Saturday, April 15, 2017

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This novel did not work for me. It had some real potential, but it felt far too dissipated - like it was trying to drive in so many different directions at once that it went nowhere - and it took its sweet time doing it, too! I had to give up reading it about eighty percent in because it had become such a chore to read. It was far too dismal and never even seemed like it was interested in going anywhere. In the end I really didn't care what had happened to the mother and wife of this family. I really didn't.

The novel starts at almost a year from the point where "Billie" Flanagan went hiking and was never seen again - unless you count one lone hiking boot as a sighting. Her daughter, Olive and her husband, Jonathan, are barely holding it together. Olive starts seeing visions of her mother and after the first of these is so convinced her mom is right there, that she runs into a wall trying to get to her, and all but knocks herself out. I started pretty quickly hoping she would do it again and end up in a coma so I didn't have to deal with her any more.

Jonathan was no better. He never saw his daughter when mom was alive because he worked all hours. This begs the question as to who was raising Olive since mom was evidently always gone as well. Once mom was gone for good, Jonathan quit his job to spend time with Olive, but then he had no money, so they were living hand to mouth.

He got an advance to write a memoir of Billie, but we were never given a single reason why anyone would want to read it or why any publishing company would be remotely interested in a memoir about a woman who was very effectively a non-entity. The advance has been spent, and there's no prospect of more until the memoir is finished, but he's never depicted as actually working on it. In short, he's a truly lousy dad.

The story chapters are interspersed with "excerpts" from this memoir, but I have zero interest in story-halting flashbacks, because well, they halt the story, so I read none of the excerpts. I can't say I ever felt like I needed to go back and read them, which begs the obvious question as to why they were even there in the first place.

Olive's visions were so unrevealing of anything of value that the point of them was a mystery to me. They were all so vague and useless that they became simply annoying in short order. Any sympathy I had for her over her lousy parents was quickly smothered by her endless needy self-importance and habit of constantly and tediously regurgitating her situation for everyone and anyone who would listen.

There's talk that she might have a brain lesion which could explain the visions; then there's talk that maybe that's not the case; then there's talk that the pills she's given are stopping the visions, so maybe they were caused by the lesion, but one of these visions came before she hit her head. Seriously? Which is it? It was never explained and I couldn't stand to keep reading this stuff in the hope that maybe some straight-talk would come out of this story in the last twenty percent when there's been zero evidence of it in the first eighty!

I honestly did not care about any of these people at all, and I really could not have cared less about what had happened to Billie. The blurb (and I know this isn't on the writer, but the publisher) says of Billie that she's "a beautiful, charismatic Berkeley mom" and I have to ask yet again, what the fuck her 'beauty' has to do with anything? Would it have been somehow less of a tragedy had she been plain or even ugly? Would this family's loss have been easier? "Yeah, mom's vanished without a trace, but she was an ugly bitch, so who cares? Let's move on!" No, I don't think so.

Seriously, I am so tired of women being reduced to 'a pretty skin', like they haven't a damned thing to offer other than their beauty or lack of it. That sexist blurb writer should be fired for that blurb. If the novel had been about a man who disappeared, would the blurb have harped on how handsome he was? No! You're damned right it wouldn't. 2017 and we're still mired in this swamp: that a woman better equal beauty or she equals nothing.

I left this observation until last because it has nothing to do with my judgment of this novel. Normally, I pay little attention to the covers because they have nothing to do with the writer, unless the writer self-publishes. It's what's between those covers which interests me, yet you can't ignore the blurb because this is our lead-in to whether a particular novel might be of interest.

That said, I also have to bring the writer to book on this same score, because she also reduces women - particularly Billie - to skin-depth on far too many occasions:

  • "Billie was beautiful..."
  • "...Billie's mother would have been beautiful too..."
  • ...her mom was the most beautiful, most creative, the most interesting..." - note how beauty is listed first since it's quite evidently the most important thing about her!
  • "...being beautiful and strong..." - being a beautiful woman is more important than being a strong woman!
  • "...being married to a beautiful woman is that other people are going to notice that she is beautiful..."
  • "And while Billie was more beautiful..."
  • "You're a beautiful woman."
  • "...His beautiful wife.."
  • "...Olive's beautiful mother..."
  • "Billie, tanned, glowing, and beautiful..."
  • "This beautiful girl from nowhere..."
So maybe the blurb writer took their cue from the interior after all? Not that they shouldn't have known better. What's just as bad though, is that Olive is compared with this ridiculous standard, and negatively so: "...she's not beautiful, like her mother...", and "She is not conventionally beautiful...." This is sick. I'm sorry, but it is.

If the novel had been about runway models or women competing for a role in a movie or a TV show, then I could see how beauty would play into it. It would still be wrong, but it's the way Hollywood is; however, that doesn't mean that writers have to buy into it so readily. It's diseased writing to keep harping on this for page after page. It's a form of abuse. People who do this have no idea how much damage they do to women the world over by repeating this insane mantra that all that's important is looks, and if you ain't got 'em you ain't got nothin' worth having. Bullshit.

This novel ought really to be condemned on that alone, but sick as this world is, negatively reviewing a book for that would fall on deaf ears. As it was, this novel condemned itself in too many other ways.