Book Review: Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Writers & Lovers
WRITERS & LOVERS by Lily King (Published by Picador in 2020)

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I decided to take a break from reading the Women’s Prize longlist, so I picked up Lily King’s new novel, Writers & Lovers. Writers & Lovers follows Casey, a young writer who’s struggling to make ends meet while finishing the novel she’s been working on for six years. Sounds promising, but unfortunately Writers & Lovers was a snoozefest. I almost DNF’ed it because it took me ages to get through the first half.

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Book Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

Weather
WEATHER by Jenny Offill (Published by Knopf Publishing Group in 2020)

My Rating: ★★★★

If you’ve seen the sort of books I review on my blog, you’ll know that I’m the kind of reader who likes the reassurance of a plot, well-drawn characters, and straightforward storytelling. My favorite literary works are those like Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) and Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), which are plotted like mysteries and contain a lot of juicy family or relationship drama.

Weather isn’t like that at all. It doesn’t have a plot; most of the characters are sketches at best; and the storytelling feels like a bunch of poem fragments, bad jokes, fortune-cookie statements, and fun facts strung together. It’s a bizarre and oddly-shaped book with an equally bizarre and odd narrator. By all appearances, Weather shouldn’t be my thing.

And yet… I liked it a lot. I liked it so much that I right after I finished it I got a copy of Offill’s previous work, Dept. of Speculation (2014), and gobbled it up in a day; and after finishing Dept. of Speculation, I realized I still liked Weather more. In fact, while I still think that Girl, Woman, Other is the strongest contender for the prize, I’d say that as of today, Weather is my personal favorite.

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Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo (Published by Hamish Hamilton in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★

I must be the last person to read this since it (joint-)won the Booker Prize, but now that I have, I finally get what the fuss is all about. I haven’t read Atwood’s The Testaments (just The Handmaid’s Tale), but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it can’t possibly be as good as Girl, Woman, Other. This is just so so SO good. I’d say that it’s probably the strongest contender for the Women’s Prize this year.

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Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House
THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett (Published by Harper in 2019)

My Rating: ★★½

Aside from having all the elements I usually love in contemporary fiction (family saga, fairytale vibe, historical setting), The Dutch House was also my most anticipated read from the Women’s Prize longlist, so I’m doubly disappointed at how little I turned out to like it.

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Book Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Reading Queenie is like watching a car crash happen in slow motion: I was afraid of the inevitable collision, but I was also bored at its progression, and bored is the last thing I want to feel about a novel like this. 

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Book Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone
RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson (Published by Riverhead Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

In its synopsis, Red at the Bone is said to touch on a number of important issues—namely “sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood”—and while I do see those issues portrayed well in the novel, the heart of it for me is the question of what happens when a mother rejects motherhood and chooses instead to strike out on her own in the world as a woman. Red at the Bone succeeds in exploring this with nuance and insight.

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Book Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)

It’s rare to find a novel that can strike a balance between comic lightness and depth of insight, especially one that tackles weighty issues like race and class. Reid, however, achieves that elusive balance effortlessly in her newest book, Such a Fun Age. Here, Reid’s singular contribution is her comic portrayal of the kind of racism perpetuated not through violence, name-calling, or structural snubbing (as we often see in the media), but through an excess of unexamined good intentions. She sheds light on a distinctly liberal brand of racism that can be more pernicious for its lack of visibility, and in doing so, she reconfigures the outdated dichotomous notion of “conservatives are racist” / “liberals can’t be racist” into a spectrum where anyone without sufficient self-awareness—regardless of ideological affiliation—can be guilty of racial prejudice.

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Book Review: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Published by Ecco in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Nothing to See Here follows Lillian, a woman in her late twenties who still lives with her mother, works dead-end jobs, and dates unsavoury men, whose life changes overnight when her old high school friend asks for her help in taking care of her husband’s ex-wife’s twins. The catch? The kids spontaneously burst into flames whenever they’re upset. What’s even more surprising than this revelation, however, is that Lillian actually accepts the job, and what follows is an offbeat, heart-warming story about friendship, family, and the bonds we form that transcend genetic and biological ties.

