two totally different tales, connected by nothing more than sand and camels

It's 6 a.m. I can't sleep. Stupid jet lag.

Anyway, books! Lovely beach friends.... I can't say enough nice things about Jennifer Weiner's latest novel. But I can say one nasty thing.

The title really sucks, no?

Yes, in fairness, Best Friends Forever conjures memories of a good Judy Blume book, and in mimicking Blume's story-telling style -- title aside -- Weiner's struck gold again. But more gold than usual.

Her key characters, Val and Addie -- best friends who didn't grow apart so much as fell into a void -- are so well drawn. But so is every character in this story, a novel I would describe as Weiner's best so far.

We have the girls' parents -- the mousy mom, the PTSD dad, the house-wrecking party mom, the absentee dad -- shaded in through Addie's memories. We have Addie's brother, whose life undergoes massive change with tragedy, but whose love for Addie merely morphs. We have a villain forced to repent, changing the very idea of what a villain might be and whether a person who is bad at 17 is still bad at 32. We have loneliness as a character, an ever-changing enemy and friend.

And we have Jordan Novick.

Throughout the book, Weiner departs periodically from the first-person narrative style in order to set foot inside the love interest's thoughts and feelings. And, unlike most men in chick lit -- barring Nick Hornby's, of course -- Jordan has thoughts! And weaknesses! A heart-breaking history of his own!

Sorry. I don't mean to sound so gleeful about heartbreak. In fact, I read this book in one day and found tears literally welling in my eyes at points. But let's be honest. In most romantic-murder mystery-coming of age novels, only one character -- and maybe a sidekick -- get to have dark pasts or deep neuroses. Unless, of course, the love interest has some sort of mentioned-in-passing issue the hero/heroine can sort out quickly by merely existing and probably making out.

In all her characters, Weiner digs a little deeper. What might drive one to drink too much? To eat too much? To flirt too much? To stop working?

And how far should one go to change his or her life?

It's on this note that I am going to -- quite bizarrely -- start talking about Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.
I know. These books have no real connection, other than that I read both on a beach in Tunisia.
Where changing one's life is merely one of the themes Weiner grapples with, I might argue it is the sole stomping ground of Adiga's morally-stretched, "half-baked" Balram (Munna) Halwai.
Early in this tale, we are keenly aware of all that Balram's father wants for him -- escape from the "Darkness" of a small Indian village, a better life than service to the rich. "My whole life, I have been treated like a donkey," he tells his son. "All I want is that one son of mine -- at least one -- should live like a man." (p. 30)
What, perhaps, is supposed to set Balram apart from those around him is his cunning, his calculation. This is not, after all, the tale of some nice little Victorian servant who somehow gets his due.
Rather, this is a tale of violence, revenge, and greed in an angry world. If Balram disobeys the laws of the land, he does so no more than any and all around him....
I don't want to get into the nitty gritty of this one. It's on the agenda for our next book club, and really, I wouldn't want to rob anyone of the opportunity to be surprised by Adiga's narrative twists and turns.
On a side note, this was Adiga's first published book. A brilliant work set loose upon the world when he was 34 (yes, I am jealous), that won the Booker and is told in a long and unwieldy letter format. Except, of course, that even at its most unwieldy and off-topic, the story is being told for a reason, driving at a point or detail the reader needs to know to understand the whole picture.
And, of course, one can't help but wonder whether Balram's story is supposed to be India's story. And whether there is such a thing as a happy ending.
"I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles.... but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years." (p. 254)

1 comment:

erin said...

It's too bad you aren't going to make this book club - I'm interested to know your opinion on this one... I think it was a mistake for me to read it directly after "Midnight's Children", another Booker Prize winner by an Indian author, both loosely about a "coming of age". I know I'm biased, I love Salman Rushdie, but it felt kind of like reading Metro after the New York Times... maybe the info was still there, but the calibre of writing just didn't compare... As for the topic, I don't know, there was no real mystery or plot turns (he tells you in the beginning that he kills his master), and he seems to bludgeon you over the head (with a Johnnie Walker bottle?) at times with the inequity and injustice of life. And the rooster metaphor was interesting, but one good metaphor does not a Booker Prize winner make... or maybe I'm just being a grump again.