The handful of review copies that I’ve reviewed on this blog are copies that I’ve requested, usually through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program or through ads in the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter. I haven’t received many requests from authors or publishers, and the few I’ve received haven’t really appealed to me. Tanya Egan Gibson’s request was an exception. She had clearly spent some time looking at my reviews, and she seemed to have a sense of my taste. And her first novel, How to Buy a Love of Reading, did sound like it suited me. So I was happy to accept a review copy.
How to Buy a Love of Reading is about a high school junior named Carley Wells. Carley’s only interests are reality TV and Hunter Cay. Hunter is the most popular boy at Carley’s Long Island high school, and much to the amazement of all their classmates, he has chosen overweight and socially awkward Carley as his best friend, even though Carley herself longs for more. She overlooks Hunter’s drinking problem and his sleeping with whatever girl catches his interest and focuses her thoughts on the day he looked after her when she got sick on a field trip and the nights they spent cuddled in bed together—always platonic, but also intimate.
In Carley’s tony neighborhood, having a serious interest is important, both for college applications and so that you can have an impressively themed Sweet 16 party. Carley’s parents, who have more money than sense, are worried about Carley’s lack of appropriate interests, so they decide to give her an interest in literature by commissioning a novel in honor of her Sweet 16. The author will live at the Wells residence and write a novel that meets Carley’s approval. The only person they could find willing to take the commission is Bree McEnroy, author of an unsuccessful experimental meta-fiction about Odysseus’s journey through the Internet. Here’s one reader’s reaction:
Characters drowned in word-tsunamis of description, lying flat on fictional shores so laden with jagged rocks—the narrator reminded the reader with conspirational, intrusive winks—that the reader couldn’t hope to save them without his own body being shredded. Rip currents dragged him into subplots of no consequence whose point, clearly, was to be of no consequence. (“Another Instance of Nothingness Spun into Sugar,” was one chapter heading, and “Bildungromanesque Babbling” another), the author unwavering in her quest to demonstrate pointlessness.
So we’ve got David Foster Wallace meets the reluctant teenage reader. It’s clever. Gibson fills the book with references to The Great Gatsby and to contemporary literary trends and techniques. There are some wonderful musings about why writers write what they write and how the reader interacts with the text. (Choose Your Own Adventure stories come up more than once.) There’s the question of exploitation. One of Bree’s creative writing classmates has made a fortune writing sentimental stories about poor people, even though he himself was raised filthy rich and has interacted with precisely one poor person—Bree.
And then there are the stories characters tell themselves but don’t write down. For example, Carley has what she calls “after-memories”—alternate versions of past events that Carley makes up. She knows the memories aren’t real, but she wishes they were. She also tells herself stories about the present and the future, imagining Hunter to be a better, more stable friend than he is. Carley’s mother cruelly tries to rewrite the present by having conversations about Carley that she only pretends she doesn’t want Carley to overhear. All of the characters are creating their own versions of the truth; some versions are just more damaging than others.
When the book focuses or writing, or rather on storytelling, it’s marvelous. But there’s so much more going on here that doesn’t seem to directly relate—as in Bree’s novel, there are “subplots of no consequence,” but it’s never clear if they’re meant to be inconsequential. As I was reading, I vacillated about whether Gibson was trying to make her own novel a meta-fiction or a standard plot-driven novel or a bit of both. Each part is titled with a literary term (Plot, Character, Theme) and opens with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book sometimes does exactly the kind of thing that Bree and Carley talk about books doing. There are shifts in point of view and extensive back stories about many of the characters, often characters who are incidental to the plot. It’s clever, but the winks at the reader aren’t particularly consistent or obvious (or at least not obvious enough to me). As a result, the meta devices often felt to me less like clever construction and more like sloppy storytelling.
When the novel focuses on Carley and Bree and their growing understanding of the stories we tell, it’s a gem of a book. But that plot competes with too many other plots and subplots. I couldn’t bring myself to care about Hunter’s parents or about Carley’s friend’s sister’s compromised immune system and so on. I cared about Carley and Bree and the writing of Carley’s book. Material that was more than one degree of separation away from that story could have been cut considerably so that the gem inside could shine. As it is, there’s too much other stuff to chip away to make this book a real success with me.