Sunday, May 31, 2015

Feminist Surrender

I'm gonna try to tell this one linearly, with my experience of the book.  It's called The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, and I picked it up randomly from the library new release shelf.  I didn't know anything about it, but the cover was kind of cool, and I liked the blurb.

"The String Diaries opens with Hannah frantically driving through the night--her daughter asleep in the back, her husband bleeding out in the seat beside her. In the trunk of the car rests a cache of diaries dating back 200 years, tied and retied with strings through generations. The diaries carry the rules for survival that have been handed down from mother to daughter since the 19th century. But how can Hannah escape an enemy with the ability to look and sound like the people she loves?

"Stephen Lloyd Jones's debut novel is a sweeping thriller that extends from the present day, to Oxford in the 1970s, to Hungary at the turn of the 19th century, all tracing back to a man from an ancient royal family with a consuming passion--a boy who can change his shape, insert himself into the intimate lives of his victims, and destroy them.

"If Hannah fails to end the chase now, her daughter is next in line. Only Hannah can decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to finally put a centuries-old curse to rest."
So, I checked it out.  And started reading it--even more surprising, since checking a book out is a low bar, but starting to read it is a higher one.
(Warning: spoilers for the first 20 pages or so ahead.)
First scene: Hannah is driving through the night while her husband bleeds out.  As advertised.  It's tense, but they do have a destination, which helps.  When they arrive, she prowls the house for a bit to figure out if it's safe.  This takes a little too long--a little more time is spent peering around corners than is appropriate for maintaining the tension.  But eventually she gets her husband inside, leaving her daughter in the car where she's--safer, I guess?  Or at least sleeping?

Next scene flashes us back to the '70s, where our viewpoint character is a stuffy, slightly OCD academic who finds his favorite table at the library occupied by a beautiful woman and overtly attempts to use entitlement to get it back.  They flirt; she is gorgeous and French and intriguing.

Okay, this was the point where I had this iffy feeling.  The second scene, in which our super-manly intellectual guy is somehow overcome with unfamiliar Feelings due to a mysterious, sexy French woman just seemed way too...pat.  
This was the point at which the "woman thing" in this book became really noticeable to me, and when I started thinking about it.  Here are the things I realized, going back over what I'd already read:
  • Hanna, in the first chapter, was kind of irritating.  She's our viewpoint character, and she wasn't meant to be irritating, but she's hesitant when decisiveness is called for, makes some subpar decisions, and is bossed around by her half-comatose husband.  The last part is important, because....
  • There's this weird balance between being prepared for this eventuality (with implications that there was a plan for this because it was always a risk) and being a novice to this kind of life threatening situation (where her naivete would be quite understandable).  But her husband, who clearly (in the next chapter, if not this one) has the same amount of preparation as her, is calm and cool and giving good advice while bleeding to death, while she fumbles around and leaves her kid alone in the car in the middle of the night for some reason.
  • Nicole (the French lady) falls instantly for our professor who is clearly, like Robert Langdon, an eminent academic who's just been waiting for a gorgeous woman and a globetrotting adventure.
  • The female characters reminded me of Stephen King's women.  They are front and center and in the middle of the fight, but they are slightly foreign, and might not be as good as men (read: people) as others, but they have access to some sort of mysterious Understanding.  There was a time when I found that sort of thing flattering, but that was a long time ago.
Okay, so this is the point at which I glanced at the back of the book, out of curiosity regarding the blurbs.  And can I tell you what the first thing I noticed was?  Six (glowing) blurbs; not one woman.

I gave it one more chance and dug into the third chapter, the historical part where we learn the origin of whatever's haunting these women.  I know what's going on, that we're tracking the bad guy here, I find out about the supernatural elements (which are hinted at in the first chapter).  But when it finally clicks--when this skeevy dude does the thing he's gonna do, even though it's not a surprise, it's somehow a huge disappointment, because our author has put what I'm sure he thinks is a new spin on a story that's all about rape.

The bad guy's a shapeshifter.  A woman rejects him, and he takes the form of her lover and has sex with her.  And then stuff and etc. but whatever--this is just an amazing new way for a character to rape someone and terrorize a woman with violence!  And while I can imagine a book in which this is actually about identity and trust and is an extended metaphor for how well we really know people--this is not a book I'm going to follow down that path.

Maybe from a female author.  Maybe if the main character had seemed like someone who was doing the best she could, instead of playing the horror movie victim.  Maybe even if some women had blurbed the book, saying they loved it, that it touched on something true about the experience of being terrorized.  Maybe.  But none of these were true.

It's possible that I've misread what's going to happen, that there will be a major plot twist and this isn't what it seemed like it was going to be.  I'm not good at subtext, and I'm kind of new to this thing where I notice subtle sexism.  There's some controversy around reviewing (pronouncing judgement?) on a book that you're quitting in the middle.

But you know what?  My reading list is too short.  150 pages into a 400 page book, I'm out. 

On the plus side, I do feel like my critical faculties got a decent workout.  So not a total waste of my time.

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