book review: Learwife by J.R. Thorp

LEARWIFE by J.R. Thorp
Pegasus Books, 2021

Classic literature retold through the eyes of a minor (or in this case, absent) female character is a trend that I am honestly growing a bit weary of, so perhaps some of my frustration with this book is down to the fact that I have read its ilk so many times in recent years. Reclaiming women’s voices in fiction is an exercise that appeals to me so much in theory, and I’ve certainly read quite a few standouts in this subgenre, but so often these stories just hit the exact same exact narrative beats, examine the exact same themes which can be summarized, in brief, as: history has not been kind to women, isn’t that sad. I mean, yes, of course, but I don’t need a novel-length project to tell me what can be summed up in a sentence.

Learwife isn’t quite a retelling, as it begins right where King Lear leaves off. I have to say right away that I was never fully on board with this premise: the ending of Lear feels so apocalyptic that extending the story feels fundamentally incompatible with the text in a way that I struggled with. (Also, in case you don’t know this about me: hi, my name is Rachel and King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play and literally one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time and I have read it more times than I can count and I’m afraid that I can’t divorce myself from my love of this play when evaluating retellings.) In Learwife, JR Thorp accounts for the conspicuous absence of Lear’s wife in the original story by positing that she was banished to an abbey shortly following the birth of Cordelia, the couple’s youngest daughter. Learwife begins with Lear’s wife receiving the news of Lear and her children’s death—and then the novel just spins its wheels for several hundred pages, with Lear’s wife at the abbey, considering visiting the place where Lear and her daughters died, but instead navigating nunnery politics while treating the reader to the odd flashback to her life at court.

The thing about Learwife that I struggled so much with was the fact that it didn’t engage with the original story in any kind of worthwhile way. The mystery of why Lear’s wife was banished is a lukewarm attempt at holding the reader’s interest; the reveal is not only boring, but I also think it crumbles under a single ounce of scrutiny if you hold it up next to King Lear—it just isn’t compatible with events and characters in a way that I think Thorp intends for it to be. But even if she didn’t: for a novel which proposes to answer the age-old question of what happened to Lear’s wife, I guess I was just hoping for that answer to be something that could realistically supplement the original play. A few quotes from Shakespeare are scattered throughout Learwife, like the following—I honestly just found the result a bit corny and try-hard:

Is that my name? I seem to lose it. I reach for it sometimes and there is nothing. Hands empty; hands full of water, of girls’ hair. I smile. Well, it does not matter. Nothing will come of nothing.

I wish I felt like this was achieving something, but it honestly just leaves me with the impression that Thorp is sitting there patting herself on the back for shoehorning one of Lear‘s most recognizable lines in there. Nothing in this book does any work to augment or enrich the original play’s events or themes.

But even putting that aside, even just attempting to evaluate this on its own merits and not contrast it to Shakespeare, I guess I just don’t understand what the point of this book was. It’s repetitious and thematically anemic; the abbey scenes are dull and the flashbacks of court are silly anecdotes that do nothing to craft a novel that stands on its own. This whole book feels like it serves no purpose except to construct the identity of a woman who remains elusive even after reading hundreds of pages of her stream-of-consciousness narration.

Also, a brief detour: in this book, Learwife had had a first husband, named Michael, of all things, and I just found that so silly and incongruous that it’s worth mentioning. Also, the name Michael, as I understand it, has been used in England since the twelfth century; the legend of Lear, or Leir, would have taken place around the eighth century BCE. A friend did my homework for me and listened to a podcast with Thorp where she talked about deliberately transposing the play’s setting to follow the advent of Christianity, as she was particularly interested in the religious tension in medieval England; a theme that I didn’t think was given enough weight here to justify the change in setting. And speaking of changes: Lear is canonically eighty; here she makes him much younger, around fifty, a choice that chafes with the original text and doesn’t really give the reader anything new to chew on.

