Monday, August 12, 2013

Reading Roundup: Maybe If I Were Older...

Despite my love of Southern lit, and despite Lee Smith being a preeminent author of modern Southern lady lit, The Last Girls is actually my first encounter with any of her books. This story reunites a handful of college friends on a Mississippi River cruise, decades after their first trek down the river on a makeshift raft as young, idealistic co-eds, at the request of the husband of their recently deceased friend, Baby. It's one of those situations where completely different personalities come together because of a common bond. We meet four modern-day characters from the original gaggle of girls [there are like a dozen of them, so why do we meet only four?], and these women all have their flaws. They've lost touch; they're mostly cynical; and none seem too pleased for this reminder of their pasts.

I didn't like a single character in this book. And as a result, didn't really like this book at all. It felt like all these people had been dragged down by things in their life, when nothing really bad had happened to them to warrant such a negativity. [They're all middle class and white and probably just bored.] I think the author was trying to say a lot about life and friendships and secrets and how these things shape the person you eventually become. Maybe I just not old enough to understand and appreciate that kind of reflection, but I find it hard to believe that every single character had somehow morphed into a shell of her former, youthful self. There was such an aura of negativity that I wondered why any of them agreed to this trip in the first place. So maybe The Last Girls was not the best intro to Lee Smith. [It is, by far, her lowest rated on Goodreads.] We'll have to try again.

Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary was this month's book club pick, and while I was neutral towards it [mostly just thought it was boring], I was excited for the discussion; we have such a range of ages in our group that I knew others would be able to provide insight I never saw.

The story follows two characters—two strangers—whose lives are pushed together by the most random of situations. William G. and Neaera H. are both adults living fairly quiet, lonely lives. William was once married but now lives alone and works in a bookstore. Neaera writes children books and self-describes as a spinster without cats. They're both drawn to the turtle tank at the London zoo and become obsessed with the idea of freeing the turtles. The short chapters alternate in perspective, but their thoughts are often so similar that you forget whose thoughts you are reading.

I think that's much the point of this story. It's about these two people who feel utterly unconnected finding a connection in an unlikely place. It's not a cute story; it doesn't follow the expected trajectory of a romance. It has a lot of thoughtful musing on life and relationships; the sea turtles represent something to each of them, and that's why they find a connection there. As I was reading this, I felt too young for it. And older members of our group agreed. I think the right kind of reader can grab onto a lot in this story. There is a lot that can be taken away; maybe I just need to save it for a re-read in 2043.

[PS: You may recognize the author's name; Russell Hoban is the author of the "Frances the Badger" children's series. True classics!]

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