Book Review: EVENTIDE by Therese Bohman

Eventide follows Karolina Andersson, an art history professor who finds herself in a personal (and possibly, career) rut after a passionless breakup with a long-term partner, Karl Johan. Drifting aimlessly through life in Stockholm, she becomes involved with several old and new flames, along with a good-looking graduate student who promises to have unearthed a secret for his dissertation that could revolutionize the history of Swedish art. It’s a spare, self-contained novel that feels both achingly melancholy and surprisingly light on its feet. I am always charmed by novels that choose a small story to tell and then execute it perfectly; Eventide is such a novel. At times Eventide feels just a little too small, but its precise prose (translated from the original Swedish) and outsize emotional power make it more than worth the read.

You can read my full review below.


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Eventide by Therese Bohman (translated by Marlaine Delargy)

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  • publisher: Other Press
  • publication date: April 10, 2018 (originally published in Sweden in 2016)
  • length: 208 pages
  • cover price: $15.95

…Karolina liked her new home. It had soon begun to feel like an oasis, a space of her own, maybe somewhere she could make a fresh start, even if that was still some way beyond the horizon. For the moment it was a good location for a period of aimless confusion.

Eventide, page 5

I am struck, frequently, by how few books we have that are really about women. Not just starring women, not just written by women, but about women. It’s not that books about women are inherently better than other kinds of books. I’d just as soon read books that are about dragons, or sword-fighting, or cold-blooded murder, or pirates, or even about men.

It’s just that there are so many women, and so few stories about them, that the artificial scarcity hurts my heart. It boggles my mind. So when I find a book like Eventide, which is an intimate, specific, compassionate, but not sappy novel that is intensely concerned with the woman at its center, I find myself with an abundance of goodwill towards that book, maybe even unfairly.

Luckily, Eventide deserves that goodwill. It’s a tightly crafted, slim novel about an art professor, generically named Karolina Andersson, who is dealing with personal and professional upheaval. She’s good at her job, as far as the reader can tell, but she finds herself romantically adrift and desperately sad about it. She ends a long-term relationship because she knew it wasn’t the right fit, but endlessly despairs that that relationship, flawed as it was, might have been her only shot.

The novel circles this self-pitying drain for nearly its entire duration, but somehow, it rarely feels stale or overdone. In fact, it’s refreshing.

In a less skilled author’s hands, Eventide might only have been one more novel about the “biological clock.” For Bohman, Eventide‘s basic plot is a probing instrument to get at all sorts of unjust truths about society, even a society as supposedly egalitarian as Stockholm, Sweden’s.

The driving force of the plot is that Andersson’s newly assigned Ph.D candidate, Anton Strömberg, has uncovered a startling connection between an obscure female Swedish artist and a male-dominated German arts movement. If this sounds boring and academic, I understand; I’m not sure how to convince you that it’s not boring, other than to say that it isn’t.

Bohman infuses Karolina and Anton’s interactions with a tautness and sexuality that make the art rather secondary. That’s true of all the art history in the book, in fact. For Karolina (and the reader, at least for Eventide‘s duration), the intellectual and the sensual are inseparable.

I dislike when people try and reduce feminism in fiction to feminist characters. Is Katniss Everdeen a feminist character? Is Lizzie Bennett? Hester Prynne? And so on, and so forth. I think a better question is whether or not a novel fully realizes the power structures that women are subjected to. By expecting perfection from our heroines, I fear that we are doing the opposite of feminism.

In contrast, Karolina’s imperfection was the thing I loved most about Eventide, even when I found her to be frustrating, unethical, and claustrophobically self-centered; even when I found her story to be a bit boring and repetitive. This is a novel that understands that there is no right thing to do or say that makes things fair in a profoundly unfair world. Sometimes things go badly, and there’s little morality (or immorality) to it.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s a long meditation on the fact that no one really “deserves” anything, so you might as well strive for what you want. In a lot of fiction and pop culture, this viewpoint (which is hardly unique) comes across as defeatist or greedy; in Eventide, though, it feels different:

If no one deserves anything, that means you are just as entitled to the good things in life as the rival you hate, as the ex-lover you vilify. There is no need to keep hating them or vilifying them or giving them endless mental energy when you can simply ignore them and pursue your own desires. You are not more, or less, moral for doing so.

