Book Review: STRAYING by Molly McCloskey

Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.

You can read my full review below.


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Straying by Molly McCloskey

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $24.00

How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.

Straying, page 1

I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.

How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.

And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.

Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.

McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.

For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.

To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.

But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.

But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.

Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.

While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.

No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆


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

Book Review: THE PARKING LOT ATTENDANT by Nafkote Tamirat

The Parking Lot Attendant is so drenched in postmodernist style that the actual story drowns beneath the weight. The novel opens on a ginger-scented island known only as B—; the conceit is that an unnamed narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager from Boston, is slowly recounting the mysterious and terrible events that drove her and her father to the island. If you adore the dark humor and twists and turns of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Erdrich, and Zadie Smith, you might find a lot to love here–or, like me, you might love those authors and still be left cold. Something about this book feels hollow, and while I love its stylish prose and enormous ambition, reading it was a chore and I can’t say I recommend the experience.

You can read my full review below.


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The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

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  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 240 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

…I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere “It’s so pretty!” I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.

The Parking Lot Attendant, page 73

In my day-to-day life, I don’t spend much time thinking about literary theory. I’m glad that some people do, the same way I’m glad that select groups of people pay close attention to power grids and internet connections so I can sit at my laptop writing this post. Someone should; it just bores me, personally.

I think that boredom is why my reaction to The Parking Lot Attendant, Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, is so negative. It’s a book that pays tremendous attention to literary technique to the point where everything else about it fades to the background. By 10 pages in, it felt like a book I’d assigned myself for my own edification rather than a book I was just reading in my free time. And that’s such a shame, because this is a startlingly unique novel, one I wanted to adore but that left me icy instead.

The Parking Lot Attendant centers on an unnamed first-person narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager in Boston. Her parents want the best for her, but they’re terrible at being parents; she excels in school but struggles socially and seems to sleepwalk through life. The novel starts on a ginger-scented island named B– (that we never know the name never stopped feeling pretentious) that is home to a community of Ethiopians seeking to build a new homeland; the narrator and her father live here, tolerated but disliked. As the novel progresses, the narrator works backwards through the events that brought her to the island, especially her friendship with Ayale, an older man beloved by the local Ethiopian community who is full of dangerous secrets.

The Parking Lot Attendant is at its best when it’s a coming-of-age novel. Tamirat’s unnamed narrator is funny, cutting, and sad by turns, and I wanted to spend more time with her. Unfortunately, even though the novel is told in first person and we never leave the narrator’s head, she still seems to vanish into the background, as if she were a documentarian rather than a participant.

That might have been okay had this novel not been so chaotic to begin with, but there are constant twists and turns that tangle up the threads of the plot without moving it forward, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t know where she stands mean we don’t know where anything stands. Most frustratingly, there are entire pages of dialogue in this book where I had no idea who was speaking, since dialogue tags like “he said” and “she said” are almost always absent.

The narrator and Ayale fight; they make up. The narrator and her father fight; they make up. The narrator’s mother flits in and out of her life. Other characters pop in and out for seemingly no reason, their every word feeling shoehorned into whatever mood Tamirat is trying to create in that chapter without feeling like something a real person would authentically say.

Worst of all, very mild spoilers ahead, the ending jumps so abruptly from typical teenage ennui stuff to straight-up murders, arson, suicide, and firing squads that I actually rolled my eyes. I just didn’t care, which is shocking to me, because I wanted so much to care. /spoilers.

There’s a strong possibility that what was hard to understand about this book for me would be obvious to a reader from an Ethiopian background. I want to be clear about that, since on one hand, I love that The Parking Lot Attendant is so chock-full of inside jokes and references to the Ethiopian diaspora. This is one of the most nuanced and cliché-free novels about immigrant identity I’ve ever read; there are also practically no white people in the book, which is refreshing, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to be there. I’m glad this book was able to be published without any obvious catering to a white American audience.

On the other hand, even those good qualities get lost beneath Tamirat’s studied, dense prose style. When I say it’s postmodernist, I mean really postmodernist, to the point where I thought about nothing else, and not in a good way–it felt like being stuck in a poorly taught and very dry Literature 101 class.

