26 April 2011

Book Review: The Whole World Over by Julia Glass

  
Julia Glass won the National Book Award for her novel Three Junes. I enjoyed reading Three Junes but I am not sure why it won an award. It is an easy-to-read tale of contemporary Manhattan, but there was something about it that I felt was kind of amateurish. Likewise with The Whole World Over. I enjoyed it, at no point did I want to set it aside, but it isn't really a good book. There are likable characters and interesting enough plot lines, but I always felt a little too aware of the author. Especially since there were so many little details that kind of annoyed me, either because they weren't accurate or because they didn't seem all that plausible.

Things that annoyed me:
  • While visiting New York, the governor of New Mexico tastes Greenie's desserts at a restaurant and decides that he wants her as his chef. Why would he assume that she could cook anything other dessert? Good pastry chef doesn't equal chef and vice versa.
  • To audition for the chef job Greenie cooks a meal in the kitchen of the governor's hotel room. I suppose a really high end hotel suite may have a real kitchen rather than a poky little kitchenette, but then the governor's aide provides special equipment that Greenie requested. Really? The aide goes out and buys or otherwise procures special kitchen equipment for one meal rather than Greenie bringing her own. Doubt it.
  • Greenie is a trained chef and we are told she is a lover of wine, but she confesses that she doesn't know anything about wine. And in another scene she keeps an open bottle of red wine on a window sill, in sunny Santa Fe no less. What chef with any sense would expose wine or any ingredient to sunlight?
  • And speaking of wine, the Republican governor character likes to portray liberals as wine drinkers. Fine. But raise your hand if you equate Ralph Nader with fine wine (as the author does)? Nancy Pelosi and her husband's well-heeled millions? Yes, I am sure she is no stranger to fine wine. But Ralph, rumpled suit, bad hair cut Nader? Not exactly a poster child for limousine liberalism.
  • The governor of New Mexico is portrayed as a kind of glamorously slick, sophisticated character, a real power player who gets everything he wants. I don't doubt that this could be the case, but it felt like a New Yorker trying to imagine what the governor of a western state would be like. Plus for all his sophistication he treats his cook (Greenie) like she is one of the family. I am not saying that such a character would be incapable of treating his employees well or even being familiar with their personal lives, but his involvement in Greenie's affairs seems to be a little too much especially given there is no romantic interest. I think the governor of even a small state has enough on his plate personally and professionally that he doesn't have all that much time to hobnob in the kitchen.
  • Greenie's parents go over a cliff in their car in Scotland where there are no guardrails. Greenie thinks that in the US there would be concrete barriers that would protect cars but mess with the view. This may be true in some areas, and there are certainly guardrails (wood post with metal rails) in many scenic spots, but concrete barriers are by no means ubiquitous. Apparently Greenie has never driven the Highway 1 in Northern California, or gone up into the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, or any other of the thousands of miles of scenic roads that don't have concrete barriers lining them.
  • Beverly Sills' nickname was "Bubbles" not "Bev".
  • The EPA does not administer the Endangered Species list. The governor of New Mexico would know better. (It's actually the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.)
  • It's Corey Flintoff of NPR, not Cory Flintoff.
  • What in the world could this mean: "...a gaudy medallion that looked like Prince Charles had worn at his Duke of Earl coronation..." Prince Charles has many titles but Duke of Earl is not one of them. And Dukes don't have coronations.
  • Greenie's boyfriend is a water conservation advocate so she is careful when she fills a pitcher "...not turning on the tap until it was right above the mouth of the pitcher." Really Greenie? Wouldn't someone do that just to keep the outside of the pitcher from getting wet? Or does the author think that people just turn on the water and then hope against hope that the stream of water and the mouth of the pitcher will find each other?
  • When was the last time you heard a teenage boy on a skateboard call out "Cute baby, man!"?
  • And then there is 9/11. Why do so many authors feel the need to sneak 9/11 into the story? I am not opposed to 9/11 narratives, but I hate it when they try and be all clever and slip it in as if they were trying to recreate the same surprise as the attacks themselves. Guess what, we are not surprised. If your New York novel was published after 2002 we are pretty much just waiting for the 9/11 reference. There really isn't much that is clever about it. (In Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children (another disappointing book) she at least comes up with a clever 9/11 effect. A philandering husband (or was it wife?) was supposedly out of town when in reality he was with his lover in lower Manhattan. Then after the planes hit he can't plausibly keep up the charade that he was out of town. Now that is a twist.)
You might still want to read this book. But you might want to suspend your disbelief more than I did.