Eventide suggests that endlessly sorting ourselves into “deserving” and “undeserving” is a trap we can free ourselves from. It’s a message, without being, in the preachy sense, a Message.

Eventide has a small and perfectly balanced center of gravity. It is not a novel that is explosive, glorious, unforgettable, or even vivid. It is simply a little thing done well, modest and purely itself. It’s the person at the party who’s quiet all night, and then says one tiny thing just before leaving that stays with you forever.

In short, Eventide is lovely. ★★★★☆


My copy of Eventide came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Girlfriend is Kevin Kwan’s romantic comedy send-up of his home country of Singapore. In it, Nick Young decides to take his girlfriend, Rachel Chu, with him for a 10-week vacation in Singapore. Unfortunately, he neglects to tell her that his family is ridiculously wealthy and that he happens to be the island’s most eligible bachelor. There are a few interlinking plotlines about Nick’s petty, spoiled family, along with delicious descriptions of food, luscious fashion porn, and plenty of sly political and social observations about the “crazy rich” of Asia. In the midst of all this opulence and bitchy drama, I found myself hard-up for someone to root for–that is, until the final 50 or so pages, which pierce the novel’s silly bubble to reveal a core much sharper and smarter than I had been expecting. I’m looking forward to books two and three in the trilogy: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, respectively.

You can read my full review below.


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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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  • publisher: Anchor Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: 2013
  • length: 544 pages
  • cover price: $16.00

“You probably want to prepare her a bit,” Astrid said with a laugh.

“What is there to prepare her for?” Nick asked breezily.

“Listen, Nicky,” Astrid said, her tone getting serious. “You can’t just throw Rachel into the deep end like this. You need to prep her, do you hear me?”

Crazy Rich Asians, page 40

Billionaire romance feels like my dirtiest habit. It’s not the romance part–I’m a proud romance reader–but the billionaire part. I’m a socialist, social justice killjoy, you see, if you haven’t picked that up already from reading this blog. So why do I eat up stories of the powerfully wealthy with a spoon? Why do I swoon over the gowns and the food and exotic destinations? I’m not sure, but I do.

I entered Crazy Rich Asians with no small amount of guilt and trepidation. From everything I’d heard (including about the smash hit movie, which I haven’t seen yet), Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t just about rich people: it was loud about rich people. It was unabashed in its glamour and wealth. It was downright tacky about it. It basically filled a ball pit with hundred dollar bills and paid a supermodel in a Louis Vuitton couture gown to roll around in it.

And I’ll admit, after reading Crazy Rich Asians, I don’t think I’ll be able to have my billionaire escapist fiction any other way. This novel is ridiculous. It’s ridiculously fun. Also, perhaps surprisingly, considering how romantic and frothy it is, it has a lot of  smart and resonant things to say, that it can only say because of how ridiculous it is.

As many, many a reviewer has said before me, Crazy Rich Asians is Jane Austen for the modern age. Its claws are out, its satire stings, but it’s also unabashedly a love letter to the things it’s critiquing. And just like as it is with the endless Mr. Darcy discourse, you’ll also be wondering just how romantic this romantic comedy really is by its end.

The plot is simple: a crazy rich guy (Nick) from a crazy rich family (the Youngs) asks his girlfriend (Rachel Chu), who doesn’t know he’s rich, to come with him on a 10-week trip to Singapore. Rumors spread like wildfire that Nick is going to ask her to marry him, and Rachel is subject to the most catty hatred imaginable, from his family and from other bachelorettes on the island. People mock her Chinese American identity and her middle class-ness. They call her a gold digger. Most of all, they want Nick (and his money and good name) for themselves.

Unfortunately, that wild plot also generates what I think the novel’s biggest weak point is: I actually didn’t like or trust any of the characters, not even Nick and Rachel.

First of all, Nick throws Rachel to the f***ing wolves extremely cavalierly and never seems to fully understand that it was wrong. Seriously. It’s horrifying. It’s almost villainous, and it killed any sympathy I might have had for him.