Every once in awhile, a particularly cutting sentence would jump out at me–one that got the heart of growing up and not knowing where you belong–and I’d get excited. Then, immediately, I’d be lost in another plot meander that went nowhere, and I’d get un-invested all over again. It’s maddening, because Tamirat’s talent for words is obvious, but her storytelling is remarkably uneven.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a frustrating brain-teaser of a novel, one that demanded a lot and only barely paid off. I hope it blazes trails and makes room for future novels with as much vision and ambition, but I won’t be revisiting this one anytime soon. 3/5 stars.


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

Book Review: THE CURSE OF THE BOYFRIEND SWEATER: ESSAYS ON CRAFTING by Alanna Okun

This book’s subtitle may be Essays on Crafting, but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is actually a work of tender autobiography through which crafting is strung like taut yarn. Alanna Okun intersperses longer, introspective essays on anxiety, dating, friendship, and family with shorter, humorous lists like “The Best Places to Knit, Ranked” and “Words They Need to Invent for Crafters”; her writing is wry and sentimental by turns and always charming, but the problem is myopia: Okun seems less concerned with crafting’s place in the world than she does with its place in her own life, and it makes the book feel insubstantial, undercutting Okun’s own thesis that crafting is an incisive opportunity for self-invention and reinvention. I look forward to seeing what Okun does next with (hopefully) sharper subject matter–her writing style is truly lovely–but I’ll admit to being disappointed with this book.

You can read my full review below.


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The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

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  • publisher: Flatiron Books (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $24.99

But these “soft” things do matter. What we put in and on and around our bodies is important, and so are the things we create. They’re a series of choices we get to make when we may not be able to choose much else: our jobs, our loves and losses, our place in the world. And so maybe in some accidental way, those sad-sack sitcom jokes about knitting contain a grain of truth: making things an certainly help you navigate when the outside world gets to be too much. The difference is, we’ve chosen to do it.

–The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting, page 19

It’s much harder to be kind than it is to be mean, and that’s why I love kind books, especially kind memoirs. I find myself being preemptively snide towards myself and others all the time, hiding my lumpy softnesses (crying at every movie; loving down-home country music; many others) in favor of a more uniform and boring hardness. I like books that remind me that that’s a limiting way to be.

But in abundant kindness, you do risk naïveté. I think it’s a risk worth taking, but there will always be times that kindness just…thuds, and this is one of them.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting is a very kind, sweet book, but it’s also painfully naïve. Alanna Okun strikes on a great many truths (especially about what it means to grow up and invent yourself), but she also generalizes where I think she shouldn’t and doesn’t personalize where I think she should.

First, this book is even more niche in practice than the premise suggests. There’s a significant, passionate swath of the population that’s interested in crafting (I’m one of them, obviously), but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater isn’t about crafting so much as it’s about Okun’s relationship to crafting.

Okun comes from an upper middle class background: she does write with self-awareness about her comfy upbringing in New England (complete with a beach house), her time at a small liberal arts college, her life in the New York publishing business, and the amount of money she spends on yarn, but it’s not quite enough self-awareness for her points to land. When she writes about all her half-finished projects, I could relate, but it also made me cringe to think of all that money in unknitted yarn at the bottom of her closet.

And then I felt bad for cringing, because if there’s something I dislike more than people talking blithely about money and privilege, it’s people pretending they don’t have it. I’m also from an upper-middle class background, and I also start lots of expensive projects without finishing them, but the amount of time Okun spends writing about it felt tone-deaf, even though it wasn’t quite tone-deaf, because she doesn’t justify it or revel in it.

All those conflicting feelings were an ugly catch-22 that tied my brain in knots and really impacted my enjoyment of the book.

If you aren’t a knitter or crocheter, you might not realize how expensive quality yarn is, and the answer is really, really expensive–like $20-40 a skein, minimum. (You usually need multiple skeins for a project, too.) I mention that because I think Okun had an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what that means. Like Okun, I love to craft (I prefer sewing, but I knit too), and there’s a real dissonance between how people talk about crafting (a resourceful DIY skill!) and how it actually plays out (thanks to outsourcing, it’s far more expensive to make your own clothes than it is to just buy them at Forever 21).

But instead of essays on crafting’s semi-anachronistic place in the modern world (a once-survival skill that’s fast becoming a rich-people pastime), or really, essays on much of anything that spills beyond the boundary of Okun’s life and social circle, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is chock-full of essays about things that are much smaller. Okun proposes that the soft and personal things matter, and I agree, but I think she undermines herself by keeping such a myopic focus. If this collection had been more ambitious, it could have been really great; instead, it feels deflated.

