what makes a good book

Well there’s a big question…

And I belong to a big family–this month we have four weddings–a godson, two nieces, and a son–and Christmas. Still I want to take time out to begin (yes I just mean begin) again to think about this question.

If you’ve clicked on the “about blog” tab at the top of the page, you know that my book review policy includes this statement:

My challenge to myself is to find the good thing in every book I read.

may we be forgivenIn A.M. Homes new novel, May We Be Forgiven, despite The New York Times review, finding good things was not difficult. I think this is a good book. In fact, it’s one of the best novels I read all year.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. For me a good book does not have to be perfect.

May We Be Forgiven is deliciously long. The ARC a friend gave me clocks in at 480 pages. Dense pages. A world you can get lost in for days and days. While reading The Round House was like running downhill, May We Be Forgiven was like hiking up.

The dialogue is stellar. Most of it anyway. The NYT cited a poor example. But there are so many crisp passages. Here’s one from page 48 about a body in a coffin:

“How do you know they put the right clothes on her? Ashley [11 yrs old] asks.
“It’s a question of trust.” [the narrator]

And so many that made me laugh out loud. Here’s one from two pages later, after the funeral:

“Can we go home now?” Ashley asks.
“No,” Nate [12 yrs old] says. “There’s like an after-party thing?”

may we be forgiven ARC top partialRather than tell us on the page what emotion to feel, Homes generates emotion inside the reader by using plain, honest, detailed, and lacking-in-emotion words. Often the narrator is numb to what’s going on, but I was feeling emotion. [The following quote is from page 14, but it is a spoiler. Skip it if you don’t want to know.]

She is screaming. The one blow isn’t enough. She tries to get up; the lamp isn’t even broken. George looks at me and then picks the lamp up again and swings it at her. The porcelain vase that is the base explodes against her head. By then I am out of bed. He tosses aside what remained of the lamp–picks up the telephone, and throws it to me.
“Call it in,” he says.

Yes, there are gruesome descriptions at the beginning and some weird sexual situations throughout the first half, and in the second half I did wonder where all the money was coming from and where the other side of the picture was (no designated parts or chapters). But each evening I looked forward to sitting down and picking the book up. I liked the main character. The writing is excellent. I wasn’t ever bored. I didn’t skip over any parts–any. I don’t think I skipped a single word. 480 pages.

may we be forgiven ARC bottom partialI didn’t underline a lot. There are very few lyrical passages. Homes tells it like it is. But here are two:

I unpack the box, making a row of piles of the material, careful to keep things in order–but wanting to get to the middle, the end, wanting a sense of the arc of the materials, the shape of things.

I stand on the front steps, slightly apart, observing [the children], as though I now hold knowledge that separates me from them–but I don’t. They are simply engaged in what is before them, and I am thinking about what time we have to leave, about passports, currency, and suitcases, while they are thinking it is summer and the day is perfect and I’m making spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.

More on Homes’ use of white space when I have time…

5 thoughts on “what makes a good book

  1. Sounds like a truly absorbing novel. And you’re right, the prose you quoted read perfectly. These days when I read, I’m so busy looking for beautiful prose — to challenge myself and improve my writing — that I get bored with the story itself. This sounds like a perfect balance. I’ll be checking it out.

    Thanks for the recommendation.


  2. I’m crawling back to my virtual life with the holidays over and the last wedding a week ago today. June, Darrelyn, and Sarah, thanks for leaving a comment.

    I also want to share the thoughts of Sarah Weinman, a 
Publishers Lunch News Editor, on the novel:

    MAY WE BE FORGIVEN, A.M. Homes (Viking) — I’m puzzled as to why this merited less attention than other fall fiction heavyweights. Are people scared by risk-taking writers, especially women writers, who traverse down uncomfortable but wholly familiar roads and then go further and further? How strange. Homes wrote the most utterly of-the-now novel I read all year, and one of the funniest. But it’s the sense of optimism that peeks out of the darkness that elevated the book into something of real magnificence.


  3. Pingback: white space: zooming out in the first person | catching days

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