Second of all, Rachel is a bit of an enigma, and not in a good way. She’s effortlessly perfect in that classic romance heroine way, and it’s so slippery that I just couldn’t empathize with her. Despite the catty attacks she endures, she actually fits into Singaporean society (and hundred thousand dollar couture) effortlessly. Come on, girl! I would be freaking out, but she just goes with it. It didn’t ring true to me. (Her sweet but complicated relationship with her mom, though, is a highlight of the novel.)

And don’t even get me started on the rest of the characters: the third novel in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is called Rich People Problems, but that might as well be the subtitle of this one. I thought the novel was at its best when it was eviscerating these people, and at its most mealy-mouthed when it sympathized with them. It’s unfortunate, since that’s not entirely fair: people are people, and everyone really does have problems. But if 99% of your problems are self-inflicted…damn. I do start to lose patience at that point. Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin and her family are a nice antidote to the bitchiness, but it’s too little, too late.

Just when I was getting tired of the crazy richness, however, the novel takes an abrupt turn in its last fifty or so pages. The opulence bubble bursts to reveal an ugly underbelly full of piercing, heart-pounding emotional conflict. I won’t spoil it, but I went from wanting to rate this book a two or a three to feeling like it deserved a five by the end. I decided to compromise with four stars, but do know if you read it that there is a massive end payoff that more than justifies the saggy middle.

Crazy Rich Asians is a little too long, a little overstuffed, a little uncertain where the reader’s sympathies should lie. Despite that, it’s startlingly good and completely unique. Kwan expertly spins his personal experiences in Singapore into a novel that manages to satirize big picture politics as well as the tiniest familial idiosyncrasies. Even when I wasn’t loving the novel, I was in awe at Kwan’s storytelling. It’s the whole package: spicy, sweet, umami, salty, and bitter and sour enough to make you pucker.

I didn’t like every dish at this book’s banquet, but the experience is unforgettable–and you can bet I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy. ★★★★☆


My copy of Crazy Rich Asians came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata

In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura doesn’t fit in–and doesn’t want to fit in–anywhere other than her beloved convenience store, where she works part-time. Keiko is in her 30s, past when she should have been married or found a “real” job according to family and friends, and their attempts to “cure” her gradually alienate Keiko. Convenience Store Woman is a thoughtful, tender, and funny novel that raises the serious point that society is more satisfied with people who are “normal” and unhappy than with people who are “abnormal” and happy. It’s a great read for anyone, but I especially recommend it for people interested in everyday Japanese culture, books in translation, and books with autistic characters. (Keiko’s autism is never explicitly stated, but clearly implied, and sensitively portrayed.)

You can read my full review below.


Convenience Store Woman Cover.jpg

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018 (originally published in Japan in 2016)
  • length: 176 pages
  • cover price: $20.00

A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.

Convenience Store Woman, page 1

I felt seen by this book, seen on a level so profound that I’m pretty sure that author Sayaka Murata peered into my soul as she was writing. On the surface, my experience has little in common with protagonist Keiko Furukura in Convenience Store Woman. I’m in my early 20s, she in her late 30s. I work a “respectable” job as a writer, she’s a part-time convenience store clerk. I’m American, she’s Japanese.

But this is the magic of Convenience Store Woman: it is so loving and empathetic, so skillful and funny and emotional and haunting, that I think it’s impossible not to resonate with it.

Keiko is clearly written as autistic, something that’s never stated but easily perceptible through the first-person narration. It’s that first-person narrative that makes all the difference, since autistic and allistic people alike can relate to the pressure Keiko is under to fit in. She’s in her 30s and single–not only single, but working a dead-end job, which seems to be even more of a taboo in Japanese culture than it is here in the U.S. To her friends and family, it doesn’t matter that Keiko is happy: she’s somehow broken, and they make it their mission to fix her.

Whether you’re autistic or not, everyone has been in that position at some point, and that’s what Convenience Store Woman‘s charm hinges on. It asks us why we’re so committed to fitting in, while also acknowledging that we have to fit in to function in society. That contradiction keeps the novel interesting, and far away from “everyone’s special” after-school special territory.

