This year I decided I was going to try to read as many of the Whitney finalists as I can before the deadline for voting (April 23). I’m taking it in chunks-by-category, with the thought that this way, each category I complete is one more I get to vote for. Besides, this way I can post composite review/commentary posts like this one, where I talk briefly (or less briefly) about each book in turn, then make some general comments across the category. So here’s my first installment: general fiction.
First, a warning: I don’t know how to talk meaningfully about books without describing the basic challenge that is being addressed by the main characters, and in many cases without talking about how those conflicts are resolved. In other words, there are some spoilers here. Sorry about that; it’s just the way I write about literature.
And finally: These are only my own thoughts, as a private and opinionated reader. I don’t represent anyone except myself. That said, I’d be glad to see other people chime in with their opinions — whether in agreement with mine or not. I should also probably state that some of these books were provided in PDF format by the publishers, for review by Whitney Academy members, a courtesy of which I deeply approve, considering that here in Wisconsin there are many titles I can’t reasonably get through my local library system.
Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes
Why has single mother Rikki Crockett brought her daughter Kyle (13) and son James (7) back to Spanish Fork, where she grew up and had intended never to return? One reason — the main reason, we come to realize — is that this is where Dante lives, the boy she grew up with (saving each other from a neglectful home life) and was engaged to, before he left to go on a mission instead. She doesn’t have any intention of luring Dante (now a bishop, as she discovers when she shows up to church for the first time in years) away from his wife and family. Rather, she hopes he and his family will be willing to take care of her children when she dies from an untreatable brain tumor.
(Sorry about that. This is the biggie — the one I couldn’t talk about without revealing plot details.)
Rikki doesn’t regret the life she’s lived and the choices she’s made. What she does regret is that she won’t be there for her children.
All of this, of course, is far from clear at the outset (though we as readers suspect far more than the other characters). Chapters from the point of view of Rikki, Kyle, Dante, Dante’s wife Becca, and their oldest son Travis show us pieces of their lives as the two families intersect.
Characterization is the great strength of this story. All of the characters are realistic, human, likeable, eminently fallible but trying to rise above their flaws. Particularly skilful is the depiction of Becca, unsure whether she should feel threatened by Rikki, nervous about exposing her children to the distinctly non-LDS values Rikki’s family represents, but determined to reach out in friendship despite that. And Rikki. And Dante. And — well, you get the idea. These are characters that have firmly lodged themselves in my mind and memory.
There are many, many plot threads in this story, all about flawed people helping other people. We see here pieces of a Mormon ward at its best and most realistic. The sisters of the ward, in particular, come through for Rikki and her family in ways she finds hard to understand, even before they realize the true challenge she’s facing.
The helping doesn’t all go one way. Rikki becomes the one who listens to Becca’s faded dreams for doing things beyond taking care of the household — and bullies her into acting on them, and then tells Dante he needs to do better at supporting her (privilege of a childhood best friend). Rikkie also provides Travis, going through some teenage acting out, some realistic advice — and prompts him to ask Dante about his own growing up, helping them to forge a stronger connection.
This is a story that could easily have been sappy and sentimental, and probably some readers will still find it such; but for me, the story earns the emotions. If there’s one quibble I have with the book, it’s that some of the conflicts are too simply resolved, or at least too easily put on the road to resolution. I’m thinking here in particular of Travis’s rebellion, which we have hints may have gone beyond what we see in the novel — but which he seems to get past remarkably quickly. I also predict that Becca’s attempts to carve out more time for herself (and Dante’s attempts to support her in doing so) will inevitably suffer setbacks. There’s a whole book there waiting to be written (if Nunes chooses to write it) about all of the what-happens-next. Probably, though, it’s better just to leave all that in the imagination of us as readers.
This is a very strong book. It would take some beating to edge out this book in this category, and for my money, none of the other finalists — good as they are in various ways — is up to the task. The others were at times entertaining, enjoyable, thought-provoking; this was the only one I found moving.
