Fair to middling. That’s how I rate this book. I guess that gives it 2 1/2 stars on Amazon’s scale of 5. We read it for book club, and we haven’t met yet so I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but it was my second choice. I don’t gripe about reading books that are my second choice as a rule, so this review of the book is not sour grapes. It’s just full of alright already. Yeah, yeah. Alright already. I’m just not sure what this story was for.
Nutshell Review (because I don’t feel like spending a lot of time analyzing the story) with SPOILERS. Got that? SPOILERS: A PhD student wants to know who her father is, and her mother–who knows–won’t just tell her, which is dumb (because why bring it up at all for Jesus’s sake [it's actually for a religious reason she brings it up, not me being clever with some kind of blasphemous, exasperated turn of phrase] if you are still going to play head games with your child?), and at the same time the main character student is debating whether she should have an abortion after an ill-concluded affair with a married college professor. Willie, the student, is a brat and a jerk, and spends a lot of time looking through historical and family documents to get the answer, which she finds only when a ghost shows her the single hidden letter that reveals all. There is also a sea monster of the Loch Ness variety in the book, but it’s dead. If you enjoy reading stories about crabby people reading old documents because key information is being deliberately withheld from them on flimsy pretense and then discovering the answers only through supernatural intervention that only acts in any meaningful way at the precise moment when the crabby people need that exact form of help, then you will like this book.
The most interesting part of the book to me, in retrospect, is the Author’s Foreword. I am not joking. In the foreword, the author explains her personal connection to James Fenimore Cooper, and states her intention for writing the book in this format and her hope for what readers will learn. She talks about using novels (lies) to get at the truth about lives and people and places, and hopes that we will understand better the real town of Cooperston after reading about the fictional town of Templeton, where the action takes place. The author obviously relates specifically to the main character–perhaps not as a grad student or professional archaeologist, but definitely as a person with long family ties to the town and its founder. The book aims to teach us what it is like to live in the present day as people attached to so much history, and how one finds identity in the past as much as one forges identity in the present. The book is full of photographs and family trees, and (fictional) primary source documents, like letters and journal excerpts, and characters from Fenimore Cooper’s literary legacy, as well as other authors who served as inspiration for Groff, and attempts to create a picture of how families are built on recurring themes as well as recurring chromosomes, and how former transgressions and nobilities affect the lives of their descendants. Does the book accomplish it? I don’t think it does.
I’m not sure why. Part of it is the really contrived and basically stupid reason that Willie is having to look through all this material in the first place. Her mother, who is presented as an earnest person and a champion of others, is messing with her head. That’s it. That’s the only reason. The reader (I mean me) gets so hung up on the fact that this goose chase exists only to make a book that you don’t care who the father is, and you don’t care who the ancestors are. Also, all she has to do is read and read and read until she gets to the answer, so there’s not a lot of puzzling to do. It’s just busywork. All busywork. (Sully was another character that behaved in a random and arbitrary way out of the blue in order to advance the plot. It was jarring to learn that he left Clarissa for a goddess with a splinter, especially after the conversation he had with Willie on the telephone. But that was a good excuse to get Clarissa to Templeton!)
Another reason is that the book is an explicit tribute to James Fenimore Cooper, but all the names have been changed, and you have to keep wondering if this is an exact biography with different names or if any creative license has been taken with lore and family history, and it’s a distraction. James Fenimore Cooper is far more interesting than the main character, and when you leave his not-story to come back to the pointless “truth” of Willie’s experience, you are mad. Another reason is that the literary tributes to characters and other authors are too numerous. Turns out that Uncas and Cora have a baby! Turns out that Charlotte Temple is running around New England! Turns out that Scarlett O’Hara isn’t the only young widow stewing under the weight of heavy mourning! Turns out that Feminore Cooper didn’t like Susanna Rowson! Turns out sometimes people related to famous people who have love affairs with slaves try to deny the relationships! I started skipping those interludes that delved into these silly psychological musings about characters, especially The Buds, who suffered from groupthink. The letters between Cinnamon and Charlotte were interesting, and I liked Sarah’s mental breakdown (despite its echoes of Cunningham’s The Hours), and I thought the mother had a rich history I would have liked to learn more of, but overall there just wasn’t enough story. And there was absolutely no reason to have firestarters and ghosts in the book if they didn’t do anything or symbolize anything. The sea monster in the lake was supposed to represent the family and its ugly secrets, I think, and how beautiful it is to discover secrets and how sad it is to lose them, but it was badly used, too. The technical details about the sea monster at the end belonged in a different book. Maybe it was supposed to represent that Willie is ultimately an academic, but it was just strange. If you are going to employ a creature like the sea monster, it should have really been the ostensible center of the story, with Willie’s discoveries and investigations the ostensible B plot. You know, we watch the monster be revealed and exposed but the truth is really about uncovering the human past, that kind of thing. Bookends and a title do not a metaphor make. Also, if the monsters were supposed to be the horrible people in her family, there really weren’t any. Everyone was just trying to get by, with varying degrees of humanity and success.
I also don’t like the phantom pregnancy angle, but not because it was a bad idea. I think resolving the pregnancy storyline in that way could have supported the idea of lineage and inheritance and what it all means (and if it means nothing), but it was sort of dropped in as like some kind of abortion question cop-out. It was a missed opportunity to explore what it means to have descendants, and what we owe to our children versus to ourselves, and if Willie was going to be the end of the line, and the contrast between Sol having children he never knew about and Willie not having a child she thought she was having. I also liked the way she referred to the not-baby as a “lump,” because it made me think of lumps of clay, and how people can be molded but only to the limitations of their material make-up, and stuff like that. And then there was the sea monster with the unborn baby, and the self-fertilization stuff, and the baby that was swimming in the sea without a family, and the meth-head lost daughter who swam to the light, and so many beautiful moments that could have presented so many wonderful truths about families and individuals. But all we get is Willie, Willie, Willie, who got 1500 on her SAT, was homecoming queen, is the only person ever–apparently–to leave the town and make something of herself (which is tries to fail at) or to read Fenimore Cooper, and we learn an awful lot of truth about how self-absorbed big fish in little ponds can be.
It all makes me want to reread Possession by A. S. Byatt again, which I remember as a terribly thrilling and romantic book about grad students frantically searching for information about dead authors. I even liked the movie (especially that business with the letter and the little girl at the end). To echo what some reviewer on Amazon said about Monsters, it would probably also make a great movie. I think I would definitely go see that movie. I don’t know who I’d want in the lead role, though. But you know that actress who played Charlie on Ugly Betty and showed up as the germophobe teacher in Glee? I’d cast her as Charlotte Temple. I like her.