Frances is an underpaid dressmaker with a terrible boss–until a daring design for a noble client catches the attention of a mysterious royal. That royal turns out to be Prince Sebastian: an ordinary prince by day, secretly the fabulous fashion icon Lady Crystallia by night. Frances and Sebastian become fast friends, but the effort of keeping the secret of Lady Crystallia’s identity begins to take a toll on both of them. Can they find a way to hold onto their dreams and each other, or is this fairy tale doomed to have an unhappy ending?
Well, of course this story has a happy ending, but the journey to it is such a joy that I won’t give away anything more than that. The Prince and the Dressmaker is a gorgeous graphic novel for all ages that swept me off my feet as surely as any Prince(ss) Charming.
One of my favorite things about The Prince and the Dressmaker is the way its queerness defies labels. Is Sebastian a trans girl? Genderfluid? A drag performer? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Is Frances straight, bi, or a lesbian for loving all aspects of Sebastian and Lady Crystallia? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Are both or either of them aro, ace, or on a gray spectrum? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be! As someone who’s struggled with my own labels quite a bit (understatement of the year), it was such relief to read a book that was joyfully queer but didn’t get bogged down in the details.
Jen Wang’s art is simply terrific. I tend to find comics and graphic novels distracting and hard to read (which is a me problem–my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way), but these illustrations only enriched my experience of the story. Every panel is so colorful, exuberant, distinctive, and all-caps BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to hang them on my wall or get them tattooed on my body or both.
The Prince and the Dressmaker really is a modern-day fairy tale, an instant classic along the lines of Ella Enchanted. It’s a pitch-perfect balance of harrowing and comforting–no matter how bad or sad things got, I always knew I was hurtling toward a happy ending, and the catharsis when I finally got there was so, so sweet. This would be an amazing book for adults and kids to read together for that reason.
If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after to restore your faith in humanity right now (who isn’t?), it would be hard to do better than The Prince and the Dressmaker. I loved this book and I hope you will too. ★★★★★
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Originally published in February 2018 by First Second (Macmillan).
Will Kendall is in love with Phoebe Lin. The problem is that Phoebe is becoming ever more enmeshed in a cult: a cult that lashes out in an act of terrifying violence that Will can’t reconcile with his glamorous, aloof, perfect vision of Phoebe. The Incendiaries explores what happens when faith takes over someone’s life, leaving those who love them helplessly trapped on the other side. I loved this novel’s story and characters, but I had trouble following its timeline and stakes until the very end, when the whole thing clicks into place. I found it mostly satisfying; other readers might be disappointed. The Incendiaries is moving and thought-provoking, but I do wish it’d been just a little clearer. Its characters are trapped in a fog of confusion and regret–the reader didn’t have to be.
publication date: hardcover in 2018, paperback in 2019
length: 240 pages
But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So here I am, trying.
–from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
Faith, first love, money (and lack of it), alcohol, terrorism, an elite college, suicide, a cult. The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon’s first novel, is made of heady stuff. In it, a young scholarship student who recently lost his evangelical Christian faith, Will, falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful young woman with a complicated past: Phoebe.
It took me a beat too long to understand that the whole book is told from Will’s perspective, although The Incendiaries alternates between chapters labeled Will, Phoebe, and John Leal.
John Leal is a cult leader, a Christian zealot who did a terrifying stint in a North Korean prison after trying to help smuggle people out. He’s a cipher for the entirety of the novel–why go from a righteous cause, like freeing people from a dictatorship, to something as sinister as a murderous cult?
The Incendiaries plays out like a love triangle, except instead of three whole people, it’s more like one person–Will–battling his two contradictory ideals of Phoebe. In one, Phoebe is the love of his life, the first woman he has sex with, a brilliant pianist (who threw it all away because she couldn’t be perfect enough), a social butterfly.
But in the other, Phoebe is the instigator of a horrifying and deadly bombing, a nightmare from which Will cannot wake up.
In The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon writes with a cold, bright intensity, like a strobe light in a dark club. The frozen images we experience are alternately sexy, bloody, predatory, bloodless. It’s an interesting and original way to tell a version of a story I’m endlessly fascinated by: what happens when people get hopelessly caught up in a group that’s bad news. (The Girlsby Emma Cline, History of Wolvesby Emily Fridlund, and The Parking Lot Attendantby Nafkote Tamirat are just a few examples.)
