I don’t usually have occasion to post a negative review, let alone two of them because I almost never finish books I don’t much like. But I doggedly finished two such books recently because one was recommended by a friend and the other was by a favorite writer. I came up way short on both.
My first disappointment is with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. A friend sent me this book, likely thinking that I’d appreciate the subject of California — which I do. Didion is from Sacramento and has old family ties to the state. Her thesis seems to be the contradictory ways that Californians love their state, its natural bounty, and its history all while often undermining it politically, environmentally, and socially. The thesis I found interesting but I find it such a struggle to engage with Didion’s bloodless style. I know people wax eloquent over her “perfect sentences” but she puts me to sleep. I read Play It As It Lays in college, and most of Slouching Toward Bethlehem a couple of years ago, with the same result. Filing Joan under Finished with Forever.
My second disappointment is more acute. My beloved Willa Cather really let me down with The Song of the Lark. I thought for sure this would be a perfect novel for me — about a Swedish-American girl growing up in Colorado (my home state) with passion and drive to become a professional opera singer. It’s known for its passages set in the cliff dwellings of southwest Colorado, presumably around the Mesa Verde area. I think what I like most about Cather’s work are her sensual descriptions of setting, invoking a place’s unique qualities of light, air, scent, and color. I didn’t find much of the Colorado I know and love in Lark. Even the cliff-dweller parts were short and unfulfilling to me in this way. Moreover, I didn’t really understand how they fit in this novel or in the life of this strange character, Thea Kronberg. I wish we’d gotten more in Thea’s head — instead, we watch her grown from determined child to immersed professional mostly from the outside observations of childhood friends and admirers. It’s not a bad approach, but because I was more interested in Thea than these men watching her, I just found the approach awkward and uninteresting. The most interesting character in the book to me was Thea’s mother who had a dry wit and spoke her mind. Wish she had played a bigger role in the novel. Although the book was about this young woman’s passion to become a singer, I didn’t feel that passion while reading. In fact, I didn’t care much care about the characters at all, so I had a hard time finishing it.
Where I Was From
The Song of the Lark