Tag Archives: fiction

Lolita it is not. Joel Dicker’s novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, is an effective thriller. Its closest match, I think, is more a Law and Order episode, or even a video game, than a P.D. James novel. Naturally, this can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you are looking for in the read.

I will lead with some criticism, but honestly, I thought the book was a good, fun read.

Here is the bad: the novel is surprisingly without tension; sure, there is the matter of 15-year old Nola Kellergan’s death, but everything else that happens isn’t all that surprising. Take Marcus Goldman; he’s a young writer, looking to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. But he is having trouble starting his second novel. Considering that his mentor from college, Harry Quebert, is charged with Nola’s murder and that Quebert’s masterpiece happens to be about an illicit relationship, it takes him a surprisingly long time to be moved to write about this affair. Although Marcus’s investigation into the murder is a plot device to move the story forward, it still would have been nice to have the plot unfold and not feel like the writer is trying to hit all the right beats before the next commercial break.

There is a surprisingly lack of friction in the novel. It just feels like the story and twists will all unfold. That’s why I say it’s like a TV show; actually the pacing makes it like a game. Every interview with a witness, every scene with him looking around, reminds me of Sierra On-line games (wow… is that dating myself… games like King’s Quest, Gabriel Knight, and the whole genre of pixel-clicking adventure games). Because adventure games are generally not about reflexes, they generally let the player has as much time as she needs in the scene. Marcus gets to hang around until he extracts enough information.

One thing that will draw attention to the story is that before each chapter, we get treated to a scene where Quebert gives Marcus writing advice. The advice itself isn’t controversial, but the fact that these tips are here invites comparison to the actual writing in the story.

Yes, we are treated to a meta-story, and again, we are left to ruminate on the possibility that Mr. Dicker might have had a similar struggle, having achieved a measure of literary fame before The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The parts about writing as craft and as a calling are actually rather interesting.

And despite the lack of dramatic tension, the novel definitely has provenance.  I think the twists and turns are generally justified and logical. It does not feel like the twists come from nowhere. The novel has a fairly sunny disposition; it isn’t dark and moody. If anything, the most cynical parts of the book deal with commentary on public perception and not on human nature that seem extremely comfortable with crime.

 I was happily surprised that the novel did not veer into the salacious, despite the many ways in which it could have turned in that direction. All this is to say that the novel was rather enjoyable.


OK. I should have moved on. I have continued reading, but haven’t posted any reviews. However, this book really stuck with me, and I need to get this off my chest.

I have noted in my review of Little Children that Perotta paints sympathetic portraits of suburbanites. Sure, by merely describing how they act, Perotta hoists the lot of them on their own petards. Again, I need to stress that Perotta does not present a one-sided portrait of these harried fathers and mothers. This is important, as Ruth and Tim, the two protagonists, are on two opposite sides of the debate on sex education and how far private religion should extend into public schooling.

Of the two, Ruth comes across as insouciant and flip. It actually makes it hard to root for her, despite the fact that hers is probably the more realistic point of view: kids will have experiment and have sex. Why ignore this fact and tell them to repress their urges? Sex education becomes damage control, rather than a vaccination. Her nemesis is JoAnn, not surprisingly, an attractive, sexy, but virginal spokeswoman for a conservative Christian organization. Again, Perotta avoids the easy send-up; as portrayed, there are no dissatisfied boyfriends, grumbling fiance, or kinky neuroses (or any hint of “doesn’t-really-count-as-sex” sex). As a matter of fact, JoAnn comes across as rather dignified, given the contrast in Ruth’s divorced, lonely, and somewhat aimless life. However, there is no doubt that Perotta’s sympathy lies with Ruth; the arguments against knowledge of sex usually are spoofed with wild figures, false accounts of disease transmittance or injunctions from the Bible. Ruth at least gives voice to various numbers and facts about STDs and birth control.

Tim enters the story as Ruth’s daughter’s soccer coach. After a win, Tim gathers his players, who form a circle to give thanks to God. Ruth is mortified, and so the plot is set; Tim and Ruth fall into their roles as adversaries, although Tim is generally an unwilling participant. Tim comes off as a sincere man, who wandered in his youth and failed as a husband and father. Now divorced, he shares custody of his daughter and tries hard to make amends. He too is somewhat aimless; he desires the past that he has lost and has no idea how to let go or move on. He is prodded into a relationship, and then marriage, with Carrie, a fellow parishioner, by the pastor.

