Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Time in Between, Maria Duenas

the time in betweenMaria Duenas’s The Time in Between has a fantastic premise–a dressmaker who escapes from Franco’s Spain is recruited to be an English spy–and, from what I can tell, is deeply researched. The problem is the main character, who is buffeted by political and personal currents she doesn’t and chooses not to understand, and undergoes a maturation from naive young girl to self-assured spy that takes place almost exclusively through a wardrobe upgrade. As far as character arcs go that’s good enough, but it does mean that she spends most of her time in the book insisting that she can’t possibly do the thing that she then goes on to do. 

She also seems unable to make decisions for herself. Here’s a typical example:

“But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, or six or seven. And over that time, things happened that–yet again–transformed the course of my life forever.”

“Things happen” to Sira; she doesn’t make them happen. There’s a rather obvious analogy being drawn here between sewing and nation-building: stitching together fabric into a dress, stitching together shifting alliances into a nation, and so forth, which works reasonably well except that, by this logic, Sira is the one being dressed rather than the one making the dresses. When we get to the end and find her resolving “to stop going blindly down the paths that other people had set for me”, we wonder why that’s not the book Duenas wrote.

(I say “we” but really I mean “I”–this book has been a bestseller in Spain, has a miniseries on Hulu, and seems to be a runaway hit on Amazon. YMMV.)

What made the book interesting to me was Duenas’s choice to repeatedly skip over large chunks of story. More than once, the I-narrator (Sira) will jump ahead a few days or even weeks in the story, sometimes then giving us the backstory and then sometimes not. Since the book is already quite long, the point of these gaps is probably in part to hurry along to the more exciting sequences, like a truly nerve-wracking trip to sell illegal guns or the escape from some assassins on a train–Duenas is excellent at creating tension–but the effect is curious given the book’s title. In fact, we continually skip over the time in between, which are the moments when Sira actually makes decisions, like the choice to accept a spy mission that propels the narrative forward once again.

In other words, we skip over the actions that bring the story into being, which I think is what gives the narrative its somewhat distanced feeling of retrospection. It’s more of a historical than an individual voice, one that suggests we can’t ever quite plumb the personal choices that bring the historical into being. The time in between is both the time that matters and the time that, to this narrator, is non-narratable–which is, perhaps, the difference between history and historical fiction, and why The Time in Between is uncomfortably poised between both.  

Other Reviews

  • Kirkus, which calls it a Horatio Alger story wrapped in a lace mantilla, which I think is inaccurate–the primary feature of a Horatio Alger story is will and conviction, both of which Sira seems to lack
  • Publisher’s Weekly, calling Duenas a writer to watch–probably true; this book hits all the right book-club notes and I would definitely recommend it to a certain type of reader

Book Review: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

This-is-a-Happy-MarriageAnn Patchett’s collection of essays, The Story of a Happy Marriage, at first seems to lack a certain coherence that you would want in a collection of essays, which she acknowledges in the introduction with the reasonable explanation that, for years, she supported her novel-writing by simply writing whatever other people wanted her to write in whatever style they wanted.

Upon closer investigation, however, it turns out that Patchett’s essays do have a consistent underlying theme: the experience of being herself, whether or not that experience is particularly interesting or thoughtful. Take, for example, her essay about learning to love opera. In it, we learn almost nothing about why she likes opera, but we do learn about her desire to “collect” it:

What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn’t seen?

The second season of Met simulcasts was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak.

A real opera fan, the kind who is born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on Carmen. … Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. In the past, when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera, I would choose, say Madama Butterfly over Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. (I still haven’t seen Rigoletto, for heaven’s sake!)

But who can blame her? The essay was written for Vogue, exactly the sort of publication that would be interested in someone’s account of trying on–wearing, so to speak–a cultural experience unavailable to the general public.  

At times Patchett does approach self-awareness. In another essay about–of course–learning to be a writer, she remembers one of her teachers telling her to be smarter:

He told me I was a good writer, that I would never get any substantial criticism from the other students in the class because my stories were polished and well put together. But then he told me I was shallow, that I skated along the surface, being clever. He said if I wanted to be a better writer, I was the only person who could push myself to do it. It was up to me to challenge myself, to be vigilant about finding the places in my own work where I was just getting by.

Patchett is certainly a clever and well-educated writer, but her writing overwhelmingly gives the impression of a facile and superficial intelligence–not that she couldn’t be smarter but that, as this quotation suggests, no one has ever quite pushed her enough. Take State of Wonder, the only one of Patchett’s novels that I’ve read, under slight duress for a book group. (I started Bel Canto years ago but couldn’t get through more than a few pages. At the time I figured it was my fault.)

Coming in with low expectations, I liked State of Wonder more than I thought it would but found that it relied on a whole slew of uninterrogated shorthand (jungle/ race/ fertility/ etc) and was annoyingly focused around a glib and obvious set piece at–what else?–an opera house in the middle of a jungle that simultaneously called up Fitzcarraldo, The Heart of Darkness, and Orpheus and Eurydice without adding much to the conversation: exactly the kind of clever, shallow intertextuality that offers the appearance of meaning without the substance.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Ann Patchett. She’s a talented, skillful writer who provides something with great resonance to many people, which is precisely what I found most interesting about her essays: how resolutely, emphatically middlebrow they are, how they seem calculated to please the NPR-listening, just-educated-enough audience to whom she sells books. To appropriate a phrase, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, like Patchett’s other books and, I suppose, like Patchett herself is basic–well put together, inoffensive, fond of borrowed thought, and best read with a pumpkin spice latte, while wearing a scarf, in front of a fireplace.


