This month, book club was a close tie between The Language of Flowers and The Age of Miracles. The club went with Vanessa Diffenbaugh's Flowers, but I read both, just out of curiosity, and I think they're a great study in contrasts, especially about what makes a "literary novel."
I've already mentioned that I didn't like Miracles. It was less an awful book than a waste of time and a good premise. Almost nothing happens. Occasionally the narrator will let you know about interesting things that are happening, inasmuch as the world is coming to an end. But it doesn't affect the day to day life of anyone you know; your main character just has a standard twelve year old's coming of age story--and a particularly boring one, as I'm pretty sure Julia doesn't actually take a single action in the whole story. She just rambles around and watches people live their lives.
I really did like The Language of Flowers. Although it was also a coming of age story, the main character--tentatively and with great emotional barriers--does actually do things. She reaches out and shies away and hurts people and is hurt by them, and then makes up with them and tries again. It's really a book about getting it wrong and trying again.
What I think is interesting in looking at the two books next to each other is about my overall discussion of literary fiction. I think these two books aim very solidly for the same high-middle-brow range of literature--the land of book clubs and reviews in popular mainstream magazines. And they both have, I think, the same quality of a "hook." Miracles has the end of the world; Flowers has a character who has been chewed up and spit out by the foster system, who got kicked out of the best home she'd been in by committing some unnamed horrifying act--she's messed up and misanthropic, and she likes flowers and pretty much nothing else. For want of a better descriptor, the bare bones outline is a bit lurid, which, as we all know, sells.
So what does Flowers succeed at where Miracles fails? It's all in the details. Even at the moments when Victoria is at her most passive--and her passive aggressive moments are remarkable--she's filled with emotion. She freezes it out, she goes into shock, she suppresses rage--it might look like nothing is going on, but a lot is going on. Julia, not so much. She's an empty vessel, a wide-eyed lens to look at the world around her.
The other characters in the books have room to wiggle, too. Let's look at Mother Ruby, who is kind of a third tier character in this book--neither the protagonist nor one of the main players, but a big role anyway. Mother Ruby is solid and knowledgeable, and yet she screws up. She is needed and just what Victoria needs at the moment she appears, but she's not all-knowing. Then you look at Hannah, Julia's best friend at the beginning of Miracles, and you realize that she's just an object to act on Julia. What's important is not who Hannah is; it's what she does to Julia. But since Julia doesn't seem to react, then that "what she does" means nothing.
My review of The Language of Flowers is "great read," though I would caution you that if your book club is composed of 70% social workers and child psychologists, they're going to explain how attachment disorders work and how in real life, Victoria would never, ever heal. But the real point I wanted to make here is that, when I talk about not liking literary fiction, I know I'm probably misusing the term. What I dislike is a book in which NOTHING HAPPENS. It doesn't have to be space opera, soap opera, or even musical theater. Emotionally, though, I need real motion, agitation, and a breath of life.