Book Review: THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey

The Answers’ premise is about as difficult to explain as the novel’s many layers are to digest: a broke New York 30-something, Mary, gets a job acting as an on-call “Emotional Girlfriend” to a vain, selfish actor and auteur. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, this “Girlfriend Experiment” feels no stranger than reality TV or even more ordinary experiences of falling in love. Love or hate The Answers, you’ll almost certainly find it unforgettable (and not just because of its eye-catching cover).

You can read my full review below.


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The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: June 6, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-3741-0026-1
  • length: 304 pages

I wondered what could have happened between them that would make her need him this badly, but I suppose you can never tell what is happening between people. It’s as private as eye contact, no room for more than two.

The Answers, page 272

Few books have reminded me how subjective reading is as potently as The Answers did. As I turned the pages of Lacey’s novel, I kept thinking about why, for example, I gave five stars to There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon–a book that’s undoubtedly lovely but also forgettable–but only four stars to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book I think of constantly and even purchased as a Christmas gift for my partner.

Oh, the things that keep a book blogger up at night.

The answer is because I’m flawed, of course, but also because I’ve noticed that I demand more from books I love than from books I merely like and admire. I loved The Answers unconditionally–but I also wanted to demand more from it.

In The Answers, 30-year-old Mary is isolated and lonely, crushed by travel debt, and seriously ill with chronic pain and numbness that doctors can’t explain. Her best friend Chandra recommends new-agey PAKing treatments, and to Mary’s shock, they begin to cure her–but they’re also desperately expensive, so she replies to a cryptic job ad, and is quickly hired as the “Emotional Girlfriend” in a vanity project-cum-scientific experiment run by actor Kurt Sky. Mary caters to Kurt’s every emotional need for pay, along with teams of other women who cater to his other needs, like the “Mundanity Girlfriend,” “Anger Girlfriend,” and the, er, “Intimacy Team.”

Unsurprisingly, the “Girlfriend Experiment” doesn’t go well.

I tweeted up a storm about this book’s thriller-like atmosphere–it feels intensely like a David Fincher movie, complete with me imagining Rooney Mara as its heroine–though it’s not a thriller at all. Rather, it’s a deep dive into the meanings of vanity, celebrity, isolation, the queasy power of falling in love, and–profoundly–sexism.

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Rooney Mara chews out Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).

We eventually learn that Mary was an only child raised off the grid by deeply Christian parents. She’s ignorant of and ambivalent towards pop culture: she’s never seen a movie, doesn’t listen to music, and doesn’t read the news, making her the perfect sponge for all of superstar Kurt Sky’s emotional diatribes, since she has absolutely no idea who he is.

Kurt fetishizes Mary’s emotional availability to an absurd degree, ignoring the fact that he’s literally paying her to act that way, and Mary, for her part, finds herself falling in a sort of love with Kurt regardless. The whole experiment is a an extreme allegory for how sexism, money, and power complicate all sorts of relationships between men and women, but it never feels heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, the story’s early beginning and late end did leave a lot to be desired. Mary is inscrutable, something that’s made worse, not better, by parts I and III’s first-person perspective. (Part II, told in third-person omniscient, is by far the novel’s strongest section.) Some questions also don’t get the answers (ha!) that I was looking for, or don’t get answered at all; I think that Mary’s best friend Chandra, in particular, gets short shrift.

I couldn’t help it, though–by 50 pages in, I was enough in love with The Answers’ bonkers, brilliant premise and Lacey’s lyrical, profound style to forgive it just about anything. The idea of the Girlfriend Experiment might be extreme–but so is sexism; so is falling in love. 4/5 stars.


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

Book Review: THE LAST TO SEE ME by M Dressler

M Dressler puts a fresh, supernatural spin on California history in The Last to See Me, which imagines how the vengeful ghost of an early 20th century servant might react to a 21st century town hostile to the “dirty” spirits of its past. The novel is rich with historical detail, but it’s also compulsively readable, making its plot holes and unanswered questions feel eminently forgivable.

You can read my full review below.