Perhaps if I loved King Lear less I could have loved Learwife more, but I also found the prose style overwrought and tedious so at the end of the day I don’t think I was ever going to get on with this book. It seems to have been mostly well-received (Jane Smiley, the author of my favorite King Lear retelling, gave it a mostly favorable review; and just anecdotally, none of my Goodreads friends has given this under a 4-star rating) so I’m not sure that I can in good conscience tell you to avoid if it appeals to you, but wow, literally nothing about this book worked for me. It didn’t prompt me to think about the original play in a new way and it didn’t give me enough to enjoy it as a story in its own right and I’m mostly just annoyed that I wasted my time with it.


book review: True Biz by Sara Nović

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović
Random House, April 5, 2022

I’ve been having a lackluster reading month and was craving something engrossing, and True Biz ended up fitting the bill perfectly. Set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf, True Biz is effectively a love letter to deaf culture, couched in a coming of age narrative mostly focusing on the budding relationship between two teenage students, Austin and Charlie. Austin comes from generations-old deaf family, whereas Charlie is the first deaf member of her own family; she was never taught sign language and was forced to grow up having very little communicative ability as her cochlear implant is barely functional. The novel also follows February, the school’s headmistress, dealing with her failing relationship, her mom’s poor health, and the potential imminent closure of the school. The novel’s prologue also introduces the fact that three of the students at the school have just gone missing; we then go back in time six months to see the factors that led up to this event.

So, naturally, there’s a lot going on in this book, and where it succeeds is in the thorough immersion it provides in deaf culture (Nović herself is a deaf author). This book informs and engages in equal measure; it’s a crash course in deafness for those of us who are lacking in knowledge of deaf culture and history, but none of it feels rushed or underexamined or patronizing. (It’s not for me to decide, but I can imagine that this book will be as much of a joy for deaf readers as it is for hearing readers.) That said, Nović’s dedication to giving the reader the most thorough portrait of deaf culture possible was often to the novel’s disadvantage; it resulted in a few unfortunate side effects, one of which was a Black character only receiving one single point of view chapter, which existed solely for the benefit of giving the reader a quick lesson on BASL (Black American Sign Language). The differences between ASL and BASL and the stigmas attached to the latter are fascinating, but it felt really shoehorned in, in an attempt to leave no stone unturned—I ultimately just wished that that character had more of a role in the narrative. 

This novel isn’t plot heavy, and for the most part, that works well. The quieter approach to depicting daily life at the school suits Nović’s aims with this novel perfectly. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the decision was made to use the framing device which positions this book as some kind of mystery. I’ll just say right now that the reality behind the disappearance of the three students is very anticlimactic, and I’m guessing the end of this book wouldn’t have felt like such a whimper if we weren’t told from the beginning that the whole novel was building to this event.

But critiques aside, I actually did really enjoy spending time with this book and I do think it’s going to be a big hit when it publishes. Its characters are mostly complex, its style is compulsively readable, and its depiction of deaf culture is multifaceted and warm and unlike any other book I’ve read on the subject. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Matrix by Lauren Groff

MATRIX by Lauren Groff
2021, Riverhead

I wanted more than anything to have a strong reaction to this book. If I hated it, it would have validated how strongly I disliked Fates and Furies and how staunchly I have been avoiding Groff’s books ever since then; if I loved it, it would have been amusing for that same reason. Regrettably I thought it was just fine.

Matrix is an interesting project. Groff fictionalizes the life of Marie de France, a figure we know very little about, and discards the details we do know in favor of creating her own version of history. Matrix is more of a feminist fantasy of medieval life than it is an effort to accurately recreate historical detail. Groff isn’t interested in humanizing Marie as much as girlbossifying her, assigning conflicts to the narrative only as minor hurdles for Marie to overcome. 

I thought this book’s main strength was in its depiction of the abbey as an institution; underscoring that institutions are run by people and not by divine intervention. The tension between Marie’s relative faithlessness and her competence at leading the abbey from poverty to prosperity is where this relatively meandering novel feels the most focused. 

What this did affirm for me is that I just don’t get on with Groff’s writing on a sentence-by-sentence level; I find her prose very labored and there’s just no momentum for me. This was a bit of a chore to get through, honestly, which is odd to say as it’s such a slim tome. I largely admired what Groff was trying to do with this book, but found the execution lacking more often than not.

book review: The Latinist by Mark Prins

THE LATINIST by Mark Prins
January 2022, W.W. Norton

This is one of those frustrating novels that you want to grab by the shoulders and shake because it has all the potential in the world to be something extraordinary, but for whatever reason it seems content to just be Fine. Roughly tracing the outlines of the Apollo and Daphne myth, The Latinist follows Oxford classics scholar Tessa, who discovers that her supervisor, the renowned scholar and Head of Department Chris Eccles, is sabotaging her career. This novel’s main strength lies in this conceit — Prins does an eerily brilliant job at capturing the quiet horror of finding yourself trapped in a situation where you’re entirely dependent on another person, who you’re slowly realizing does not have your best interests at heart. Certain passages of this novel cut me to my core, made me feel physically ill with recognition. 

Unfortunately, Prins is determined to undermine his own fantastic setup by indulging the urge to humanize Chris in ways that I felt pulled against the novel’s main objectives. At first, I didn’t mind reading the passages from Chris’s perspective, as they initially just serve to corroborate how disturbing his behavior is; it seemed like a harmless if unnecessary addition. But then there’s a whole subplot involving his dying mother that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere worthwhile, that I was just itching to cut out of the manuscript altogether. What is even accomplished by reiterating to the reader that Chris is a fallible human? We know that from the start, and having that point belabored just feels patronizing. 

I have a few other complaints — for whatever reason Prins likes to throw in a mini-flashback on every other page, telling the reader about a scene that had happened two days prior, rather than just showing that scene to the reader in real-time; there’s also an anthropological discovery made partway through that hinges on such an enormous assumption that it was rather maddening that none of the characters seemed to question it — but on the whole, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading this. Prins’s writing is sharp and readable, Tessa is a fantastically written character, and certain passages that deal with obsession and power really sing. It just feels a bit aimless and rushed in places and I think really would have benefited thematically from keeping its narrative focus on Tessa.

Thank you to Netgalley and W.W. Norton for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. 

Favorite Books of 2021

Well, here we are! I read 101 books in 2021 (just barely hitting my goal of 100 in the eleventh hour), and I’m… satisfied, if not overwhelmingly happy with, my reading year. Which isn’t meant to devalue any of the books on this list, which I am very excited to share with you all—I just wish I had more serious contenders to choose from. If I were to sum up my reading this year in a word, it would be “mild”. As I said in my Most Disappointing Books of the Year post, I’m used to having high highs and low lows, but this year was more steady than anything: a lot of 3- and 4-star reads, a lot of books that I enjoyed but which didn’t inspire a lot of passion in me. Which, to be fair, probably had more to do with my mental state this year than anything. But all of that said, I am really happy with this group of books I’ve selected. The top four in particular, could go in pretty much any order: they’re four of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

I do just want to acknowledge that statistically, this isn’t the most diverse of lists: I’m not proud of how white and how US/UK/Canada/Ireland-centric it is, and I don’t think it’s really indicative of the breadth of books I read this year, but when combing through my Goodreads just now, these are really what stuck out to me as the highlights, so here we are. I’m wondering if I should do a ‘best translated fiction of 2021’ list as well, because there are a lot that I think deserve to be spotlighted.

But anyway, without further ado…

10. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

“They say the perfect is the enemy of the good, that if you strive for perfection you will overlook the good. But I did not agree. I didn’t like the good. The good was just mediocre. I wanted to go beyond mediocre. I wanted to be exceptional. I did not want to be medium-size. I wanted to be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less.”

I think this is the first time ever that I’m putting a book I rated 4 stars in my favorite books of the year list. But the fact of the matter is, while this book didn’t completely stick the landing for me, its highs were virtually unparalleled by anything else I read this year. If you think you have ‘disaster women’ fatigue, I’d really implore you to give Melissa Broder a try—her protagonists are inarguably disasters, but rather than taking the ‘generic millennial everywoman’ approach, Broder writes with such a sharp specificity that I still think about the narrator, Rachel, as though she were a real person. Downright uncomfortable to read at times, this book navigates the relationship between sex and our own bodies with searing insight.

9. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

“The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories.”

A retelling of King Lear set on a twentieth century midwestern farm, A Thousand Acres is the best adaptation of my favorite play that I’ve read. I’m just going to quote my own review here: This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.

8. Consent by Annabel Lyon

“I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?”

This Canadian dark horse ended up being one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Women’s Prize longlist for me. A literary thriller of sorts, Consent follows two sets of sisters, whose stories end up intersecting in a surprising way. It’s less of a mystery and more of a stark examination of guilt and obligation, and between its somewhat meandering pace, its unapologetically acerbic tone, and its refusal to fit neatly into a single genre, it’s undoubtedly a tough sell. But for the right reader—so, in this case: me—it’s an engrossing, intelligent, confident work that I couldn’t put down.

7. No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

“Read any news story today about domestic violence homicide and you’re likely to see some version of the question why didn’t she leave? What you almost surely won’t see is why was he violent?”

In contrast, I feel like I did nothing but put this book down. It took me the better part of six months to listen to this audiobook, because it is so unrelenting to a point where it started to seriously affect me after a while. But that said, I could not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who can stomach it. In No Visible Bruises, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder investigates intimate partner violence through a panoply of lenses; debunking misconceptions, researching government-funded programs that address both prevention and rehabilitation, and proposing how exactly we move forward. It’s a harrowing and necessary read, brilliantly researched and structured.

6. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

“We can’t conserve anything, and especially not social relations, without altering their nature, arresting some part of their interaction with time in an unnatural way.”

(The desire to forgo a blurb and just write out that TikTok audio “the girls who get it, get it; the girls who don’t, don’t” is strong.) Anyway, reading a new Rooney novel is always a treat: her sentence-by-sentence writing sings for me, and I think her character work is always exceptional. This ended up being my second favorite Rooney after the unbeatable Conversations With Friends—I found the way she addresses social and existential anxieties in this book particularly resonant. Her books and characters never feel like perfect distillations of my own life (which I think is a frankly absurd expectation for any author and I’m not sure why Rooney in particular bears so much weight in that regard), but they do always make me feel slightly less alone in the world, so, that’s something.

5. The Likeness by Tana French

“I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living–and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”

2021 is the year I finally started reading Tana French, and I could not be happier with that decision. Of the the three of her novels that I’ve read, The Likeness is far and away my favorite—this book elevates a downright absurd premise into something really special and entertaining as hell. I love Cassie as a protagonist and I thought French’s depiction of the insularity of academia was pitch-perfect, coming closer to The Secret History in that one specific regard than most other campus novels I’ve read.

4. Endless Night by Agatha Christie

“One doesn’t want to die young. Sometimes one has to.”

This was also the year that I rediscovered Agatha Christie and let me tell you, it’s one of the things that saved 2021 for me. Of the four of her books that I read this year, Endless Night blows the other three out of the water. From the very first page I was just obsessed with this dark, twisted Gothic tale, and the ending elevated it even higher than I thought possible in my estimation. I don’t want to give you unreasonable expectations about this book by reiterating that it dethroned And Then There Were None as my favorite Christie, as they’re such fundamentally distinct projects, but I do really want to implore you to give a try if you’re a Christie fan.

3. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall.”

Piranesi‘s setting may be the most beautifully-rendered thing I’ve ever seen in a novel, but it’s far from this book’s only strength. I wasn’t expecting to love this anywhere near as much as I did; its speculative elements didn’t seem suited to my tastes as a reader, and I thought it might be the sort of thing I force myself to read and then never think about again. But I fell hard for it, and what has really stuck with me is the potent depiction of loneliness that Clarke is able to achieve through this strange, offbeat tale. This book is just such an immersive pleasure and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it.

2. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”

Though I’m thrilled with Piranesi‘s Women’s Prize win, this is the book I was rooting for. Transcendent Kingdom both floored me and wrecked me, and I think this is one of the most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. Gyasi integrates a number of challenging themes and subjects into a single striking narrative so brilliantly that it’s a wonder she was able to accomplish it without sacrificing plot or character development. This book is a marvel.

1. Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler

“I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me.”

What’s funny is that on the surface, this doesn’t seem like the most ‘me’ book in the world; it’s about a woman struggling through a failing marriage while coping with the recent death of her father. It feels trite to rise to its defense with the classic “but it’s so much more than that!”, and yet… it really, really is. This book plumbs the depths of whether it’s possible to ever know ourselves, let alone other people; it forces the reader to confront uncomfortable realities that live in the darkest corners of our minds; it asks us whether it’s possible to outrun guilt—but it does so with the lightest, deftest touch, and a character voice which is both acerbic and droll. I need more people to give this book a try both because it’s criminally underrated and because it’s challenging to explain what’s so special about it, but at only 192 pages, Edie Richter is Not Alone left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve read this year.

What was your favorite book that you read in 2021?