Women’s fiction is our category this month. Just what is women’s fiction? Literature with women protagonists appear along a continuum of literary fiction to erotica. Quite a spread! Women’s fiction is closer to the literary fiction end but without the self-consciousness and pretension of literary fiction. By the same token, while there may be a love interest in women’s fiction, it differs from chicklit in the amount and focus of the love interest. Women’s fiction is between those two points.
Additionally, women’s fiction keeps focus on the heroine’s character arc as she seeks to learn more about herself and her role in life. In women’s fiction, she takes full responsibility for that development without needing the intervention of a male to define her. Women’s fiction confronts broader issues of societal value and not just the personal issues of the heroine.
Kathy’s Pick: THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tratt
There are some books you just want to crawl into and live in for a bit. This started out that way, and I was pleased the book was so long (771 pages) so that I could enjoy this for a while. I settled in for the ride. Theo is a young man who is with his beloved mother in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when a terrorist bomb goes off. Tratt’s prose is excellent, so beautiful describing the love, the horror, and the destruction of the moment when to bomb goes off. He loses his mother, but gains a portrait of a Goldfinch he hides for the rest of his life. The relationship he forms with his best friend’s family in their posh upper Manhattan penthouse apartment is complicated and fun to be with for a while. Then his father comes and takes him away to Las Vegas. That’s where the book lost all of its charm for me. The tough, hard-drinking dad, the evil stepmom and the scary loan sharks hanging around were a bit too clichéd for me. You could almost sense the story before you read it, no surprises. The only friend he made in Las Vegas was Boris, a druggie who entices Theo to join him in illegal adventures and a life less structured, smoking joints, popping pills, and ditching school. I ached for Theo and this turn of his life. He was so much better than that. But that’s okay, I thought, I’ll wait for the redemption. But it never came. His drug use escalated and he lost his way. The last third of the book was a major disappointment, and I was left completely unsatisfied. Tratt fast-forwarded his life after picking it apart almost day by day, only to find no resolution to his relationship with his then-fiancee (for whom I had absolutely no sympathy). He lied and stole money from the shop he ran with his mentor, who, inexplicably, was not angry his entire life savings, his shop, and his reputation was on the line. The man threatening him with exposure, who knew of Theo’s subterfuge, disappeared into thin air. Several threads were left loose. But what offended me most were the last thirty pages when Tratt began to prostheletize about life – the meaning of, the lessons for, and the reasons being – of life. She became very philosophical and preachy. I found myself skipping over most of the last third of the book just to find out what happened to the characters and find the wrap-up. There was none to speak of. A bit disappointing; it started out so well and then flopped.
Sharon’s Pick: ON THE ISLAND: A NOVEL, by Tracy Garvis Graves
On the Island: A Novel is one of those books that keeps popping into your head at odd moments. Perhaps the book is haunting because of the taboo subject matter. Perhaps I keep thinking about it because the characters and the situation were so authentic despite the desert island circumstances. Perhaps it’s just because it is so well-written. On the Island: A Novel isn’t pure women’s fiction, however, because chapters are told in the point of view of the two main characters, rather than only from the woman’s perspective.
High School teacher Anna Emerson agrees to a summer tutoring gig that is unusual and glamorous. T.J., 16 years old, fought and won a long battle with a disease that resulted in missed school and a young man very behind in his studies. His parents offer Anna a tutoring job on an Indonesian island for the summer. Due to a series of circumstances, she and T.J. have to fly separately from the parents who go ahead to their posh island home.
It is no spoiler, since the plane crash happens within the first few pages and from the title, to say that Anna and T.J. wash up on a desert island and have to figure out a way to survive. Anna, knowing that T.J.’s health could still be fragile, worries about a recurrence almost as much as the struggle for daily survival.
Graves also does settings really well. Her island descriptions put you right there along with T.J. and Anna. You felt the ever-present grit and smelled the sea.
Neither Anna nor T.J. has outdoorsy skill sets. Life is very tough as they discover, often the hard way, what it means to provide shelter, food, and protection. As each day of non-rescue passes, Anna and T.J. learn to accept the inevitability of this new life. That they fall in love is no surprise either. Years alone together create a mutual respect that deepens into love despite the considerable age difference.
The surprise is what happens after they leave the island. Should they, could they, must they conceal their relationship? Society certainly would disapprove. And maybe the bond they forged wasn’t really love, but a relationship of circumstance and necessity. Once back to normalcy, how can they maintain a taboo lifestyle.
I enjoyed the first part of the book on the island more than the second when they were back in civilization. While the hard questions of what their relationship meant were dealt with, I felt the ramifications could have been explored more deeply. Still, the issues were compelling and the emotions raw.
As a former educator, I should have been shocked and appalled at the story line of On the Island: A Novel. But it is a testament to Graves’ writing chops that when the 30-something teacher and her teen pupil fall in love, one is not repelled. It appears to be the natural consequence of their isolation and fate.
Both sympathy and empathy are invoked in this unusual and provocative love story. I highly suggest it as a great summer read, memories of which you will carry into the fall.