Between Friends, Debbie Macomber

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I have always thought that the phrase "women's fiction" was somehow a slight (or not so slight) put down of the kind of stories that women find enjoyable or meaningful.  While it is certainly not a universal fact that all women like to read stories about family, relationships, and friendships, it is certainly true that much of the fiction marketed to women as women's fiction is just that.  I have mixed feelings about the type of novel that is labeled "women's fiction".  Like any other genre, some is better written and more literary than others.  On the spectrum from serious literature to fluff, I find myself most comfortable on the more literary end.  The titles on the fluff end tend to feel a bit too much like a Lifetime Movie to me-trite, easy platitudes or oversimplified stories about complex issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, or family dynamics.

Sadly, my book club's November pick, Macomber's book Between Friends, falls a little too far to the fluff end for me.  The epistolary novel is tells the story of two women, wealthy Jillian and her poor friend Lesley, who become friends as children and maintain that friendship throughout the trials and tribulations of their lives.  While I don't have a problem with an epistolary novel in theory, in practice I find they often do more "telling" than "showing".  Telling a story through a series of letters and other documents relieves the author of the need to actually develop characters, evoke feeling through setting or events, or write intelligent, meaningful dialogue.  This book felt like a novel written in hearsay-there is little immediacy to the events, which I think takes away from any emotional impact.  

I was also disturbed by how stereotypical the characters lives were.   Lesley, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic, goes on to marry an abusive alcoholic after he gets her pregnant.  Because she is a devout Catholic, she stays with him "for the children", and refuses to use birth control, ending up with three more children before she finally decides enough is enough.  Jillian, the daughter of privilege, rebels in high school by falling in love with the gas jockey with a heart of gold-who just happens to get killed in Viet Nam, clearing the way for her to go on to the pricey private school and career as a lawyer that she was destined to have from the start.  I can't cite too many other examples, mostly because I couldn't finish reading the book, but suffice it to say that I was unimpressed.  One of the women in my book club reminded me that in the 1950s and 60s there were some women exactly like Lesley and Jillian.  My response to her was, "I can acknowledge that without wanting to read a hole book about it."

  My best friend has one other major complaint, which I share.  Somehow these two women from Washington state, one of whom has only a high school education and rarely leaves her hometown, are connected to every major event in American life for 50 years.  My friend called it "Forest Gump" syndrome, after that charming movie about mildly retarded Forest and his many brushes with greatness.  Difference is, on screen it worked.  In this book it just seems contrived.  All in all, I'm pretty sure I will not be reading a Debbie Macomber book again any time soon.

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