[1 February 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sometimes you get a book and you don’t know exactly what you’re in for. Having read the blurbs about A Field Guide To Burying Your Parents, I was sort of expecting a nice, literary family drama along the lines of Joyce Carol Oates. I should have paid closer attention to the thumbnail on Amazon, I guess, and judged this book—which is author Liza Palmer’s third novel after Conversations With The Fat Girl and Seeing Me Naked—solely on that criterion alone, because what we have here is a shining example of a much-maligned genre of bookdom. You know it as “Chick Lit”.
So if you’re a young, professional woman, and you like books by Sophie Kinsella, Emily Giffin, and Jennifer Weiner—books that are pleasantly non-offensive and aimed pretty much at the lowest common denominator on the female side of the fence—you should stop reading this review. Step away from your computer or laptop, run to your nearest bookstore and buy the book already. You’ll probably just love and lap this one up.
As for the rest of us, including decidedly straight males like myself, what we’re left with is another book seemingly aimed at being little more than cannon fodder. It turns out, however, that A Field Guide, while it does have its share of narrative problems, is a remarkably pleasant read and a bit of a page-turner at that. (Here’s hoping I still have my masculinity intact after writing that sentence.)
A Field Guide concerns one Grace Hawkes, a 35-year-old working professional who seems to have it all: a used BMW as a mode of transportation, a doting boyfriend, and close access to her favourite teashops. (Earl Grey seemingly the best.) What Ms. Hawkes doesn’t really have, however, is a family. It seems that she ran for the hills screaming after her mother died suddenly and tragically five years before, leaving all of her closest blood relatives at arm’s length.
That changes, however, when news comes to Grace that her father has had a debilitating stroke and is dying. Will the family circle that was once shattered finally congeal and become unbroken? Will Grace hook up with an ex-flame, now the family’s lawyer, that she left in the lurch five years ago and dump her current boy toy? Will the family be able to triumph over an evil stepmother now in the picture who wants her fair share of the inheritance?
Yes, A Field Guide is a downright predictable read, and it does get treacly and overtly sentimental as the page count wears on, as a Chick Lit book is probably wont to do. It does have its share of other problems, too, that could make it easy to knock. For one, Palmer relies on that over-used narrative form known as the flashback, and, what’s more, she uses it awkwardly. One minute, our heroine is participating in a five-kilometre run. The next minute—quite literally, the next paragraph—she is flashing back to playing games as a youth with her now estranged siblings without anything in the way of a good transition. The writing, especially in the first half of the book, as about as sloppy and lazy as one can find, with all of the flashbacks and remembrances that distract the reader, rather than guide them.
What’s more: in spite of all of these flashes to the past, one puts down this book not really knowing what the motivation was behind Grace’s initial sudden departure from her own family. We also really don’t know what motivates her to find true love and redemption in the arms of her former beau—except that the convention of a Chick Lit book is to get a reader’s heart aflutter about the possibilities of an honest, knight-in-shining-armor romance. We don’t see enough of Grace’s “new”, to-be-dumped, boyfriend and what makes him such of a twit in the eyes of our main protagonist. (To which end, there’s an awkward confrontation between the two men in a hospital parking lot that just seems forced for the sake of moving the plot forward.)
Palmer also has a tendency to pile on extraneous characters simply for the sake of padding. (I didn’t really know for sure until the end of the book that the character named Evie was really a daughter of one of Grace’s siblings. Evie is casually introduced, and just kind of hangs around without really adding anything to the plot, you see.)
And speaking of characters, those who populate Palmer’s book are about as two-dimensional as you can find. They particularly sob on cue at any looming crisis, turning A Field Guide into a bit of a five-hanky weepfest in parts. One can almost see Palmer’s puppet hand guiding the characters through the wooden story, which, in turn, ends rather abruptly on a dime.
And yet. And yet…
And yet I liked this book, despite its deficiencies and the fact that I’m not a member of its intended audience. I sympathized with its characters. I found myself wanting things to turn out for the better, even though the plot is seemingly predictable in the beginning. The only thing I didn’t do was shed a tear for the inhabitants of this book, because I’m a man like that.
Part of it has to do with Palmer’s breezy style of writing in the first person singular. It’s almost like overhearing a very chatty woman in a coffee shop talking about life with one of her girlfriends. Palmer also has a gifted sense of ironic humour at times, which tones down the saccharine level of this book to some degree. She taps into real and honest human pathos, even in the most banal of circumstances. Take, for instance, this passage, in which our heroine receives a root canal at a dentist early on in the book (punctuation as written):
I try to focus in on the music playing over the drilling. Is that “Life in a Northern Town”? Wait… how did it get to be “Fragile” by Sting so quickly… wait, what happened to the… who… where’s everyone going… are we done… wait… why am I sitting up straight now… wait… who’s that… is that George Michael… wait… I can feel… no, I mean really feel... choking, wrenching, burning… sadness… loss.. emptiness….
In the end, I found myself having a hard time putting down A Field Guide, and felt sorry when it was over. Maybe I wound up tapping my inner-woman by reading this book. Who knows? While this book might be Chick Lit, and it might be derided for its deficiencies, it’s a startling pleasant read—even, yes, for men. But like Secret, the woman’s antiperspirant, it might be strong enough for a man, but it’s made for a woman. So, if you’re a young, professional woman, and you like books by Sophie Kinsella, Emily Giffin, and Jennifer Weiner, step away from the computer…