An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Friday, March 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Love and Punishment by Wendy Harmer

Chick-lit usually focuses on the falling-in-love phase of a relationship. If there is any falling-out-of-love, it usually occurs when the heroine breaks up with her clearly unsuitable boyfriend to clear the way for Mr Right. So Wendy Harmer deserves credit for writing a novel almost exclusively devoted to that messy post-breakup phase.
We first meet Francie when she’s been dumped by her boyfriend of five years. That single fact and her grief over it forms the central theme of the book, as Francie journeys from total-mess to not-such-a-total-mess.  It’s hard to emphasise with Francie’s self-loathing at times, but Harmer writes honestly and does not pull any punches. I particularly liked her refusal to have Mr Right turn up in the end and save Francie from herself. Similarly, the gay character is not the camp stereotype that seems to infest chick-lit these days, but a fully realised chacter. In many respects Harmer has written a very original book.
Unfortunately, the structure and writing of Love and Punishment don’t always live up to expectations. For example, the role of the therapist who Francie visits to talk about her problems seems contrived, a device to move the plot along rather than a realistic character. Similarly, Francie’s repeated dreams featuring her ex and his new girlfriend are less than subtle.
On a personal level, I occasionally found Francie a bit irritating. I suppose that was a risk that Harmer took when she decided to have a main character who spends the entire book in floods of tears feeling sorry for herself. In the end she does pull it off though because you sense that the book was written honestly, self-pity, snotty noses and all.
My feeling is that Wendy Harmer is still in the process of development as a writer, trying to develop comedic one-liners into sustainable and believable characters. I think she’s got guts in taking on a fairly unattractive subject and she’s tried hard to avoid the usual clichés. This book was written in 2006 so I would pick up another of her more recent books. I have the feeling she’s not finished yet.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

It hardly needs restating that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love was, as she herself calls it, a “mega-bestseller”. Its painfully personal examination of a midlife crisis struck a chord with millions of women. In her follow up, Committed, Gilbert examines the concept of marriage in Western society, while retaining her intensely personal take on the subject.
The crux of the book is that Gilbert must marry her Brazilian sweetheart, Felipe, or he will be banned from the United States. As the survivor of a messy divorce (chronicled in Eat Pray Love) she had believed she would never marry again, and she approaches the idea with something close to terror. This book is her attempt to find some sort of peace with the notion of marriage. During their temporary exile from the US, Gilbert and Felipe travel through Southeast Asia, giving Gilbert the opportunity to consider the place of marriage in different cultures.
Gilbert retains the informal, personal tone that made Eat Pray Love so easy to read. She doesn’t attempt to write a scholarly dissertation, prefacing her discussion of many subjects with modest disclaimers, and the book is far from a complete history of its subject. Her research was somewhat eclectic – combining statistics, histories, and her own research in Southeast Asia with her own impressions and musings – and occasionally the book suffers from a lack of direction.
Like Eat Pray Love I suspect that people will enjoy the book to the extent that they like and identify with Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s far from a detached observer but she does try to be honest about her experiences and perceptions, and I remain in awe of her bravery at putting so much of her private life down on the page.  You could call Committed lightweight, and it is in one sense, but for Gilbert it was clearly not an easy book to write.
The only question that remains now, is where to from here? From the end of the book it looks like Gilbert may have run out of trauma to chronicle, so perhaps that explains why she is considering a return to fiction. It certainly seems like Gilbert will live happily ever after, and that’s the satisfying end to the story that her readers expect.