The problem is that The Incendiaries is so alternately full of sharp edges and smooth surfaces that I found it impossible to ever get a proper grasp on it. I was solidly halfway through the novel before I understood what was happening; I was all the way to the end before the chronology made any kind of sense.
You also have to be willing to accept a certain amount of melodrama, which I think is mostly but not entirely effective. Will is wholly, almost religiously consumed by Phoebe, which is the point–in a nutshell, The Incendiaries is about the ways human love and religious devotion mirror each other, each one causing us to commit previously unimaginable acts–but it’s also occasionally grating.
Luckily, I thought Will, Phoebe, and John Leal are interesting enough to justify the obsessive attention Kwon pays them. But if you’re not a fan of this type of hyper-focused, character-driven literary novel, you’re likely to find it to be an awful lot of navel-gazing.
Despite all that, The Incendiaries gets better and better in my memory the farther I am from its electric final chapter. Thematically, Kwon bites off more than almost any author could conceivably chew, and transforms it into a fascinating, enigmatic, eminently memorable story. It reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoing, in that way: it wasn’t not always a great experience while I was reading it, but I’m grateful to have read it anyway.
In the end, Phoebe and John Leal’s motives are no clearer to us than they are to Will. Kwon asks us to sit with that discomfort and interrogate it, like tonguing raw gums after a pulled tooth.
If sincere belief can be used to justify such terrible ends, why believe anything at all? Why take the risk of loving anyone at all?
Because, The Incendiaries seems to argue, we can’t help it. Reasons and narrative are merely justifications to be applied afterwards, turned over and over in our minds till we come up with a story we’re satisfied with.
The Incendiaries is an excellent case for writing wildly ambitious, unrealistic novels and trusting that the right readers will love and connect with them anyway. When someone tells me that they didn’t like a novel because it wasn’t realistic, that merely tells me that something more primal has failed, that the wrong fictional buttons were pushed, the wrong hormones engaged. For a truly great story, we will put all objections of realism aside, whether that story is an overt one–a novel, a movie–or the covert one we’re always telling, the one about our own lives and relationships, the one that pushes us to believe, to love, to do something. Anything.
The Incendiaries is a fascinating book. I’m not sure that it’s always successful, but it is always, always great. ★★★★☆
Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking artist: a playwright, filmmaker, educator, and activist as well as a writer. She died young in 1988 and her work was at risk of fading into obscurity until the publication of this collection in 2016. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, named for one of the standouts of the collection–a bittersweet, sly story about how the politics of the Civil Rights Movement played out on a personal level–is absolutely wonderful. It’s made up of 16 intimate stories that are so short that they border on flash fiction; each one feels simultaneously like an overheard scrap of someone’s life and like a whole, rich meal. This is easily one of my new favorite short story collections. Collins was an extraordinary talent and I wish she had been with us longer.
You can read my full review below.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.
–from “The Uncle” in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
How do you get a reader to care about a short story? There’s so much less time to get a short story off the ground than a novel, so much more pressure to find just the right hook to pull us in.
But in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins seemed to trust that dialogue was enough, her characters were enough, their problems were enough. This is a short story collection that is bold in its unassumption and I was riveted to every page.
It starts with “Exteriors,” in which a conflict between a couple is set up like a shot for a movie, followed immediately by “Interiors,” made up of two stream-of-consciousness monologues from husband and wife. In “The Uncle,” a woman’s wonderful childhood memories of her aunt and uncle are disrupted by the adult truths of their lives. In “Documentary Style,” a combative Black cameraman resents the woman who will edit his work. And in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” two New York artists host a friend from the country, each projecting their fantasies of city and suburban life onto the others.
The title story is as provocative as its name suggests, both mischievously and seriously examining what happens when the personal becomes too political, when the politics of the Civil Rights Movement embedded themselves in romance and sex as well as protests and policy.
Every story in the collection is so good that it’s hard to choose standouts. Collins had one of the best ears for dialogue I’ve ever encountered–right up there with Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God–and a knack for imagery that symbolizes without feeling symbolic. Not a thing about Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is artificial or forced.
Collins wrote as fluidly as most people think, or talk, or breathe. I’m sure it was hard work, but her work is so skillfully hidden from the reader that it’s hard to picture it happening at all, as if it sprung fully formed from her mind onto the pages of the book in my hands.