Gifted by Karey White
What happens when a couple adopts a child who simply makes everything around her better? Who never gets sick or hurt? Who makes rooms brighter, stops arguments simply by being there, makes the other children in her class (as well as herself) learn faster? And what challenges might her parents face?
This book is an enjoyable read, charming at times and likely to appeal to a lot of mothers who have felt that special experience of having a first child transform one’s world — but also somewhat one-dimensional. As an sf&f fan, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the central premise and how it was developed. The style is somewhat flat. While I like the characters, this book isn’t at the same level as Before I Say Goodbye in terms of depth of characterization, thematic elements, and insight about on the world. There are also a few loose ends (whatever happened to Dusty? what was up with Miss Drake?).
On an allegorical level, I think perhaps this is supposed to be a kind of imaginative retelling of the story of Jesus in mortality (a child who feels no pain, but chooses to do so so she can be like everyone else, and then gives her life for her friend), but honestly I like the book better when I don’t think of it that way.
The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill
A rich and famous fantasy artist. Political power plays on the board of a hospital. Shady ousters of museum directors. Ecoterrorists. A deadly car wreck, and a heroic rescue of a drowning girl. If those sound like ingredients for a TV mini-series or prime-time soap opera like Dallas, well, that’s kind of the way The Evolution of Thomas Hall struck me. Which isn’t meant as a criticism, but rather as my best attempt at describing the genre of this particular novel. Maybe it’s simply mainstream popular novel.
First the good news: This novel tells an exciting story, and the basic conflict — an artist without much of a belief system aside from his relationship to his own art (which itself is in tension with his attraction to the material benefits of commercial success), being pulled in different directions by projects that call on him to make a commitment either for or against religion — has strong intrinsic interest for an LDS audience (including me as a reader). Merrill’s sense of pacing and juggling of multiple plot threads is also generally strong, though there were times toward the end where I felt he dropped the ball in giving each thread its due. Despite that, I had difficulty prodding myself to keep reading the book, mostly I think because at first I so thoroughly disliked the main character and the succession of stupid decisions he makes. Many readers, I suspect, will describe this as a book they can’t put down, but that definitely wasn’t true of me.
And now for the bad news: The style is often choppy and heavy-handed. The book’s biggest weakness, however, lies in its characterization. The Evolution of Thomas Hall features big bold characters that fill up the space but possess little realism or depth. They act as the plot requires them to act, but often I don’t get a clear sense of why. That’s true on both the positive and negative ends of the scale. On the one hand, Merrill’s Silas Hawker, director of the museum who directs Thomas Hall to help create a shrine to Charles Darwin, is not so much a scientist as a caricature of one. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Christina, the 10-year-old injured in the car crash, often seems less a little girl and more a mouthpiece for the ideal of simple faith. The single exception is Hall himself, whose background we get to know in more depth over time as he changes in our eyes from the superficial and materialistic figure he seems to be at first to someone both more sympathetic and more genuinely interesting and complex.
Unfortunately, centrally embedded in the novel is a mission to convince readers that evolutionary science is fundamentally flawed — and that those who propound it will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, which is to persuade people not to believe in God. This is a belief that’s fairly popular among Mormons, though not so much among Mormons who have actually studied evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, any value there might have been to Merrill’s invitation to reconsider a purely naturalistic approach to the universe and human life is undercut by his combative and simplistic approach to the subject and by his depiction of evolutionary scientists as stock villains possessing neither reason, nor intellectual honesty, nor fairness, nor even human decency. They are, simply, wrong.
