Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Margarettown (Gabrielle Zevin)

After learning the hard way, I told myself that I wouldn't be taken in by a cover or a blurb without being certain of the story's merits. The last real disappointment of this sort came via Tiffanie Debartolo's God-Shaped Hole. (Okay, that may sound a bit harsh, but what I really mean was that I had higher hopes for a story that contained a personal ad saying, "I'm seeking a friend for the end of the world" than what the novel actually delivered. Are contemporary love stories really doomed to be the literary world’s favorite spot for clich├ęs?) Since then, one practice I've employed on purchasing books cold is to check if there was an approving review from the New Yorker or some other credible body (like my best friend).

Yesterday, though, I couldn't resist Gabrielle Zevin's Margarettown. No recommendation from my best friend, no glowing New Yorker review at the back. Actually, there wasn't a review there at all. The blurb almost felt like one of those chain e-mails that clogs my inbox, part of which reads: It is the story of what it takes to love the same person for a lifetime – and about the impossibility of really knowing anything about who it is we have come to love. You know the type. So why did I end up buying it? Because I'm a pushover for love stories, and it was the fact that this was unabashedly, unapologetically a love story that gave it its appeal.

Ms. Zevin's language is precise and appropriate, and she effectively uses this to explore what I think is a lovely premise for a boy-meets-girl story. Her protagonist is nameless, familiar, as we watch him fall in love with the equally familiar Margaret Towne, a woman who contains a world of other women inside her (and no, I don’t mean in the schizophrenic or even alien-ish sense). Ms. Zevin addresses a lot of relationship issues in her novel. Margaret and her incarnations are engaging, and in a way, so is our narrator, who candidly claims, "Much as I hate to admit it, I was, at times, the villain in this story. At other times, I was the love interest (p. 32)."

Sadly, the story drags past our protagonist and his Margaret. While some of these chapters are actually insightful, I find that they diminish the story's impact. Thankfully, though, they’re mostly short chapters, and I wasn't compelled to linger on these pages.

But just when I thought I was getting too much of those dragging chapters, Ms. Zevin hits me with one that reduces me into a sobbing mess (I'm hormonal this time of the month). I reread that particular chapter a few hours later and still I had to lie facedown in bed (in true dramatic fashion). It was on my third read that I finally got through it without shedding a single tear, and I realized that while her words were simple, perhaps even maudlin to some, they knew what they were saying.

True, at times I felt that Ms. Zevin belabored the point. I get it already. She sums it up quite well when she says, "Real love is not just instinct, but intent (p. 240)," but that doesn't stop her from coming up with many other permutations of this thought. Love is a choice. Love is an act of faith. Love is willing yourself to love. The sentiment is significantly moving in itself, but when repeated countless of times, it loses its color. Despite this, I have to give Ms. Zevin points for not losing her earnestness and spirit -- and most of all, her insight. It is in this regard that I think Margarettown succeeds. It is a no-commitment read, yes, but one that burrows itself into your memories, making it a tribute to all the people you've ever loved, even if you’ve only ever really loved one.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Zhai helleva.

I am going away with him to an unknown country where I shall have no past and no name, and where I shall be born again with a new face and an untried heart. - Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

For my best friend, who is leaving for Finland in about seven hours. Wind to thy wings.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (Lian Hearn)

Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down looked like it would be the first target of my little online project, until I came face-to-face (literally, the character on the book cover fixed its unblinking stare at me from its temporary home on the shelf) with Lian Hearn’s The Harsh Cry of the Heron, the fourth book in her Tales of the Otori series. Later, I found that Lian Hearn is a pseudonym for two-time Children’s Book Council Book of the Year awardee Gillian Rubinstein (not that the name rang any bells in my admittedly limited mind). The Tales of the Otori have been my only encounter with Ms. Hearn to date.

I was a big fan of the series' first book, Across the Nightingale Floor. While I wouldn’t call her prose particularly inventive, I still think that she has found an ideal narrative voice for her tale. Her lyricism and attention to detail makes the most out of her chosen setting, drawing her reader into her fictional world. The Three Countries are Ms. Hearn's take on feudal Japan, retaining much of the elegance and mysticism for which Japan is known. It is against this backdrop that Nightingale unfolds Takeo's story with intimate familiarity despite its epic echoes; I felt as if I were hearing it straight from a scribe privy to Takeo's life.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed with the next two books. I felt that the story itself struggled to sustain its earlier drama, and despite the twists that Takeo's life took on, it no longer captivated me as much as Nightingale. In Heron, however, Ms. Hearn regains the tension that made Nightingale so appealing to me.

Heron pushes the Three Countries towards the brink of war, and Takeo's family towards their own demons. Here, Takeo and Kaede are no longer the sole movers of the story, as they are joined by their children: the heir Shigeko and the mysterious twins Miki and Maya. In a way, I feel that Hearn's real writing strength shows when she is seeing things from a teenager's point of view; Shigeko hooked me the way I was hooked on Takeo the first time I met him.

Heron's Takeo and Kaede, on the other hand, have grown thin and brittle. One is trapped by his secrets while the other is consumed by her anger. But events that are larger than the couple are at play here, and I must admit that I am a fan of the political machinations going on around them. I found that the battle towards the end, however brief, was effectively moving.

While the actual resolution of the Tales' events feels like some tragic afterthought (not to mention that certain elements that were introduced in this installment were not fully utilized and concluded), I felt it gave a more definitive end to the series than Brilliance of the Moon. (Ignorant that I was, I thought that Tales was supposed to be just a trilogy and bewailed the way the third book ended.) True, Brilliance had more pages of action and external struggle, but Heron gave me the edge-of-my-seat uncertainty that I had been looking for.