Autistic people are so often used and abused by fiction writers to further plots, be an excuse for an allistic main character to show off their empathy, or to fulfill harmful stereotypes, such as that autistic people lack empathy or are overgrown children. I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved Murata’s approach in Convenience Store Woman. When you read, you don’t feel separate from Keiko. You’re not ogling her or judging her. You’re just experiencing the world through Keiko’s eyes, and if Keiko sees things a little differently than you might in her shoes, so be it.

Murata has a particular gift for descriptions. She engaged all my senses so vividly that I felt like I were experiencing the novel through virtual reality, a jolt straight to my neurons. That’s an especially wonderful feat considering that I’ve never been to Japan and am not particularly familiar with what a convenience store or small apartment might look like there. It doesn’t matter: the taste of a slightly spoiled mango-chocolate bun, or the look of Keiko’s feverish nephew, or the smell of an unwashed incel-like man–Keiko’s terrible sort-of boyfriend–was conveyed to me perfectly.

“Perceptive” is the word that I think describes Convenience Store Woman best. It indulges in all the specificities of Keiko’s life and suburban Japanese culture while still remaining remarkably relatable and accessible. It has sharp satirical elements, but it has a big, gushy emotional heart. It’s a book full of all those little anxieties and behaviors that you thought only you did, that you now realize others might, too. It’s a book to make you feel less alone. And goodness knows we need more of those.

Convenience Store Woman is sometimes quite dark and sad, other times quite joyful and funny, and always as delicious and comforting as hot soup–or the convenience store’s best-selling mayo-tuna rice balls. Highly, highly recommended. Just don’t read it while you’re hungry. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of Convenience Store Woman came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation isn’t a novel of either-or’s, but rather of messy middles. It follows a year in the life of a 20-something New York heiress who decides to drug herself into sleep for a year (with the aid of an unethical, conspiracy-addled psychiatrist) because she doesn’t like her life very much. That premise–and Ottessa Moshfegh’s almost gleeful execution of it–will horrify you. It will likely repulse you. And yet, from the first words on the first page, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is hypnotically readable, even enjoyable. My sense of anxiety and distaste never lessened, but it’s still, somehow, one of my can’t-miss novel recommendations of the year.

You can read my full review of this unforgettable novel below.


My Year of Rest and Relaxation Cover.jpg

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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  • publisher: Penguin Press
  • publication date: July 10, 2018
  • length: 304 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

But coming out of that sleep was excruciating. My entire life flashed before my eyes in the worst way possible, my mind refilling itself with all my lame memories, every little thing that had brought me to where I was. I’d try to remember something else–a better version, a happy story, maybe, or just an equally lame but different life that would at least be refreshing in its digressions–but it never worked. I was always still me.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, page 40

From June 1999 to June 2000, the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation decides to sleep. She’s an heiress to a lot of money. She’s a Columbia art history graduate. She has a nice apartment in Manhattan and a cushy job at a pretentiously “edgy” art gallery. Her parents are dead. She hates her best friend. She is an utterly intolerable person and seems to know it. So she sleeps in an attempt to start over, with the help of a psychiatrist so incompetent it’s almost malicious.

You would be forgiven, after hearing the premise, for thinking that My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a magical realist fairy tale. How else could someone sleep for a year? The answer is that the narrator doesn’t, exactly: she naps and sleeps and blacks out and visits the bodega and watches movies and starts the cycle over again. If the plot is dreamy, the novel’s feel is not; in fact, it is almost oppressively real, especially as it’s grounded in the quirks and side effects of psychotropic medications.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation name-checks all sorts of pop and high culture references with the density and playfulness of a Hollywood satire. (In fact, its closest tonal match is probably Netflix’s depressing-but-beautiful Hollywood sitcom Bojack Horseman.) It skewers the art world, skewers wealth, skewers college, skewers dating, skewers shopping, and skewers psychiatry.