Sadness lingers around the edges of every story, both because of the heartrending subject matter (most of the stories are about disintegrating relationships, especially romantic ones) and because you know from the lovely foreword by poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander that Collins died at the age of only 46, in 1988, before her work could gain the full acclaim in her lifetime that it deserved.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? works as both a terrific book on its own merits and a fierce rebuttal to the way Black women artists are systematically marginalized and deliberately forgotten. It’s a treasure trove of great writing and fascinating politics. It’s an essential manifesto of Black and female art;it’s also purely delightful, unforgettable, compulsively readable fiction. It’s given me a new vision for what a short story can be, and what a short story collection can be.
What an excellent way to spend an hour or two. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? doesn’t ask much of your time, but in its own quiet way it does command–demand, in fact–your full attention. You will be happy to oblige. ★★★★★
It’s hard to know what City of Ash and Red is really about, until the end, when you realize that the vagueness was the point. In it, an unnamed man works as a rat killer in his home country; when he is transferred to a branch office in District 4 of Country C, his life is plunged into chaos. Country C is consumed by a mysterious disease, its bureaucracy is unraveling, and its streets are full of garbage. Clouds of pesticide and antiseptic poison the air. Meanwhile, in his home country, his ex wife is brutally murdered–and the unnamed man becomes the primary suspect.
You’d think a novel about a man desperately trying to survive murder charges and a plague in a hostile foreign country would be tense, even thrilling. Unfortunately, City of Ash and Red is lethargic and confusing instead, not so much emotionally distant as entirely absent. It’s an admirable literary experiment in detachment and ennui, but ultimately a failed one. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.
You can read my full review below.
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)
Danger warnings are more common than actual danger. And yet when danger does finally strike, it does so without warning. That was why the man thought nothing of the quarantine notices and infectious disease prevention regulations posted all around the airport. He knew that the more caution signs there were, the less danger he was in.
–from City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun
Depersonalization, dehumanization, dissociation. Authoritarian governments, guerrilla warfare, gig economies. In a world where full personhood feels more precarious than ever, it’s not hard to see why authors are leaning into namelessness, facelessness, and purposelessness.
The protagonist of City of Ash and Red, Hye-Young Pyun’s second novel published in the U.S. after her award-winning thriller The Hole, is unnamed, referred to as “the man”; most of the people around him are also unnamed, or given only generic first names. Similarly, Pyun eschews place names in favor of placeholders: the unnamed man’s home country is simply called his home country; the country where he goes to work at the beginning of the novel is Country C, the city where he lives merely one of 16 unnamed major cities, his neighborhood known only as District 4.
The man, a rat killer, is transferred to work at an office in Country C. An unnamed, mysterious plague is spreading rapidly when the man arrives; it’s possibly just the common cold, but possibly much worse. Garbage coats the streets. Billowing, opaque clouds of antiseptic are constantly sprayed from trucks, convenient cover for every time the man needs to run away. The man doesn’t speak Country C’s language. (What language? It’s impossible to know.)
The man has a dog in his home country, whom he forgets to make arrangements for, despite knowing that he’s leaving for a 6 month to 5 year stay in Country C. He calls a former coworker and asks him to take the dog somewhere, anywhere; this coworker also happens to have just divorced the man’s ex-wife, also unnamed, and the two men loathe each other and this shared history. When the coworker goes to let out the dog, he finds the ex-wife in the man’s apartment, stabbed to death. The man is the suspect. The man has vague memories of a fight, of holding a dull knife, but he’s certain he didn’t kill his wife before he left for Company C. Or is he certain? And is she even dead?
All of these unknowns are bold and brave choices on the part of Pyun, who is terrific at evoking a sort of banal, bureaucratic dread. But despite its daring, or perhaps because of it, City of Ash and Red simply doesn’t work. It’s overburdened and muddy, so concerned with its own experimental concept that it forgets to tell a real story.
Pyun’s detached writing style (as translated by Sora Kim-Russell) throws up a pane of thickly frosted glass between the reader and the events of the story, making it impossible to fully care about what happens, because it’s nearly impossible to even know what’s really happening.
Tension builds and is abruptly punctured; the best and most vivid part of the novel, in which the man remembers his marriage to his ex-wife, which ended when he raped her, is followed almost immediately by the worst and most deadening part, in which the man lives in a sewer. Or maybe it’s a park? Maybe both? Who knows. I sure don’t.
There’s still plenty of thought-provoking stuff on offer in City of Ash and Red. Pyun writes particularly well about work, marriage, and the ways complacency in both can irrevocably and negatively affect our lives.
