Friday, December 20, 2013

Six Weeks to Toxic by Louisa McCormack

I hate the term "chick lit," but I don't know if there's a better term that describes exactly this genre of novel so evocatively. Anyway, it's a genre I generally steer clear of; if nothing else I find - in general - any redeeming qualities of story or character to be buried under a mound of consumerist nonsense; the same problem I had watching Sex and the City.

This book, while thankfully light on the brand name, shopping addiction nonsense, is not really balanced out by anything of substance. The story follows two best friends, Bess (the narrator) and Maxi, through six weeks of their lives - from New Years' to Valentine's Day (also Bess's birthday). The title refers to the fact that it is within these six weeks that their relationship turns from close to toxic, and by the end of the book it is ruined. Maxi is a freelance journalist who comes from money and is in new possession of a beautiful house, and a relationship with a wealthy, attractive man. Bess is a foley artist (super interesting, and probably the most readable parts of the story) who is single and approaching 35 living in Maxi's old apartment, somewhat dissatisfied with how things have turned out.

Throughout the novel, both women's luck begins to turn, which I guess is supposed to be the catalyst for their relationship falling apart. Honestly I was really interested in reading this book because I have had female friendships turn toxic quickly and I thought it would be a relateable, incisive thing to read about; however, the way this story actually goes, it's really not clear that things are falling apart. It's like six weeks of stuff that happens, them going about their lives as friends, then at Bess's birthday party they get into a mild fight and then they're just never friends again. I challenge you to read the penultimate chapter of this book and figure out if your friendship could survive that fight; I bet it could.

I think we are supposed to feel that because things were coming together for Bess while they were falling apart for Maxi (were they falling apart? Her boyfriend just didn't get her the right Valentine's Day gift), a rift developed. But I don't understand why Bess would have a friendship with someone incapable of being happy for her. It didn't make any sense. Really none of it made sense - how could a friendship torn apart by the remarkably mild events of the novel have even survived up to that point?

Mostly what I found unappealing about the book was how boring and unrelateable it was. I did not recognize Toronto in these pages - even though the city and street names are mentioned several times - and I certainly didn't recognize myself or any of my female friends in Bess or Maxi. While neither woman is particularly awful, I didn't find either to be a compelling or likeable character. Their whole friendship seemed to be based on talking about clothes and sex, which, honestly - not that interesting. Neither of them seemed to have a political opinion, or a concept of the world outside of their own.

This might have been another case of 'the writing is good, but this just isn't my genre' but honestly I didn't find the writing that good either. It had a strong whiff of trying too hard; really really hip with barely any substance. I don't think I could even recommend this fluff to fans of "chick lit;" it is not great, you guys.

One CN Tower out of five.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Rough Layout by Doris Anderson

If you wanted to know what it was like to be a woman running a magazine in the late 1970s, this is the book I would recommend you read. If that is not something that interests you, I would steer clear of this one.

The novel follows Jude, a successful managing editor of a Canadian magazine and a wife and mother of two children, through a couple weeks of her daily life. She works, she goes home, she ruminates on her marriage and her childhood and how to slip some more radical feminist pieces into a magazine that seems to deal mostly with household tips and trend pieces.

Jude's husband, Marshall, is also successful professionally but isn't as happy with his job. Even the dullest reader will begin to suspect he is cheating on Jude from the first chapter. Their egalitarian marriage is beginning to show cracks. Jude's mother, Adele, looms large in her thoughts even when she is not present, and Adele's final reveal - shedding a lot of light on Jude's relationships with men - will not come as a surprise either. This book is not as compelling as it thinks it is.

I liked the characters a lot, and I enjoyed reading about the struggles of women in the workplace in that era. I loved that the main character was an unapologetic feminist. What I didn't like so much was the unrelenting focus on the minutae of Jude's daily life. She looks at photos. She sits down to dinner. She walks over to the door. There was so much unnecessary detail in the novel, and most frustrating of all was that when something finally happened, it was over.

I was also a bit bored with the feminist analysis. I know that it is dated, and one can't blame the author for writing this in 1981. But the struggles of the white middle class career woman are not really the focus of today's feminist movement (at least they shouldn't be), so I found Jude's problems to be a bit white whine-y. Also, can we have a book where a feminist character is in a happy relationship? Perhaps that's too much to ask.

There is definitely a Toronto flavour - specifically a 1970s Toronto flavour, which I know will appeal to some. The book is certainly well written and interesting to a point, but the plodding detail and stale politics didn't hold my attention.

Two CN Towers out of five.