I am shocked that (at the time of this review) over half of the reviews for this book give it five stars. Personally, I think four would be generous, but I could understand it. But five? I liked parts of it, but I disliked it as often as I liked it.
For much of the book (the first half more than the second), Ben Benjamin (the protagonist/narrator) can barely observe a woman without saying something demeaning about her appearance. It was so bad that I almost stopped reading. What's worse: the observations of women are often paired with bizarre euphemisms for what the reader can only assume (based on context since I was afraid to google them) are depraved, misogynist sex acts. Although he does this less in the second half of the book, it seems less like character growth and more like distraction due to increased plotting.
I was also frustrated by the many times when I completely failed to understand Ben. Why was he constantly dodging the divorce papers? He knew the divorce was inevitable. He made no efforts to repair the relationship. He just childishly dodged the papers. Other examples (including his rabid defense of Elton) come to mind, but I'll hold off on details to avoid spoilers.
And, for a book that is largely about grieving, I just didn't ever believe Ben's grief. Jonathan Evison admits that "this book represents nothing less than an emotional catharsis for its author," helping him to cope with the grief of losing his sister. The problem is he's working through the grief of losing a sibling as a small child by writing about an adult losing his own children, and I don't think the emotional turmoil translates well. I think that this particular grievance may have been made worse by the fact that I just finished two other novels about grief (How to Talk to a Widower and The Snow Child), both of which felt much more poignant.
All that being said, the story was engaging. Despite regularly considering giving up on the novel, I kept reading. I wanted to know what had happened to Ben's children (I'm pretty sure the horrifying scene is going to stick with me for a long time). I wanted to learn more about Ben's father (he turned out to be such a caricature of a pathetic sad sack that I couldn't really believe in him either). There were touching moments of pain and compassion that made me hope the book would redeem itself. But, in the end, I just didn't like/understand/believe in Ben enough to care.
The narrator was alright, but I can't help but wonder if his delivery contributed to my dislike of the character. Also, he read too slowly (this is the only book I've ever listened to at 1.5 speed).
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