But thematic ambition can’t save City of Ash and Red from being a pretty awful reading experience. Even at a relatively short 256 pages, it feels interminable, and painfully bloated.
I don’t recommend City of Ash and Red, but I’m still looking forward to reading The Hole, and I’ll still be seeking out Pyun’s future work. This novel is a failure, but a very, very intriguing one. ★★☆☆☆
Originally published in a limited run by Artistically Declined Press well before Roxane Gay was a household name, Ayiti was recently republished by Grove Press. It’s a short story collection about Haiti and the Haitian diaspora; just as she did in her bestselling 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, Gay excels at breaking apart a big theme into digestible pieces that are at once acrid and vulnerable, bitter and sweet. I didn’t like Ayiti quite as much as Difficult Women–I think Gay has sharpened her craft significantly since Ayiti was first published in 2011–but it’s still a beautiful collection of stories and I’m glad it’s gotten the chance to reach a wider audience this time around.
publication date: first published in 2011; Grove Press edition published in 2018
length: 320 pages
On the first day of school, as he and his classmates introduce themselves, Gérard stands, says his name, quickly sits back down, and stares at his desk, which he hates. “You have such an interesting accent,” the teacher coos. “Where are you from?” He looks up. He is irritated. “Haiti,” he says. The teacher smiles widely. “Say something in French.” Gérard complies. “Je te déteste,” he says. The teacher claps excitedly. She doesn’t speak French.
–from “Motherfuckers” in Ayiti by Roxane Gay
One of my favorite themes in Roxane Gay’s fiction is righteous vengeance. Her characters accumulate tiny humiliations like dust, eventually snapping in fits of satisfying pettiness and rage. When I read one of her stories, I know I will have catharsis; even when I don’t love one of her stories, I’m always entertained and I never regret making the time to read it.
Ayiti, Gay’s 2011 short story collection about Haiti and its diaspora that was republished for a wider audience in 2018, is full of moments like these. In “Motherfucker,” a sullen, bullied immigrant teenager fights insults with cologne, in “Voodoo Child,” a Haitian college student manipulates her ignorant roommate who believes she practices voodoo, in “Gracias, Nicaragua y Lo Sentimos,” a personified Haiti bittersweetly passes the dubious torch of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to Nicaragua, knowing the title will eventually return.
Even when certain stories in the collection falter–the longest story, “Sweet on the Tongue,” is powerful but hard to follow and has at least two too many subplots–Ayiti as a reading experience never loses its momentum.
After reading both Ayiti and Gay’s later collection, Difficult Women, I’m convinced that Gay and her editors are the best in the business when it come to theming short story collections and ordering the stories within them. The stories in Ayiti don’t hammer us over the head with their themes of home and diaspora, but they keep a steady enough rhythm to keep us fully engaged to the last page. (I finished this book in a sitting.)
Gay is my favorite short story writer working today, and the fact that this feels like a slightly lesser work in her catalog speaks to just how terrific her catalog is. Ayiti is wonderful, both on its own merits and as a peek into the ascendancy of such a marvelous writer. ★★★★☆
Instead of writing new book reviews during this U.S. holiday week, I thought I’d re-post a couple of the early reviews I wrote for this site, updating the original (terrible) formatting and getting them to a wider audience than they had the first time around.
Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.
Bear with me, folks.
Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.
The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.
I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.
Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.
But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.
I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.
In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.
This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.
I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.
But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★
Instead of writing new book reviews during this U.S. holiday week, I thought I’d re-post a couple of the early reviews I wrote for this site, updating the original (terrible) formatting and getting them to a wider audience than they had the first time around.
There is a difference between stories that end unhappily and stories for which there can be no happy ending. All the Rivers falls in the latter category. It is the story of an Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian man she falls in love with, Hilmi, while both are living in New York City in 2002. If that seems like a simple setup, it’s because it is; charged politics do the heavy lifting here, and Liat and Hilmi aren’t so much characters as sketches.
At first, this grates. I’m not fond of mouthpiece books, and from the beginning this book has all the tell-tale signs. But there’s a subtler undercurrent here too, a promise of the thing that made me pick up the book in the first place: a love story that is at once tender and sweet, visceral and scathing.
