Category Archives: literary fiction

Little Green by Loretta Stinson

In Little Green, Loretta Stinson’s stunning, redemptive first novel, tragedy leaves Janie Marek orphaned. The action begins in 1976, with Janie a runaway and stranded on the freeway outside a Northwestern town after hitchhiking. Janie ends up working at a strip club called “The Habit” and falls for Paul Jesse, a drug dealer who spirals into addiction and becomes physically abusive. As the violence escalates, Janie finds a job in a bookstore and her independence begins. After a brutal beating she must make the most difficult and dangerous choice she’ll ever make by leaving. This stirring first novel is a testament to the power of books, education, and a community of friends who help those in need. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

It is entirely possible to write about abusive relationships, the dangers of drug culture, and the potential for recovery from both of those things without being obvious or preachy.

But Loretta Stinson did not do that in this novel. Little Green  documents homeless teen Janie Marek’s evolution from helpless child to strong, self-possessed woman, a coming of age formula has been done dozens of times by dozens of authors to varying degrees of success. Accordingly, I didn’t expect much when I picked up this book. It still disappointed me. Janie is less than compelling as a protagonist; she is more intellectual than her circumstances would suggest, which is meant to be surprising and progressive but didn’t strike me as either of those things. At best, she scores sympathy points with her tragic background and with the trauma she suffers at the hands of her abusive, drug-addicted older boyfriend. At worst, she is a tedious and predictable character who would be unable to carry a novel if not for the sheer number of things which happen to her through no real fault of her own, which make up pretty much the entirity of Little Green’s plot. Normally, I’d take issue with that, but in this case I’m thankful. The steady pace of Little Green’s plot is its greatest strength.

But Little Green‘s pacing  is not enough to make it an enjoyable book.  Stinson writes in choppy, stiff sentences, much like a grade schooler reluctantly chipping away at a school assignment. She is a good activist but not a very good novelist. Janie’s relationship with Paul has the well-worn echoes of a hundred after-school specials, a thousand public service announcements, and at least ten other novels. That his addiction and abuse would worsen seemed obvious; that Janie would eventually have to break away from him seemed inevitable. Even the last minute “plot twist” that Stinson flings at readers is a lazy attempt to inject suspense into a novel with an ending I had guessed a good 150 pages earlier.

In Little Green, Stinson endeavors to write an “edgy” coming of age story with a message. Unfortunately, it’s heavy on message and light on story. Little Green is a failure of a novel because it so often forgets to be a novel.

Not recommended

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a quiet suburb of Detroit, the five Lisbon sisters–beautiful, eccentric, and obsessively watched by the neighborhood boys–commit suicide one by one over the course of a single year. As the boys observe them from afar, transfixed, they piece together the mystery of the family’s fatal melancholy, in this hypnotic and unforgettable novel of adolescent love, disquiet, and death. Jeffrey Eugenides evokes the emotions of youth with haunting sensitivity and dark humor and creates a coming-of-age story unlike any of our time. (Synopsis source: www.amazon.com)

The Virgin Suicides may be one of the most unconventional coming of age stories I’ve read, if only because its protagonists end up dead instead of functioning adults at the end of the story. It is in that unconventionality that both the best and the worst parts of this novel lie – Eugenides’ attempt to capture the essence of youth’s fragility and temporality is successful only insofar as it exists completely outside of the real world. In other words, The Virgin Suicides should be read as a fairy tale. Whether or not Eugenides meant for his novel to be read this way, he makes it very easy; like any (good) fantasy writer would, Eugenides spends enough time building a self-contained world that one can become lost inside his novel’s universe without paying attention to the rules and realities that govern our outside world. The dreamy, surreal suburb in which the novel is set is historical, otherworldly, and above all macabre: it is a world in which five pretty girls in white dresses killing themselves violently is an aesthetic spectacle that simultaneously horrifies and enthralls their neighbors.

This is where the problem comes in. Eugenides writes very absorbingly. That makes it easy to forget how deeply, profoundly problematic this novel is, especially given that The Virgin Suicides is stylistically voyeuristic, narrated by neighborhood boys who have a decidedly sexual fascination with the Lisbon sisters and see their deaths as increased fuel for that fascination. If Eugenides wishes to comment on the fleeting nature of adolescence – and how that nature makes it beautiful – he has done so in the most sexist, morbid way possible. At the end of The Virgin Suicides, I was disappointed with my reading experience because the entire story felt like an elaborate gag to drag the reader into the faulted, narrow mindset of the neighborhood boys, who grow older but seem frozen in perpetual adolescence along with the objects of their fascination. Yet Eugenides writes his novel so that the Lisbon sisters become inhuman idols, held above the reach of ordinary people like the boys who narrate the story. They are not characters so much as they are things; they are not subjects so much as they are objects.

The Virgin Suicides could have been a brilliant novel if it were written with an ironic spirit, but I find no indication that it was. A story whose narrators are vague shadows that speak in plural first person and whose main protagonists are attractively doomed to never even being characters (a fate much worse than death in a novel) is not a story that can hold the reader’s attention without resorting to sentimentalist tripe. Which is what Eugenides did. The Virgin Suicides is an absorbing and beautiful read, but you may feel cheated when you reach its end.

