Friday, March 27, 2009

The Rum Punch Review ("The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox,", Part 2).

Read Part 1 of this Review Here.

I finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox over a week ago, but am only now just getting around to posting the second half of the Rum Punch Review. I could say that I deliberately took the time to think about it, let it settle in, let the book digest a little, like I do now with dinner (Burritos) instead of just going straight to the dessert (2 cheeseburgers.)

Or I could say that I was distracted by coming up with the 5 Traits Most Commonly Seen In Waukesha County, Wisconsin, which is what I did this morning while waiting for a court hearing to begin. I was standing by the Courthouse entrance, waiting for my client, and had plenty of time to observe people and determine the 5 Traits, and also to determine that one sheriff's deputy was having a really bad day and also that he lied to the maintenance guy.

The deputy came in, hurriedly, and then knocked the top of a little pole that had an "Exit" sign on, and then swore (under his breath) and then shook his head and made the same exact little disgusted gestures that I make when someone in my lane stops traffic to turn left, then asked for maintenance to be called because, and I quote, "This [the sign coming off] shouldn't be that way."

Just to finish that part of the story: About 15 minutes later, a maintenance guy did come, and he showed the deputy how the sign wasn't broken and couldn't be fixed and added something to the effect that he shouldn't have been called, and the deputy said "Well, you were just in the area, so I thought I'd check." And I was the only non-deputy around, and I knew that to be a lie. But I kept quiet because they have guns and arrest powers. The hangover of the Worst Presidency Ever has not yet worn off and I'm still leery about antagonizing government officials.

The 5 Traits that I observed were these:

1. Too-blonde hair.
2. Weirdly tanned.
3. Windbreaker featuring a league or a bar.
4. Inappropriate jeans.
5. Scent.

"Scent" needs some explanation -- it's not that they smelled bad, it's that many of the women were overpoweringly scented with a mixture of shampoo and cremes and bath oils and lotions and whatnot, so that their scent lingered a while after they left.

So I amused myself, as I waited, by awarding points to each woman who came through the Courthouse door, one point per "5 Trait" demonstrated. There were only two who got no points. One woman got a 5, and in retrospect I awarded her a bonus half-point because when I left, an hour later, I could still smell her Scent.

That, the "5 Traits" factoring, could also be an excuse for why I didn't post the second half of the Rum Punch Review of Esme Lennox but it's not; the truth is that I've just been busy and I have a schedule of when I post certain things and when I don't. It's an amazingly complex schedule that, if you can figure it out, I will award you the t-shirt or book of your choice. Remember that scene in "The Dark Crystal" where Jen The Gelfling went into the observatory and all the planets and stars and everything were whirling around?

That mechanism is more or less what my writing schedule is based on, and so I had to wait for The Rum Punch Review to roll around again in its slot, and here it is: the second half 0f the Rum Punch Review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, either, to wait so long to finish up the review. I don't know how long most reviewers wait to write their reviews, but taking a little time to think about things might settle your emotions down and allow for a more accurate estimation of what you've just read/seen/heard.

Like, say, you're listening to the new U2 album a co-worker brought into work and you're very excited because you kind of liked "Get On Your Boots" and you really want to hear the album, and so you do, and your first thought is... well, this sort of sucks.

You'd probably want to wait a few weeks, then, and listen to it a little more, before making a final decision, then, wouldn't you? Out of fairness to the crew of ultrabillionaires who make up u2 and who don't really seem to care, anymore, if you actually like what they do? Then, a few weeks and a few listens later, you could say... well, this sort of sucks, and then you'll go buy the new Decemberists' album, instead.

Or, maybe, you would walk out of a theater and think That was a very good movie! I especially enjoyed the way it challenged my sensibilities and expectations while remaining quirky and offbeat, and featured interesting dialogue, but if you didn't say that right away, and instead waited a few weeks, you'd realize oh, hey, you know I was just in a good mood 'cause it was Friday, and it turns out the only thing I really liked about that movie was the soundtrack; the rest just really kind of sucked.

The same thing, really, happend with "Esme Lennox." When I first finished it, a few weeks ago, I put it down and I said to Sweetie: "That was a very good book." And I sat there a while and just thought about it -- about the twist that, really, I should have seen coming all along, but it's pretty well done and I didn't see it, until there it was and I should have seen it all along, and about the interacting storylines and the characters that kind of grew on me over time and also demonstrated complex motivations and backgrounds.

Then, just a couple of weeks later, I lost that glow and instead, I'm thinking, now, this [INCLUDES SPOILERS!]

One character, Alex's wife, what's her name, is introduced early on, and then really never heard from again. That seems sort of glaring, in the end, and detracts from Alex's part of the story, which actually is a very intriguing part and should have been given more time -- because even though the book has Esme's name in the title, it's not totally about Esme. But dropping out the wife leaves a big chunk of Alex's story untold. And maybe that's the point, but if that is the point, then I didn't like that it was not told. It kind of detracted from me.

And then I'm thinking, too, that Iris' story builds up and builds up and hits a crescendo, and then... stops. It peaks right near the end and then bam. Over.

Is it right for an author to do that? Not "right" like fair or decent, but "right" in terms of storytelling. Forget about the Sopranos stupid ending -- stupid endings being more and more a hallmark of television, apparently kick-started by Seinfeld's ultra-lame last episode -- television and movies are by definition a limited art form: they have a clock running and when that clock expires, it's over. Just like football sometimes ends in a tie, movies and television shows sometimes have to, as well. That time limit forces some storylines to be cut short. (In some cases, time limits seem to require that no storyline really be developed, explained, acted out, or resolved.)