Which in my opinion seriously undercuts the many positive things about this book, making it something I’d be reluctant to put in the Mormon or non-Mormon readers — because unfortunately I see its potential for harm as being fairly substantial, whether you agree or disagree with the views it promotes. There’s a judgmentalism that keeps coming to the surface, whether in its characterization of environmental activitists as “opposed to everything human” (p. 116) or the following description of a social worker:
The woman from Child Protective Services wore men’s clothes. Her name was Angela Russell, but she was the antithesis of angelic, the kind of person one would hope not to find in a program to help children. The woman acted more like the witch who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel than the fairy godmother who wanted to help Cinderella live happily ever after. Bureaucrats! Maddening! Angela! Such irony in the world, Cass thought every time she had to endure the horrible woman. (p. 411)
To start with, I have to ask: Why include that detail about wearing men’s clothes? If this were a truly well-rounded character, then that might simply be a detail. Here, though, with characters drawn in broad strokes as they are, it becomes — whether or not intended as such by the writer — a kind of shorthand for the character’s villainy.
Worse than that is the fact that the evil social worker is simply too easy. It’s a cliche. Can’t we have overworked social workers, and not simply assume that people who disagree with us must therefore be evil? Even if they’re environmentalists, or atheists, or government workers?
Basically, what I’m saying is that in several ways, this book encourages its readers to become worse people: less tolerant, less informed, more willing to believe their own prejudices. This story deserves better.
The Walk: Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans
This is a book I shouldn’t have liked: pop philosophy masquerading as a story, second in a series where I hadn’t read the first, by an immensely popular author whose previous work I’ve never bothered to read despite being given several of his earlier books as gifts. And yet I did. Part of it was the voice, which I found immediately engaging. Part was the easy-to-follow style. Part was the characters, whom I found both likeable and real, if lacking the depth of characterization of a Thayer or even a Nunes.
The premise of the story is fairly simple. Alan Christofferson’s life has gone to pieces. His beloved wife McHale breaks her neck in a horse-riding accident, and four weeks later she dies. While he’s caring for her, his partner steals his clients and all but one of his employees from their ad business. He loses his home and his cars. Left bereft, without any focus in his life, he decides to walk to Key West — as far from his home in Seattle as he can find on his map of the U.S. Then he gets stabbed in a mugging outside Spokane. We join him as he’s waking up in the hospital. This book takes us through the 5 months of his recovery in the home of Angel, a woman he helped with car trouble just before his stabbing, and then along the next part of his journey, up to the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota.
The Walk: Miles to Go highlights simple themes without much complexity, such as the healing that comes from reaching out to strangers. However, these themes are told simply and straightforwardly enough that it doesn’t feel sentimental or contrived. For me, he pulls it off.
I also give full credit to Evans for knowing precisely how many and which kind of details to include to make a story real without slowing it down at all. It’s not the kind of lush descriptive detail that you get in traditional realistic/literary fiction, but some nicely true-to-life details — like someone stealing a Christmas tree from the hood of your car while you’re getting ready to take it inside, or your houseguest (and friend) of 5 months calling you “Mr. Abandonment” and “Mr. Exit” on the day you finally leave, as a way of trying to make light of the mutual pain of separation. Evans also seems to have a sure instinct for which details from the back-story to introduce and when, so as to keep the reader informed but not overwhelmed. I wish I knew how he does that. Overall, I think The Walk: Miles to Go earns its place on this list, though it doesn’t deserve to win.
The Wedding Letters by Jason F. Wright
Unabashedly a feel-good book about family relationships and friendships, The Wedding Letters — sequel to The Wednesday Letters, a “New York Times bestseller” — starts with art student Noah Cooper swerving to miss a squirrel and instead hitting a girl named Rachel on a mountain bike. The rest of the book centers around the developing romance between them, including obstacles raised by things she learns unexpectedly about her family’s past. The other main plot thread is the fate of the bed and breakfast that has been in Noah’s family for generations, but which has fallen on hard times in the current economic slowdown.
That makes it sound like this book is a romance. But it’s not. In fact, we don’t see much of the initial development of Noah and Rachel’s relationship. Instead, the lens zooms in about the time they decide to get married.
I’ve described this above as a feel-good good. That doesn’t mean it whitewashes over the problems of real life. One of the characters makes a mistake that ends his marriage. Rachel’s mother is decidedly a flake. People don’t talk to each other as much as they should. All of the main characters, though, are good people — people you like and care about. There’s no gritty realism here, but there are the kinds of nice little added details that make reading more interesting and pull you further into the author’s world. There’s no grand epiphany at the end, but a satisfying (if somewhat predictable) resolution to the major plot threads.