It would be easy to focus on the red state/blue state split, the evangelical authoritarians against the liberal sophisticates. There are no new arguments here. What I carried from this book was an admiration of how well Perotta portrays characters. Even the pastor, the obvious lightning rod for anti-evangelical sentiment, doesn’t fall into that role. Pastor Dennis is a dynamic young man who converted Tim. I think enthusiastic best describes Dennis. Dennis is naturally disgusted with Tim for being so weak now; of course Tim made mistakes with his first wife. But now Tim pursues Ruth, spurning Carrie, and it seems realistic to me that while Dennis may overlook past transgression, he abhors what Tim does.

I think the least sympathetic character in the whole book is Carrie, Tim’s wife. She is dutiful to a fault. When I write these reviews, I have no  idea what the author’s intentions are (unless I’ve read interviews). It seems to me that Perotta’s intention with Carrie is to use her to represent the worse of the Christian authoritarian movement. First, Tim does admit that Carrie is his better. But then Perotta twists the knife a little – against Carrie. Carrie realizes it. Her attempt to provide a stable home is her duty. Her settling down with Tim is her duty. When Carrie buys sexy lingerie to ignite passion in their lives, it’s her duty. Submerging her desires; it’s her duty. Her marriage to Tim is a duty.

Therein lies Perotta’s main point; why are evangelicals so gung-ho about submission? Worse, it isn’t even as if Carrie does her duty for god. It is unclear if her motivation is faith, fear of being alone, or a need to amend her past by starting a life as a chaste wife. It is unclear what emptiness she is trying to fill. I might have mis-read the book, but I thought that all the other characters seem sincere. They generally believed in what they are doing, even if how they go about it turns into a complete mess. We don’t read too much about JoAnn’s life, or Pastor Dennis’s wife. As I had mentioned, it seems that JoAnn has it together.

As for Pastor Dennis, there is an element of pride in his pushing Tim to do the right thing; Tim was an official convert. Again, that is a reasonable portrayal of a very human sin. Tim struggles; he has lusts, and he knows what comes of it. He lost his wife over it. But lust is on the same continuum as a capacity for passion; he lacks that with his current wife. One problem is the biblical injunction to have stability, to have a woman simply to temper the man’s wild urges. Ruth is no stranger to sex; she has even enjoyed some of it. But she has also felt pain at being used, and her adult life seems devoted to addressing the symptoms of promiscuity, the logistics of avoiding pregnancy and disease management, and not so much really helping kids – or herself – find happiness or joy on their own terms. Ruth understands enough that religion is not a salve, and neither is living for the moment. But she isn’t sure how to proceed with living in the moment, to be happy and not merely pleasure-seeking. Carrie, by contrast, seems bitter. She has grown to dislike her past (promiscuous) self, but she doesn’t like her present self either. However, she seized on the fact that being able to suppressing her desires places her on moral ground, and more importantly higher than her husband. Despite her meekness, that’s the game she decides to play, and she certainly knows the score. That makes her the ugliest character in the story.

The strength of this story lies in the complicated characters. Especially Ruth and Tim, who are both aimless but sense they are currently at the nadir of their lives. In the end, Tim of course puts his lot with Ruth; although it should be a big statement against the use of religion, sex, or marriage as a bandaid on dissatisfaction with life, it felt more like a realistic first step these two trying to decide what actually makes them happy. I think this is a sublime ending.

Note: Not cool. I have had part of my review for Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher in draft for a couple of weeks. My blog is titled “No Time to Read”, I have less time writing reviews. I wanted to avoid writing short posts, as I prefer reading and writing longer, more thoughtful pieces. One thing I want to do is to combine and find links among multiple works (and I try doing that, somewhat clumsily, in this review.) To hell with that, I suppose. I’ll post the review as written, and I will follow up with the review of TAT “shortly”. I’ve also linked the books to Porter Square Bookstore, rather than Amazon, as Amazon doesn’t need my help.

Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher are two complex, sympathetic works. These are the only two Perrotta books I have read, but it is clear to me that he is a generous author, who is able to detail the complex thought chains lying below each of his characters’ surfaces. This generosity turns symbols into living, breathing people, enabling them to transcend simple, thematic opposition and actually interact with one another. The key point is that he does not treat the opposition as punching bags.

