Today I’ll catch up with some reviews that have been waiting for a bit AND make a complete Bingo across the top row!
First up: For the spot Monster, I offer: To Paradise by Yanagihara. I chose “monster” for this book because of its intimidating length (over 700 pages! I don’t read tomes that like very often any more) and because I felt very nervous about reading it after being so utterly destroyed by A Little Life. Well. I can’t exactly say that this book matches ALL in tone, or in the way that I was absolutely drawn into the story (but I suppose I can be thankful that it also didn’t leave me a weeping puddle). The novel is really three books with stories that seem to be related (at least, the character names echo one another, but it’s not entirely clear if any of the three are set in the same universe). Book 1 is told around 1893, in an alternate world in which the United States is actually fractured into many different countries, including The South where slavery is still legal and popular, The West, where slavery and homosexuality are both illegal, and a small free country in the north east, including (importantly) Washington Square in New York, where gay marriage is legal and women are given equal rights. Book 2 moves in time and place to 1993, when Hawaii has returned to its independent status. Book 3 is the longest, and in my opinion probably the most compelling of the three novels. In Book 3, set in 2093, the world is faced with more or less constant pandemics. Factions arise that are highly suspicious of the nature of the pandemics, seeing conspiracies in governments to control the population, while scientists argue for increasingly severe measures to isolate and prevent the spread of disease, including disease colonies. It’s bleak. There are stories of both loving and loss, and I kept thinking “This should be more compelling!” – but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t totally compelling for me. I kept feeling as though I sort of HAD to keep reading, rather than wanted to.
Next: The Swimmers, by Julia Otsuka – for the spot recommended, because this book has been on so many different top 10 lists. I pulled this out of my TBR pile because of the brevity, so needed after that last book, and also because the library was steadily reminding me that lots of others want to read it. The first half is told in the first person plural, describing a rag-tag group of swimmers who spend their morning at a local underground swimming pool. We get a sweeping view of the reasons why they feel so connected to this space and what it means to each of them to be a swimmer – and then we get to zero in on one swimmer in particular, Alice. Alice has Alzheimer’s, and as it progresses we see glimpses of her life and the lives of those she loves. Just as the swimming pool begins to slowly crack, so too does Alice’s life. It’s a bit existential, part meditation on how we deal with change. It was lovely.
And finally, I finished: Nuclear Family, for the spot Cold – because that’s how I felt about this family, and the book generally. And as I’m writing that, I realize it’s a little unfair – I think, especially in the last section, there was an attempt to show more warmth and love between the families. This is a great example of a book that I think I can recognize is probably very good for some other reader, but honestly just did NOT work for me. I almost DNF, but I was so far into the novel that I just wanted to keep going. I didn’t like the characters. The ways in which the writer chose to play with format just didn’t work for me (and I usually really like that sort of thing). This is the story of the Cho family, immigrants from South Korea who have been living in Hawaii for most of their children’s lives. Their older son travels to South Korea to teach English and reconnect to his Korean family, and while there causes an international stir by attempting to cross into North Korea. The novel uses a hefty does of magical realism, as we learn that the elder son wasn’t just suicidally unaware of international relations but was actually possessed by the spirit of his dead grandfather (whom he had never met). There were elements that I could appreciate, but for the most part I found this novel a bit difficult to get through.
What I appreciated about all three of these novels was a connection among Asian American families, and in particular Asian American families living in Hawaii. It’s always a pleasure to read more deeply about a particular subject, and for me I get so much out of reading fiction in that manner. I wish that I had ultimately enjoyed the actual novels themselves a bit more, but despite my grievances with the books I was glad to have read all three.