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The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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  • publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-5107-2067-7
  • length: 272 pages

Ever notice how historical fiction lovers–myself included–are usually obsessed with narratives about royalty and the upper class? There are endless novels of Tudor intrigue, Victorian stiff upper lips, and Gilded Age gaudiness, but little about the lives of ordinary people–you know, how most of us would have actually lived.

It’s good, then, that The Last to See Me tackles this gap: Emma Rose Finnis is an unlucky Irish-American girl trapped in an unpleasant, hard-scrapping life as a scullery maid in Benito, a coastal California timber town. The Lambry family are timber magnates who may as well be local royalty, and when Quint Lambry sets his eyes on orphaned nobody Emma, Mrs. Lambry decides to intervene, paying Emma handsomely to leave town and work as a maid for an isolated lighthouse keeper’s family.

But Emma and Quint continue their affair in secret, hurtling towards a shattering tragedy that gets Emma killed. After death, Emma becomes a vengeful ghost who haunts the town–and the Lambry family–for a century, and when a wealthy Silicon Valley couple seeks to buy the Lambry ancestral home, Emma’s violent reaction forces the real estate agent to call in a ghost hunter to purge her.

Dressler’s world is fascinating, though I hesitate to call it complex, since its mechanics are mostly left to the imagination. Modern-day Benito, California, seems to exist in a California that’s exactly the same as our own in every way except that people accept the presence of ghosts–and the need for the “cleaners” who purge them–without question.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I wish had been further developed, but since the story is told from Emma’s old-fashioned and unreliable perspective, there are quite a few puzzle pieces missing from the table. Sometimes characters feel shoehorned in to fulfill a plot necessity, and there’s also a subplot about a character who may or may not be a ghost that left me scratching my head.

Still, it’s hard to be bitter, since Dressler’s writing is excellent in so many other ways. The Last to See Me balances detail and suspense as skillfully as I’ve ever seen it done: Dressler has done her research, and it shows, but she also doesn’t bore the reader with irrelevant facts and old-timey speak. In fact, I found this book impossible to put down, finishing it in two sittings, even though I was initially skeptical that I’d enjoy it.

That the book got its hooks in me so quickly–literally from the first page–is especially amazing considering how slowly the story moves; it’s not like Emma is in a rush to tell all, considering she’s been undead for a hundred years already.

But Dressler draws tension from the moral ambiguity of ghost “cleaning,” an act that Emma is understandably frightened of, seeing as it will destroy her spirit forever. Philip Pratt, the ghost cleaner, insists in that ghosts are evil and takes pride in dispelling them, angering Emma…and the angrier Emma gets, the more she lashes out at the living humans around her, causing you to suspect that Pratt, though arrogant, might be right after all.

The Last to See Me is a tremendously enjoyable book about one of the heaviest topics of all: death, and life afterwards. How lucky we are that Dressler handles it with nuance, empathy, and skill. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Last to See Me came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THIS IS JUST MY FACE: TRY NOT TO STARE by Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe’s bubbly, laugh-out-loud personality bursts from every page in this memoir, full of stories about growing up in Bed-Stuy, her depression and eating disorder, her time as a phone sex operator, her start in acting, and her complicated family–Sidibe’s mother is a subway singer, and her father is a polygamous Senegalese cab driver. As a memoir, it’s all over the place, but because Sidibe’s life is so genuinely interesting, this compulsively readable book feels like a slumber party with a good friend instead of your typical celebrity vanity project.

You can read my full review below.


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This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

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  • publisher: Houghton Mifflin
  • publication date: May 1, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-544-78676-9
  • length: 256 pages

It’s safe to say that This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare is the first celebrity memoir I’ve ever purchased, and maybe even the first I’ve ever read. I do follow celebrity culture, but I’ve never been very interested in what celebrities have to say beyond their short blurbs in fashion magazines. The average celebrity’s life is so extremely different from my own that their memoirs might as well be written in Cyrillic for all I’ll relate to them.

But Gabourey Sidibe is different.

