Book Review: INVITATION TO A BONFIRE by Adrienne Celt

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

You can read my full review below.


Invitation to a Bonfire Cover

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

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

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

Invitation to a Bonfire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY by Noley Reid

Monday Reviews

Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

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publisher: Tin House Books

publication date: July 18, 2017

9781941040669As you may recall from Tuesday’s post on triggering books and when to keep reading, I struggled a lot with this book. I did finish it, but not only did I find it painful, I also find it lacking in any positive respite or catharsis. Pretend We Are Lovely drags, and the slipperiness of its narrative structure gives an effect more like incoherence than profundity. While there are treasures to be found here, they are few and far between in a narrative full of things I didn’t care about and nearly devoid of things I did.

Pretend We Are Lovely tells the story of a summer and fall in the lives of a Virginia family in the 1980s. The Sobel family, made up of parents Francie and Tate and daughters Enid and Vivvy, all suffer from a tortured and toxic relationship with food. Overweight philosophy professor Tate has moved out and embarked on an affair with one of his students (a kind and curvaceous donut shop employee, just in case you missed the symbolism), and Francie sinks ever-further into binge-purge cycles and shockingly nasty treatment of her daughters. Enid, 10, is chubby, mercilessly bullied, and always thinking of her next meal. Vivvy, 12, is struggling with confusing feelings towards girls and an even more confusing apathy towards boys, along with a punishing desire to be as thin as her mother.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the suspicious death of Enid and Vivvy’s voraciously hungry older brother, Sheldon, whom Francie hit and killed with her car years ago. This incident, supposedly the driving force behind all the other problems, was incomprehensible to me. I was hoping answers–how and why Sheldon died–would be revealed at the end, but they weren’t, leaving me even more frustrated and confused by the last page than I’d been at the end of the first chapter.

Reid’s decision to tell the story from the rotating perspectives of all four characters, switching perspectives within chapters (and sometimes even paragraph-to-paragraph), worsens the confusion. Each Sobel does have a distinct and interesting voice, but they spend so much of the book separated from each other and lost in thoughts of the past that I didn’t understand what was supposed to be currently happening for at least half of the book. All I got was jolt of unpleasant emotion after jolt of unpleasant emotion, utterly unconnected to plot events.

The other problem with Pretend We Are Lovely’s shifting perspectives is that they remove all tension from the narrative. I can’t get mad about how Vivvy treats Enid because in the next paragraph I am told exactly why Vivvy is lashing out. I can’t get mad on Francie’s behalf at Tate for having an affair because I know Tate’s exact reasons for having the affair. I think the effect is supposed to trigger something like sadness about the miscommunications inherent in family, but instead, I found it boring.

There were two things I really, really loved about this book, and both involved Vivvy: Vivvy and Enid’s sister relationship, and the Reid’s delicate touch when writing about Vivvy’s feelings for other girls. Admittedly, I’m a sister partial to sister stories, and a lesbian partial to lesbian stories, so I don’t know if these were the best parts of the book or just the ones that pushed my buttons. But with every Francie and Tate scene, and some of the Enid scenes, I found myself wanting to be back with Vivvy.

For me at least, Pretend We Are Lovely was a Vivvy story trapped inside a family story, and the promise of the book I wanted trapped inside this book that I didn’t want made my reading experience even more tortuous. I wonder what this book might have looked like had its narrative been reorganized around Vivvy, perhaps even as a literary YA novel. I know her story would have meant a lot to me as a teen struggling to come out.

Other aspects that showed promise were the book’s commentary on kids’ nastiness toward other kids–boys, especially, hold an air of sexual menace, including a couple of truly disturbing assaults on Enid and Vivvy by classmates and neighbors–and Reid’s prose style, which I found refreshingly simple and affecting. But these things are utterly buried under the weight of convoluted narrative, spoiling their power.

Pretend We Are Lovely really is lovely in places, but its hazy plot and countless unresolved and underdeveloped sub-plots ruin the effect. 2/5 stars.

My copy of Pretend We Are Lovely came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.