Thursday, January 5, 2012

two reviews, one tempered by prior love for the writer: The 19th Wife (Ebershoff) and A Pale View of Hills (Ishiguro)

I confess....this post may end up a bit messy.  I am still far from well but I am also stubborn and want to put up my latest reads....

I tend to shy away from trendy issues in my books so it fits that I read a book about polygamy as the reality freight train on the topic has slowed.  This book has two distinct storylines with polygamy playing a backbone role in each.  The current story is told by Jordan, a young man who was kicked out of his cult-like community as a teen (never really thought about it but they have to get rid of some boys, esp teens...the multiple wives thing won't work if the society is evenly gender-balanced).  He is drawn back in when his mother, the 19th wife of one of the leading men in the community, is accused of murdering his father.   The historical story is told in several styles (journals, an academic thesis, a wikipedia entry) and focuses on a wife of Brigham Young who eventually flees the community and speaks out against the practice of polygamy.

As an initial matter, I do think the author made it quite clear that the modern-day polygamist plot was focused on an outlier community, pretty nearly a cult, and not the general Mormon church.  I have read objections to the historical narrative's discussion of polygamy as anti-Mormon but it never felt that way to me.  The story does portray Young and other leaders as in favor of the practice but I think that is historically accurate.  It also shows that many devout Mormons struggled with the concept and felt it detracted from their religious practice.

I really enjoyed this read.  I wouldn't call it "literature" but there is more substance than I find in man top sellers.  I liked the fact that they not only showed the impact polygamy has on women but also showed how it can impact men as well.  Women and children are the poster-child victims but the novel showed several men who either simply didn't want to engage in the practice or who felt like they were beaten-down by it and unable to be the spouse or parent they wished to be.  I liked the variety in the narrative devices overall, not every style worked for me but I appreciated the effort.  The variation in the historical thread was also countered by the modern-day story keeping a single style.

Four stars for a book that I looked forward to reading every night.  A bit disappointed in the resolution to Jordan's tale, but not enough to totally toss aside the book...oddly, it was SO "thrown in" that it didn't take me out of the book too much and I simply was able to enjoy the other issues without being solely focused on the "whodunit" matter.  Again, not an overly serious literary piece but fodder for thought and an engaging read.

I recently reread The Remains of the Day and my copy of Never Let Me Go has been well-worn (and not just b/c it was holding a chair in the Dominican Republic when a fierce lunchtime rain storm hit) so I decided to order two more Ishiguro works.  The totally unfair truth is I'm tougher on authors who've written books I's like going to the film everyone had been talking about, it is more likely to disappoint.  So I'm struggling with this book review a bit....

This is the author's first novel and it is fairly short.  The main character is Etsuko who, in the modern storyline, is a Japanese woman living in England.  Her younger daughter is a twenty-something who is living in London and is making a first visit home after Etsuko's eldest daughter committed suicide.  The narrator also reflects on a period in her earlier life in Japan when she was married to her first husband and pregnant with the elder daughter.  She focuses her reflections on two topics: a visit from her father-in-law and a strange friend who lives nearby with her daughter.

I don't need my books tied in a neat little bow.  In fact, I prefer stories without perfect "magical" endings.  I am also certainly a fan of "show don't tell."  That said, I felt a bit lost when I finished this one.  There's definitely a secret there but I am not sure I "got" it.  I have browsed online a bit and my verdict tends to be one that is a bit darker and less popular than the conclusion reached by most readers.  I can, however, totally see both views.  In some cases, I might like that but I just feel a bit frustrated and it detracted from the book for me.  The writing is lovely, as always, and the book fits my preference for stories driven by character over plot.  I just kinda wanted to love it more.  3.5 stars, in the end, and I can't really decide which way to round.  A 4 is probably fairer and avoids punishing the book for not matching the other two Ishiguro's I've read, but a 3 may be a more honest reflection of my feeling while reading.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I loved Never Let Me Go. The movie version was well-done too. I've never read any other Ishiguro stuf though.