Friday, April 22, 2011

No Room For Improvement

I wasn't sure whether I would blog about Emma Donoghue's much revered novel, Room.  What could I say that has not already been said?  The book came out last September and ended up on practically every year end best-of list.  It was short listed for the Man Booker Prize, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and most recently, was short listed for the Orange Prize.  Perhaps most tellingly, it also was named Best Fiction of 2010 on the literary social networking sight Goodreads, cementing its status as that not overly common thing: the commercial and critical success story.

I don't want to review Room, per se, but I do feel a need to write about it.  The book is not light reading, although it is fast paced and immediately engaging.  The plot revolves around five-year-old Jack and his mother, Ma, who are held hostage in a sound proofed garden tool shed of 11x11 dimensions.  Jack was born into this room, so he has known nothing but what resides within its four walls for the duration of his life.  He has never felt sunlight, only glimpsed it through Room's skylight.  He refers to it as God's face.

Jack's mother was kidnapped while walking to class during her first year of college, and she was imprisoned for two years before Jack was born, so she has not known fresh air or sunlight for seven years.  The name of the captor is Nicholas, referred to as Old Nick, and he appears once a week to deliver Sunday Treat (usually a necessity of some sort), and to force himself upon Ma.

From this horrific scenario springs a story so enveloping and powerful that you will not be able to put it down.  Emma Donoghue chose to tell the story from Jack's point of view, and she manages to maintain the perspective of a five-year-old throughout the entire book.  Jack speaks as a child would, specifically, a child who has not known anything beyond the confines of Room.  You quickly become familiar with "Jack Speak." For example, "Ma hotted up dinner," and "I switched off" (meaning, go to sleep).  It's a bold move to write a book from this perspective, but to maintain a consistent voice throughout is exceedingly admirable.

I won't tell you whether Jack and Ma make an escape from Room, but here's a hint: the book unfolds almost like a play, with two very distinct acts.  The first act is notably descriptive and deliberate, detailing the surroundings of Room and the day to day activities that sustain Jack and Ma.  The second act is much faster paced, with more characters and action.  However, the book does not feel disjointed, nor does the pace ever drag.

Room was the latest book read by the Bailey Title Waves, a contemporary fiction discussion group that I facilitate at the Bailey Library on the third Wednesday of each month.  This is a dynamic group of passionate, smart readers, and we have taken on some challenging novels over the past seven months.  Usually the group's opinion is somewhat split, with several members loving a given title, while others are not big fans.  Always, though, the discussion is lively, and even the non-fans find something to like in each of the books.  With Room, I think we came closest to a general consensus, with almost every member present giving a high five to the novel.  One member went so far as to say it exemplifies a perfect read for her.  The book also led us, once again, to discuss the different reasons we read.  This same member said that she reads to be entertained: and Room is certainly a captivating reading experience.

As Emma Donoghue continues to collect accolades for her novel, I would like to say one more thing.  Although it is absolutely well-written, well-researched, and thoroughly engrossing, the book's greatest achievement seems to be its portrait of a mother's love for her child.  Given the unfathomable circumstances in which these characters found themselves, Ma did everything in her power to create some semblance of a life for Jack.  She made sure he exercised regularly, ate healthily, and was exposed to books.  She taught him math, vocabulary, and  valuable life lessons in every way she could.  Without giving much away, I'll also say that she makes the ultimate sacrifice to try and assure their escape.  Reading this book is an emotionally affecting experience, with never a dull moment.  Hats off to Emma Donoghue for this powerful novel, which I think deserves every award it's winning.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson

Victoria Patterson is a first-time novelist (she also has one collection of short stories, Drift, to her credit), and if This Vacant Paradise is any indication, she has a bright literary career ahead of her.

I picked up This Vacant Paradise on a whim, because the summary on the book jacket appealed to me.  I'm so glad I did.  It's a great read, quick and effortless, but makes you think a lot along the way.  The characters are (almost too) real, the writing is crisp and descriptive without being overly flowery, and there is a strong plot.  The novel is a modern version of Edith Wharton's masterpiece, The House of Mirth, but you need not have read that book to enjoy this one.  The setting of This Vacant Paradise is affluent Newport Beach, CA, in the early 1990s.  I found it refreshing to read a book set during the time of my early adolescence (although in a far different locale than the one in which I grew up), and the pop culture and news references that Patterson sprinkles throughout brought back memories.

The main character of This Vacant Paradise is Esther Wilson.  She is 33 years old and a stunning beauty.  She is also single and lonely.  Esther has been raised with one goal, "to marry well," but things are not going according to plan.  Although she has dated a series of wealthy duds, her heart belongs to Charlie, a college professor who simply does not have the financial means to offer her the lifestyle she believes she must have.

At first glance, you may think that this novel has a simple premise: will Esther choose wealth or love?  However, there is a lot more at play in Patterson's novel.  Questions of beauty and age, social standing, greed, and familial acceptance are all raised.  Esther is absolutely beautiful, but she's also perceptive and savvy.  She knows that in another seven years, her looks will not serve her in the same way they currently do.  There is a sort of desperation, as she tries to use her assets to secure her future, before she is left to rely on other methods.  As a reader, you know that Esther is certainly smart enough to get by when her looks fade, but because of her surroundings and the way in which she was brought up, she has not yet realized this fact for herself.  Whether or not she learns what we already know is something you'll have to find out by reading this great novel.

There are some interesting supporting characters in Esther's world, including her racist, verbally abusive Grandma Eileen; drug addicted brother, Eric; and Rick, a selfish man who works as Eileen's caretaker and turns her against the rest of her family (who, truth be told, are a bunch of selfish ingrates).  Ultimately, though, This Vacant Paradise belongs to Esther.  She is a flawed character, possessive of some of Grandma Eileen's prejudices, but more sympathetic since we are allowed a peek into her background (tragic childhood, etc.).  Esther has a certain detachment that lends itself well to this book.  At times, you feel she is living in a dream, but perhaps that's what happens when one's goals are so single minded and superficial.

Patterson is a talented, insightful writer, and I look forward to seeing where her career takes her.