Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wit's End

by Karen Joy Fowler

Not sure how I should review this book. On the one hand, it was well-written enough and addictive enough to cause me to lose all self-control and read it every free moment until I finished it. On the other, the aftertaste it left me with was mostly bleak, modern, meaningless, the impression of a world surrounded by mean people.

Besides that it was on sale at Costco, I bought it because it’s about the author of a famous mystery series and how her books were entangled with her real life. She had taken a very dear friend and made him into a character in one of her books – the murderer, in fact – and now his daughter is wondering why. The resolution isn’t as satisfying as an Agatha Christie would be, but it is realistic, true to human nature. And after all, Wit’s End is not a murder mystery and doesn’t claim to be.

I liked that the novel is interspersed with excerpts from the (fictional) book in question … and reading these helps you unravel what is going on in the novel. I didn’t like that the excerpts are written in the exact same style as the overall narrative. (Someone else noticed that too. Click here for his also-mixed review.)

The blurbs on the book say things like, “Fowler’s subtle humor glides across these pages.” True. There are lots of clever turns of phrase and a few truly funny moments. However, often it seems that you can see the author is trying to be clever. The chuckles don’t seem to arise as serendipitously as they do in an Alexander McCall Smith. Anyone who thinks Wit’s End is funny ought to read his No. 1 Ladies’ Dective Agency series or his Portugese Irregular Verbs series.

Perhaps the bad aftertaste simply came from the fact that the book is set in modern Santa Cruz, California, with all the social and spiritual bleakness that implies. Sample incident: the herione is reluctantly invited to hang out at a bar with people ten years younger than herself. She goes (reluctantly), gets drunk, and ends up bawling when something reminds her of a loved one she lost. After going home, she gets on the Internet, and finds that one of her drinking buddies has already described this humilitating incident on a blog and made some additional catty comments about her.

Another part of the bad taste, perhaps, was that cults, particularly white supremacist ones, figure big in both the plot of the book and the plots of the fictional books-within-the-book. Cults are unpleasant to think about, and when presented in isolation, instantly create a bad impression of all organized religion.

So that’s it. My takeaway impression is that the book is dark, ironic, and somehow a bit shallow … but to be fair I have to note that it is very addictive, and very true to how people behave in this dark, ironic, somewhat shallow society. According to the review I link to above, The Jane Austen Book Club is much better.

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