Sidibe is definitely a celebrity–she now appears on Empire and multiple seasons of American Horror Story–but I’d never realized how unusual her path to her success has been. Discovered at the age of 24 when was cast from among hundreds of girls for the starring role in Precious, an indie movie about a teenager trapped by extreme poverty and incestuous abuse, Sidibe recounts how fame didn’t protect her family from being evicted from their Brooklyn apartment; she writes about walking red carpets in dresses from mall retailer Torrid alongside women wearing ultra-high-end couture.

Precious went on to be nominated for numerous Oscars, including a lead actress nomination for Sidibe herself–but you get the sense that Sidibe has never quite lost her outsider status.

She opens the book with anecdotes about how much time she’s spent agonizing over mean tweets and Instagram comments from strangers–something I’d never even imagined a celebrity would do, but that in hindsight, makes sense. Self-flagellating over social media is, unfortunately, a pretty normal thing to do; Sidibe just has more ammunition than most. Her hurt is palpable on the page, instantly elevating This Is Just My Face from “Celebrities! Just Like Us!” to something far more interesting and true.

The memoir isn’t written linearly, something that could be both frustrating and charming. The effect is like talking to an extremely excitable but interesting friend. At times, you kind of want to interrupt for clarification–but to do so would throw off the flow. Conversations are rarely told in chronological episodes; instead, there are through-lines, and This Is Just My Face is the same way.

Sidibe’s complicated relationship to her parents is one such through-line. Her anecdotes are startlingly honest: she’s open about her distaste for her father, who entered into a green card marriage with her mother and then promptly engaged in polygamous relationships with women in New York City and in his native Senegal; she’s open about her frustration with her beloved mother, a subway singer whom Sidibe thinks should spend more time being happy. Most painfully, she’s open about how much her fame and income have poisoned her relationships with relatives who now always seem to have their hand out.

But just as she’s honest about the hard times, she’s also honest about the good ones. She’s especially good at finding the humor in her time as a phone sex operator, where her quips sharpen the emotional power of her anecdotes. (In one of the best parts of the book, she recounts the stories of people who called phone sex lines just for conversation, particularly troops stationed abroad.)

The memoir concludes with a chapter about the notebooks upon notebooks of self-insert *NSYNC fanfiction Sidibe wrote as a teen and 20-something; this chapter directly follows an anecdote about how emotional she felt while meeting President Obama. Somehow, the revelation of how much time she’s spent writing fanfic isn’t surprising, since This Is Just My Face feels like the work of someone who somehow stepped right into her own daydreams.

Going from a 24-year-old struggling psychology student and phone sex operator to getting an Oscar nomination? Meeting Oprah? Mo’Nique? The President of the United States? That’s amazing, and Sidibe never seems to forget it.

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare feels more like a heart-to-heart conversation than words on a page. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and a refreshing take on what memoir can be. 4/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare and was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: LITERALLY SHOW ME A HEALTHY PERSON by Darcie Wilder

Monday Reviews

Darcie Wilder’s stream-of-consciousness, internet-steeped debut may be difficult to parse, but it’s ultimately rewarding. Acidic, explicit, disturbing, and sometimes profound, literally show me a healthy person is an experimental novel with staying power.

Read my full review below.


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literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder

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You know how every few years a book comes along that’s being marketed as the “future of the novel,” or even “the future of the written word,” yet somehow–year after year–the tried-and-true format of the novel persists? That’s because most stories are best-told the usual way. But literally show me a healthy person is the exception that proves the rule. Free of chapters and traditional paragraphs and unbound from grammatical convention, the 97-page novel’s experimental style feels like an extension of its raw subject matter, and not a pretentious gimmick.

Protagonist Darcie yo-yos between fury and apathy, drug abuse and sobriety, hopelessness and dark optimism. Her mother is dead, her father is cruel and neglectful, her boyfriends and exes drift in for sex and out for anything resembling intimacy. (Whether the novel’s “Darcie” is a thinly veiled version of Wilder herself or an entirely new creation was unclear to me.)

