Post-Graduation Depression, Mother/Daughter Dynamics, and Coming-of-Age in Smothered

I was beyond keen on diving into this book, thanks to the premise of using unconventional storytelling and sounding on par with an underrated favorite of mine, Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian, by exploring themes of daughter-mother bonds through journal entries.

It’s also in a similar vein to Motherest wherein essentially nothing happens plot-wise; the story relies heavily on the characters, so if you don’t connect with the main protagonist you’re in for a rather lackluster reading experience.

Smothered is a sold as a hilarious roman à clef told via journal entries, text messages, emails, bills, receipts, tweets, doctor’s prescriptions, job applications and rejections, parking tickets, and pug pictures, chronicling the year that Lou moves back home after college. Told from Lou’s point-of-view, Smothered tells the story of two young(ish) women, just trying to get it right, and learning that just because we all grow up doesn’t mean we necessarily have to grow old. (After all, what is Juvaderm for?)

A list of things I’d like to highlight:

  • Lou’s sister is nicknamed “Val” (short for Valentina), and I couldn’t stop picturing Abbi’s alter ego (from Broad City).
  • Speaking of over-the-top women: the mother/daughter interactions have a lot to offer in the ways of entertainment. Take for example this exchange below that sums up quite well the dynamic between Mama Shell and Lou:

Smothered 2-- bookspoilsHer voice brought to mind Kate Siegel’s “Mother, Can You Not?,” especially when I came upon this exchange later on in the book:

Smothered 3-- bookspoilsThis screams of the aforementioned because:

Mother, Can You Not? 1-- bookspoilsAdded bonus: her mother making sure Lou doesn’t relegate in her love life stays consistently funny.

Sigh. Mom has somehow managed to sabotage every single one of my relationships … even the imaginary ones with celebrities. (“Eddie Redmayne? Really? Why not Ryan Gosling or Zac Efron??”)

  • Which is a sly way to mention Theodore Greenberg:Smothered 4-- bookspoils To get on Mama Shell’s level, dating a guy that uses “awesome sauce” unironically is a sign to… But on a real note, I do not understand Theo as a character since he barely gets fleshed out beyond his niche of cooking food and taking care for Lou… Like, what are his motivations for staying with Lou? He gets dropped on us as a fact since he’s introduced as her boyfriend™, but we never get to see why they chose each other, or even the bare minimum of talking to one another about something besides take-out food or Lou’s jobless state. This is exactly why having a main character in a relationship from the get-go is seldom a good thing in my book, because they have this whole history together that we, as the reader, are unaware of (and that we weirdly didn’t experience in here), and it consequently created this distance between us and them. Like, how can I root for you to stay together when it’s hard to gauge why you’re in it in the first place?
  • Aside: Smothered featuring texts, Instagram posts, emails, receipts, and more made for quite the upbeat and swift read.Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55

I feel like the positives come to a bit of a halt at this point because all else gets eclipsed by Lou’s whining, privileged state. I mean, I couldn’t comprehend how she keeps complaining about not having a job upon graduating from Columbia and experiencing jealousy when her peers find their passion… and yet she does absolutely nothing to move forward in life. Lou literally applies to only one place over the entirety of this book… She just sits in bed, waiting for her mom to order her around (and then complains when she does).

Later, Theo himself has to put her entitlement in perspective:

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?”
“In what way am I being dramatic?” I asked, dramatically.
Theo shook his head. “You’re living rent-free. You got rejected from one job. This is hardly the end of the world.

THANK YOU! She doesn’t even acknowledge how good she’s got it going for herself. 

I mean, the author tried toning it down at one point by introducing an even shallower character so that the main character doesn’t seem as bad — smart move on her part — but it didn’t play out in the end on account of her constant exaggerations, such as:

I miss college, where being social required no more than stepping outside my dorm room and walking half a block. Now, all my friends are either on the East Coast or going to graduate school, leaving me a completely isolated introvert in La-La Land.* This is pretty much the equivalent of dropping a blind person in the Sahara and asking him to find water.

I’m pretty sure Lou has never experienced thirst in her rich life, so don’t.

And then she goes on, while on a juice cleanse, to write: “Hunger Level: Africa.”

Please, reevaluate your choices in saying this.
And before that, it was the Geneva Conventions with that same juice cleanse, “My whole body shuddered. No food for seven days? Surely this was banned by the Geneva Conventions.” I personally don’t care for exaggerations in books, so this hit the wrong note for me.

There’s also the case of her mother outright lying by registering her pugs as service dogs just to bring them along on vacation, when they’re the furthest thing from stable. Drew Lynch made a whole video about this phenomenon of faking service dogs, and how this behavior, perpetrated by individuals like Lou’s mom, affects people with trained service dogs in receiving fair treatment at different establishments.

