I had an odd feeling as I began reading this book. The first four or five chapters feel like the plot is constantly trying to start over–the basic premise is the same but the approach and style are different enough for it to be disorienting. For instance, the first chapter addresses the reader as ‘you,’ as if you are the protagonist (a style done extremely well in ‘Bright Lights Big City’). But the next chapter moves to first-person narration, and the narrative continues in that voice for the rest of the novel. Chapter three moves to a different point in time, where the same events from the first two chapters are almost re-examined from a different perspective. And that continues. Instead of piquing my interest, it made the book feel inaccessible. Like I couldn’t get started.
Moving around in time means that there is essentially no plot to this book, either. The jacket posits that it’s about a woman adrift in adulthood until a family crisis (the birth of her niece, who has a grave condition that guarantees her a short life) forces her to come together with her family and, well, grow up. Except that the shifting time periods make that set-up impossible. Beyond impossible, it’s not what happens. In most chapters years have passed since her niece’s birth and she’s still drifting. It’s almost as if the publisher was desperate for jacket copy that would make it sound like there’s a singular plot to follow.
Writing a book without much of a plot is possible, but it requires involvement on the reader’s part. The disconcerting feel of the opening chapters doesn’t bode well for that involvement, nor does Attenberg’s curious handling of what was is set up as the defining moment of Andrea Berg’s life. When we meet Andrea she describes herself as a failed artist who quit art school and became a corporate drone, now wondering what might have been had she stayed on her intended path. Her reasoning for leaving art school is teased fairly relentlessly. It’s meant to be mysterious, which makes you leap to all sorts of conclusions about what it will be. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s not worth the effort to get there. All I could think was “that’s it? That’s what made her ruin her life?” You could argue that Andrea’s life was already in a shame spiral (it was), but Attenberg doesn’t tease the details before art school as a big reveal. It can’t help but feel disappointing.
Many reviews on this page have focused on the likability of the main character in this novel, so my next criticism is going to sound like it fits in that camp. I don’t believe it does. A book can have an unlikable protagonist. My problem is more with the genre of books about white people who just can’t get their life in order. I have developed something of an intolerance for it in recent years. Have you ever noticed how many of those books are out there? And I say this as a white male–I am tired of reading these books. I have found exceptions in the last two years or so, so please don’t think this alone is the reason for my low star rating.
Attenberg seems like a good writer, but I found the execution of this book to be deeply flawed.