Friday, August 26, 2011

Should I Write About Mediocre Fiction?

I'm just finishing up two disappointments and I'm torn between writing about them or just keeping silent. I feel like a party pooper for saying something but then, I've read, one needs to keep updating one's posts or folks lose interest. Now, if I could be snarky in a Maureen Dowd kind of way, it would be worth your reading time but I can't do that to these two novelists who made an effort but simply didn't connect with me. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't connect with you.

Continuing my love affair with Paris, I just finished French Lessons by Ellen Sussman. She has a gorgeous website - - and her rendering of Paris is perfect, but her characters fall kind of flat. Perhaps the problem is that we don't get to spend enough time with them to form an opinion. The novel is written in three vignettes, each involving a French tutor and his/her student, over the course of one day, as they stroll through the streets of the city, practicing their language skills and, mostly, thinking about sex.

Chantal - really? Is ANYone named Chantal? Nico and Philippe are the three tutors. Involved in a love triangle, things become more complicated when each of them is assigned to a student with romantic problems of his own. Josie, gobsmacked by the sudden death of her married lover, Riley, a young mother of two so frazzled that she no longer feels attractive to her workaholic husband, and Jeremy, an introverted architect who has followed his actress wife to Paris for a shoot, feeling totally out of his element. As the day in Paris progresses, each of the six reveals a bit of himself to the other until the question becomes who is teaching whom?

Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling is a modern telling of the Lysistrata tale, a plot that should have been hilarious but just ends up feeling rather melancholy. If there's anyone who isn't familiar with the classic Aristophanes play, Lysistrata is a powerful woman who convinces the other women of Greece to forsake all sexual relations with their partners until the twenty year Peloponnesian Wars are ended. It's a fall -out -of -your chair funny play - in the right hands - with a deadly serious message.

Wolitzer sets her novel in a small town in New Jersey which could be Anytown, USA. She is known for her keen observations of family relationships and some of her books are considered good crossover reads for teens. In this case a new drama teacher has come to town and Fran Heller is, well, a hell-raiser. She decides to stage the rather sophisticated Lysistrata as her major senior play, casting the lovely Marissa Clayborn in the title role.

What Ms. Heller hasn't counted on is Marissa's interest in an older man, a disfigured Iraq War veteran who opens her eyes to life and its cruelties outside of her idyllic small town. Marissa decides to stage a sleep-in, moving her bed to the lawn of the high school and exhorting the women of the town to give up sex until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ended. Since she refuses to leave her bed, she abdicates the pretend role of Lysistrata for the actual one.

Simultaneously, a mysterious cold spell overcomes the women of the town and they very suddenly lose all interest in sex, much to the shock of their husbands and lovers, who as yet have made no connection between the play and the drop in libido. This strange phenomenon overcomes everyone, those like Dory and Robbie Lang, the happiest and closest of all the couples in town, popular English teachers that everyone aspire to be like, as well as the cheating school principal and his wife, afflicted with chronic fatigue, and the Langs' daughter Willa, in her first serious relationship with Eli Heller, the dramatist's son.

There's a lot to work with here. The plot line had great potential and I'm having trouble trying to diagnose what went wrong. Maybe if any of you readers have dipped into this book you can tell me what I'm missing. In the meantime, I'm off in search of the next great read.

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