“Service dogs?” I shouted from the backseat as Baguette blew snot in my face.
“I registered them on the Internet!” Mom insisted, turning around from the front to face me. “What more do you want?”
“Mom, I know newborn babies who are better behaved than these pugs.”
“Oh, it’s fine!” Mom dismissed, waving her hand at me. “If anyone has a problem, I can show them my papers.”

And while I’m on the topic, I also couldn’t agree with Lou’s habit of compulsively lying to her loved ones over the course of this book, when telling the truth is so much easier than whatever hole she’s digging by making up these lies. And it’s tragic because whenever she’s caught spinning in her web of lies she still opts to make up another lie… The angst surrounding this whole book could’ve been avoided had she just told the damn TRUTH. Her anthem song could only be Why You Always Lying.

So I was beyond thankful when her father finally calls her out on her attitude.

“Well, are you an adult?”
I paused, taken aback. Was this a trick question?
“That’s what it says on my ID.”
“No, it says you’re twenty-two on your ID. Does that really make you an adult?”

It brings home the quote I read in HONY: “Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you’re grown up. Growing up means being patient, holding your temper, cutting out the self-pity, and quitting with the righteous indignation.”

But when putting those hindrances aside, this is the first novel to compel me for the first time in weeks with its nontraditional mother-daughter relationship. And having Lou achieve some major character growth by the end of the book was satisfying to experience. So, overall, I’d say that if you know what you’re getting into before reading, Smothered makes for one hell of a book.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Expected publication: May 1st, 2018

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Review: Mothers by Chris Power

Read it for the vine cover.Mothers-- bookspoilsChris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends – at ancient Swedish burial sites, river crossings on Exmoor, and raucous Mexican weddings. A stand-up with writer’s block embarks upon his last gig. Reflecting on a childhood holiday, a father is faced with the limit to which he can keep his daughters safe. These characters search without knowing what they seek.

Unfortunately, Mothers turned out to be just another book added to the list of beautiful covers with no compelling storyline to leave me rapt. I continually found an arbitrary flow to the stories that made it rather difficult to keep engaged in my reading.

I will say, though, that the first story starts off promising enough with this below passage that captures an intricate character-building moment, without reading like one:

“On my bedroom wall I had a big poster map of the world and in my bedside drawer I kept a sheet of stickers, red and blue. The red stickers were for the countries I had been to, and the blue stickers were for countries I wanted to visit. The only countries with red stickers on them were Denmark and Sweden.”

The author excels at writing detailed imagery and giving voice to specific thoughts and moments, but at the same time, I can’t deny that the characters in the stories feel completely stiff and traped on the page. Essentially, nothing informative regarding a character’s nature was shared – just their distinct thoughts jotted down.

“Who was she really, this woman? She was my mum, of course, but that was only one part, and I want to know all the parts.”

I went into this hoping for multi-dimensional characters I could root for, or at the very least, care for even a little. But throughout my reading, I felt like something went amiss for me with Mothers that I couldn’t quite describe, which was then, funnily enough, put on the page by the author in the following story, when the narrator goes as follows: “But there isn’t any room for them here. Stories need everything extraneous to be stripped away, and Nancy and Kostas, let alone Karla, are extraneous. So are my brothers, who are barely present at all. ”

I found this to be a huge mistake. I’d much rather spend time reading about the people he got into contact with during his summer vacation, instead of wasting pages upon pages describing a made up fantasy game I had zero connection to.

It’s interesting, really, because Power’s clever ways of exploring and exposing his characters felt unlike anything other. I mean, this quote below made me acutely aware of the linguistic skill it takes to pull something off like this.

“The sky was whitegrey and a cold breeze came from the sea, which lay at the end of the avenue. Standing at a crossing her eyes filled with tears, so completely that for an instant she couldn’t see. Spasms hit her body. She wanted to wipe the tears out of her eyes, but couldn’t lift her arms. There had been episodes like this after her mum died. The sensation, so long forgotten, was instantly familiar. She felt ridiculous, but she couldn’t move. She was a tree in the wind, powerless to do anything but endure. Another spasm went through her and she thought she might be sick. She heard a voice and lifted her head towards the sound.
Her vision began to make sense again. She saw her own face, stricken and doubled: her reflection in the lenses of a large pair of sunglasses worn by a middle-aged woman in a long black coat.”

That moment at the end of seeing her reflection in a stranger’s sunglasses felt like such a bright move on the author’s part. I was taken back by the originality of it all and how the writing didn’t succumb to the usual clichés.

