Recent Reading Round-Up: Cohen, Donoghue, Knox

I  have some serious reading to do for my two book clubs this month — Madame Bovary for the local one and The Yacoubian Building for Slaves of Golconda. I’ve actually started both of them, though I started The Yacoubian Building so long ago that I think I’ll just start it over again. But at the same time I’ve been flitting around among a lot of different books for my light reading, so I thought I’d catch up on some of them here.

On the advice of Amateur Reader, I looked up Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen spin-offs, Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale; or, Love, Death, and the S.A.T.s. Both are intelligent, entertaining, satirical, and romantic without being sentimental. I thought  Jane Austen in Boca was unevenly constructed: the set-up was too long and the resolution too quick. I also thought the introduction of the college film crew was extraneous to the novel’s needs: it wasn’t even used as a device to resolve the romantic conflict. But that was OK: I enjoyed the quirky people and the milieu (both of which I envisioned looking exactly like the retirement community part of In Her Shoes) and the literary chit-chat, and especially the Austen seminar, from which AR has already quoted the best bits. I liked Jane Austen in Scarsdale better overall, and not just because it’s based on Persuasion rather than Pride and Prejudice. I thought the shifting of the Elliots’ class anxiety from Austen’s context to the context of status-obsessed parents angling to get their kids into the “best” colleges was really smart, and though I can imagine Cohen’s extended satire on the whole process seeming too extended to some readers, I found it very funny. Changing the Wentworth figure from a naval hero to a travel writer was also clever: how else could he have travelled the world and come back, not broke, but rich, after all? The bit that didn’t work as well, I thought, was the “giving him up on the advice of family” part, which just seemed really unlikely for modern characters. But maybe I just move in the wrong (or right!) circles.

Following the enthusiastic recommendations of Jessica at Read React Review and Liz at Something More, I picked up Ride with Me (continuing my intrepid explorations of Romance-land!) and, like both of them, quite enjoyed it. I’m not a biker, but I liked the premise because of the excuse it gave for lots of descriptions of the landscape, and also because travel narratives are always effective devices for character development and (in this case at least) relationships. I got a bit tired of the appreciative voyeurism–how interesting can it be for us to be told repeatedly how great someone looks, after all? And the really, really rich guy trope (experts: does this count as a trope?) is a bit annoying because it’s kind of like waving a magic wand over the story: I prefer an HEA that isn’t so imbalanced. I had lunch today with Sycorax Pine and we talked a bit about ideology and contemporary romance, and particularly about whether period romances may sometimes do a better job complicating things like gender roles and economic issues precisely because in looking back, we are able or willing to see more critically. No doubt, as a beginner, I should not generalize, but in this specific case and a couple of other romances I’ve read recently (like Julie James’s About That Night), it has bothered me that part of the happy ending is the implication that “money perfects everything.” But overall Ride with Me was a lot of fun, and even funny (like Jessica, I particularly enjoyed the hot sauce contest).

I guess it isn’t right to include Emma Donoghue’s Room as light reading, though it was certainly a very fast read. I avoided it for a long time: the premise made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t particularly love the other Donoghue novels I read. But it was hard not to be curious, given how much hype and acclaim it got, so when the e-book went on sale for $5 I couldn’t resist. For the first 50 or so pages I was captivated and really impressed: Jack’s voice is pitch-perfect given the concept, and Donoghue very effectively balances us on a knife-edge between innocence and evil because we can’t help but understand everything so very differently from Jack. Though the narrative conceit started to wear on me after a while, I also got very caught up in the suspense of their escape attempts. Unlike litlove, though (whose reading of the novel is wonderful), I tired quickly of the second half. After the initial shock of being introduced to the rest of the world, Jack began to seem to me too much of a device to show us the world as it seems to an outsider. His voice faltered too, I thought: though we were set up for his advanced vocabulary by the ‘parrot’ game he and his mother play and his otherwise hyper-developed skills, still, some of the comments he made seemed artificially pointed while at other times he seemed much more babyish than he ever did while in “Room.” The setting up of his new life felt laborious, too. Clearly, readers differ on this!  I’m very interested in litlove’s proposal that something more generalized comes out of the novel about childhood innocence and the difficulties we all have growing out of it, but I’m not comfortable reading the novel in a way that conflates Jack’s childhood, founded in trauma and built through artifice, with childhood in general–unless we want his mother’s relationship with Old Nick to stand in for marriage generally too, but nothing about Room gave me the sense that Donoghue intended it as an allegory overall. So for me, the novel works best at the more specific level, an experiment in perspective and psychology. I think the strengths of sticking to Jack’s point of view–including that it’s unexpected and often very poignant seeing as he sees–also become the novel’s weakness; I would have liked to switch to his mother’s point of view for the second half, perhaps, because it’s not that hard to get the idea that everything seems very strange to Jack, so instead of giving us a tour of everything as he gets around to it (a coffee shop! a toy store! a playground!) some of the realities of their captivity as well as of their re-adjustment could have been explored from a more sophisticated point of view.