Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pretty people with problems

Book: Birds of Paradise

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Published: September 2011 (Norton)

Pages: 362

So. It’s official. I’m getting bored with lit fic, and it’s all the fault of books like this.
When my boyfriend handed me this one, I did what I always did with paperbacks: flipped it over and hoped there’d be a decent summary and not just a cover of unhelpful blurbs (although I like trying to figure out what the publisher left out of the ones with ellipses in their middles). So far so good.

As I read the nice full summary, I went down a mental lit fic calculation list: a couple is “still haunted by the disappearance” [check] “of their ineffably beautiful” [check] “daughter” [check] “who ran away when she was thirteen.” [check] The daughter’s a not-quite-street-urchin [check] who somehow survives on infrequent modeling jobs [check]. Her mom’s a pastry chef [check] and her dad’s an attorney [check]. Her brother grows up to own an organic food market [check for that and check for the fact that he really believes in the lifestyle]. They all work too much [check] which is probably the result of the girl’s disappearance [check]. They “must all confront their loss and sense of betrayal” [check] while the girl “must reckon with the guilty secret that drove her away.” [Check. A giant one.]

That, my friends, is a whopping 14 on the Contemporary Literary Fiction Typicalness Scale, which, okay, I totally just made up. But it sounds like the same general scenario that every other lit fic novel has had since like 1999, or at least since Jodi Picoult got so popular. In fact, this sounds exactly like a JP novel, doesn’t it? (The answer is yes).

However. HOWEVER. The writing elevates the subject matter.
Do you realize how exciting that is? The writing is good and treats the setting Miami like the strange wondrous place it is and manages to make most of the characters pretty much human in their shared but separate sufferings.
…until about page 130 or so, when the descriptions suddenly seemed to go bloated and way too detailed. They got heavy, those details, so the second half felt like slogging through the mother’s pastry dough.

Then things just ALMOST happen. Seriously. The brother needs money from his parents to keep his store open; attorney dad has a crush on this chick at the office and almost starts an affair, thinks about putting up $2.3 million for a sketchy condo deal; Hurricane-freakin’-Katrina is bearing down on everyone by the last hundred pages. AND GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. It all makes me angry. Grocery Boy gets the money from his parents, the condo deal turns out to be a scam that cuts and runs BEFORE the attorney puts up ANY money, and the hurricane leaves the grocery store AND the house PERFECTLY SAFE WHILE WRECKING EVERYBODY ELSE’S LIVES. For no good reason.

DAMMIT. Give me something at stake here, people! Why does the author even need to mention any of this if each problem is going to loom large and then just puff away like a cloud in wind? Focus completely on the daughter if that’s what you want to do. She’s more interesting anyway, although she makes me mad, too, because the book keeps saying she could have this awesome modeling career if she would bother to go to more go-sees or whatever, which first of all makes her stupid because it sounds like such little effort to get off the street (yet she still looks like Elizabeth Taylor, y’all, the young one) and have such a glamorous career and secondly this is literally all hearsay. There’s not one scene of her at these places with agents or whatever actually saying, “Hey, wanna come up to New York?” like the book says happens. But it doesn’t show us. It reminded me of that friend you have who’s always bragging about something cool in their life but never has any definite proof so you get suspicious and then tired of them talking about it because you never really believed them anyway.

And I don't know if the typos I spotted were still in the book because it's an advanced copy (I will never get tired of those), but a few were pretty jarring; one or two key words were left out, one looked only half typed, and a few times the dialogue attribution was confusing.

In one word: frustrating.

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