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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
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The Light Between Oceans: A Novel - M.L. Stedman The first word that comes to mind when I try to describe this book is melodramatic. In fact, while I was nearing the end of this book, Peter mentioned the word "melodramatic" in reference to our cat, and I was like, "This BOOK is melodramatic," and told him about the plot. He was looking incredulous when I finished--and I hadn't even read the Lucy-goes-missing part OR the testify-against-your-husband-and-I'll-give-you-the-baby bit!. Also: it can get preachy at times.

Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy reading it--I did, quite. It was a really quick read; in keeping my interest it earns an A. I do enjoy some melodrama (generally I won't watch any TV unless it's either super melodramatic or educational--there are exceptions but I generally feel that well-done movies are a waste of time). But it does, in my opinion, make it somewhat contrived and manipulative and I was pretty surprised to see that it had been longlisted for the Orange Prize. But I digress.

Some other complaints about the writing: I don't feel M.L. Stedman wrote Lucy all that well. I kind of cringed at some of it. I mean, I know children can be hard to write, but still. Tom & Isabel's romance didn't really ring true to me--not that I don't think that it was plausible, I do, the writing just didn't convince me. Also the shifting tense really got on my nerves sometimes. Sometimes it would drift from past to present tense for no apparent reason (sometimes there was a reason--still annoying, though).

That said, I think it does have a lot going for it. It presents a whole lot of dilemmas and different choices, which engages the reader. Great for a book club read, I would think. You don't have to agree with any of the characters' choices in order to feel for them--I was intensely annoyed by a great many characters in this book, but I could still sympathize with them all. As for me, I feel pretty certain about what I would do at each juncture and each character's position, and mostly it was just about the opposite of everything that DID happen (with one or two exceptions). Obviously the real loser was Lucy, and it was disappointing how all her guardians puts themselves before her. That definitely rankled.

However there were some things about the structure and message of this book that I found problematic. One of the main ones was that women are incomplete without children. It's a theme that's repeated pretty often throughout the book. "Most natural thing in the world, it was, for a woman to want a baby" (p. 271). So are women who don't want babies unnatural? Not women? I think it's possible to honor, respect, and depict the pain of a woman who wants children but only has miscarriages/stillborn babies while simultaneously refraining from promoting baby-making/child-rearing as the be-all end-all of female existence. Isabel the Woman is so emotional and ~*~mysterious~*~ and Tom the Man is so rational and withdrawn. Blah blah yawn. The total lack of communication in Tom & Izzy's marriage also grated. I guess a lot of marriages are like that, but to me it made it a lot harder to believe that they weathered the storm and were happy together in the end. The references to abusive behavior (the "he's suffered enough so don't press charges" attempted rapist; the la-de-da, no big deal attitude toward domestic violence re: wives having to hide kitchen knives) could have been handled a lot better in my opinion. Also: all the references to God? IDGI. None of the characters are portrayed as very religious, just nominally, so all the references to God seemed really weird. "Whatever God meant by this, Isabel had to stay with the plan, go along with His will" (p. 189). Sentences like this are just peppered throughout the book. They seem like total non sequiturs in the context of the story, where God has nothing to do with it and personal choices do. Is it supposed to read as an indication that Isabel has turned delusional or something? I'm not sure what to make of them, they left me scratching my head--"What? God? What??"

So it gets a star off for its melodrama and a star off for its questionable messages and writing in some places. Often I think I'd ding it more, maybe 2 1/2 stars, but 1) I really enjoyed this book, and 2) there's a lot to talk about, which redeems it a bit.