinch the passage’s point, not obfuscate it. Here I’m talking about lines like,

“A kind of rose, but without sentiment, the matter-of-fact, pale, interfused rose that the sun leaves in the sky when it sets at the end of a midwestern winter”

“You can only be interrupted by someone else, who has been active in other things elsewhere, while you have been doing the thing you have been doing. When someone else demands your attention, it is a sign of the multiplicity of life moving forward.”

…what ?

It felt like the book was aiming for a style like Mark Doty’s in his excellent What is the Grass, but having just read Doty’s book only made me more aware of how much Cohen’s paled in comparison.

Second, the structure. Austen Years sorely needed some kind of narrative cohesion. Each chapter was split into a bunch of subsections, most of which just didn’t flow. Aside from all falling under the general theme of the chapter and the Austen novel in question, I didn’t at all understand how they were related. I also think that Cohen especially fell short when it came to blending her own life with Austen’s works. She tended to write either exclusively about Austen’s work/life–in large, seemingly tangential swaths, too–and then to make a hard right into her own life, with nothing to bridge the two. It was jarring to go from one to the other, and it made reading both confusing and frankly not very enjoyable. I love reading about anything, and I mean anything, Jane Austen-related, but even I found it hard to get through the Austen sections.

I can understand that writing this book must’ve been a very personal project for Cohen, given that she goes into detail about her father’s passing away and her subsequent grief, but as a narrative it just didn’t work for me.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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BOOK REVIEW: HAMNET by MAGGIE O’FARRELL

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Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet is a novel that tries so desperately hard to be a good novel that its very attempts to be good end up making it that much worse.

When it comes to Hamnet, the beginning and end of it is: O’Farrell’s writing doesn’t work, so nothing else does. The best word I can use to describe the writing is laboured. You cannot go a single paragraph without being bombarded by a tide of superfluous, overwrought prose. And it’s not necessarily that O’Farrell’s writing is bad, it’s just that there’s too much of it; the whole novel is bogged down in its own excessively ornate writing.

Because the writing is so unrelentingly verbose, the pacing in Hamnet suffers, and suffers badly. I just wanted O’Farrell to MOVE ON. I don’t need to know that Shakespeare’s hunger was like a rat snarling in his stomach or the names of the 500 different types of herbs that Agnes uses, I just need for the story to please, please move on.

Also, the character work is abysmal, just all over the place. From a storytelling perspective, Agnes is an almost intrinsically bad character. The whole thing about Agnes’s character in this novel is that she Knows everything. Because she possesses some kind of sixth sense, she’s able to see into the future and read people’s minds. And most of the time, she’s not wrong about either of those things. Even the novel itself makes this explicit,

“Bartholomew nods. ‘Now, I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘Yes’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending on who you ask.’

I’m sorry, but why would I want to read about a character who knows everything all the time and who is very rarely wrong????? I can’t tell you how much it irritated me that in most cases Agnes could just tell what someone had done or what would happen to them just by looking at them. Not only is that incredibly boring, but it’s also just such lazy writing. Instead of actually having characters properly talk to each other or try to evaluate each other’s feelings, you just make one of them psychic and bam everything is automatically solved!

(And I know the fact that the one thing that Agnes is wrong about is the death of her son, Hamnet, which makes it that much more devastating, but STILL, that doesn’t negate the fact that for the rest of the novel, she was an incredibly boring character to read about.)

Agnes, at least, had some character development, even if it was bad. All the other characters were pretty much just there to be there. Also, there was instalove, and instalove of the most annoying, vanilla kind. Agnes sees Shakespeare for the first time, she touches his hand, can tell through her Magical Powers that he’s a good person or something (?) and then what do you know they’re in love! Pass.

Hamnet was just not that good. The pacing was glacial, the writing was overwrought, and the characters were irritating at best and non-entities at worst. Definitely not for me.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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