The Fault in our Families

I read The Fault in Our Stars this weekend, primarily from about 5.30-7.30 A.M. on Saturday morning while Abby was still sleeping, for once in her life. I did cry a lot thinking about what it would be like to have my child die of cancer, but it mostly irritated me, probably because I could see that I would have been its target audience about fifteen to twenty years ago, when, like the kids in the book, I was convinced I was smarter and savvier than the adults around me.

Aside from the ridiculously tone-deaf dialogue, here’s my major gripe: neither of the main characters have siblings. Not a big deal? Narratively, a very big deal: giving a couple of cancer-ridden teenagers siblings would be to admit that, just maybe, someone else might love them more, know them better, and have more claim on their final days or weeks than the teenager who’s known them for all of a few months.

There’s a moment when–spoiler alert, but you know how this ends, right?–Augustus is dying, and his grown half-sisters show up to fawn over him. Hazel gets all mentally snippy about them calling him “our” Gus as though they’ve taken possession of him, but COME ON HAZEL. Just because they’re grown-ups doesn’t mean they don’t know how to love–and if Augustus had siblings living at home, we might have to accept that their grief would overshadow hers.

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Emily Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat

Here, kitty kitty.

There’s not much to dislike about this painstakingly innocuous book, although there’s not much to feel strongly about either way–which is also essentially Anthes’s thesis: biotechnology is neither good nor bad; it’s a tool, and, as with any tool, we ought to think carefully about how we wield it.

Fair enough, and awfully hard to object to or muster up much enthusiasm about. Most disappointingly for me, Anthes never makes good on her allusion to Frankenstein. That’s a shame, because exploring in more depth the history of human objections to interspecies meddling might have given her argument more teeth, if only by introducing a coherent interlocutor. As it is, we never quite get a sense of the naysayers she’s addressing, aside from a little hemming and hawing from bioethicists and letter-writing whack-jobs.

Here’s an excellent example of style and content:

What’s more, genes from different species sometimes mingle in the natural world. Animals occasionally pursue torrid interspecies affairs, giving us ligers and tigons and zorses. (Oh my!) Different species of bacteria can spontaneously swap DNA in the wild, or transfer novel genes into insects, worms, and other animals … We can change animals faster and in more profound ways than nature does on its own, but the point is that there’s nothing inherently sacred about a species’s genome–it’s an amorphous, ever-changing thing.

Anthes’s main point here is that human genetic modification is not inherently different from “natural” genetic modification because species aren’t actually genetically discrete. But she deflates this bracing and necessary corrective with the punchy, coy language of an extended blog post. It’s almost as though she’s trying to head off criticism of the book’s science through gee-whiz wonder directed at innocuous targets: wirelessly controlled cockroaches, GloFish, and robo-rats, all of which get more genuine enthusiasm than the more useful but also more controversial possibilities of, say, using animals to produce medicines.

This is a decent introductory book, but I came away feeling that I hadn’t learned much beyond a few anecdotes. The one moment that generated a spark of excitement was this, which in modified form I used to say to undergrads:

Repugnance may be a good spark for public dialogue, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for it. Acting in an ethical manner sometimes requires rising above raw emotion … an emotional reaction [shouldn’t be] a replacement for moral and ethical reasoning.

Feeling may be first, but, pace e. e. cummings, it certainly shouldn’t be last.

Other Reviews


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Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal

763952Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal gets off to a bit of a slow start–who are these people, and why are they sailing to the Arctic, and why do we care?–but it quickly snowballs, so to speak, into exactly what it promises to be: a literary adventure story with a sprinkling of slightly anachronistic feminism and a large helping of Frankenstein.

There are comparisons to be made to other books of man-vs-nature (Moby Dick, The Heart of Darkness), but the book fundamentally asks what would have happened had Walton refused to turn the ship around. Power-hungry Zeke  ignores his crew and captain’s warnings and pushes onward into the Arctic winter, eventually trapping his ship in the ice and losing a rather large percentage of the crew along the way. When protagonist and naturalist Erasmus finally makes his way back home, he finds that, rather than being hailed as heroes, he and the rest of the returning crew are failures: just before their return, another Arctic naturalist and explorer shows up with stories, specimens, and maps.

A few of the book’s conceits ring a bit hollow–the plot involving the woman engraver feels especially anachronistic and forced–but Barrett raises core questions about discovery and exploration and (crucially) who gets to write to the book when everyone returns home. Voyage of the Narhwal doesn’t exactly succeed as a pure adventure story or rich character study, but it offers a highly readable revision of the Romantic quest to dominate nature–and a provoking critique of quests and questors.

Other Reviews:

Read for: Book club

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I like servants, Queen Victoria, and mundane details of daily life, so I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, it lived up to none of them. Exhaustively researched and competently written, the book failed–for me–to inject any actual life into its account of “Life in the Royal Household.”

To be fair, I went into the book with incomplete information: I expected the book to be more about day-to-day life in the Queen’s house, in the manner of Judith Flanders’s wonderful Inside the Victorian Home, when in fact it traced the service of six members of Victoria’s household a.k.a. court: high-ranking servants, not scullery maids. (Scullery maids, of course, being infinitely more interesting.)

I stopped reading the book because I just couldn’t summon enough interest in its characters or events. Blame Victoria, who strived to create a court free from the scandal and intrigue of previous rulers and appears to have been largely successful. The Bedchamber Crisis would have been much more compelling had it involved sexual rather than political scandal, but that’s hardly Hubbard’s fault.

Amount read: Four chapters, or around 50 pages out of 360

Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria