book review: There There by Tommy Orange



THERE THERE by Tommy Orange
Knopf, 2018


Powerful but uneven. It’s easy to see why There There has been one of 2018’s most beloved books – it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native American experience, which Orange takes pains to remind us is a rich and varied culture that has endured unspeakable violence and hardship, and which our contemporary American society is still ready to stereotype and dismiss. The sheer breadth of voices here speaks to Orange’s vision with this novel, as do the flawlessly written prologue and interlude, which provide the reader with a brief but succinct idea of the cultural context in which Orange is writing.

But the tapestry of perspectives that Orange attempts to weave doesn’t fully come together for me – I think there were a few too many POVs shoehorned in at the detriment of plot and character development. Keeping track of the threads between the characters became a bit of a chore – apparently a character needs only be mentioned once for them to have a significant role in the narrative that we should remember 75 pages down the line – and the ways in which some of their stories converged was beyond contrived. I would have been happier to read about ten different characters’ disparate lives in a sort of thematically connected short story collection and been spared the awkward attempt to braid their lives together. For example, one character finds out that he has fathered not one but TWO children he hadn’t known about, and these two individuals happen to be friends with one another… I’m happy for a novel to employ this sort of narrative device when fate is being used as a prominent theme, but in There There it just felt like unnecessary coincidence. And I unapologetically love a bit of melodrama, so the novel’s conclusion didn’t bother me for its theatricality as much as the fact that it felt like a rather hastily drawn attempt to tie up a bunch of narratives that hadn’t organically run their course. Maybe that was the point, I don’t know. But I think this should have been longer – its denouement could have used some more room to breathe.

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive debut. Orange ruminates with a surprising amount of depth not only on Native identity, but also on themes like alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual assault. It’s a short book that packs a powerful punch and I’ll definitely be interested in reading whatever Tommy Orange writes next. There There just felt like a rough draft of something that had the potential to be even more hard-hitting.

17 thoughts on “book review: There There by Tommy Orange

    • Thank you! I also wish I had loved it a bit more, maybe I waited too long and let the hype build a bit too much? It actually reminded me a LOT of In Our Mad and Furious City both in structure and execution – I think the big difference is that I hadn’t really been expecting anything from that novel and I had been expecting this one to change my life? At any rate I’m definitely up for whatever Tommy Orange writes next.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Darn, I’ve been looking forward to picking this one up, but there has been a lot of hype… It’s good to know I should adjust my expectations a bit. This is a great review though, 3-stars are always challenging but I’m definitely still intrigued!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s definitely a too-many-POVs problem, I agree: the more omniscient voice that weaves in and out, as in the prologue, is perfect, but most of the book requires us to keep track of…well…a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree with your review. I’m awful with names, so I had to flip back and forth between chapters and pretending I knew some characters just to get through the book. I did love the fact that it gave a voice to urban NA communities, I can’t say I’d read about it before. To me, the end was a little *too* all over the place and chaotic. But I did find myself really caring for some characters and story lines. Great review! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    • The funny thing is that I’m actually really good with names and keeping characters straight in my head, so as I was reading I kept thinking ‘the fact that I’m struggling with this just goes to show how absolutely ridiculous this book is in this regard.’ The ending was a bit much, I will agree – I liked the drama but so much was happening at once that I kind of lost track of a few details, mainly involving the bad guys’ alliances and motivations. I’m glad I’m not the only one who had this reaction to this book!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally understand how the hype can spoil the book by increasing our expectations. And maybe that is a reason why you didn’t enjoy it as much as the others. great post!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s