The Wedding Machine: Appalling

October 5, 2008

My wasting time with, er, reading, The Wedding Machine is the result of a recent “dash and grab” trip to the library on a Friday afternoon on my way home from work.  I thought it sounded cute:  4 Southern women responsible for planning proper events for the births, marriages, and deaths in their community and how this “machine” breaks down as they plan their children’s nuptials.  What’s not to like?  I thought it would be a light, sweet book.  A quick, easy read.

First of all, the South of South Carolina and further south must be very different from my experience in North Carolina (and I was born and raised in a small town–cue John Mellencamp).  Ray, who has inherited the propriety mantle from the previous generation deplores change whether it be Northerners, changes to her church, her free spirited daughter, etc.  Ray classifies everything that is not the way she wants or thinks it should be as deplorable.  Through her eyes, difference is seen as something abhorrent.  Hilda, the princess, has driven away her husband through her inability to connect with him by not revealing her childhood sexual abuse.  She reacts to his leaving her by locking herself in her house and not coming out (and this is a woman in her 50s!).  Kitty B, whose wedding in the late 60s opens the novel, has come to despise her husband for what she believes are fabricated illnesses while he apparently despises and blames her for the oft-mentioned death of their infant 25 (or 27–we’ll get to that later) years ago.  The sad thing is that they have two other living children and it is apparently their dead infant who is always on their mind.  And Sis, poor Sis, lost her fiance in Vietnam and has never married.  And apparently remains a virgin still. 

WTF?  These women were pathetic.  The narrative is set in the present, yet jumps back often to various points in the women’s past.  And speaking of the timeline, frankly, I didn’t understand it.  Hart referred to certain spans of time but then things like the births and ages of children didn’t make sense.  Could she not do the math?  I was confused about when things actually happened. 

I confess that I never would have touched this book if I had noticed that it was considered “inspirational” fiction.  It’s just not a type of fiction I enjoy.  However, I gave it a chance and finished it, and I was perplexed where the “women of faith” designation came in.  Yeah, sure, these women went to church and considered their church important to them, but they did not act remotely Christian.  Ray was busy judging everyone around her, and their church showed up only when it was a plot point or setting for a wedding or baptism.  Honestly, if the book hadn’t had the “inspirational fiction” label provided by my library system, I would have never known.

The only good thing I could say about this book and these hateful, sad women is that it was a quick read.  I read it in a couple of hours.   Maybe it’s a generational difference: I am over 2 decades younger than the women in the book.  Maybe my mother would be able to relate.  But I just didn’t think these women were good characters.  There was little to like about them.  Why must books–even modern books–set in the South be so pathetic?  I felt the same way about Girls in Trucks.  I fully believe that there are ways that an author can depict Southern traditions and quirkiness without making Southerners seem so pitiful and one-dimensional. Surely?


Rites of Spring (Break): Ah, College

September 28, 2008

Rites of Spring (Break) is the third installment in Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl Series.  Amy Haskel and the rest of her “Digger” members in Eli University’s Rose & Grave secret society head to the society’s private island for spring break.  Amy has had a bad spring semester with escalating pranks between Rose & Grave and another secret society, pranks that turn personal very quickly as well as the uncertain return of her former boyfriend, Brandon, so naturally, she is looking forward to a few weeks of R&R on the island.  Alas, it is not to be.  As soon as she and her friends arrive, strange, sinister events begin happening, including Amy almost drowning and belongings becoming defaced.  And is romance with an unlikely member in the air?

Every time I get one of the books in the series, I can’t put it down.  I feel so juvenile reading the series (since there is a good 10 years between me and Amy), but Peterfreund writes so well that the books are elevated beyond what they might be in the hands of a lesser writer.  And frankly, I just enjoy them. Maybe it’s because they take me back to college where like Amy, I was a lit (English) major.  Maybe it’s because I am intrigued by secret societies, and it is no secret that the Rose & Grave is based on Yale’s Skull and Bones (Peterfreund’s alma mater).  These books are just soapy, clever fun.  The worst part is that Peterfreund plans only one more book in the series 😦

My verdict:  excessively diverting

Cocktails for Three: the Drinking was the best part

September 28, 2008

2000 was a busy year for Sophie Kinsella.  In addition to publishing the first book in her Shopaholic series, she published Cocktails for Three under her real name, Madeleine Wickham.  Cocktails for Three is about three friends who work for a London magazine and meet regularly at the Manhattan for drinks. Writer Candice is naive and trusting, believing everyone needs a helping hand while trying to deal with her guilt over the crimes her dead father committed.  On the eve of giving birth to her first child, editor-in-chief Maggie prides herself on her ability to manage any situation and person but finds herself overwhelmed with life in the country with a newborn.  Travel writer Roxanne regularly jets off to exotic locales for the magazine, yet finds herself tied to London by her married boyfriend, hoping fervently that he’ll make a life with her.  Little do they know that their lives are about to change drastically.