Little Children is the lesser work of the two, if only because the plot seems stilted next to the personalities. The inclusion of a child-molester in this story seems to serve no purpose other than to enable some opportunities for Brad to get out of the house (as part of a neighborhood watch group) and to provide some dramatic tension near the end of novel.

There is one misstep in characterization that occurs on the first page, when the women are introduced – except for our protagonist Sarah – as the mother of so-and-so child. It isn’t symbolism: it is a neon  sign that states Sarah is the contrarian of the bunch, a lapsed feminist who longs to be defined by anything other than motherhood. For the most part, the other women, who serve more as the Harpies than a Greek chorus, are not fleshed out. There is one little vignette where the shrew’s (Mary Ann’s) unhappy home life is laid bare, but for the rest of the story they serve to remind Sarah of the destiny awaiting her. No conversation is more meaningful than where the offspring is going to preschool, what toys are being recalled, what TV shows one had watched through heavy-lidded eyes.

That alone would drive one to drink, but Sarah chooses adultery instead. She was and is a mousy girl, who wanted to but couldn’t date the popular jock in high-school or college; she achieves this juvenile ambition by eventually sleep with Brad, a househusband who should be studying for his third attempt at passing the bar exam. The affair has great power within the context of the trapped lives both Sarah and Brad feel they lead. The excitement isn’t so much in the illicit nature of sneaking behind their spouses but rather in the fact that they share a common appreciation of one another. Therein lies the trick in Perrotta humanizing the two; certainly, I felt badly for Richard and Kathy, the spurned spouses. But I felt more sadness than anger in Sarah and Brad finding their escape in each other.

The humanization comes because one can identify with the cause of the affair: the perception that one’s spouse doesn’t fully appreciate him as a partner. It is not a matter of reality; it is that one spouse feels put upon and felt the need to seek that appreciation elsewhere. Brad is the simple case: he is going through his mid-life crisis early. He has failed the bar exam twice, but he states he entered law school on a whim. He watches teenage boys skateboarding and longs to join; instead, he winds up with a bunch of cops and ex-cops in a football league. He is satisfied being a house husband, but of course his wife is expecting him to contribute financially. Her moral support of his attempting the bar exam has crossed from wishing him well into an expectation that he will fail and not pull his financial weight. Sarah’s case is just as simple: her husband isn’t interested in her. She wants to be significant. She is intelligent, but decides that the only way to distinguish herself from the pack of mothers is to flirt with Brad. The two hit it off.

It would have been  cheap for Perrotta to distance the reader from Richard and Kathy. Instead, Perrotta turns them into people, each with flaws. Kathy is a harried woman, one reaching the limit of her patience with her husband. Fairly or not, she feels too put upon. She works and so doesn’t spend enough time with her son. Although she is following her dream of directing documentaries, it doesn’t pay well. She has been understanding and a cheerleader for her husband – despite his repeated failure. She is tired. Richard is more difficult to describe; he appreciated Sarah’s intelligence when they first met and now provides financial stability for their family. But in the end, he too is tired and desires something less ordinary.

That is what I like about Perrotta’s writing. Sure, he slings barbs at suburban life, but his characters are people like you or me. Under any number of circumstances, we could be Sarah, Richard, Kathy or Brad. Perrotta’s characters in an understandable manner, despite our disapproval. Recently, I had read Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which helped crystallized some ideas about human emotional and cultural baggage for me. Perrotta’s characters strike me as real because he describes the dissonance between basic desires driving action (i.e. nature) and  professed desires (the sum of education, environment, and upbringing) so well.

One scene that illustrates this is when Brad notices that his son flat out ignores him as soon as Mom (Kathy) comes home. That scene bundles the flash of Brad’s jealousy of the bond between son and mother, the fact that the boy and mother essentially enter their own world and exclude him, and the fact that he might be feeling both unmanly (for being a house husband) and his efforts not being recognized by his son or appreciated by his wife. Everything about this scene rings of authenticity. Again, without declaring whether there is validity in the perception (although one will be either sympathetic to Brad or not), the sum of all these minor events build up the case that Perrotta is interested in explaining (and thus looking past one’s view of the adulterers), but not excusing , Brad’s and Sarah’s behaviors.

I would guess the moral of the story is that communication only goes so far. Perhaps that is what love means: that a partner thinks enough of the other person to continue talking. If so, then Perrotta must think the world a loveless place.

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