And…that’s it. Other things happen, but indistinctly and out of order. I normally hate feeling so alienated from the plot, but in Wilder’s skilled hands, the effect is intimate. “im the kid you’re thinking about when you look at your friend and hope they never have kids,” Darcie informs the reader, referring to her own parents; the tone rests on a knife’s edge between real pain and pity-me flippancy, a blend that’s all too familiar in the internet age.

literally show me a healthy person may be thin on plot, but it’s thick on voyeuristic dread. Each snippet of text feels like a missive to somebody, and the myopic focus on Darcie heightens the effect: we only know her side of the story, just as we can only really know our own. It’s a novel that feels genuinely of its time–a response to rapidly evolving technology that can isolate as easily as it connects.

The framing may be new, but literally show me a healthy person has the clear DNA of that evergreen literary sub-genre, the sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll book. But where’s there’s usually something wistful about those stories–in a world with no consequences, I think everyone secretly would want to be a beautiful, drugged-up genius–Darcie’s one-night stands, alcohol binges, and experiments with drugs are portrayed as shattering acts of self-destruction, not wistful at all.

Darcie’s just sad. She’s your cool Instagram friend who’s actually a complete mess; she’s the drunk girl with day-old makeup that you see having sloppy shouting matches in bars. She’s led a legitimately horrible life filled with horrible people. You want to slap her as much as embrace her: can’t you see what you’re doing to your life? Yes, she can see, but she still doesn’t know how to change.

If literally show me a healthy person has a fault, it’s that it’s slightly too honest. There were constant discussions of cum (yep! this book is very explicit!) when I wanted a little more plot; Darcie’s repetitive self-destruction is at times, well…repetitive, just like those patterns are in real life, but not how I like them in fiction. I also think the beginning is the weakest part of the book, which is unfortunate, because it ups the risk of people setting it aside.

Then again, if you–like me–lose countless hours to writing and un-writing texts and social media statuses when real life is too much to take, that honesty might be literally show me a healthy person’s most appealing quality. This novel hits a nerve. 4/5 stars.


I purchased this book myself and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: GINNY MOON by Benjamin Ludwig

Monday Reviews

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

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publisher: Park Row Books (imprint of Harlequin)

publication date: May 2, 2017

9780778330165Ginny Moon is a quirky book that doesn’t know it’s a quirky book. (This is a good thing.) The eponymous Ginny Moon is an autistic 14-year-old who survived an abusive mother only to find that those survival skills have left her ill-equipped for a safe home and a family that loves her, so she decides to run away from her adoptive family in order to reunite with her drug-addicted mother and her Baby Doll…who, we eventually discover, isn’t a doll after all.

It’s a lot for the reader to piece together, especially since the novel is told entirely from Ginny’s first-person, idiosyncratic, and utterly unselfconscious perspective. Ginny’s many obsessions–including Michael Jackson, Maine Coon cats, having 9 grapes for breakfast, gallons of milk, and her Baby Doll–are inexplicable to those around her, including her well-meaning but struggling adoptive family, her special education peers at school, and her therapist; surprisingly, Ludwig has captured Ginny’s voice in such a way that these obsessions make perfect sense to the reader, and that’s where this book’s magic lies.

Because Ginny Moon is so concerned with Ginny Moon herself and not just the people around her, it’s personal rather than alienating, often funny, sometimes sad, always compassionate, and overall the sort of story that I wish there were more of in the world. It’s also fast-paced and readable–I devoured it in two or three sittings–and I think it could have tremendous YA crossover appeal.

I’m still surprised at how much I liked this book because I almost returned it to the library unread, worried it was going to be a try-hard, “inspirational” disability story. I’m disabled myself, and I absolutely hate the garbage fire that is disability “inspiration porn” (which activist Stella Young so wonderfully condemns in this video). On the inside flap of Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig’s author bio shares that “[s]hortly after he and his wife married, they became foster parents and adopted a teenager with autism.” It felt like a red flag that this book would fall into the “inspirational” trap, but but thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all: Ginny is Ginny, a well-rounded protagonist who is neither inspirational nor uninspired.