Not recommended

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton

Summer, 1996, at Kindermann Forest Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is to open and fires all of them. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to camp. One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. All his life, large, gentle, diligent Wyatt has been misjudged because of his physical appearance. Along with the other new counselors he arrives ready to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state.

In this world away from the world, the new counselors and disabled campers begin to reveal themselves. Most are well-intentioned, others unprepared. Some harbor dangerous inclinations. Soon Wyatt is called upon to prevent a terrible tragedy. In doing so, he commits an act whose repercussions will alter his own life and the lives of the other Kindermann Forest staff members for years to come. (Synopsis source: www.daltonnovel.com)

The Inverted Forest takes place mostly in Kindermann Forest Camp, an enchantingly isolated, almost eerie world unto itself, a microcosm with as much baggage as each of the counselors who become last minute replacements for more carefully selected candidates in the beginning of this novel. As one might expect, some of the counselors have been less than honest about their backgrounds – in fact, The Inverted Forest depends heavily on deceiving appearances and mistakes in perception to tell its story. But for the first two thirds of the novel, Dalton chooses to keep the nature of those deceptions vague without ever becoming “mysterious” in a heavy-handed way, as authors less gifted with subtlety are wont to do. Instead, he drags the reader into the world of the camp not as a spectator, but as a silent participant, giving them the same information that is given to everyone else but building intricate layers of foreshadowing around his hidden truths that feel obvious only in retrospect.

Most prone to the double-edged knife that these hidden truths present is the novel’s main character, Wyatt, whose facial features resemble those of a retarded person due to a genetic disorder – one which, unbeknownst to most strangers, has no effect on his intelligence. On first glance, many people assume Wyatt to be retarded, an impression that has had a profound effect on Wyatt’s perception of himself and his true intelligence. Throughout Forest, Wyatt questions the relationship between his intelligence and his appearance again and again, a question that he suddenly cannot ignore when a troupe of mentally retarded adult campers are under his care. After so many years being treated as if he is mentally retarded, Wyatt has deluded himself into thinking that he is retarded simply because other people have always thought so. When he is suddenly thrust into the role of a person of able intelligence, his identity is fractured. Or, perhaps, one might say, inverted.

If we are to accept the somewhat cliche but eternally valuable “appearances are deceiving” motif as one that is principal to The Inverted Forest, then Wyatt’s personal narrative becomes one that is emblematic of the problems that strike Kindermann Forest Camp when appearances, in lieu of real information, are used to make judgments. Dalton executes this motif as beautifully as anyone reasonably can after it’s been done so many times without drawing the reader away from his plot in the process.

However, there are the last 100 pages. When I reached page 212, which completes Part I of the novel in my copy, I was entranced and very much impressed by what I assumed to be Forest’s conclusion. Then I kept reading. And it dragged on. And on. For approximately 120 more pages, which is 120 more than I needed or wanted from this novel. It appears that Dalton wished to give his main character some sense of redemption and closure, which would have been okay except for that he also dragged readers through choppy, epilogue-ish forays into the lives of the other counselors fifteen years later in a dull, self-indulgent epilogue to what would have otherwise been a very well-written novel.

Recommended 

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiakwan

Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality.

Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink. (Synopsis source: http://www.ericksetiawan.com/)

Though Of Bees and Mist is certainly not a fantasy novel, it might well be described as a fairy tale. After all, the familiar elements are all there: a wicked matriarchal figure (not a stepmother, but close enough), an unhappy childhood, a surreal, atemporal world where fortune-tellers and ghosts serve as plot devices, and a charming prince. But Of Bees‘ Daniel is a lackluster substitute for the proverbial knight in shining armor, a problem which lays at the heart of Of Bees and Mist. At its core, this novel is an interrogation of the fairy tale formula that is so much a part of women’s fiction.

Meridia herself is a perfect character for such an exploration. At the beginning of the novel, she is naive and desperately optimistic. She expects Daniel to save her and when he appears to do so, she takes his actions and their consequences at face value. Throughout Of Bees and Mist, Meridia suffers the consequences of her naivety and so does every other character who tries to live by the rules of their society. If Of Bees is, as its synopsis says, a “fable,” then its moral would certainly be that breaking the genre conventions of your own life is sometimes the only way to survive to the end of the story. As Meridia comes into her own and becomes an increasingly self-assured character, she learns to take actions that are dangerously unconventional. To the surprise of her husband, in-laws, and society, Meridia’s strength and courage is often rewarded.

My only major qualm with Of Bees and Mist is its ending, which is an ambiguous and possibly contradictory way to end Setiawan’s otherwise beautifully expressed fable. In beating Eva at her own game, Setiawan hints that Meridia has possibly “become” Eva. If Eva embodies the same strength that Meridia does, Of Bees is portraying self-reliance and inner strength as problematic character traits that guide the actions of antagonists. The rest of the novel suggests that this is not true. The clear moral lines drawn between characters like Eva and Meridia never blur earlier in the story; Meridia’s actions are portrayed as attempts to survive, while Eva’s are expressions of tyranny. If Setiawan truly does mean to imply that the only way to survive a fairy tale is to become its villian, Of Bees and Mist is a hopelessly bleak novel. For this reader, that creates a weird and unsettling contrast when held up against the rest of the book.

Recommended