Puppets, not People

Cover of "The Three Miss Margarets: A Nov...

Cover via Amazon

I’ve read two books recently and both struck me in a similarly weird way: I finished them both because I wanted to see what would happen, but I didn’t ever feel like the characters were fully realized or three-dimensional. They were puppets, not people.

The first was a book called The Three Miss Margarets: A Novel which I picked up on a whim. What it had going for it: an unusual setting, twisty and surprising plot (at least for me). What it had against it: too many characters’ voices, waited too long to start revealing essential details, some plot twists were too far-fetched. But the key downfall for me was that I just never really felt like these characters were real; they stayed two-dimensional, flat on the page. I think it also suffered by comparison; the jacket copy compared it to Fannie Flagg and Rebecca Wells, and this novel definitely is not ready to play in that league.

I had more hope for the second book, How to Bake a Perfect Life: A Novel. I love novels and memoirs where food is a major element, bonus points for included recipes, so this book scored on both counts. This novel’s main character is a bread baker, which is even better, as bread baking is both fascinating and intimidating to me. I also enjoyed that the subject matter was a little more realistic, including a pair of vets from the Iraq war and a pregnant teen, and that these characters were treated as characters, not as Afterschool Special characters. The writing was more fluid and less overwrought, but still, the characters never quite transcended the page for me; at least, if they did, they were still essentially stereotypes I had seen before.

I hesitated over whether to review these books, because it’s much more fun for me to rave about a book, but then, it’s also more challenging to try and figure out where a book went wrong, why it didn’t quite work, what could have been done differently. While one of these books was “better” than the other, ultimately, neither succeeded in making me feel like these characters were fresh and compelling.

One of my favorite parts of The World According to Garp (I’m paraphrasing) is when the cleaning woman at the publisher’s offices (what was her name again?) talk about a book being “real,” not based on a true story, but where you read about the characters and think, “Yes! That’s people do act!” Of course, this is subjective, and it might be impossible to predict how many readers will believe in your characters, or why they don’t. Sometimes one strong character is enough to save the book, and sometimes an author hits it just right one book (like Garp) but misses in his or her other work (I’m not a huge Irving fan outside of loving Garp to pieces).

For fiction writers, I would think this is one of the most challenging tasks, and without success here, I think the work ultimately fails, even if other parts succeed.

Have you read books like this before?  Does it bother you that much?  If you’re a reviewer/blogger, do you review every book you read, or only the ones you enjoy? I think I will only review books I didn’t enjoy if I feel like there’s a greater point to be made, or the books were thought-provoking for me in some other way.

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2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, reviews

2 responses to “Puppets, not People

  1. Marnie

    This is a problem that I tend to notice in books and films with overtly political themes, where the issues at stake overwhelm the characters instead of growing organically out of their experiences. For instance, I just saw the film “Biutiful,” and although I thought that Javier Bardem was wonderful in it, I also felt that the many social issues that the film tackles (single parenthood, bipolar disorder, cancer diagnosis, child abuse, exploitation of illegal immigrants, poverty) hammered me over the head and ultimately distanced me from feeling much sympathy for the characters.

    • Yes, Marnie, exactly. Subtlety and political themes can go together, but too often, the presence of the latter negates any possibility of the former. Sigh.

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