This book was ok.  I was surprised by how “ok” I found it since it had received pretty good reader reviews.  I think part of the problem I had with the book was reading it with my 2008 sensibilities.  In 2000 when the book was written, chick lit hadn’t peaked yet.  The situations likely seemed fresh in 2000 but seem a little dated now.  Interestingly, I wondered if Wickham borrowed some of Candice’s background for the protagonist’s background in Remember Me, the novel published in 2008 under her Kinsella pseudonym.  I noticed definite similarities.

All in all, just ok.  It’s fairly well-written though a little dated.  It sort of feels like a novel by a writer discovering her genre (though it was her 4th or 5th).

Names My Sisters Call Me: Not so bad being an only child?

August 18, 2008

I’m an only child who has always longed desperately for siblings.  However, after reading Megan Crane’s Names My Sisers Call Me, maybe I should abandon the sibling fantasy and enjoy being an only child. Lessee…Courtney, the youngest of three sisters, decides that her engagement and wedding will be the event that heals rifts in the family.  Rifts caused when free-spirited middle sister Raine ruined controlling, Type-?A oldest sister Norah’s wedding and then departed with her best friend Matt who was also Courtney’s first boyfriend.  Years have gone by since those events, and against Norah’s wishes, Courtney decides to visit Raine…and Matt.  Soon, artistic, cellist Courtney is questioning everything in her life, and Raine and Norah are fighting as bitterly as always.  Matt seems to be everywhere, and Raine seems to be determined to make Courtney doubt everything. 

I had read Crane’s earlier book English as a Second Language and hadn’t been all that impressed, so I was surprised to like Names My Sisters Call Me as much as I did.  Courtney seemed rather naive yet real, and the entire family is dealing with some heavy issues as their father left the family to live in CA and died before Courtney was born.  I can understand the allure of wanting your entire family around you or just wanting your family whole and healed.  All the characters were well-developed with the exception of Raine who remained a touch undeveloped, which in a way contributed to her role as catalyst.  Through her, Courtney grows up and accepts and appreciates the life she has worked so hard for.  Norah’s control freak tendencies are put into perspective and she is softened somewhat.  You end up feeling slightly sorry for Raine, which is ok.  It’s a book that has more depth than I expected although throughout I had that “it’s going to end up badly feeling”.

Getting Over It: I’m Trying to

August 5, 2008

Publishers Weekly wrote that if Anna Maxted’s Getting Over It  had been published before Bridget Jones’ Diary, it would be hailed as the Brit chick lit standard.  Good God, I hope not. Getting Over It is the story of Helen Bradshaw, a thirtyish London worker who is having a bad year:  her career is going nowhere, her boyfriend is a rakish loser, she sleeps with the wrong men and scares off the right ones, she’s a slob, and worst of all, her father dies unexpectedly.  There’s a lot going on in poor Helen’s life, but like her, it’s a mess.

It was Maxted’s debut novel, and it shows.  Helen was apparently not close to her father and her self-centered mother falls apart after his death, requiring Helen’s almost constant attention.  Yet these situations are alternately given a lot of weight and then resolved in a few sentences or in a way that seems insufficient given that those relationships seemed to be crucial parts of the plot.  Helen can’t seem to get it together at all, and it’s a little shocking for someone her age (which is MY age by the way).  She’s amazingly immature, and I can’t decide if she has genuine friends or if all her friends are assholes because none of them seem there for her. 

I get what Maxted is trying to do:  showing Helen’s maturation over the course of a year.  But it doesn’t really work.  Helen makes too many false starts and seems to kind of end up in a better place in spite of herself.  I think Helen is supposed to seem real and relatable due to her flaws, but it was too much for me.  She’s a mess and not really likable.  And the book just sort of ambles to its end having gone on far too long.