It even skewers the omnipresence of 9/11 in pop culture: as the novel progresses, the clock runs ever-closer to September 2001, and Ottessa Moshfegh gently toys with her readers with references to Zeno’s paradox of ever-halving time and an anti-terrorism taskforce that’s quartered in the Twin Towers. I was torn between marveling at Moshfegh’s talented satire and also feeling profoundly rubbed the wrong way by it. I think that’s the point. (To be clear, Moshfegh does not make light of 9/11–quite the opposite–but if you’re disturbed by reading some dark humor about the event, this novel likely isn’t for you.)

The emotional heft of the novel lies in the narrator’s relationship with her best friend, Reva, who visits the narrator frequently while she is “sleeping.” Reva adores her. She loathes Reva. Their push-and-pull–the (unnamed) narrator’s a WASP, Reva is an out-of-place Jew; the narrator is effortlessly thin, Reva is bulimic; Reva’s mother is dying, the narrator’s parents are already dead–allows Moshfegh to ruthlessly probe at the characters themselves and at broader archetypes about women in New York. Neither Reva nor the narrator is a good person. You don’t particularly enjoy spending time with them. Yet I felt an intense, almost mothering connection to both that kept me tethered to the novel no matter how far out it gets.

My biggest discomfort with My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a profoundly personal one. Many of the drugs that the narrator is prescribed for her “insomnia” are drugs I’ve taken myself for my very real bipolar disorder: lithium, Seroquel, trazodone, and Risperdal, for one, though the list goes on a lot further than that. As the narrator describes her weight loss, her wan-ness, her nausea, her atrophy, I became overwhelmingly angry. Psychotropic meds are horrible. If I didn’t need them, I wouldn’t take them. It’s a deep conflict I have within myself that I am an enormous advocate for mental health treatment, and also someone who loathes taking my meds.

In light of that, reading about a privileged skinny white girl taking those meds and dealing with their side effects for fun–or rather, not quite for fun, as she’s clearly struggling, but also not quite because she needs them–made me irritable. It got under my skin. It gave me bad dreams last night, not to mention all of the other disturbing things about the novel that bothered me, too.

And yet I am immensely grateful to have read My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer so talented that I felt literally dazzled, like I couldn’t look at a page too long or it might burn me. There is not a word out of place here. There is not a single careless joke or plot point, although the narrator as a character is deeply careless. It’s a marvel to watch the pieces fit together.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is as skillfully, intensely drawn as Escher art. It will befuddle you the longer you think about it, so don’t think: just read. Moshfegh’s protagonist may be busy wasting her life, but while reading about it, I only felt more intensely alive. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WARCROSS by Marie Lu

In Warcross, troubled teenage hacker and bounty hunter Emika Chen steals a power-up from a Warcross tournament, Warcross being the virtual reality sensation that’s taken over Marie Lu’s fictional vision of the future. Instead of getting arrested, Emika gets invited to Tokyo to help Hideo Tanaka, Warcross’s mysterious and handsome inventor, catch a dangerous hacker named Zero. What follows is an absolutely dazzling sci-fi adventure novel that’s both rollicking fun and a thoughtful exploration of the ever-increasing role tech plays in our lives. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

You can read my full review below.


Warcross Cover

Warcross by Marie Lu

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  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it’s a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it’s the only foolproof way to forget our troubles. I lost my bounty, my landlord is going to come screaming for his money again tomorrow morning, I’m going to drag myself to my waitressing job, and I’m going to be homeless in a couple of days, with nowhere to go…but tonight I can join in with everyone else, put on my glasses, and watch magic happen.

Warcross, page 27

The line between “young adult” and “adult” seems to blur more and more every year in publishing, and if you need hard evidence that that’s a good thing, you need look no further than Warcross.

Warcross‘s premise manages to be straightforward and thought-provoking all at once: an impoverished New York City bounty hunter, Emika Chen, commits a crime by hacking a Warcross tournament and is then plunged into a world of immense wealth and intrigue when she goes undercover in the tournament herself to uncover the identity of a dangerous hacker. It’s not hard to follow the action, which frees you up to think even more deeply about a world where our economy and our free time are completely controlled by a video game. (That world certainly doesn’t feel very far away.)

