I feel a bit guilty writing this about a book that was a finalist for the Pulitzer in fiction, but here it is: this book underwhelmed me. That is not to say that it was bad, or that I wouldn’t recommend it, merely that my high expectations were not borne out. I think my disappointment stems from the potent expectation-raising combination of a) being nominated for a Very Prestigious Award, b) a glowing play-by-play by my very-well-read-now-ex-boyfriend (phew, that’s a mouthful) and c) a great, rollicking kick-off that only bolstered my incredibly high expectations.
I’ve been rolling this review around in my head for a while now, trying to pinpoint exactly what proved so disappointing, and it’s been tricky. To begin with, as noted above, the novel begins with exuberance, excitement and fabulously crafted language (most reviews of Russell’s work comment on this, and it’s because its true- the woman knows how to string together some incredibly evocative sentences). Russell drops us into the lush and humid marshlands of south Florida, where we are immersed in the world of a family-owned swamp-themed amusement park (the titular “Swamplandia!”) down on its luck. Narrated largely in first person by the family’s youngest daughter, 12 year old Ava Bigtree, the opening paragraph informs us that things are going from bad to worse and that we are now along for the ride to the bottom. With this running start, Russell dives headfirst into her narrative (literally, her characters dive into the alligator pit as part of their show), and the story get very captivating very quickly.
Given my initial affinity for the book, it’s this part of the review that I find harder to write- what happened to my affections? Why did I lose my desire to finish something I had once found so captivating? To begin with, the plot hits a lull somewhere in the last third/quarter. Where the earlier events sailed quickly from event to event, this last part beaches itself without seeming to know how to get back out into the sea of plotline (not-really-a-spoiler: this is the part of the book where Ava is out on the swamp with the Birdman and Kiwi is plugging along at the rival theme park). The tone of the book also changes with this plot lull. Despite knowing from the beginning that we’re watching “The End” to the family theme park, the early sections of the book were fun- they dealt with heavy subject matter like it was an adventure to live through. In the later problematic section, though, the heavy subject matter becomes heavy, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t usually looking forward to picking the book back up.
Like the book itself, I’m running out steam for this review, but the English lit major in me feels the need to tack on a conclusion here. Overall, this is a book worth reading. I love Russell’s way with words, in particular the descriptions of the south Florida setting. I just want to caution other readers to keep the expectation bar at a medium setting. I want them to read it like it was on the “Recommended Reads” wall at Chapters rather than the “Pulitzer-nominated” list. (And then I want to talk to them about it and see if more realistic expectations left them feeling more impressed than those of us who had to lower the bar midway through).