That said, there’s a lot here that works. The essays are ordered very skillfully: each one builds on the others, deepening each previous point and adding new ones. Her writing is deceptively simple and then sparkles at unexpected times: the essays meander and then suddenly come together in a few brilliant lines, like a magic trick. I like Okun’s writing at fashion website Racked.com, where she is a senior editor, and since this is her debut, I think she has a lot of room to grow into an author to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be, as if Okun started creating a simple scarf and pivoted suddenly to a sweater. It’s an intimate memoir that strives for more general truths, but doesn’t quite reach them. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE TANGLED LANDS by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

The four interlinked novellas contained in The Tangled Lands document life in the nightmarish, decaying city of Khaim, a remnant of the once-great Jhandpara Empire, destroyed by its overuse of magic. The environmental and social allegory is thick, and the stories almost unbearably grim and violent, but there is beauty here, too. I’d recommend it for those with strong stomachs and stronger wills–if you’re looking for hope or diversion, you won’t find it here.

You can read my full review below.


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The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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  • publisher: Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 27, 2018
  • length: 304 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I avoided using magic for as long as possible, but Jiala’s cough worsened, digging deeper into her lungs. And it was only a small magic. Just enough spelling to keep her alive. To close the rents in her little lungs, and stop the blood from spackling her lips. Perhaps a sprig of bramble would sprout in some farmer’s field as a result, fertilized by the power released into the air, but really it was such a small magic…

The Tangled Lands, page 17

The Tangled Lands is a richly imaginative fantasy that also functions as a transparent environmental allegory: its four novellas are set primarily in Khaim, the last great city of an empire decayed by greed. Bramble, a toxic and destructive kudzu-like plant, is fertilized by magic; unsurprisingly, people kept using using magic anyway, and now, farms, roads, and whole cities are smothered beneath bramble, causing apocalyptic scarcity and a massive refugee crisis.

Sound familiar? In a sentence, The Tangled Lands is a dire warning about our future, if our present was an earthy, magical empire instead of a sleek, technological one.

Paolo Bacigalupi has built his career on imagining environmental apocalypse. The Windup Girl posited future Thailand as a repository of precious biodiversity sinking beneath rising sea water; his first YA novel, Ship Breakerenvisioned a Gulf Coast sharply divided along class lines, where poor children rip apart rusting ships for parts and rich children sail on yachts. Both are among my favorite science fiction novels.

I hadn’t read any of Tobias S. Buckell’s work before The Tangled Lands, but I do know that he’s an acclaimed science fiction author born, raised, and still living in the Caribbean, one of the areas hardest-hit by climate change.

All that is to say that I’m unsurprised that this book was written at this time by these authors. They’re both tremendously imaginative and deeply concerned with climate change–and right now, we should all be concerned about climate change. But as much as I loved The Tangled Lands’s incredible imagery and keen eye for injustice, I wish there’d been a little more hope and vibrance to string it on instead of just constant dread.

In The Alchemist novella, a desperate man discovers a way to destroy bramble and save his daughter, but the technique is quickly co-opted by corrupt officials. In The Executioness, a woman fights back against the raiders who destroyed her life–but it turns out that the raiders have a point. In The Children of Khaim, a boy seeks to protect his sister from a terrible fate after he makes a cowardly but understandable mistake. And in The Blacksmith’s Daughter, a young woman must pay a steep price for an ill-advised bargain made by her parents.

They’re all intriguing stories, and the book is cohesive despite its unusual structure. Unfortunately, it’s unpalatably grim. Khaim may smell intoxicatingly of neem and spices, glow blue with forbidden magic, and feature a lovely floating palace in the sky, but death, disease, cruelty, and terrible life-altering mistakes make up the bulk of the plot, to the point where I cried tears of frustration several times. (Not cathartic ones, either.)

This book has very interesting things to say about need and want; because magic is technology in this world, not being able to use magic also means not being able to access medicine or easy transportation or basically any conveniences at all. The society needs to stop using magic as much as individuals need to keep using it. I really enjoyed this paradox, especially as it’s explored in The Alchemist.

I was less impressed by what the book had to say about violence, however, and violence dominates the pages. There are several horrific scenes of sexual violence–bramble causes people who touch it to fall into a permanent coma, meaning it can be used to turn girls into sex “dolls” for “soft-eyed” men–and there are countless acts of physical violence, from gory axe executions to live burials to beating a person to death with a hammer.

