My very first Cannonball review. Here’s hoping I can read and review the full Cannonball. Reading them won’t be a problem, it’s the reviewing.
For my first book I’m presenting Speak Easy by Catherynne Valente. Zelda Fair lives in hotel Artemisia, and it’s the hotel of your 1920’s dreams. There are parties on every floor and Zelda is the toast of all of them. Frankie, a poor bellhop, is besotted with her. And Al, the underground ruler of it all, steals her away. Catherynne Valente took Zelda Sayre, F. Scot Fitzgerald, the roaring 20s, Prohibition, and the fairy tale of The 12 Dancing Princess then chewed them up with her lovely language and spit out this novella.
It’s a very gorgeous work and Valente’s lyrical writing style is one I normally adore. When her language falls into place with plots and character she can create an absolute masterpiece. I have no qualms about saying that she’s one of my favorite authors, and possibly most favorite living author. However, occasionally I will read one of her stories and I can see the lovely pictures she creates with her words but when I try to put those pictures together into something resembling a story the whole thing falls apart. Which is to say, occasionally her gorgeous language masks an empty nothing of a story. Beautiful language is nothing if there is no content to support it. This book falls somewhere in the middle.
As a quick background, Valente loves the writers of the 20s. She’s obsessed with that group of American expat writers who set up in Paris. This book is partly her love story to that group, though it takes place in a fictional NYC hotel. Can’t have the Roaring 20’s without Prohibition I suppose. I know very little about the writers of this time period, and I know I haven’t read a lot of their works, so I’m sure there are references that I’m missing in this novel. I had to Google Zelda Fitzgerald in order to really understand some of the bits she threw in. Like the matchstick, once I understood that it became a pretty heartbreaking prop.
The first third of the novella is a really just description after description of the imaginary hotel she has her characters living in along with depictions of those characters. It’s very beautiful and imaginative but there’s no story there, it’s all set up. The whole first third of the novella, not just a few pages. It was extremely hard to get through as there was no story to bind the images together in any way. However, once the plot gets going, it’s a much better story and then the lyrical writing really takes off.
I’m a very big fan of Valente’s writing style, and this book is a decent if not great example of why. She uses a strong narrator to tell the story to you and that invokes a mood of sitting with the most fascinating person in the world as they spin you their tale. This helps make the description parts of the novel a bit more bearable, and I think the novella would probably be an excellent one for audio reading.
“She’s got a man’s nightshirt on and stockings with holes in them. Somebody else’s tie, a gold and green chevroned number, hangs around her neck and just at this moment it looks like a king’s mantle draped over her shoulders. Her hair’s all loose, her lipstick and eyeliner gone a-roving. She’s got a cigar in one hand and a jar full of gin in the other, and she’s laughing, laughing like for once that damned chicken crossed the road for something really good.”
Do I recommend the novel? With reservations. I think if you’re a fan of Valente’s work then yes you’ll probably enjoy this one as well. I did. But if you’ve never read any of her works I think I’ll tell you to check out something else first.