Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thinking About Context and Content: Reviews of Trigiani's All the Stars in Heavens and Dicks' Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Again, intentions have failed to translate into actions as far as blogging goes for me.  I love that my work world these days involves words, but it does make it more challenging to blog on my own at least while I'm still far from full-strength.

Regardless, I have still been reading and thus....

Memoirs is narrated Bodo who we learn quite early on is not like the rest of us.  Bodo is an imaginary friend and in this world imaginary friends are real but can only be seen by their imagine-r and by other imaginary friends.  Key to this world is that the Friends only exist as long as the person who imagined them believes that they are real.  This means some disappear almost instantaneously and that Bodo is quite old at 5.

The Friends we meet in the book are hugely varied and they are (as I note below) the book's biggest asset.  Some are very nearly human in appearance, often missing a small detail like the ears that a child might neglect to include in a sketch of a person, while others are wholly different like the one Friend who is pretty much a blob-like ink-blot-style creature.  They can typically leave their imaginer and explore the world, though this all depends on what the imaginer envisioned (i.e. some pass through walls, only a few need sleep).

Bodo is imagined by Max  The book avoids labels but it is clear Max thinks differently than most and is probably on the autism spectrum.  His parents fight a lot about Max, as I understand is quite common, and he is largely a loner.  Bodo is wiser than Max; he can think beyond Max's own abilities b/c that's what Max envisioned when he imagined Bodo. Bodo worries as Max struggles socially while also knowing Max's needs are unique.  Bodo also knows something is amiss when one of Max's teachers seems to take an unusual interest in Max, this interest serving as the starting point for most of the novel's plot.  Ultimately, Bodo fights to help Max within the unique limitations of his kind and while also dealing with his own emotions.

I came to this book both because of prior experience with the author and because the idea was utterly fascinating.  I loved the various Friends that populate the novel and the fact that they aren't all bubbly perfect.  I also saw a great understanding of the trials of childhood and how intense they can be.  However, I just didn't "feel" the main thrust of the action, never fully believing the storyline with Mrs. Patterson.  Certainly, Max wouldn't have understood her motives even despite seeing some of her story, but I think the author could still have weaved more in to make it ring truer.  I particularly disliked the store's storyline (I hesitate to specify more for fear of spoiling other readers) which felt completely thrown in, like it was one more idea Dicks had and he just wanted to include it as well....that impulse worked for me with the varied Friends who must have been fun to create, but not so much with the narrative thrust of the action.

Three and a half stars.  Loved the idea and the world Dicks creates but never connected with the main action of the story.

Stars is set in the grand age of Hollywood, a world somewhat apart from the struggles most of the country felt in the 1930s and dominated by the studio system.  There are two protagonists (is that a contradiction? if so, there are two main characters...).  One is Loretta Young, based on the real-life young actress known in large measure for her "romantic" entanglements (I'll get to the motivation behind those quotes).  The second is the fictional Alda, a woman who finds herself rejected from a convent after expressing too much of a connection to a young woman giving birth and putting her child up for adoption.  Alda is sent to serve as a secretary to Loretta and becomes more of an additional sister.

There are a lot of women in this book, including Loretta's mother and three sisters (there are two absent fathers in the mix).  Some of them blend a bit, but generally they are the support system that allows Loretta to shine as a young starlet.  Then there are the men, namely Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable who fall for Loretta.  Her relationships with these two (married) men account for a large portion of the story and stand in contrast to Alda's own love story.  Throughout the book, the characters are all affected by the odd world of the studio system and its strict moral code which is certainly more show than substance and much more of a concern for women than men.

First, the matter of history -- Reading other reviews and taking a brief look at the real Loretta, I leaned that in her later years she said that she had been raped by Gable.  In the book, this relationship is a story of star-crossed lovers.  Part of me wants to ignore the facts (well, the facts according to Young) and just settle in to the fiction, but it does haunt the novel and I can't discuss the book without reference to the disparity even if I'm not wholly sure what I think about the matter.  It does provide an interesting context that further emphasizes the powerlessness of women and the impact of the cult of celebrity then and now.  Even though it would never have been discussed in the day, it is also very clearly not the story presented in the novel.  The tie between fiction and reality is always complex, but much moreso in a novel built on real characters.

Moving on -- I liked the world of women in this book much more when it was apart from the world of romance.   I loved seeing Young's family interrelate and the warmth between Loretta and Alda is the highlight of the novel.  I really cared much less for the stories tied to Tracy and Gable.  In truth, I'm not a big fan of the romance genre.  I didn't care for my first into to Trigiana (Big Stone Gap, not that it is purely a romance story) but absolutely loved my second, The Shoemaker's Wife, falling for the rich world much more than the underlying love story even then.  I could never see Loretta's attachment to either of the men.  I did enjoy Alda's love story much more, but that also didn't really ring real.  I wish the men and the romances were more secondary to the plot, I'd have liked that book much more.  Loretta, the fictional one at least, was so strong and came from a family of strong women.  Like her mother, she took control of her life and her economic destiny, exercising an independence unusual in her time.  She got so lost, however, when it came to the heart.

Still, I did enjoy my visit to the golden age.  Three and a half stars, a rating that falls pretty average for me and means I did enjoy the book but don't feel the need to tell others about it or have any impulse to revisit anytime soon.  I was more than ready for the book to be done, but I also never felt weary of the tale.  This review is based on an advance reader's copy provided by the publisher but contains my unbiased opinion of the work.