In fact, it’s actually Ludwig’s honest and nuanced writing that’s inspirational here. Ginny’s foster parents love her, but occasionally they fumble and are even borderline cruel at times. Ginny’s birth mother is a horrible parent, but it’s understandable how badly she wants to make things right. Ginny’s teachers and classmates want the best for her, but they also find Ginny’s single-minded desires obnoxious. And Ludwig captures all of this from Ginny’s point of view, conveying things to the reader that Ginny herself doesn’t understand, but without any distasteful winks to a neurotypical audience.

There are a few rough patches in the narrative, but they mainly stem from Ginny being so utterly sympathetic, not from some terrible flaw in the writing. I found myself craving a happy ending for Ginny so much that I felt almost fatigued with worry by the end of the book. Ginny’s autistic perspective is an interesting twist on the “how could [character] make such an obviously terrible decision?!?!?” problem that I sometimes have as a reader, since, for Ginny, it’s not a terrible or inexplicable decision at all. (And she’s not portrayed as pathetic or stupid for making those decisions, either–as much fault rests on the neurotypical people around her as does on Ginny.)

Ginny Moon resonates as a portrait of a misfit learning to live in the world–a theme that’s not unique to autistic kids and their foster parents. By placing Ginny’s voice front and center and trusting the reader to read between the lines, Ludwig has authored something truly affecting and gratifying, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from him. 4/5 stars.

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

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: June 7, 2016

9781101947135Some books are so flawless they skate through my memory, leaving a pleasant aura in their wake but not much else. Homegoing is not one of those books: it’s flawed, frightening, ambitious, and hopeful, and best of all, it sticks with you.

Since I first picked up Homegoing two weeks ago, I have not gone a day without thinking about it, struggling with it, and marveling at it. Yaa Gyasi has achieved something remarkable here, and this book is everything I want literary fiction to be.

The story spans over 300 years, exploring the lives and bloodlines of two half-sisters–each unaware of the other’s existence–born near the Gold Coast. One sister achieves a life of relative privilege as the “wife” (read: glorified mistress) of a British slave trader, while the other is sold into slavery in the fledgling United States. Evil and suffering taint both branches of the family, including those left in Ghana, who must slowly reckon with their complacency and cooperation in the transatlantic slave trade.

The novel sags in the middle, especially because of its unusual structure: each chapter is told from the perspective of one member of one generation (alternating between branches of the family), and just as you expect to settle into one story, you are jolted to the next. Some of these stories are more riveting than others: standout chapters belong to Quey Collins, a half-British, half-Fante boy forced to choose between British colonial expectations and happiness; Kojo Freeman, a free black man in the 1850s whose life is upended by the Fugitive Slave Act; Willie Black, a gifted singer who trades the Jim Crow South for the subtler segregation of New York City in the early 1900s; and Marjorie Agyekum, who struggles with her Ghanaian-American identity, unable to assimilate into whiteness but equally barred from assimilating into American blackness.

Between these standout chapters, I occasionally found myself bored, and I was also sometimes irritated by the borderline deus ex machina resolutions of certain character arcs. But these are minor quibbles compared with the enormous payoff of Gyasi’s risk-taking: a novel that reckons with the cost of slavery to both sides of the Atlantic.

Gyasi pulls off this historical epic because she grounds it intimately in present-day discussions of race. Homegoing clarifies the connection between the enslavement, torture, and rape of black people 300 years ago and today’s racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality; it also illuminates the less-considered legacy of those who cooperated with the British and were both rewarded and condemned as a result.

All that, and it’s still a damn good story–Homegoing is not Metamucil for guilty (white) readers, but rather a literary banquet as complex as the African diaspora itself.

Through fiction, Gyasi achieves something history textbooks rarely do: she finds the lives in our facts and the questions in our answers. She finds nuance in the blunt horrors of American racism and absolution in the lives of modern-day Ghanaians. Homegoing is a debut of the highest order, and Gyasi is a writer to watch. 4/5 stars.

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

Review: ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

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All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan (translated by Jessica Cohen)

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publisher: Random House

publication date: April 25, 2017

9780375508295There 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. 4/5 stars.

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