Author Marie Lu worked as a video game designer before her turn as a successful YA sci-fi author. That means that she intimately grasps the incredible rewards of gaming. This is definitely a “fist pump” novel: one where the action, both in game and out, leaves you as breathless as a superhero movie might.

That also means her critiques of tech can go way deeper than knee-jerk, dime-a-dozen “the future = bad” takes on virtual reality. In Lu’s future, Warcross is empowering as well as dangerous: underdogs from around the world become overnight superstars who can provide for themselves and their families. Lu’s characters feel effortlessly diverse to the reader, but you can still sense how much thought she’s put into it: How might international stars react similarly or differently to online superstardom? (I loved how many countries were represented, from Kenya to Germany and far beyond.) How might a gamer who uses a wheelchair in the real world adapt to an able-bodied avatar in-game? How would translation work across languages?

I could list dozens of other questions the novel raises, and it makes the whole experience far richer and more immersive than a skin-deep, U.S.-centric novel with a similar premise would be.

Warcross‘s protagonists, Emika and Hideo, are on the older side for YA: Emika is 18 and Hideo is 21. This is where the blurring between young adult and adult comes in: this novel is perfectly appropriate for even young teens (there’s no intense violence or sexuality) but was still completely engrossing for me, a 23-year-old adult. This would be a perfect book for parent or mentors to share with tech-savvy teens: it will lead to great conversations about safety online and be super-fun, to boot. There’s such a dearth of books starring 18-to-25-year-olds out there (it’s like fictional characters just…stop living their lives between 17-30) that I would have been happy to find Warcross regardless, so it’s a nice bonus that it’s so clever and well-crafted, as well.

In Warcross, Lu writes with a light touch, equally comfortable with vivid action, painful emotion, butterflies-in-the-stomach flirtation, and thoughtful observation. Her rich imagination fairly leaps off the page, and her characters are distinctly and lovingly drawn. (There’s a huge ensemble supporting cast in this novel, but I had no problem telling them apart.) She’s preternaturally gifted, and Warcross is a treat.

Perhaps this novel’s only downside is its cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, it manages to feel genuinely open rather than exploitative, but the wait for the second book, Wildcard–coming September 18th, 2018–is killing me. In the meantime, I’m tempted to flip back to page 1 and lose myself in Warcross all over again. ★★★★★


My copy of Warcross came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: INVITATION TO A BONFIRE by Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire is a slow-burning reimagining of Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage, told mostly through the eyes of the fictional Zoya, a boarding school employee who falls in love first with “Lev Orlov’s” (the Nabokov insert’s) books and then with the man himself. Over the course of the 1930s, she finds herself in a vicious–and murderous–love triangle with him and his wife. It’s an extraordinary premise that unfortunately feels sordid in execution. The novel careens from a slow first half, beginning in Zoya’s childhood in the Soviet Union and inching through her time as a scholarship student and greenhouse employee, to a breakneck (and murderous) second half that goes off not so much with a blaze as an incomprehensible flash-bang that left me frustrated and dazed. The novel is full of keen observations (especially about life as a Soviet immigrant to America) and razor-sharp turns of phrase, but as a story, I found it extraordinarily unsatisfying.

You can read my full review below.


Invitation to a Bonfire Cover

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

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  • publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • publication date: June 5, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

No one minded theft or inconsistency, even vitriol, so long as it meant you were making a statement. This was my first great lesson in being American, and I took it to heart.

Invitation to a Bonfire

I’m struck by how much I find my gut creeping into my feelings about books, no matter how hard I try to get my reviewing down to a science. I like this because X, I don’t like this because Y, I’ll tell myself smugly when I’m not reading. The problem is that as soon as I start reading, those lofty theories fly out the window. It’s all about me and the book, and sometimes we hit it off, and sometimes we don’t.

I did not hit it off with Invitation to a Bonfire, and while I have a few inklings as to why, the intensity of my dislike surprises me.

Invitation to a Bonfire follows a young Soviet American woman named Zoya who falls in love with Soviet author Leo Orlov, a stand-in for Vladimir Nabokov. Zoya also falls into a standoff with his calculating wife, Vera, based on Nabokov’s actual wife, Véra. It’s framed as a collection of found papers including journals and love letters, a device that I think works not at all, and it’s about as slow of a slow burn as you’re likely to find in literary fiction.