If you’re triggered by depictions of suicide, murder, physical violence, or sexual assault, I recommend that you give The Tangled Lands a hard pass. Even if you’re not, you’ll still probably feel like you need to take a shower and watch a few hours of cat videos afterwards, which brings me to the heart of my problem with this book:

I’m sick of books that are exhausting to read, and The Tangled Lands is utterly exhausting. I admire the thought behind what Bacigalupi and Buckell are doing here, but I also kind of want to fling this book into the sun. (I won’t–I’m responsibly returning it to the library tomorrow–but still.)

Our world can be seriously grim and heartbreaking, and I’m drawn to fiction that reflects that. If you check out my book review archive or Goodreads profile, you’ll see a lot of downer books. But even I have limits. Reading a book doesn’t have to strictly be for pleasure, but The Tangled Lands doesn’t feel like edification, either–just an exercise in pessimism.

The Tangled Lands is ambitious and lyrically written, but its unrelenting cruelty makes it a slog to read, and what little literary magic there is feels as forbidding and vicious as Khaim’s. 3/5 stars.


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

Book Review: THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR by Yewande Omotoso

On the surface, The Woman Next Door is a novel about two elderly neighbors’ bitter rivalry, but its underlying premise is far more complex. Marion is a debt-ridden white woman living in a Cape Town suburb, whose casual racism is challenged when Hortensia, a wealthy and accomplished black woman, moves in next door. In the abstract, the novel deals beautifully with its hefty themes: Apartheid, reparations, racism, sexism, infidelity, and motherhood. Ultimately, though, it fails to unite these themes into one cohesive story, making the whole thing feel dull rather than incisive.

You can read my full review below.


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The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

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  • publisher: Picador USA (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 7, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-12457-9
  • length: 288 pages

Like many young people, I can be guilty of forgetting that my elders have had inner experiences as complex as my own–that conflicts around sex, family, schooling, and injustice are by no means unique to my generation. The Woman Next Door excels at dispelling this youthful error: its protagonists, suburban neighbors Marion and Hortensia, are complicated, riotous, sad, furious, empathetic, and gloriously unlikeable.

The novel’s plot, however, simply does not provide sufficient scaffolding for its larger-than-life heroines; in fact, so little happens over the course of its 288 pages that I’m at a loss as to how to summarize it. It’s as if the novel begins and ends with its character descriptions, which I’ll sketch out below, since I think they’re worth discussing in their entirety.

Hortensia James is an 80-something textile designer who always seems to be seething about something. She’s tired of the racist baggage that comes along with being the only black property owner in her insular Cape Town suburb, her white husband is dying after years of infidelity and distance, and she’s bitter over a land claim made on her property by a black family deeply harmed by Apartheid.

Marion Agostino is a white, Jewish/agnostic, 80-something ex-architect who desperately envies Hortensia for owning the first–and best–house Marion ever designed. Her awful husband died after racking up massive debt, her children all hate her, and the casual racism she’s cultivated for years is collapsing around her as South Africa recovers from Apartheid.

Despite Hortensia and Marion’s rich and layered backgrounds, however, the two women change little (if at all) over the course of the novel, making the effort feel pointless. It’s as if Omotoso imagined a snapshot in these characters’ lives–a gorgeous snapshot, to be sure–but then neglected to go any further backwards or forwards with it. Subplots flit in and out without satisfactory resolutions, personal revelations happen and then are seemingly reversed, and romantic interests are hinted at (and even explicitly stated) without a single “move” made by either party. It’s baffling.

Worst of all, the novel is told out of order, without clear markers of where, exactly, the reader is situated in Hortensia and Marion’s lives. I think that this was meant to show how much these women live in the past, but the effect is more like aimless drifting through misfortune after misfortune, nasty exchange after nasty exchange. (Hortensia is shockingly mean to everyone, and Marion is painted as a fairly pathetic social climber.)

I can’t shake the feeling that this novel would have been much stronger if it were told chronologically–but since Hortensia and Marion are relatively recent neighbors, the whole conceit would collapse, making it a different novel entirely.