The concept of a set of “wedding letters” — letters of advice written to a couple getting married — is a clever one. At first I thought it was primarily a marketing ploy, something to generate a “buzz” beyond the story itself. What raised it beyond that were the letters themselves, interspersed throughout the text, which helped to give a window into different people and their varying life experiences. This element works for me.
For most of the book, the fact that this was a sequel to a book I hadn’t read didn’t really get in the way. Toward the end, however, I started to get lost as characters I hadn’t seen much of previously started playing important roles. A “cheat sheet” at the front listing characters first encountered in the previous book and who they were related to/friends with/etc. would have helped.
A final observation. Reading this story, I noticed cases where the point of view wandered within a scene, telling the emotional or mental state of first one character and then another: e.g., “Rachel would have said something if she could speak at all,” followed a page later by “When Rain was sure Rachel was done…” (pp. 50-51). It occurs to me that this is something I’ve seen in other stories and manuscripts I’ve read or reviewed recently, more than I remember in the past. Is this something I’ve grown more sensitive about? Something writers and/or editors have gotten lazier about? Or an area where the esthetic has simply shifted? I don’t know. Part of me is inclined to think of this as a flaw — something that draws our attention as readers from the characters to the narrator, preventing us from getting as deeply into the characters’ inner lives. But is that really the case? It’s my impression that prior to the 20th century, writers and editors weren’t so persnickety about such things. Anyone have any insights on this?
General Comments and Observations
- Publishers: Of these five books, only The Walk: Miles to Go was published by a non-LDS Publisher, though two (The Evolution of Thomas Hall and The Wedding Letters) were published by Deseret Book’s national Shadow Mountain imprint. Before I Say Goodbye was published under the Deseret Book imprint, and Gifted was published by Bonneville Books, which I believe is an imprint of Cedar Fort.
- Category: These category is pretty much a grab-bag, with the only thing these titles have in common genre-wise being that they don’t fit neatly into any of of the other genre categories (though there’s at least an argument that Gifted really should have been part of the speculative fiction category). However, all are definitely written with a popular audience in mind.
- Shutout of literary fiction? I can’t comment directly on the question (raised over at the AML blog) of whether The Scholar of Moab and Death of a Disco Dancer were unjustly passed over in this year’s list of Whitney finalists, since I haven’t read either book. However, from reading the books that were finalists, I can say that a really strong piece of non-offensive literary fiction should have been able to make it onto the finalist list — if the panel of judges was truly open to literary fiction.
- Religion: While all five finalists featured elements of religious life (e.g., characters praying), I’m a little dismayed that only Before I Say Goodbye engaged explicitly with Mormon culture or ideas. This isn’t a criticism of any of the others, but rather a concern that in what are supposedly the best non-genre novels by LDS authors, we apparently mostly aren’t choosing to directly address Mormon experience. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: if we don’t tell our own stories, the world won’t be lacking in people to tell our stories for us, in ways we most likely won’t care for.
- Family: Looking at the central conflicts of these books, most of them arise out of family situations: deaths in a family, weddings in a family, family secrets, challenges in childrearing, troubled parent-child relationships. The only clear exception is The Evolution of Thomas Hall, though it too features several of the elements mentioned above. (The Walk: Miles to Go may also be an exception, though the basic situation arises out of grief largely related to death of a spouse.) Interestingly, all five books feature plot strands related to adoption and/or rearing of other people’s children. This tells me that one thing LDS authors do well is see people in the contexts of families and recognize that many of the most challenging dramas of life take place in that arena. Family life in these novels is not an idyll, but very much worth the effort required to make it work.
- General assessment: This is a decent set of books, and most of them would make good gifts for the reading but not too adventurous Mormon on your shopping list. With the exception of Before I Say Goodbye, however, none of them truly stood out qualitywise. Can’t we do better than this?