Friday, April 19, 2013

Structural Integrity

Another book from Netgalley--One Step Too Far, by Tina Seskis.  If this book was a house, you would be sitting in your well-appointed living room enjoying a glass of white wine and listening to Mozart when you feel something weird and shaky happen, and you realize that the whole house has shifted a foot to the left.  You call the contractor and he's like, seriously, dude, you have to move out--the foundation is a COMPLETE MESS.

Because this book has some lovely writing and some incredibly cool scenes about how you leave your life and everything you've ever known behind, but there are some serious structural flaws that get worse and worse over the course of the book till it falls completely apart in the epilogue.  At the beginning, I was intrigued.  Emily Coleman is on a train, speeding away from her husband and her house and her life and everything she's ever known to start a new life, because of something horrible and unnamed.  The story proceeds in the presence as she finds herself in a new city with no plan, no friends, just a relatively small stash of money, while flashbacks in parallel tell about Emily's childhood, her marriage, her family, until the two stories converge at the end.

I suspected pretty early that I had guessed what the big reveal would be; I ended up being wrong.  That's good. But I think it wasn't actually as impressive as it needed to me--the tone was, I think, a bit of an issue here.  Or maybe tone isn't the right word, but intensity?  People's emotional reactions and the narrator's sense of intensity did not always match the objective circumstances as I perceived them.  In some places, there's clear "I just have a lot going on!" going on, and you can see it as being appropriately inappropriate, but in others, it just reads wrong.

I'm not sure if this is actually a Writing Error or more of my pet peeve, but if you aren't Virginia Woolf, don't change third person limited viewpoint characters in the middle of a paragraph.  If we know what Bill is thinking (he's so surprised he can't think of anything to say), don't tell me what Jane thinks of his reaction (she's surprised by his silence).  This is either a super-basic error or an attempt at super-advanced writing; if we can't tell, it didn't work out.

Also, if you're telling the current story in the first person present tense and then flashing back to the character's past in the third person, it's okay to interpose some chapters from the point of view of her family, sure.  You get a better picture of her life this way.  It is not okay to do very, very occasional flashbacks into the history of a secondary character.  This will imply that this character's past will tie together with your main character's past in some way, rather than just that you made up a really cool back story for the roommate and couldn't bear to cut it out of the book.

I feel so whiny, I'm going to stop.  The problem is that I liked the beginning so much, I'm kind of heartbroken that the end turned out to be not just a letdown but an actual mess.  (Also, what's up with Caroline?  How random is pretty much everything about her?)

God, I suck at ARCs.  I feel like I should apologize to Tina Seskis, who clearly had some great ideas and some great chunks of book but was trying to write something much more ambitious and ended up trimming it in a lot of awkward places.  Watching Emily turn herself into Cat--Emily, who is like me into Cat who is someone I'm kind of afraid of (and for)--is a really wonderful story.  It's the coming back to Emily that is messy.


Lianna Williamson said...

"I'm not sure if this is actually a Writing Error or more of my pet peeve, but if you aren't Virginia Woolf, don't change third person limited viewpoint characters in the middle of a paragraph."

This is called headhopping, and unless you are writing deeply experimental LitFic, it is frowned upon by other writers. (I frown on it no matter what you're writing; it drives me nuts!) It is one of those things that you're supposed to fix when you revise. Ditto the unnecessary flashbacks.

LibraryHungry said...

Headhopping--I LOVE that! Patricia Wrede called it "sloppy omniscient," but either way, it's so nice to be able to shorthand it.