I hesitate to give negative reviews. I often choose books because they have good buzz, and supposedly a lot of bookish people out there liked it. Then, when I read the book and have only a lukewarm reaction, I wonder if I’m missing something. Did I completely overlook the magnificence of the novel in my haste to read it while the kids are napping? Am I too distracted with potty training and crying babies to appreciate the quality of a book? Has motherhood completely fried my brain and eviscerated my good judgment? Further, as a writer myself, I don’t want to criticize. I have no real qualifications to critique books other than that I’ve been reading voraciously for some thirty-odd years and I studied literature in college. But, try as I might, some books just don’t move me the same way they seem to have moved other readers out there.
The first novel I’ve read recently that I wasn’t particularly crazy about was Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. I had, of course, heard of Russell, since she is one of the 20 up-and-coming authors under the age of 40 as selected by the New Yorker, and I usually trust their taste. So I picked up Swamplandia! expecting to be blown away. However, I struggled through it. Everything about it was odd to me. The novel takes place on a swamp island in Florida, inhabited only by the Bigtree family (Chief and his kids Kiwi, Osceola, and the narrator and youngest daughter, Ava) and their alligator wrestling theme park. I have no point of reference for this environment. When reading fiction, that shouldn’t matter, since the prose should evoke even unfamiliar surroundings, but I simply could not get a picture in my mind of Swamplandia. Furthermore, I couldn’t get behind the characters. I’m not the type of reader who minds imperfect characters. In fact, I prefer them that way since they are more interesting and complex if they are flawed. But I often found myself thinking about each and every main character in this book, “What are you thinking?” For instance, Chief Bigtree, leaving his children behind for weeks without even checking on them once; Osceola, communing with ghosts; Kiwi, who is completely socially challenged, and never thinking to check in on his family even though he continually gets a busy signal when trying to phone them; and Ava, not knowing better than accompany a weird stranger out into the wilds of the swamp. I guess there’s also supposed to be some magical realism at work here, with lots of ghosts inhabiting the lives of the Bigtree family, but it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t magical when Ossie fell in love with a ghost. It was confusing. Sure, the Bigtree children were almost completely isolated from regular society, but I felt like a regular teenager would have simply run away to the mainland to real people, rather than imagine a ghost boyfriend, like some sort of imaginary friend of a preschooler.
The second novel that didn’t quite work for me was The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Though I didn’t love the book, I did like it. It was perfectly enjoyable. The Shakespeare references were cute (the father of the three “weird sisters” is an eminent Shakespeare scholar), and the bookish habits of the sisters were endearing. However, I wanted something more in the character development of the sisters. They became caricatures of themselves. Rose is the uptight sister! Bean is the slutty sister! Cordy is the free spirit sister! And sure, the sisters change as the book progresses, but we can see the changes a mile away. Will Rose end up with her true love, Jonathan, even if it means leaving her parents and her beloved midwestern hometown? Of course. Will Bean change her loose, city slicker ways and reform herself? Certainly. Will Cordy settle down once she has the baby? Yep! I would have liked to see something bad happen to the ladies. Perhaps that is just evil of me, but even in fiction, I don’t believe that everything should resolve perfectly. In real life, Rose wouldn’t have had the guts to leave the comforts of home, Bean would have continued her ill-advised affair with a married man and wreaked havoc in their tiny community (though I was gratified she didn’t enter into a relationship with the Episcopalian priest), and Cordy probably wouldn’t have had the baby. However imperfect, The Weird Sisters is readable, and would make for a decent beach read during these hot summer months.