If books could mate and produce offspring, this novel would be the child of Thomas Pynchon and Marguerite Duras, with a healthy gene-splicing of Freud thrown in for good measure. It’s been a long time since I read a novel that left me feeling simultaneously elated—for its brilliance—and disturbed (in a good way)—because of the issues it explores. Not since The Ravishing of Lol Stein (Duras) have a I read a novel that so beautifully and almost seamlessly incorporates psychoanalytic theory. Whereas Duras focuses on female (or feminine) sexuality, however, Julavitz’s concern is with mothers, and their vexed relationships to their children, particularly their daughters. I admit I had to listen to it several times to “get” everything, because it is complex and layered, and if you drift off for a moment, you may miss a crucial detail. Several reviews that I have read call it an academic satire, and certainly that is one of the layers, but it is so much more than that. I would even go so far as to say that, of all the books I have listened to since I became an audible member, this has been the most challenging and one of the most rewarding. Thank you, Heidi Julavitz.
I was first tempted to stop listening to this book because none of the characters, with the possible exception of Pasquale, seemed likable or complex. I continued with it because I did find the romantic Italian somewhat appealing and wanted to see what would happen to him. By the end, however, I was rolling my eyes at the sentimentality of both plot and characters. Walter's style is perhaps the book's saving grace, but even that is flawed and occasionally descends into bathos. I purchased this because of comparisons to The Help, a lovely book that explores the reality of the lives of Southern Black maids during the 60's. Such a book could have easily descended into the same maudlin sentimentality as Beautiful Ruins, but instead, in the hands of Kathryn Stockett, became an emotional tour de force.
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