But books are different. Books don't have to end at all, if you don't want them to. That's a conclusion I came to, recently, when I was working on Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World! I hit 340 pages and I thought to myself I am not really very close to ending this at all, am I? And I pondered that, then, as I went about the rest of my business, and then, while I was eating my Pocket Breakfast on the way to work, it suddenly occurred to me Why does it have to end?

Answer: It doesn't. A book doesn't have to end. Publishing decisions aside, there's no limit to what can be put into a story, and sometimes the longest stories are the most satisfying. If you've read The Stand, you know what I mean -- that story could have been even longer and I would have loved it. The Harry Potter series could have gone on, too.

That's not to say that stories shouldn't resolve themselves. They should. At some point, Harry Potter is going to graduate. At some point, he'll have a showdown with Voldemort. At some point, the next phase begins, and that next phase may not be a very interesting phase and may not warrant telling the story, at all. After Luke, et al, blew up the Second Death Star, their stories would have become less interesting, less compelling -- but they didn't end. They just didn't need to be told.

Esme Lennox should not have ended where it did; it's almost as though I was missing a chapter. Esme's story came to an end -- I'll get back to that in a minute -- but Iris' didn't, and, like I said, if that was the point of it, then I didn't like the point of it. It was as though Dumbledore had a talk with Harry and said Harry, you're going to have to face down Voldemort, and Harry said I know, and looked out the window and saw the clouds roiling through the sky... and then the book ended.

That's a cop-out, isn't it? That's the dumb Sopranos cut-to-black -- that's we don't know how to end this story, so stop! And I didn't like it, in this book, and I didn't like it especially because I had grown to like Iris and become interested in her story, every bit as much as I was interested in Esme's own story, and then both stories came to a dramatic head right at the end, both Esme's and Iris' story hit emotional peaks, and Esme's story was resolved, while Iris' wasn't. The reader was left hanging, and not cliffhanging like there's going to be a second installment, but hanging as in what just happened there?

Maybe the idea was to contrast Iris' own unsettled emotional state and up-in-the-air future with Esme's own resolution, which I will not spoil but which I will say I also found unsatisfying, in that it seemed both too pat, and also too out-of-character for the Esme that was shown to the reader throughout the book.

And before I go on, let me say this: don't get the idea that this book isn't worth reading; it is. The writing is wonderful, the story is a very good one, the characters are interesting, the ideas are fun to ponder. I still recommend it as a book worth reading. But I had some things that after reading the book and thinking about them, I didn't like, and the ending to Esme's story is one of those things.

Maggie O'Farrell throughout the book does an excellent job of creating a sympathetic, but only barely so, character in Esme Lennox. The Esme that's presented is compelling -- she's crazy, but maybe with reason to be. She's spent virtually her entire life in an asylum, and we're given a lot of hints, as readers, that perhaps she wasn't supposed to have been locked up forever. Then, we're given an equal number of hints that maybe she maybe was supposed to be locked up all that time. Another consideration: Maybe she wasn't supposed to be locked up at first but then the locking up created the conditions that make you think she should have been locked up.

Throughout the book, that kind of sympathy developed, as Esme's story jumped back and forth from the vibrant, maybe-crazy, interesting young Esme to the subdued, maybe-crazy, elderly Esme, tracing how one became the other, and buildilng up a well of sorrow in reserve. Seriously, even now, weeks later, when I think of Esme sitting in the car with her father and the doctor, crying and begging not to be taken away, I get a little choked up.

That scene demonstrates one of the ongoing themes of the book, I think: that sometimes actions can be irrevocable. In this case, it's the sum and substance of all of Esme's actions before that day that lead them to want to take her away -- but it's her being especially upset about what happened to her at a dance that makes the doctor be called in, and throughout the book I had that terrible feeling that I could imagine Esme having, too, thinking: if I had only kept it to myself, things wouldn't have gotten this bad. Anyone who's ever had a bad day and snapped at a spouse knows that feeling; multiply it by a million and you'll imagine what Esme felt every day for the rest of her life.

But having built up all of that sympathy and emotion and feeling -- and wariness is one of those feelings -- O' Farrell then discharges it all, right at the end, in an ending that's not a twist at all (I kind of figured it would happen before any real clues were given) but doesn't fit, at all, either, at least not with the book I was reading.

Like I said -- nothing in this part of the review keeps me from recommending the book. It's not the U2 album or Juno; it's not something that on reflection I regret wasting time on. It was a very good book and one I'll remember for a long time. But it could have been a classic. It wasn't, in the end, and I suppose that like its protagonist, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox will occasionally pop into thought, will occasionally impact me in some way, and ultimately will leave not much of an impression behind.

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lisapepin said...

Regarding your "five traits" observation: I wrote this list last April, the last time I was in Central Wisconsin. Thought you might like it. Does any of it apply in Madison?

Stuff People From Central Wisconsin Like:
Stonewashed jeans
Restaurants with the word "grill" in the name
The music of Billy Joel and Simon & Garfunkel
Facial hair (for men and women!)
Pickled eggs
Athletic shoes
Religious radio
Products and services that appeal to "Wisconsin Families"
Fries with that
The fish fry at the VFW bar

Stuff People From Central Wisconsin Do Not Like:
Nail polish
People from "out of town"
Gun control
House painting
Food involving more than two ingredients to prepare
Fruit and vegetables
Parting with cars that have died on their lawns
Crossing state lines (Except for da U.P. Dat doesn't count.)

yamini said...

i liked it! Another interesting and humorous movie that i came across a while ago was I Can’t Think Straight. i really liked it!. In case you're interested do watch.