What I Read This Week

I read Evvie Drake Starts Over solely because I read Linda Holmes’s work religiously back when she was still writing recaps of The Amazing Race as Miss Alli at the late lamented Television Without Pity. You could definitely hear her voice in this book, and certainly some of the storylines and character relationships seemed to faintly echo what I know about her life. This novel is about a young widow whose secret (this is not a spoiler, the reader is in on it from the beginning) is that she was literally leaving her husband at the very moment she got a phone call that he’d been in a terrible car accident. After a year of struggling with guilt, a pitcher with a famous case of the yips moves into the guesthouse on her property. You can probably guess everything else that happens.

Evvie was a pleasant diversion from my other reading this week. I have a hard time with romance as a genre because it is a bit predictable for my taste — you see two characters and you know that by the end of the book they will be together in some form. In general, I don’t find that enjoyable. (Caveat: Last March I got depressed and read five and a half Bridgerton novels all in a row.) But I enjoyed this one, without being bowled over by it. I’d rather read Holmes’s recaps of The Amazing Race, to be honest, but she has moved on, and who can blame her?

Last week I complained that Summer of Blood, while striking and detailed, didn’t give me a lot of context about the fourteenth-century Wat Tyler Riots. Well, Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 made up for that and then some. Context, context that stretches back several centuries and across Europe, context as far as the eye can see. Which was great! Except that ideally, a book about a particular uprising would devote more than seven of almost 250 pages to the events of the uprising.

In retrospect, the best way to get what I wanted would have to read the first half of this book, then read Summer of Blood, then finish this book. Or, I don’t know, find a third book that manages to provide both historical context and narrative color and maybe mentions a woman at some point. I probably could have replaced both of these with Juliet Barker’s England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 and I no longer remember why I didn’t. (I am now feeling the itch to add this to my reading plan, but do I really need a third book about Wat Tyler?)

Percival Everett’s The Trees was, like every other book I’ve read by Everett, an exercise in frustration. We are not on the same wavelength, Everett and I. This book is about a couple of Black detectives investigating a strange pair of murders in a tiny Mississippi town. In both cases, a White man was found brutally killed next to a the corpse of a Black man who seems to resemble Emmett Till.

Oh, where to start. I really wanted to like this novel — nothing in my literary life makes me feel guiltier than my failure to warm up to the work of Percival Everett — but as soon as I got a load of the names in the first chapter I knew I was going to have a problem. Silly names don’t amuse me (“Herbie Hind,” really?) and most of the attempts at jokes just fell flat. For me, at least.

I want to be clear, I do recognize that this is an accomplished book and that the author achieves what he sets out to do. The problem here is that I am not the intended audience of this book, and that is fine! I can see by scanning Storygraph reviews that it has found its intended audience. For me the humor is too broad and it doesn’t sit well next to the dark storyline. I didn’t even think the Trump jokes landed.

I was determined not to like Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney, but it won me over. It is a novel about two best friends who begin relationships with two very different men — but the book is more interested in their friendship than in their romantic lives, which is refreshing. I wasn’t wild about Rooney’s novel Normal People, and I thought Rooney’s logic about not translating this latest book into Hebrew was both shallow and performative, so I was rolling my eyes as I began the book. And I found the first hundred pages — when one of the main characters, Alice, who seems to be a Rooney stand-in, was at her most insufferable — a bit of a slog. But I really loved Eileen, the co-protagonist, and as the book continued I even warmed up to Alice. The most interesting parts of the book are the letters the two women write to each other, with exchanges not just about the men in their lives but about the world around them. Alice worries that her novel-writing and her romantic peccadilloes are frivolous in a world riddled with poverty and exploitation, and Eileen responds:

[T]here is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call ‘breaking up or staying together’ (!), because at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us, it’s still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive—because we are so stupid about each other.

It reads as though Rooney is trying to convince herself of the importance of her fiction, and maybe she is. Or maybe it’s all a conceit. At any rate, Eileen gives both Alice and the reader quite a bit to think about in this book, as she repeatedly champions the importance of human connection.

At the end of the book, Eileen tells Alice, “If you weren’t my friend I wouldn’t know who I was,” and when I think about my two dearest friends I feel the same way. We met the first year of college and now I find it’s impossible to imagine a world in which I don’t know them. I can’t think who I might be without these friendships to ground me. “We are so stupid about each other,” Eileen says, and when I think of the mistakes I’ve made in my life, most of them were because my brain was clouded by my feelings for other people — my friends or my husband or my children. The argument of this book is that those mistakes are okay, or at least understandable — the “nicest reason you can imagine” for errors in judgment.

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