Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 14: Book Review

Well, yesterday was a sort of loose-endy day, with the result that I was grumpy and bored by day's end. However, I did do some good stuff, including finishing Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon. I'd picked it up at the Friends' book sale in April and it had kicked around in the back of the car, but I finally started it, then put it down, then picked it up. . .and I finished it last night.

I've noticed that I've been noncommittal about a lot of the books I've read lately, and I wondered about that, so maybe it's a good thing that I feel pretty strongly about this novel: it's not good. Gutcheon is a good writer, I think--it's not the style or the structure that make Leeway Cottage less-than-satisfying--but she has tried to do too much. The book seesaws between being a "the rich are people too, but their parties are better and houses are nicer" book a la Anne Siddons and being a human interest/historical insight novel a la. . . well. . . Geraldine Brooks, maybe? It doesn't work. There are no likable characters except for Laurus Moss, the dad/husband/main character, and he is essentially a closed book--we're told he's calm, we're told he loves people, but we don't see or understand much about him. His wife/the other main character, Sydney, is spoiled and obnoxious, but she morphs from being the most sympathetic character in the book into that beast without explanation except that she's away from Laurus for four years during the war. Finally, and most grievously, the character of Nina, Laurus's sister, is fully explained in a searing description of sexual abuse at a concentration camp that appears so randomly (well after her death and even after the deaths of Sydney and Laurus) that I thought it was a publisher error. I think (on reflection) that Gutcheon was providing explanation for Nina's behavior in the metaphor of "after you die, you see The Movie that explains everything you didn't understand in life", but I don't think it works. None of the main characters suffer trauma--even bad boy Jimmy is saved from drug abuse or car accidents, which he surely deserves!--so the detailed Holocaust imagery is grating.

Couple all those objections with the fact that the major narration of the book occurs in a rapid fire general summarizing voice
and that Gutcheon has half-changed the geography of this area to disguise it while leaving a good deal of it intact--a pet peeve of mine!--and you've got a book I can feel strongly about. Why call it "Union" but refer to Main Street and the malls on High Street and also refer to the actual Ellsworth, Bar Harbor, and Northeast Harbor? I think Leeway Cottage is an effort to take a standard beach book and give it enough content to warrant a section in the back with author's insight and some heavy war/heroism discussion. I think I'd prefer the unadorned beach book, myself!

Anyway: I'd call this a don't-bother book. It's going back to the library today to be put into the book sale pile, and the miraculous cycle of book sale recycling will move onward!

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