Liat narrates, and narrate is the appropriate word here, since we don’t get much of a sense of Liat other than that she’s Israeli, and that she’s telling the story. Ostensibly she’s working in New York as a Hebrew/English translator; I’m not totally sure, since the details are breezed over and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is lust, and love, and being Middle Eastern in New York City in 2002.
All the Rivers is at its best when it is describing sensation. Rabinyan (with the aid of translator Jessica Cohen) seems to have infinite new combinations of words to describe homesickness, good food, and erotic encounters; she adds less fresh fuel to political conversations, which is perhaps the point: the conflict between Israel and Palestine drags on and on without changes or answers. It’s not that I didn’t care about those politics; I did while I was reading, and still do. It’s that every moment between Liat and Hilmi was so searing that arguments over borders and binational identity–and there are many of these, between Liat and Hilmi, and between Liat and other characters as well–seemed ponderous in comparison.
I’m not sure if All the Rivers left me feeling particularly enlightened, although that’s the book’s marketing angle in the United States. It did leave me deeply sad in a way I can’t fully explain. This book ends (almost) how you’d expect, but Liat’s narrative folds in on itself so often that I found myself second-guessing my conclusions, my dread and disappointment so intense that I felt shaky after turning the last page.
It’s funny how much we love stories about people in love who aren’t supposed to be in love, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic. It’s also funny how being in love can make reading about love so painful that it’s almost unbearable. I can confidently say that my own partner is nothing like Hilmi, and I am fairly certain I’m nothing like Liat, but I found myself casting my real-life relationship into the mold of this fictional one over and over. Every bitter fight between Liat and Hilmi was a fight I’ve experienced, or fear I will experience. And every threat of loss, of an ending for this couple, felt like it was threatening me, my own ability to love and be loved. It hurt in the way that I go to literature to be hurt: a hurt that expands, purges, and understands.
Rabinyan has accomplished something that, to me, is more complex and powerful than All the Rivers’s Very Important Book marketing can get at. Love is messy, love stories are messy, and attempting to impose politics upon lovers is impossible; it’s not surprising that Rabinyan doesn’t fully succeed. But in a way, that failure is its own success. I set this book down wishing that its unhappiness sprang only from the careless way people sometimes love each other, and not from a terrible political mess bigger than all of us: these characters, this author, and myself as a reader.
“How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point,” Liat laments. She is describing how the prosperity of Israel looks to Palestinians on the other side of the fence, but I felt something else. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful, indeed, to love without restriction or complication. Someday we should all be so lucky. ★★★★☆
The Handmaid’s Tale is such an iconic sci-fi novel that I’m surprised it took this long to get a sequel. Despite the decades Margaret Atwood has had to think over what Gilead might look like after the end of Offred’s story, I found The Testaments to be underbaked, full of interesting ideas (and interesting imagery, especially) that don’t blend all that well. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which was narrowly, almost claustrophobically focused on Offred’s story, The Testaments sprawls across the lives of three new characters: an Aunt, a privileged Commander’s daughter, and a Canadian teenager who’s only dimly aware of the horrors of the totalitarian state of Gilead.
I think I would have liked The Testaments more if I had liked The Handmaid’s Tale less. Is it worth reading? Yes. But it’s significantly blunter and messier than I had hoped. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was a scalpel, The Testaments is a machine gun, crude and loud.
You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.
–from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Novels are not a visual medium in the way that TV and film are, so it’s notable that The Handmaid’s Tale spawned so much iconic imagery, even before the TV adaptation came to Hulu. The red and white Handmaids’ costume, the shops with pictures on their signs instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read, Offred rubbing margarine into her hands instead of lotion, because she is no longer permitted the luxury of lotion: I can picture all of that (and more) so clearly, despite how long it’s been since I’ve read the novel.
The Testaments is just as visually iconic as The Handmaid’s Tale, full of new visions of oppression and totalitarianism that will haunt my nightmares. But its underlying substance is significantly less memorable.
There are three central characters in The Testaments: a powerful Aunt and architect of Gilead, a young daughter of a privileged Gilead family, and a Canadian girl with only a distant awareness of Gilead’s atrocities.
All of them have ties to the original novel (some of them wincingly obvious despite being framed as a “twist”), and all of them reminded me in some way of the protagonist of The Blind Assassin, Iris. There are even maids, called Marthas, who are reminiscent of Iris’s nanny Reenie, right down to making dough people for a privileged but heartbroken young girl to play with after a tragedy.