This unmoored quality is even more of a shame because Omotoso’s prose style is simply delightful. She has a knack for artistic description–something that makes sense, given her background as an architect–and she also has a keen eye for the ways inequity plays out on the micro level. There’s an intense sense of loss that pervades these pages, especially in the ways that sexism and racism have robbed both of these women of the lives they should have had. In these moments, Omotoso’s gifts are clear, and The Woman Next Door is transcendent. Then the page is turned, and it falls flat all over again.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Women Next Door, but I do hope Omotoso’s other books are slated for U.S. publication in the future. I’d love to see what she does with more dynamic material. 3/5 stars.


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

Book Review: THE FALL OF LISA BELLOW by Susan Perabo

Susan Perabo has written a difficult novel–and I’m still unsure how I feel about it. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of two middle schoolers’ encounter with an armed robber, but it’s also a novel about a marriage, dentistry, and cliques. The novel packs a punch but manages to also feel unsatisfying; Perabo uncovers remarkable truths of the human spirit while also leaving them utterly unresolved. My reaction to each page ranged wildly from speechless awe to eye rolls: really? I am sure of one thing, though: I can’t get this book out of my head.

Bear all that in mind when you read my full review, below.


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The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: March 14, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-4767-6146-6
  • length: 352 pages

Mass shootings and kidnappings of beautiful white girls both loom large in the American imagination; Perabo relies on this inherent tension in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, though her masked gunman never actually fires a shot. Rather, as two middle school rivals lie terrified and facedown on the floor of a Deli Barn (a stand-in for Subway, as best I can tell), the reader realizes that this story isn’t about the gunman at all. It’s about the tension between the girl he chooses to take with him and the one he leaves behind.

The one he takes is Lisa Bellow, a middle school queen bee both loved and loathed by the student body. The one he leaves is Meredith Oliver, an awkward, quiet girl who is neither popular nor unpopular, but aspires to more. When Lisa is taken, Meredith becomes the new ringleader of Lisa’s clique, and unbeknownst to everyone else, Meredith also develops a strange psychic connection to Lisa, able to “see” and even participate in her new life with her kidnapper (and rapist).

Despite the novel’s riveting premise, the plot crawls along with agonizing slowness, invested in spooling and unspooling the dozens of ways the tragedy could have been altered or prevented–basically, if you’re expecting a literary thriller in the mode of Gillian Flynn, you won’t get it. While Perabo’s language is gorgeous and her eye for tension keen, the novel seems to actively deny readers any sort of catharsis, and it left me exhausted, confused, and surprisingly cold.

PSA: The next part of this review could be considered a spoiler, so if you care about that, you can stop reading here–I hope I’ve already made my complicated feelings clear. But they’ll be clearer if you read on.

The reader is eventually left with the conclusion that Meredith’s “connection” to Lisa might be–in fact, probably is–a one-sided way to understand a traumatic event, and not a psychic connection at all. It’s a revelation that’s both brilliant and cheap, believable and anticlimactic. Of course a bright and imaginative middle-schooler would forge that kind of bond with a girl she still feels guilty about hating. Of course.

It makes for terrible reading regardless, and left me asking: How else was I lied to? It’s the confusion of an unreliable narrator with none of the interest or excitement that the device usually supplies.

Spoilers over!

Compounding my feeling that Perabo doesn’t know quite what she wants to achieve with this novel is the array of side characters and subplots that range from only mildly compelling to outright annoying.

Meredith’s mother, Claire, is also a central character; the novel is told in close-focus third-person, alternating between them. We explore Claire’s complicated marriage, her complicated feelings about her son’s (Meredith brother’s) eye injury that will keep him from a once-inevitable career in baseball, her complicated feelings toward being a dentist, her complicated feelings toward her mother’s death and her stepmother, her complicated feelings toward an almost-affair she had 20 years ago, and her complicated feelings toward Lisa Bellow’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks mother, Colleen Bellow.

It’s all just complicated, something I would normally consider a good thing as opposed to flat clichés, but paired with Perabo’s stubborn refusal to satisfyingly conclude any of these subplots, it’s maddening. This novel has one of the most ridiculously inconclusive conclusions I’ve ever experienced, and it made me angry I’d wasted my time with it.

Sure, there are good times along the way–but The Fall of Lisa Bellow ends on a note so bitterly pointless that it poisons my memory of the rest. 3/5 stars.

P.S. While I’m here, let me also say that this novel commits a cardinal sin: it names the race of the few characters of color, but doesn’t explicitly denote the white characters. It’s sloppy craft that worsened the feeling of un-resolution.


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