Thursday, April 16, 2009

Susan Choi, judging by covers, and indulgence

I finally read Susan Choi's second novel, American Woman, the other day and am kicking myself for waiting so long. It's fantastic.

And I know exactly what kept me from it--the cover. I think my wife bought and read this book when it first came out several years ago, and it's been banging around various "to be shelved/maybe read soon" piles ever since. My wife recommended it to me, and Choi's name kept coming up in other contexts that made me think I should be reading it . . . but every time I saw the book, I thought to myself, "This? It looks like a vanity pub." Somehow--something muddled in the photo and type choices--the design has been a perfect turn off. Or near-perfect. I did finally get going with it the other day, like I said, and burned out my eyes not sleeping one night while I read most of it. I'd be curious to know how sales were in paperback and if the publisher thought it underperformed. If so, I'd blame it on the design.

I picked up Choi's first and third books in hardcover at a used store the other day, and the newest one, A Person of Interest, has a really punchy and fun cover. I started it yesterday, but I'm loving this one a lot less. I'm only 30 pp. into it, and I should probably keep my mouth shut until I finish, but I don't think I'm going to.

My problem with it is exactly what two other reviewers praise in it--the attentiveness to the main character's psychology. My take on it is that it starts with a bang and then nothing else happens after that so far. All this character development needs to be integrated with the plot. It feels like homework.

The slow character development is a quality that Francine Prose praised in her review in the New York Times--she calls it a return to old-school literary pleasures. I agree that those qualities are pleasurable. Don't agree it's working here.

Another reviewer basically encourages the reader to stick with it with the promise that the character development stuff reveals itself to be important later. To me, that's a bad sign when you have to be coached to gut it out to the good parts. When I'm following a flow chart, I know it's not good to skip a box, but I didn't sign on for reading a flow chart. It's supposed to be engaging all the way along.

This is going to sound harsher than I mean it. I really admired American Woman, but I had a vague feeling that there was a certain amount of indulgence going in then in this kind of exploration of character. It was like putting the breaks on the story for a certain amount of time to pick over the gray matter for awhile. Sometimes that "certain amount of time" could be quite extended, and there were several points in the last quarter of the book where the spell was snapped and I thought we were reading something that served the writer more than it served the story. A Person of Interest seems to start off with that characteristic and extend it for much much longer, so it really feels indulgent.

Nevertheless, I'm going to read her first book, The Foreign Student, next. (Eagerly. I really did like American Woman.) In this case, I can't judge it by the cover at all! The dust jacket is missing from the copy I got the other day. That cloth spine with the gold-leaf stamp of the author, title and the HarperCollins colophone always looks good, though.

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