“What am I doing in France?’ she said out loud. She repeated it, then repeated it again, placing the stress on different words in turn. ‘What am I doing in France? What am I doing in France? What am I doing in France?’ ”

These little individual moments is the only link that unites the stories together. So I was a tad dissapointed when the disconnect created between those instants and the flow of each story held me back from truly appreciating Mothers.

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Review: Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

“For you, everything’s a story, eh? It’s just too bad that for me, it’s real life”

This slow-revealing, insightful Israeli novel was one that took me by surprise.

Set in an upper-middle-class Tel Aviv apartment building, this bestselling and warmly acclaimed Israeli novel examines the interconnected lives of its residents, whose turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions reveal a society in the midst of an identity crisis.

The first thing that piqued my interest upon starting my reading of Three Floors Up was the author’s brilliant ability to make his characters shine in quiet moments. As well as having this disquieting nature at the very base of the introducing story that makes the narrator’s actions brim with tension, even when there’s nothing crucial happening on the surface.

“You can’t always pinpoint such things. Sometimes it’s just a feeling. The very slightest sense of menace in the air.”

Following interweaving threads between the three narratives, Three Floors Up is, at its core, about life and all its accompanying beauty, complexity, ease, and flaws.

I found the second floor is where I feel this book really flourishes, where Hani, known as “the widow,” is writing a letter of confession of sorts to her longtime friend, Netta. This story reverberated in its quiet resonance most strongly when her brother-in-law (Eviatar) shows up at her doorstep out of the blue.

Though, to give credit where credit is due, Hani starts of the story quite remarkably on her own terms. I still remember the utter thrill I felt at reading the passage below, of having Hani reminiscence to the one psychologist she clicked with years and years ago, whom she now decides to call, only to reach the son.

“I remained standing there with the phone in my hand even after we hung up, listening to the beeps that came after the call was disconnected. What a nerve she had, I thought, to die on me like that.”

I also appreciated the author’s efforts of never leaving a character without expanding on their thoughts or breathing some life into them. Speaking of which: Eviatar. He’s one of the more morally gray characters I’ve read about, which, when I really think of it, are essentially all of the characters in this book. But the author handled their flaws expertly, as this next passage best captures: “But I’m not going to talk about Eviatar yet. If I talk about Eviatar now, you’ll judge me harshly and I want you to understand the background first and then judge me (harshly, what else?).”

It’s all in the underlying sentences that aren’t said but are felt.

From telling captivating bedtime stories to handling the kids naturally in the mornings before school, it was nearly impossible not to get caught up in Eviatar’s charisma. Which is best cemented in this single paragraph:

“Before I opened the door to leave the house, he bent down to Lyri and said, “Remember what we agreed!” (They already have agreements?)
Lyri nodded. Hesitantly.
“If Mica says she doesn’t want to play with you at recess,” Eviatar persisted, “what will you tell her?”
“That’s your loss.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That I’m a terrific girl and anyone who plays with me can only profit from it.”
“And what does ‘profit from it’ mean?”
“That she’ll have fun.”
“Good. And you”—he turned to Nimrod—“give me a high five. Hard. Harder. The hardest. Now a hug. Tight. Tighter. The tightest.”

It was this, finally, that made the tears well up in my eyes. It’s also at this point that I was thinking, ‘This is a true man,’ but then I also remembered that he’s at the house because he’s being hunted down by loan sharks and needs to hide… So this is where it gets tricky in regards to his character because we feel all these conflicting emotions where we see him acting so kindly with the family, but then his business is unquestionably shady. Like, how do these two versions of Eviatar align?

So, without a doubt, Eshkol Nevo raised lots of important questions by introducing these characters. Also, if we’re already on the topic, I have to mention that the writing in here is sublime and unlike anything I’ve read before. I felt it in particular when I read this:

“Why are you helping me, Hani?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Because you’re desperate.”
Or maybe I said, “Because I’m the only one who will.”
Or maybe I said, “Because Assaf wouldn’t want me to help you.”
Or maybe I didn’t say anything.”

“(I’m not trying to be smart, Netta. I’m really not sure what I said. Or what I just wanted to say. What happened, or what I wanted to happen. Honestly.)”

The breaking of the fourth wall, combined with perceptiveness, subtle humor, and a sense of timing all made for a transcendent reading experience. Full of slow-revealing storylines that are so worth the wait and fleshing out the characters through tiny detailed moments in time are what really make the story for me. Plus, the biggest bonus for me: capturing the essence of Israeliness, which I always turn for in books. Bottom line: I highly recommend this read.

Many, many thanks to the Jewish Book Council’s Israel Bookshelf for providing me with a physical copy of Three Floors Up.

israel-bookshelf-headerSource

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