“Yeah, but you can tell how much it’s gonna cost”

04.02.09 | books | 19 Comments

I always hated reading books in school. I’d take To Kill a Mockingbird home and read it all that night and then go back and have to search the pages for the answers to Mrs. Dart’s worksheets as we read at the torturously slow pace of one chapter a day.

I still do that — read books as quickly as possible, but the books I read now are usually what is politely called “genre fiction” and colloquially “trashy romance novels.” But I’m trying, with my friend’s online book club, to put some class back in my diet. I tried so hard in February that I ordered about $40 worth of used books from Half.com (including some fun stuff like Anne Stuart’s The Road to Hidden Harbor) and accidentally had it sent to our old Florida address. Media mail, which isn’t forwarded by the post office. I hope the miscreant drug dealers back in our ghetto are enjoying Leif Enger and Jhumpa Lahiri and Susan Napier.

So I didn’t read So Brave, Young, and Handsome, but enough people told me they loved Peace Like a River that I got it from the library, where I was also able to inter-library loan Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I think it’s great that people get paid to write stories down. I just think that overdue library fines should count towards supporting writers, as well as being a tax-exempt charitable contribution.

Unaccustomed Earth turns out to be a collection of short stories, which always seems to me to be a bit lazy on the part of the author. On the one hand, it’s nice that I can finish an entire piece during lunch, but on the other hand, if the author didn’t care enough about the characters or find them interesting enough to develop a full-length novel around them, why should I? Of course this doesn’t apply to L.M. Montgomery’s sentimental short stories about orphans and true love.

Unaccustomed Earth isn’t bad, for a literary book. I find myself getting irritated by the stay-at-home mother angst of the protagonist of the title story. (Am I that wishy-washy and predictable? Don’t answer that.) At one point the narrator says of Ruma, who was a successful attorney before giving birth: “It was the house that was her work now: leafing through the piles of catalogues that came in the mail, marking them with Post-its, ordering sheets covered with dragons for Akash’s room” (6).

It’s a bit agenda-y to me. Maybe a bit ambivalent, but mostly agenda-y. Ruma’s happiest moments in the story come when her father, who is visiting for the week, occupies her son all day in the garden, so that Ruma has the house to herself and is able to get some urgent paperwork done.

It reminds me of a marketing line in the brochure of the botanical gardens we took the kids to on Saturday. The chipper PR people extol the wonder of discovery as “not something you read about or watch on TV. It’s something you do” and something, apparently, that you do only under the protest of your mother, as they continue: “Hey, we consider dirty hands to be a sure sign of fun (sorry, moms).”

I can’t imagine being remotely ambivalent about being a stay-at-home mom if my work were marking catalogues with Post-its and ensuring that my kids never got their hands dirty or had any fun.

{Who WRITES these things?}

Lahiri is a fine writer, though. Her images are memorable. In another story, where the angst-y caregiver (though not stay-at-home) parent is the father, she describes the uninspiring pattern on a wallpaper as “squiggly gray lines . . . as if someone had repeatedly been testing the ink in a pen and ultimately had nothing to say” (84).

The exploration of marriage in that story is intimate, and the proprietary resentment that the caregiver-parent feels towards the necessarily-more-detached (emotionally and/or physically) parent is stunning. Don’t we stay-at-home mothers feel this? When your husband has an evening thing, does he think to ask if you’re free to watch the kids? (mine doesn’t). And when you have an evening thing, do you ask him about “babysitting” first thing (I do).

That story ends with sex, and it’s surprisingly (detailed-ly) rendered, if thoroughly marital. Other, non-marital relationships are also explored in other stories.

So here’s the thing about trashy romance novels versus literary fiction. When I read a good romance novel (and here I include The Blue Castle, Pride and Prejudice, Ain’t She Sweet, and What the Lady Wants) — When I read romance novels, good romance novels, I feel again that heady glandular intoxication of first love. Romance novels are a place where obstacles are overcome, differences are compromised just enough, conflict is resolved, and desire, longing, and need culminate in marriage and exuberantly hopeful commitment.

When I read literary books, I feel the strictures of being committed to one person, the strainings for something else out of life, the yearning to explore other possibilities. Literary works are a place where relationships fall apart, or where the cracks that can be ignored for so long suddenly become unbearable. A husband who drinks too much at a party or a wife who flirts with someone else are no longer sympathetic. An air of stifled repression or stark rebuttal of the suburban dystopia (Am I still talking? I have no idea what I’m saying here. Is it sounding worthy of literary critique yet?).

In short, literary books are about the death or deterioration of relationships, and romance novels are about their birth or growth. Literary books point out everything that is inherently flawed in the human need for companionship, and romance novels celebrate our desire to be connected and grounded in one another, especially in a soulmate.

Is one of the forms more “true” than the others? Where literary books succeed in communicating ambivalence and uncertainty and endless searching, I suspect they are. But is death any more “real” than birth? Death is certainly usually more self-aware and examined. But I like birth. I like closing a novel, coming back from some escapist fantasy, and feeling renewed and recommitted to loving on the people I am stuck with, even if they do like to get their hands dirty.


(April’s book is The Book Thief. I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s considered YA, so maybe I’ll read it with Sally.)

(From Some Kind of Wonderful)

Keith: You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.

Watts: Yeah, but you can tell how much it’s gonna cost.

Comment of the Day from Memarie Lane:

“I must disagree, there are plenty of literary books about the birth of love. I just finished one. Unfortunately it turned out to be about lesbians.”