It’s not just that it shares themes with The Blind Assassin. That would be fine! Authors with an output as vast as Atwood’s tend to come back to the same wells from time to time. It’s that the parallels to The Blind Assassin are so obvious and so oddly self-plagiarizing that they repeatedly pulled me out of the story.
In fairness, the story of The Testaments is so sprawling and dense that it’s not hard to be distracted from it.
What I admired most about The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t the worldbuilding of Gilead, despite that worldbuilding being extraordinarily good. What I admired most was Atwood’s laser focus on Gilead’s impact on Offred. The way that Offred’s life becomes so critically important to the reader even though she is just one tiny, literally anonymous part of this terrifying totalitarian regime rings true to the way real life totalitarian regimes swallow people whole and disappear them.
The Testaments shifts that focus from individuals in Gilead to the systems fighting to uphold it or undo it. It’s a bird’s eye view when I wanted a close-up, and it leaches all the urgency and terror out of Gilead. Maybe that’s the point! Maybe it’s supposed to feel hopeful, especially now that the real America feels closer to Gilead than ever. But it left me a little cold.
This loss of momentum and stakes is most obvious at the end, which uses the same device as the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: a far-future academic conference on Gilead Studies. But where the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale felt chillingly open-ended and detached,The Testaments’ ending feels winkingly obvious and overwrought.
If you love The Handmaid’s Tale, you likely won’t be able to resist reading The Testaments, nor should you. There’s plenty of interesting stuff here that makes the novel worth reading. I especially loved the character of Agnes (a Commander’s privileged daughter), whose slow disentangling of her sincere religious beliefs from the poisonous spiritual abuse she experiences in Gilead is genuinely heartbreaking.
But in its attempt to satisfy readers’ curiosity about Gilead, The Testaments stifles it with too much detail instead, replacing an open door for our imaginations with one that firmly shuts. It’s a shame. ★★★☆☆
Dream Sequence is a thriller about a British actor whose star is on the rise and the broken-hearted, obsessive American fan who stalks him–at least, that’s what the jacket copy would have you believe. Unfortunately for readers expecting a sharp new take on Misery that skewers American anglophile fan culture, Dream Sequence is maddeningly muddy and dull. There are two electric and memorable scenes, but they don’t come close to compensating for the rest. I don’t recommend Dream Sequence at all.
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (distributed by Macmillan)
publication date: June 11, 2019
length: 224 pages
Lion, little Lionel who loved her, had given her Spiderman one day without telling her. Spiderman had become a crucial part of the story. It all added up. Kristin picked up the remote and flipped on an old episode. When Henry appeared, she thought she would tell him about the wind and the snow and about what Laurie had said about seeds in winter in her next letter. She would start on it later. Letters flew past all that electronic noise and went straight to his hands.
–from Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds
Dream Sequence is a weak character study built onto a more interesting thriller’s skeleton: it follows Kristin, a recently divorced woman who fixates on the star of a British costume drama, and the actor himself, Henry. It’s instantly clear that Kristin’s fantasies about Henry will come to fruition in some awful way, but instead of capitalizing on that tension, author and poet Adam Foulds squanders it spectacularly.
Dream Sequence is a pastiche of the worst parts of both the thriller genre and the literary genre: it’s unpleasantly lurid and gross (there is more than one nauseating description of semen!) as well as boring and snooty.
The action in Dream Sequence is driven entirely by Kristin’s character–Henry is obnoxiously passive–but it doesn’t seem to care much about her. Instead we get an interminable 150-or-so page middle section about the inner life of Henry, who’s a douche and a milquetoast, terrible and boring.
The exact moment I fully loathed Dream Sequence came almost at the end, on page 194, when Henry (who is white and British) is shown a picture of his brother’s biracial children (their mother, Henry’s sister in law, is from Hong Kong):
‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ Henry’s mother asked.
They were. They had that refined, intelligent looking beauty of Anglo-Chinese children, dark eyes, sweetly geometric hair. There were two pictures, one in which they both looked serious and one in which Chloë’s head was tipped back and she was laughing, showing her tiny teeth.
I hate that section for two reasons: one, because “refined, intelligent looking beauty” is such a bizarre and stereotypical way to talk about Asian children, and two, because it’s a perfect example of Foulds using two or three adjectives when one or none would do, perhaps the worst sin of a novel full of sins.
