Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Review and Something about Mysteries

I finished reading The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf a couple of nights ago. (It is my book club's current selection.) This novel is about what happens when two young girls, best friends, go missing at the same time. One of the girls, Callie, hasn't spoken for four years, not since the night her mom had a late term miscarriage after falling down the stairs with some help from her drunk dad. Early on, the reader knows that only one of the girls, Petra, is truly missing in the kidnapped sense. Although a certain person thinks the opposite is true, I tried very hard to like this book, but in the end, I just didn't like it very much.

The story is told from points of view alternating among the participants in the story: Callie; Petra, the other missing girl (only one or two times though); Callie's older brother Ben; Antonia, Ben and Callie's mother; Martin, Petra's father; and Deputy Sheriff Louis, who just happens to be Antonia's first love. I usually like stories with alternating points of view, but I think that Gudenkauf's choice to make all of them first person narratives except Callie's was a mistake because I don't think any of them except Ben really had a distinct narrative voice, although a case might be made for the very stilted and unbelievable first couple of chapters from Louis's point of view. Also, the chapters were so short that I never felt like I got to know the characters well enough to really sympathize with them. (I do not buy James Patterson's theory that short chapters make reading a book feel addictive, and I have to wonder if that's what Gudenkauf was going for.)

One big problem that I had with this book is that in the chapters written from Callie's point of view there were descriptions that were obviously not the way a child would view things or describe things. Although these chapters were not written in first person, in Callie's voice, I still felt like the adult word choices were a misstep. For example, at one point, Callie recalls a fun afternoon at Petra's that included the marriage of a dog and a stuffed animal. The dog belonged to one of Petra's father's students, Lucky. Callie recalls Lucky "pretending to cry with happiness..and drawing [Petra] close to him." I"m sorry but an eight-year-old would not recall that event using those words to herself. Another example occurs late in the story. Callie is thinking about what she witnessed, about what happened to Petra. She remembers, "He carefully moved to set Petra down, resting his hand behind her head as he laid her on the altarlike rock. Once again he stood, shaking his arms free from the residual weight of Petra." Now Callie might be a very smart eight-year-old, but this description is not believable as hers at all.

Depite this problem and others, I didn't hate this book, and I thought it had some good writing in it, but overall, I just didn't think it was better than okay. The characters are not very original, but the writing is not bad and even occasionally very good. I really like this passage, Ben is describing his father, but I'm not sure it's a teenager's description:
"For once in my life, I think my dad looks old. Not ancient old, like an eighty-year-old man, but just tired old. Like a middle-aged man who spent too much time drinking and being mean to others, time sits on his face like some Halloween mask."
Then later in the same chapter, Ben describes some pajamas that he used to wear:
"I remember they were white and had these grinning little clowns holding balloons all over them. I wouldn't tell all my friends this, but I loved those pajamas. It was like sliding into something happy when I put those on after a bath." :-)
Like I said earlier, I did try to like this book. It's basically a mystery--who and what happened to Petra?--and I like mysteries. I don't think many readers would have a difficult time figuring out who did it before it's revealed, but I don't think they would figure it out too early in the story. Sometimes when I'm reading mysteries, I want to look ahead and see if my suppositions are correct, but I enjoy the getting to the solutions so much that I resist the temptation. With this book, I just didn't enjoy the getting there enough to resist. This book didn't make me want to keep reading or to read faster to get to the end; it just made me want to skip to the end. Not a good sign.

One thing this book did do for me, though, is make me want to read a good mystery, so I picked up an old P.D. James book, Unnatural Causes, to read before I read my next book club selection, which will be picked on Sunday. It also made me wonder what makes a good mystery and made me want to do some research about the conventions of mysteries, which made me think that I need to read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher very soon. Maybe I'll do some research and post about what I find.

For now, though, I need to go to bed, so I can get up early and do some work that I should have been doing instead of blogging. Later.