I enjoyed this book most when Adrienne Celt was writing about Zoya’s experience as the daughter of a Red revolutionary-turned-traitor. The Soviet Union holds such a cartoonishly evil and exaggerated place in American culture that the subtlety Celt brought to its politics was refreshing and welcome. The problem is that as soon as Celt turns to the setting of an exclusive boarding school in 1930s America, where Zoya is sent as a scholarship student and where she works after graduation, the tension pops like a balloon and never comes back.

I hammer on this point to the degree that family and friends roll their eyes when they hear me say it, but historical fiction is never really about the past–it’s about the present, and over and over I found myself frustrated with how little Invitation to a Bonfire seems to be about the past or the present. The supposed “historical” documents Celt uses (including oral histories) feel not at all like something written in the 1930s. The boarding school is about as clichéd and cardboard a boarding school setting as it gets; it could have been set in the ’80s or ’90s instead and I wouldn’t have noticed. There’s so little genuine American historical detail–though the Soviet stuff is well done–that it left me unmoored and uncaring about anything that happened.

The novel seems uncertain if it’s expecting you to know about Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage or not. I’ve never read Lolita or anything else of his work, so I went into this novel pretty cold except for a brief scan of his Wikipedia page. As far as I can tell, Celt has based the novel very loosely on actually events, dropping in wink-wink-nudge-nudge Easter eggs: Felice is the novel’s version of Lolita; in Orlov’s love letters, he refers to names as having colors, and Nabokov himself was a renowned synesthete. The problem is that they felt to me like the literary version of after-credits scenes in Marvel movies: cool bonuses, but utterly unnecessary. In a novel that’s already agonizingly slow, that Celt chooses to devote so much energy to establishing her almost-Nabokov is frustrating.

Celt also spends a lot of time establishing Vera’s background as upper-crust and Zoya’s as a half-step above peasantry; class is a crux of the novel even after Zoya comes to America, a poor student at an overwhelmingly rich school. But in real life, Véra was Russian Jewish and faced overwhelming anti-Semitism that very much shaped her life and Nabokov’s. It’s not so much that I think Celt has an obligation to include every real-world detail–as I said, Invitation to a Bonfire is an extremely loose adaptation–as that I think it’s odd she includes so much peripheral detail about Nabokov and so little about Véra. The imagination of the novel feels lumpy, coming in clumps when I don’t want it there, yet feeling oddly barren when it would be most useful.

I could have forgiven most if not all of that if the core murder mystery were more effective, but it’s not. About halfway through, the novel goes from extremely predictable to off-the-walls nuts. I could see Celt’s motions behind the curtain so clearly that it made me roll my eyes. Zoya and Lev’s love story is as flimsy as tissue paper; there are plot holes so big you could drive a tank through them. I had to read over the final couple of pages several times just to understand what I was reading because it was such a polar flip from what the first half seemed to be leading up to.

I don’t like being made to feel stupid while reading a novel, and Invitation to a Bonfire made me feel somehow simultaneously stupid and overly smart. There’s so much here that I wanted to love: a fascinating history, a fiery love story, crimes of passion. Celt’s prose is perfectly serviceable and sometimes even stunningly beautiful. The DNA is all there. So why didn’t it come together for me?

I think I can place the fatal flaw in the novel, but it might really be in me as a reader, and I hate that. I hate writing negative reviews because they remind me of the subjectivity and mundanity of my own opinions more than anything else, though they’re not fundamentally different than my positive ones: expressions of how a particular book struck me at a particular time, expressions that are affected by a smorgasbord of things that are not actually the book or the author’s fault.