It’s possible to write about an awful character without your whole book becoming awful, but it requires a strong point of view, which Dream Sequence never develops. It’s the difference between watching security footage of a bad person’s life and watching a skillfully made documentary about them. This is security footage.
Dream Sequence is already quite short at 224 pages but could have easily been cut down by two thirds. The amount of words Foulds wrings out of such an underdeveloped plot is mind-boggling.
There are two truly excellent parts on offer, however.
The first comes near the beginning of the novel, after Henry auditions for a dream role with an auteur director and desperately follows him to an art museum afterwards. The dialogue in the scene is pitch-perfect; the way Henry’s yearning for the director’s respect mirrors Kristin’s slavish adoration of Henry is subtle but effective.
The second great scene comes when Kristin seeks out Henry’s agent in the final pages. The two women have a conversation that’s so vivid and vulnerable and tense that it made me second-guess my by-then-solidly negative opinion of the book.
Had I simply misunderstood the parts I hated? Did Foulds have a solid hand on the reins of this novel after all?
I re-read the worst pages just to be sure. I hated them just as much the second time.
Despite its intriguing premise and a couple of tantalizing flashes of brilliance, Dream Sequence thuds. ★★☆☆☆
In the 1950s, David Nowak, a neurotic Polish American heir to a piano fortune, marries Jia-Hui Chen, a young woman from Taiwan with nerves of steel, and moves with her to remote northern California. Their relationship is volatile, but its legacy for their children will be much worse. The Border of Paradise is an astonishing historical novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read before, in the best possible way. If you love creepy thrillers like The Vegetarian by Han Kang or intimate portraits of trauma like History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund–or if, like me, you love both of those things–then this novel is a must-read. I deeply enjoyed The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction essay collection, earlier this year. I’m pleased to say I like her fiction just as much.
Content note: Suicide and self harm are central to The Border of Paradise. If those things are triggers for you, then you should consider carefully before reading the rest of this review (or the book itself).
I’ve never known a man who has taken his own life, and so I’ve never read a suicide letter, seeing as how the final words of such uncelebrated and self-condemned souls are so privately guarded. Still, I can’t help but think such letters all must be the same, because what else can be said but, over and over again, Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry, in the way that someone newly smitten can only say I love you, I love you, I love you…
–from The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
In The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in long paragraphs that still feel light and airy, like a dense pastry that fluffs up in the oven. That’s a good thing, because the subject matter of this novel is almost unbearably heavy.
David Nowak, a teenage boy in 1940s-1950s New York, is a brilliant student and heir to a piano factory and accompanying fortune, but he can’t stop strange new neuroses from creeping in. He becomes unable to select clothes and dress himself. When he looks in the mirror, his body is impossibly distorted. He becomes hysterically attached to stuffed animals.
He knows something is wrong, but not what. The word schizophrenia is, to my memory, never used in The Border of Paradise, but we the readers can fill in the blanks.
David’s instability culminates in him being forcibly separated from his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, by her father, who is sneeringly cruel about David’s condition. Heartbroken, David cashes out the family fortune and leaves for Taiwan, where he marries a young woman named Jia-Hui, whom he renames Daisy.
Everyone warns Jia-Hui against David’s moods and volatility, but Jia-Hui has instabilities of her own–ones that have horrifying consequences for the couple’s two children.
I wouldn’t call The Border of Paradise horror, but it is horrifying. There is ample gore, disturbing sex, and piercing descriptions of what it’s like to live with untreated mental illness.
Of course, in the time period in which The Border of Paradise is set, there wasn’t really such a thing as treated mental illness. Wang uses this historical setting in unusual ways. Instead of yoking the story to real world historical events or intricate period detail, she focuses on internal, insular experiences instead.
In one word, The Border of Paradise is about isolation: the absolute isolation of being an immigrant woman of color, or a mentally ill person, or an abused child in the 1950s-1970s, when there was little awareness of these issues in the general public and no internet communities to turn to, either.
This novel is emotionally dense and deeply introspective, but it’s also extremely readable. It’s peppered with plot bombshells, dramatic and cinematic without straining belief. (I do wonder if Wang is trying to say something about the nature of delusion and hallucination here–how real life really can be stranger than the fictions our own brains can tell us.)
I raced to get to the end, using it as motivation to hop on the treadmill at the end of each day, knowing it would absorb me enough to make my workout fly by.
Specific and intense, The Border of Paradise is like a fever dream if your feverish brain were a top notch novelist. This novel is a gift. ★★★★★