I do like the process of reviewing, as it helps me organise thoughts, pay more attention, and try to delve into material in an intelligent way. Yet sometimes I worry these days that when I read a book, and am thinking about how I’d review it, and how I’d talk about it, that I lose the pure pleasure of reading.
This is relevant for Chandler Burr’s novel ‘Someone, or someone like you’ because one of the main themes of the book is how literature relates to our lives, and also because, I realise, one of the reasons I feel an impetus to review this book is not what I like about it, but what I’m not crazy about.
In fact, halfway through the book, I was thinking about giving up, but the notes I started for a review were beckoning me to be turned into a final piece of writing.
The description of the novel falls into a few familiar genres. A half-English, half-American New Yorker who ends up in Hollywood gave me the ‘fish out of water’ feel of Sara Gruen’s disappointing second novel, Ape House, with a female heroine arriving in the glitzy world of entertainment. But the heroine running a book club felt similar to the books I haven’t read but seem popular, the ‘book club’ genre where reading books together changes people’s lives.
But the novel isn’t either of these really. In terms of literature, what is on display with a sense of a prodigious understanding of modern English literature, and yes, the power of it. I myself did some literature courses in university, but the world of books is vast. Having focused on Canadian and Commonwealth novels, I missed a lot of the classics that people talk about. The classics here are referred to in numbers but somewhat fleetingly. I catch glimpses of great analysis and intelligence in terms of understanding their importance, but it never really sinks in for me, as it’s not the major part of the plot, I can’t springboard into any real grasp of importance or meaning.
Meanwhile, I found it hard to engage with the characters. The narrator seems pleasant enough, and intelligent, with a powerful, witty husband who is both an insider in the world of Hollywood, but an observer also. The son appears in the narrative, smart and sensitive, and well-loved. The narrator’s book clubs grow and grow in popularity. But nearly halfway through the book, little seems to have happened.
Most discomfiting for me is the social milieu. These people are rich, and hang out in the world of the rich and famous. Occasional observations on the mechanisms of the movie industry are somewhat critical but not unexpectedly so. These people have maids and personal assistants, go to lavish galas, and have expensive houses. Her maid prepares food for the book club, or people take turns bringing really expensive desserts. The narrator comes across as benevolent, but patronisingly so. She extols the virtue of black Americans being able to speak well, as a route to social power (this idea comes up twice). She saves the day after a car accident, cradling and caring for a Latino gardener, reciting poetry as he’s being driven to emergency. Later, he asks for a job and she gives it to him. She sends her cook for an expensive two-week cooking course, which improves her cooking for them.
Yipes. Was anyone else uncomfortable with this? While she herself suffers prejudice from her husband Howard’s Jewish family, the relations between rich white lady and poor, sometimes ethnic servants and personal assistants felt old-fashioned and weird.
The book then turns to what ends up as being the main theme of the book, the husband’s embrace of Orthodox Judaism and his rejection of his wife and son because of it. Most reviews and discussions seem to relate to this, and in fact, it seems to be the drawing card of the book, readers who are interested in this. For me, I somehow just couldn’t grab ahold of the storyline. I wasn’t engaged enough or like the husband enough to really care. The narrator’s reaction is then to really start to use literature to express herself and while this was exactly (as I said above) what I was looking for, not references of great books, but why the books have meaning… sadly, by this time, I’d lost interest in her and the book as well.
Not for me, then, this book, even though I loved Burr’s non-fiction book ‘The Emperor of the Senses’.