The Little Lady Agency: Guilty Pleasure

July 30, 2008

I am not going to apologize for the fact that I read quite a bit of chick lit over vacation.  I stated in my first post that I am not a book snob, and I enjoy a good work of fiction that doesn’t require deep thought.  Hester Browne’s Little Lady Agency Series is technically Brit Chick Lit, but it was very entertaining, and I liked Melissa Romney-Jones, her main character.    So far, there are three books in the series.  The series is about Melissa Romney-Jones, a woman from a dysfunctional yet somewhat aristocratic family who has few marketable skills but who has a talent for managing and organizing.  Melissa is curvy and sweet but has low self-esteem thanks to her family and after being laid off from yet another job, stumbles upon the idea to open a business that caters to helping organize and manage men’s lives.  She’ll send flowers to mothers and girlfriends.  She’ll help the men change their style of dress and counsel them on hygiene matters.  And she does this dressed as Honey, a no-nonsense blonde who wears tight 50s retro clothes and exhibits retro, proper behavior.  It sounds…sketchy…and that’s sort of a running joke and misconception throughout the series, but I promise you that this is not a series about an escort or high-priced hooker.  The three books are as follows:

  1. The Little Lady Agency (in which we meet Melissa and she establishes her agency)
  2. Little Lady, Big Apple (in which Melissa visits her boyfriend in NYC and ponders whether his career is more legitimate than hers)
  3. The Little Lady Agency and the Prince (in which Melissa helps a friend of the family back in London, ponders a move to Paris (!) and makes some hard decisions)

As I said above, I really liked these books.  I liked that the heroine was curvy.  She wasn’t necessarily overweight…this isn’t a novel about a heavy girl makes good.  She has a real body and her curves are presented as attractive and desirable.  Sure, Melissa was concerned about her weight, but what woman isn’t?  I like that it wasn’t a huge deal unlike the whole Renee Zellweger-Bridget Jones debacle (for the record, if anyone bothered to read the damn book, Bridget wasn’t fat either; she was just a normal, healthy woman who wished she were a bit thinner.  Not the big fucking deal the movie made it out to be.  Humph).  I guess I really identified with Melissa:  crazy family, less-than-stick thin, wondering whether you have any skills and where you fit in, worrying about keeping your identity when you are in a relationship and wondering if there is another “you” that you could put on like a suit of armor who handled every situation brilliantly and always had a snappy comeback.  I’ve been there; haven’t we all? 

Browne is a smart writer, and Melissa and her situations seem real.  I think that this series has a lot more depth than your average chick lit book.  Sometimes I am frustrated with chick lit because the women are too glamorous or have outrageous jobs with which I can’t identify (not that I exactly know what it’s like to run an agency but I can comprehend that more than I could working in Hollywood or working on a magazine) or even worse, the women are almost too flawed or screwed up for me to identify with them.  Melissa and her friends seem like people I know without trying too hard to be “just like everyone you know.”

Sure, there were parts of the series that dragged.  I wished Melissa had a bit more spine sometimes, and I don’t understand why both Browne’s series and Kinsella’s Shopaholic series had to take the heroines to NYC (where everything is on the line!!); is it some British rite of passage?  The second book in the series was my least favorite.  But overall, the series is an enjoyable, quick, meaty, guilt-free read.  I hope that Browne plans to continue the series.

Remember Me? Maybe

July 29, 2008

Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella kicked off my vacation reading, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.  It’s about Lexi Smart, who the first chapter establishes as a someone who is not having a very good life.  Her career is going nowhere, and she just missed out on receiving a bonus by a few days.  She has appearance issues, including being slightly overweight and having horrid teeth.  Her boyfriend is a loser (literally called “Loser Dave”) who treats her like crap.  To top it all off, her father just died and she is facing his funeral the next day.

Next thing we know, Lexi wakes up in the hospital a few years later with amnesia and instead of her sad life, her new life is positively glamorous:  gorgeous face and body, great clothes, trappings of wealth and a gorgeous husband.  The problem is that she can’t remember any of it.  Even worse, her last memory is of the less-fab, doormat Lexi; somehow in the intervening years, Lexi has become a, well, bitch.  The rest of the book deals with Lexi’s attempt to reconcile the life she has with the life she remembers and figure out how she has changed so dramatically.

This was a pretty good book.  I liked it better than Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, which always ended well, but Becky frustrated me throughout (show some restraint and do some basic math!).  It was interesting how Kinsella ended the first chapter of Remember Me? with a bump on the head that ultimately was a red herring for the rest of the book.  Sure, sometimes Lexi seemed a little too obtuse and unable to understand how much she had changed in the last 4 years, but she was likeable.  There was a depth to this novel that some of Kinsella’s previous ones have lacked and some surprisingly poignant moments.  And some hysterical ones as well (two words:  Mont Blanc).  I really felt sorry for Lexi and how out of control she felt as she tried to put the pieces of a life she can’t remember back together. 

And it’s Brit Chick Lit!  How can you go wrong?

Also Recommended: 

  • the Shopaholic series (if you can get past Becky’s too-often financial idiocy)
  • the Little Lady Agency series (Browne):  more to come in subsequent posts