First of all this story was horrifically under-researched. If you are going to write about a character stepping outside of their element you must learn and write accurately about the world they are entering and not just the element being stepped out of. Without spoiling anything I'll just state that the inaccuracies were appalling.
The lead in this book is a sorry sack of middle class America with a desperate need to hold onto the inflated financial status he believes he is entitled to. This goes for his wife as well who is forgiven every flaw because HE is broke. Value is placed more on money, material and status than on communication, love, or even achievement and this holds true throughout the entirety of the book despite the supposed catharsis the main character experiences before the end. It does a tolerable job examining the mindset of many in the US coming out of the late economic boom into the real-estate collapse but nothing is learned or gained by the experiences of this transition and the characters remain in this sad state of existence. If this was the author's point (which I really don't think it was) then I can only hope his finger is NOT on the pulse of America. If it is, he should have made a far more profound and dark statement--not a cheezy, half-humorous one full of bad poetry.
This story would have benefited greatly from a more skilled narrator. The author's reading was flat, lacked expression, and often turned the end of each sentence down as one unaccustomed to reading aloud. If anything he succeeded only in sounding a bit pretentious about a work that was anything but worthy of pomp.
Aside from a few funny one-liners and scenarios (some already exhausted by other books and media) this book was a shallow story about shallow people. Not my cup of tea.
So, I called the first plot twist immediately. I thought I was pretty smart and was quite looking forward to being disappointed and writing this off as some tawdry brain candy thriller--which I still think it is--but I LIKE tawdry brain candy thrillers that lead me on just to prove me wrong at least once. That's also exactly why I took up this book in the first place. I admit to being a literary snob who is also a sucker for the crime genre and this is NOT top notch crime fiction by any means. If that is your thing and you know the genre well you probably won't give this a second thought and would probably despise this novel. However, I also have to admit to being a sucker for campy and this totally delivered. I couldn't stop listening even though I was thoroughly annoyed with every character, laughing at the police procedural, and suspending my disbelief on a regular basis. This story is totally addictive and I think Gillian Flynn knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote it. This is the kind of author who deserves every penny she makes off of candy junkies like us and is obviously smarter than she lets on. Male narration slightly irritating but probably a personal preference thing--does not detract from the story in my opinion.
The title, and Roth's prestige, had me thinking this was going to be an extremely heavy-handed novel and was actually relieved when I found the plot and the characters deep enough to swim in but not be drowned by. I thought about them long after I finished the book and I found it all to be paced very nicely. I had no trouble getting into the story at its start and then when I realized it was about something entirely different than I had first supposed I was hooked. I know this review may be a little abstract but I don't want to mislead or give anything away. This book is a window into a time and place--a life much like any other where ordinary things happen and the main characters and the society we share with them are what are fascinating--not some epic drama about a Big Event.
I did not find the academic parts of this book pretentious or inaccessible because it seemed Roth was pointing an almost self-deprecating finger at institutionalized education. He did this both through the narrator's character--which was one of literary accomplishment and social seclusion--and also through his unfavorable depiction of (some) university politics.
Anyway, that's not what makes this story wonderful nor at all what it is about. It brings questions of identity gently to the surface through dark water and then suddenly yanks them free for all to see and poke at and inquire upon--all while maintaining this conspiratorial relationship between the narrator and the reader, as if we are the only ones in on the secret and must ponder our own choices and identities alone.
This was a very nice book about very nice people. I enjoyed the story despite finding it contrived and I genuinely liked the main characters. The book excels in its intriguing (at least to me) descriptions of various feats of human engineering, but falls short of the literary depth you hope would be afforded a plot about a stationary man embarking on a global journey. Some folks may find dialogue about boat building and engine design dull, but since I don't, I found it to be a wonderful highlight to the story--a story I would likely recommend to a young adult and a story I would have probably loved as a kid but also one I would be sure to present in the historic and socioeconomic contexts which are sorely missed. That being said if you want a sweet little book full of serendipity and happy endings that would make a great Disney movie and draw people to the nautical this is your thing. The narrator was lovely and I do enjoy good character voice acting which he provided. I am especially amused by foreigners imitating American accents--a performance that, no matter how accomplished, always sounds a little like a speech impediment (probably because that's exactly how we sound to the rest of the world).
This is a wonderful, dark, completely absorbing story about a time and place different from our own yet plausible as an alternate future born of today. For example: the devastation of famine, disease and violent conflict caused by corporate (and nationalistic) genetic modification, and subsequent control, of food crops and animal husbandry. You don't need to be a science fiction or fantasy fan to thoroughly enjoy this book. You WILL be sucked in and fascinated. It is about much much more than the perceived main character though she provides an intimate window into the times. My one and only hesitation to give this book an overall 5 star rating was the author's ever-so-slightly narrow development of said main character and the fixation on her repeated humiliation. While necessary to the story it was played out almost gratuitously. I also didn't think his forward reflected much of anything in the book even though he describes his inspiration for writing it--but that's neither here nor there.
Anyway, Jonathan Davis is just STELLAR! He can narrate anything and anyone. A man with a gentle American accent who left in my memory the distinct voices of Thai and Japanese women (to name just a few characters). I mean: when I think back on the listen I hear the sound of foreign women's voices speaking, not his. That is how good he is. It's unreal how talented, actually, and I cannot recommend his work highly enough.
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