No matter the root cause, for me, Invitation to a Bonfire fizzles instead of blazes. What a shame. ★★☆☆☆


My copy of Invitation to a Bonfire came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter follows Tess, a 20-something who moves to New York in search of…well, New York itself. She miraculously lands a job at a high-end restaurant and begins a life full of heady food, drink, coke, and 3 a.m. benders with coworkers. She also falls hard for Simone, an aloof waitress full of Old World knowledge and mystery, and Jake, an otherworldly-beautiful bartender with secrets to keep. Sweetbitter feels miraculous, a wonderful novel superimposed onto the blueprints of a worse one. Coming to New York stories are cheap and well-trodden, but Stephanie Danler finds all the rough edges worth exploring. As I wrote last month, the novel’s vivid restaurant setting helps freshen it, but there’s other alchemical magic at work too. Danler finds the sweet spot between young adult and adult literature, turning the big swings and harsh failures of Tess’s 20s into a novel that feels decadent and rich, lofty without being bloodless. I loved every minute.

You can read my full review below. Please note that this review is a bit more NSFW than my usual and contains some sexual content and swearing.


Sweetbitter Cover

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

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  • publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • publication date: May 24, 2016
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $25.00 in hardcover, $16.00 in paperback

Does anyone come to New York clean? I’m afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn’t catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.

Sweetbitter, page 4

20-something Tess comes to New York from Ohio as a blank slate with a vaguely alluded-to education in English literature. She doesn’t come to New York striving to be an actress, singer, writer, or artist; she just arrives for the sake of arriving, hungry for city living. She decides that working as a waitress is her best chance at making life in the city work, so she gets a job at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan and begins an education in good food and something called the 51%–the “something special” about back- and front-of-house staff. From there, she falls headlong into a love affair with food and two of her most mysterious coworkers. Hijinks (and a beautiful coming-of-age story) ensue.

For all the effort we put into getting kids and teens to read, I think that we put very little cultural effort into keeping adults readers during and after college. There’s a massive jump between the work of offbeat YA authors like A. S. King and the cloistered world of adult literary fiction.

That’s what struck me most about Sweetbitter: that it is a young adult novel in the sense that it intimately captures the things I care about as a 23-year-old moving through the world, in a way that very few literary novels (except maybe Nafkote Tamirat’s flawed The Parking Lot Attendant) have captured recently: love, hard work, love, hard pain, love, hard joy, love, with the intensity of it all dialed up to eleven.

Danler’s writing is dramatic, almost to the point of melo-, but not quite. At first when reading Sweetbitter’s mythology-tinged dialogue, I thought, no one talks like that. But because Danler writes a dazzling amount of dialogue for a dizzying array of characters, it works. For every allusion to Greek myth and the terroir of Old World wines, someone’s talking about puking after a night out and the latest girl the office manager is screwing under his desk. It’s hi-lo writing that perfectly captures the hi-lo atmosphere of restaurant work, no matter how “fine” the dining is at a particular establishment.

Sweetbitter hews so close to the border of cliché that it’s a miracle it never crosses into it. For one, a love triangle with an older, mysterious bartender and an icy head waitress is at its center. For the other, it’s a coming-of-age story about coming to New York. But in Danler’s hands those elements have an unexpected emotional immediacy. Tess snorts obligatory coke in a bar bathroom, but she also then buys a leather jacket with a heady (and recognizable to any 20-something) mix of self-consciousness and pride. She has hot sex in the back of a cab but also masturbates, miserably, in her overheated apartment in the middle of a damp December.

Sweetbitter is both archetypal and vulnerable, something in the vein of Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar but also something entirely its own. It’s both claustrophobic and expansive, confined to a restaurant that somehow contains a whole world within it. The tenderness with which the staff treat their regular customers is in sharp contrast to the vicious way they treat each other, yet both feel like manifestations of love. They’re a family. A completely fucked-up family, but still.

Sweetbitter is yet another book about a beautiful, thin young white woman, but it’s perhaps the best one of that ouevre I’ve ever read. It’s a book about the aged optimism–not quite pessimism–of your twenties, and how it mellows and deepens. I want to read more stories that live in that niche, ones with different specificities and desires and homes.

If you’re disaffected and bored and in a reading slump, I couldn’t recommend anything else to shake you out of it more highly than Sweetbitter. It’s sad and thrilling and cathartic at once, both a mirror-image of our world and a bright still life full of artistic license. Get some good grapes and cheese and take a hot bath while you read. You’ll lose yourself and your troubles, too. ★★★★★


My copy of Sweetbitter came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.