11 comments:

  1. My favorite kind of bulleted list! I love the 'no guardrails in Scotland' effect. I can verify that there are many extremely narrow, twisty, steep mountain/sea cliff roads in Scotland with no barriers whatsoever and people drive far too fast when they're on holiday here. American drivers can be identified by the way they hug the middle of the road and have to swerve every time another car goes by.

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  2. Okay, I don't know how you can tell the middle of the road drivers are Americans and not Canadians! ;-)

    There were a couple of twists in The Emperor's Children on 9/11 as I recall. There's a character who uses it as his chance to disappear and take on a new identity by letting his old one die, yes?

    While I won't be reading this book, I did enjoy your review. In a better book, all of these flaws may still have been present, but the reader wouldn't have noticed them nearly as much.

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  3. That's a long list of annoyances! Once you mentioned 9/11 that was it for me. Too many books do a 9/11 thing. I'm over it!

    I enjoyed the Three Junes. It was the perfect book to read while sunning myself. Good characters, an interesting story and it didn't require intense focus or much work on my part.
    I wouldn't have thought it was an award winner.

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  4. What a great review. I can sympathize. Sometimes I feel I'm being overly picky with a book but really, if I (or you) finish with a list of complaints, it's too much! You made me laugh, too.

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  5. Excellent points. When I start noticing all the inaccuracies in a story I begin to lose interest.

    And to add to the list of barrier-free dangerous US highways--drive the white-knuckled US Highway 550 from Silverton to Ouray, breathtakingly beautiful but the drop-off is stomach-churning.

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  6. I like the bulleted points! very easy to read and understand!

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  7. I loved reading that list! At your first point, I was already skeptical. I often feel like career changes are mishandled in books - often made to be too easy, or implausibly done.

    As for 9/11, I can think of one book off the top of my head where I thought it worked and that was Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World. Have not read Emperor's Children.

    Also, the drive up Pike's Peak did not have guardrails. I remember b/c my aunt in the car ahead of us had her brother take over driving halfway up the mountain.

    - Christy

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  8. I read this several years ago when it first came out, I thought it was just meh. I didn't notice nearly all these inaccuracies -- if I had I'm sure I would have thrown the book across the room. Having worked as a professional cook I can't believe I missed all that! It always makes me crazy when I see people playing cooks on TV and movies and it's totally implausible (like Monica on Friends, who was just ridiculous). And Duke of Earl? Isn't that a 1950s song?

    I did like Three Junes but it's not a book I particularly want to reread.

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  9. The pitcher, the water, the hope against hope. Hilarious. I do this same kind of thing with T.V. programs, and it makes my husband crazy. A book I expect to be somehow above such inconsistencies.

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  10. Marieke: I am one of those white knuckle middle of the road drivers when it comes to twisty roads.

    CB: I think you are right, in a bettet book one is less likely to notice such flaws.

    Amy: This one is also pretty good to read while sunning yourself.

    Julia: I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder pretty early on.

    Kim: I'm not good with the white knuckles.

    Mystica: Glad you liked it.

    Christy: I guess it is career change the way we all might like. It just falls into your lap.

    Karen: Hollywood really gets professions wrong. Classical musicians and architects are two that they get really wrong all the time.

    Sara: If I make too many comments during a show my husband tells me to quit ruining the show.

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  11. I have gotten 100 pages into Three Junes but am giving up because I'm too close to making exactly this sort of list of things that annoy me. Let's start with how no one in Scotland would use the world 'cilantro'. And I'm fairly sure that you can't be 'Anglophobic' about Scotland, Anglo meaning England...these sorts of things really put me off.

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