When it came time to pick another book to review, I chose the well-received The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele (Doubleday Canada, 2008). According to the back cover, it’s about a young mother and her relationship with her fast-living sister Beth and how one weekend “Beth upends everything Peachy thought she knew about being happy.”
It had been years since I’d been able to read literary fiction (because of my brain injury), and I wanted my first foray back into this old, familiar territory to be an enjoyable one. I also wanted to read a Canadian author. And so I was both tentative and excited when I sat down in my comfortable armchair, coffee at hand, flipped the pages to chapter one of Gabriele’s book, and began to read. So imagine my disappointment when within the first dozen pages, I was not only not interested in the protagonist Peachy, but was also mightily confused at first as to who Lou was and then what time period we were in. In fact, it’s only after I had read the entire book that the first few pages became comprehensible. I suspect that would be true for most of the first half of the book.
It’s an interesting idea to try and replicate the way the mind works, the way when your eye falls on an object all sorts of memories surface and are briefly relived. But writing in that way is tough. Jumping in time causes confusion, and then when characters speak or act out of sync with their age or even their relation to the protagonist – is Lou boyfriend or father, I wondered at first – it makes the time jumping harder to follow. The author often introduced characters or events out of the blue, unexplained as to who or what they were, because obviously Peachy knew who they were and would hardly describe them to herself, yet it leaves the reader confused, and not in a good way. Authors usually tread a fine line of describing the introduced character or event so that the reader can follow the thread, or at least be enticed to follow it, without making the narrator sound ridiculously false. To not tread the line at all is to invite confusion and annoyance.
As I continued to read, it struck me that the protagonist’s sister Beth was a much more richly drawn character than the first-person narrator Peachy, making me wonder if the author related better to Beth than to Peachy, while it took a good chunk of the book before Peachy’s husband became more than a one-dimensional-barely-there personality despite his important role. Lou, the father, was mostly a hovering type of character so why Peachy decided to introduce him to a friend was never clear to me, as the reader, beyond the usual clichéd assumptions. That introduction came out of the blue – how else would it come? – in an ending that was too pat, too quickly wrapped up. But by that time, I was glad the book was over.
Even though the telling of Peachy’s story finally settled down, finally left the frenetic time jumping, and became mildly interesting halfway through, that was too late in the game to engage me. I almost always find good literature grabs me and holds me in the first page, certainly by the end of the first scene. And in this society of short-attention-span folks, it’s more important than ever to engage the reader immediately. A writer doesn’t necessarily have to have a sympathetic character as the heroine or hero of the story, so long as their story grips the emotional belt of the reader and hangs on. I struggled mightily to become involved in this insipid Peachy, to care enough about her and the emotional cesspit her sister landed them all in, but I couldn’t. The plot itself was interesting enough once I got the hang of it; the characters were not; and the time jumping was disastrously done.