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Book Review: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Three Daughters of Eve
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Published by Bloomsbury USA in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Three Daughters of Eve is an ambitious and multilayered novel that explores the feeling of being caught in between the tensions that plague the modern era – between traditionalism and modernity, between religiosity and secularism, between East and West – and the consequences of being ideologically unmoored in a polarized world. While Three Daughters of Eve succeeds in scaling down these lofty ideas into the ways they shape the everyday life of the protagonist, it also uses the rest of its characters as caricatures of these ideas, turning moments of potentially genuine connection into staged battlegrounds where the clash between dichotomies can play out. The result is the reinforcement of such dichotomies rather than their dismantling. Despite that, I enjoyed the novel for the author’s skill in evoking time and place, and her depiction of the modern existential crisis.

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Book Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (First published in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Named the Pulitzer Prize-winner for Fiction in 2018, Less follows the misadventures of Arthur Less, a white, middle-aged gay writer whose literary success – or general lack thereof – is encapsulated in the phrase “one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”, as he runs away from his problems (i.e., the wedding of an ex-boyfriend of nine years).

Like any book lover, I love reading books about books and books about writers, especially if, like Less, it promises to be a sly critique of the literary establishment while gently poking fun at the insecurities and ambitions of writers. On this count, it definitely delivers. Less, a “moderately successful” but ultimately obscure writer, takes odd writing jobs in order to make a living, like interviewing H. H. H. Mandern (even the name is meant to be a mockery), a famous sci-fi writer of a popular but melodramatic space opera series; writing travel articles that other writers didn’t want to take; and giving (sparsely attended) talks about his famous former lover, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He was once nominated for an obscure gay literary prize, which he didn’t win; and another obscure literary prize in which the judges were mostly teenagers, which he did win. It’s part tongue-in-cheek commentary of the literary world, and part wry observations of the author about himself.

Besides this, there were also other things I liked about the book. The characterization of Less, for example, and the gently mocking and affectionate tone of the omniscient narrator of the novel. “From where I sit,” the narrator says in the opening line of the novel, “the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.” Despite reaching fifty, Less is weak-willed, and he comes off as indecisive and naive, but he is ultimately a soft-hearted and sincere writer who yearns to be liked – a contrast to the jaded, antisocial, world-weary writers I often meet in other books. This passage more or less describes him:

Once, in his twenties, a poet he had been talking with extinguished her cigarette in a potted plant and said, “You’re like a person without skin.” [. . .] “You need to get an edge,” his old rival Carlos constantly told him in the old days, but Less had not known what that meant. To be mean? No, it meant to be protected, armored against the world, but can one “get” an edge any more than one can “get” a sense of humor? [. . .]

Whatever it is—Less never learned it. By his forties, all he has managed to grow is a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab.

Another thing that surprised me about this book is that it’s actually a love story, and I always have a soft spot for romance. I didn’t expect it from the blurb – I guess I expected it to be a journey of self-discovery – but the surprising, heartwarming ending made me realize otherwise.

That said, there were things about Less that didn’t really work for me. I couldn’t articulate why right after reading, since all I felt at the time was a quiet disappointment – as in, “That’s it?” I was expecting something more from a Pulitzer, but I couldn’t put my finger on what the “more” was.

I know why now, though. For one, the plot consists of things just sort of “happening” to Less – aside from initiating the trip across the globe to run away from his problems, Less hardly initiates anything else. Both good and bad things simply happen to him, and when they do, he doesn’t achieve any sort of new insight or growth. It definitely feels like deus ex machina is at work, which doesn’t sit well with me, especially since Less is a character-driven novel. Even the ending made me faintly suspicious, as heartwarming as it was, because it felt like love was magically called in to solve Less’s problems.

Another thing that left me dissatisfied was the surface exploration of important themes, like Less’s being a middle-aged gay writer. It’s briefly touched upon in the story, especially with narrator’s reflection that Less seems to be “the first homosexual ever to grow old”, but the phenomenon of being an aging homosexual felt like labels tacked on to Less, but not actually explored. Being middle-aged and gay seem like vague, external sources of unconscious anxiety, rather than a lived experience that Less had to grapple and come to terms with. This, I think, is a result of a flaw in Less’s characterization and in the choice of narrator. Casting Less as a soft-hearted, sincere, but ultimately naive character, and using a narrator who cannot fully articulate all of Less’s thoughts, limits the way these important themes can be delved into and explored.

All in all, though, Less was an enjoyable read. It did make me smile and laugh, especially while I was reading the mistranslations in the chapter on Germany. But, in the end, while the character was endearing, the storytelling was mediocre. It just didn’t live up to my expectations of it, especially with all the hype surrounding it.

Read from December 21 – 23, 2018 | Goodreads Account