Books That Begin With “W” (I Guess)

Apparently I read and then blog about books in groups of three this year. It seems to help, spending less time blogging and more time reading. Anyway, this week’s trio theme seems to be “books that start with ‘W.’” These three books were, respectively: good, great, and strange.

Book #28 (the good one) was What Remains of Me by Allison Gaylin; book #29 (a great one) was When We Collided by Emery Lord; and book #30 (the strange one) was Wide Open by Nicola Barker. This last one actually won the 2000 IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award, leading me to believe that there is some correlation between strangeness and literary merit.

But back to What Remains of Me. I thought this book had a great story (kind of) but not great writing, which always makes me sad. I hate when something could be so good but, because of the writing, it’s meh. And I say this story was only kind of great because toward the end, it gets pretty insane and unbelievable. I’m all for suspending disbelief in stories, but I thought this one got out of hand.

The novel is a sprawling Hollywood murder mystery story that switches perspectives and timelines between chapters. Kelly Lund is the main character, and we meet her as she’s re-acclimating to life after 25 years in prison for murder. Thirty years before, when she was only 17 years old, Kelly allegedly walked into the party of one of Hollywood’s great directors and shot him three times.

When Kelly is released from prison in 2010, she moves to Joshua Tree with her husband, who happens to be her former best friend’s little brother. When her husband and former best friend’s father, Sterling Marshall, handsome and famous actor, is murdered in an eerily similar way as McFadden, Kelly once again finds herself a suspect, unwillingly entwined in this messy Hollywood family.

As you can read, there are a lot of elements to this story. That was impressive to an extent, but I just felt like the story and all of these random, assorted characters were tied together way too conveniently. There were some shocking twists at the end, and also some predictable twists, but ultimately I just felt like there was too much going on.

Next, I read When We Collided. I bought this book because a friend invited me to this author’s reading. I had never heard of her, but I’m really, really glad I went. Emery Lord was so charming and fun to listen to. I’m also glad I bought this book. It’s a young adult novel that tackles the messy, scary, and beautiful realities of living with bipolar disorder.

The story is about the tiny California coastal town of Verona Cove, a “townie” there named Jonah, and a girl named Vivi, who’s spending her summer there house-sitting with her mother. Each chapter of the book switches between Jonah and Vivi’s narratives.

I liked this book because Jonah and Vivi each had their own, realistic but heavy issues to work through beyond their complicated romance. Jonah was one of six siblings who recently lost their father to a heart attack. His mother was doing all she could not to drown in the grief, and had been living as a recluse in her room for the half-year prior, leaving Jonah and his two older siblings to largely run the household and the family restaurant.

Then there was Vivi. There’s early mention in the book of a long, jagged scar on Vivi’s left arm, and she has a daily ritual of throwing one pill into the ocean before work, but it wasn’t totally clear that she was suffering from bipolar disorder. As the book goes on, however, it becomes clearer that something really isn’t right. She makes erratic, sometimes dangerous decisions; she never seems to stop moving; she doesn’t sleep; she treats sex flippantly.

The book essentially takes place over the course of the summer, as Vivi’s mania worsens while she becomes more and more indispensable to Jonah and his family. It was touching and realistic and pretty tragic but ultimately hopeful in a way that I sometimes feel like only the young adult genre can be. It was also interesting (and important) to see the way that bipolar disorder can affect someone and the people around them.

Finally, Wide Open. This book was, like I said, pretty weird but also pretty beautiful. It’s one of those that’s kind of hard to talk about clearly, but it basically takes place mostly at an English seaside town where an odd but connected cast of characters come together through forces out of their control.

There were estranged brothers, Ronny and Nathan, both sons and alluded-victims of their pedophile father; there was Ronny’s love-interest: Monica, whom we only meet through her letters, and Nathan’s kind-of love-interest, Connie, who’s spent three years of her life pining for him. There’s Sara and her creepy, unsettling, brash daughter, Lily, and there’s Sara’s sort-of love-interest, Luke, who’s fat and smells of fish and takes photos of naked women (with their consent.)

But most mysteriously of all, there’s Jim; Ronny first interacts with Jim during his commute at the beginning of the book. He notices Jim standing on a bridge day in and day out, waving at people driving their cars beneath him. The two finally interact when Ronny worries that Jim plans to throw himself from the bridge.

They find a surprising amount in common with each other, and eventually Jim sort of takes over Ronny’s personality and life. He starts going by “Ronny,” pretending that he knows and was in love with Monica, and spending all of his time with Ronny-turned-Jim. Ronny also starts going by “Jim” and takes on his strange, pointless habits (like only using his left hand as a right-handed person.)

It was weird. And I realize what I just described doesn’t seem like a story so much as an odd sampling of unrealistic characters thrown together and kind of interacting with each other… and that’s kind of what this book was. It was very literary, and very strange, but also pretty beautiful.

Barker’s portrayal of these flawed, weird characters was tender and gentle, like she was trying to let them down lightly the whole time. And her continual allusion to these characters feeling vulnerable, feeling “wide open,” was clever and made this unbelievable story much more relatable.

It was by far the most literary of my three “W” books, but overall I liked it. Maybe I’ll read it again with more understanding later in life, but for now I think the weird cast will remain in the back of my mind for the foreseeable future. ◊

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