Tag Archives: unlikable characters

Searching So Long

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper, $14.99, 304 pages)

Chandra Hoffman makes a strong debut with her first novel, Chosen.   Written in clear flowing prose, Hoffman will draw empathy from the reader by presenting a true-to-life portrayal of individuals from both sides of the adoption process.

“I wanted to tell a story in which there are no heroes or villains, just shades of gray, real people trying to recover from their stumbles with grace.”

Chloe Pinter is the director of a private adoption program in Portland, Oregon named Chosen Child.   Engaged to a youthful beach bum who yearns for a life on the beaches of Maui, Chloe is immersed in the intimate details of the lives of her clients, torn on what she wants from her own life.   Chloe’s committed to support each of her clients, who range from delinquent, hostile convicts to wealthy high school sweethearts.   She provides them with the financial and emotional resources that she has available, even putting her career and personal life on the line when one of the babies goes missing.

There are other cases where her influence was heavy, life-changing…  and then there are those for whom her actions were like strokes on the Zen watercolor paper, where the darkest of watermarks disappear after brief moments…

Hoffman captures the waves of emotional confusion and exhaustion that accompanies parents of newborns.   She demonstrates the complexities of the adoption process with compassion and expertise that she brings to the novel from her prior professional work as an orphanage relief worker.   She further delves into sensitive topics such as infidelity, postpartum depression, and domestic violence but does so with grace.

This story has merit, and the passion that Hoffman has for the world of adoptions comes through clearly.   My recommendation falters due to the storyline’s predictability and the farfetched resolution to the main part of the story.   Hoffman’s attempt at portraying the complexities of the characters often falls short and results in several unlikable, egotistic male characters who either continue to imagine or participate in affairs, and two of whom describe in detail the way they would murder their partners (which, thankfully, never comes to fruition).   Therefore, this novel is simply recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

astral-novel

“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

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