Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trouble by Kate Christensen

Earlier in the week I read Trouble by Kate Christensen. I actually think this was a little better than Commencement, though similarly cringe-inducing at times but you can't tell it has any redeeming qualities by reading the promo blurb, which sums up the action as follows:

A vibrant story of female friendship and midlife sexual awakening from the acclaimed author of The Great Man

Josie is a Manhattan psychotherapist living a comfortable life with her husband and daughter—until, while suddenly flirting with a man at a party, she is struck with the sudden realization that she must leave her passionless marriage. A thrillingly sordid encounter with a stranger she meets at a bar immediately follows. At the same time, her college friend Raquel, a Los Angeles rock star, is being pilloried in the press for sleeping with a much younger man who happens to have a pregnant girlfriend. This proves to be red meat to the gossip hounds of the Internet. The two friends escape to Mexico City for a Christmas holiday of retreat and rediscovery of their essential selves. Sex has gotten these two bright, complicated women into interesting trouble, and the story of their struggles to get out of that trouble is totally gripping at every turn.

A tragicomedy of marriage and friendship, Trouble is a funny, piercing, and moving examination of the battle between the need for connection and the quest for freedom that every modern woman must fight.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book, where the therapist knows she is going to leave her stagnant marriage (and child) behind after flirting with a despicable man who she knows sucks and does not actually hook up with him. I could relate to it I guess. The books is mid-life crisis-y in theme and about three female college friends who met at Reed College (sound familiar) and are at very different points in their lives, struggling with female friendship, society's prescribed roles for women and their own desires.

Spoiler Alert:

What ends up happening is kind of bogus. When Josie decides to meet her rock star friend Angeles in Mexico City to get away from it all, she is punished for enjoying herself within the narrative. At the exact moment she gets to have awesome sex for the first time in years, her best friend (who has relapsed into heroin addiction after being much maligned as an unattractive, over the hill has-been by the tabloids) decides to take her own life. Message: older women in the music industry will not be able to survive and older women who leave their husband and kid for sex are just being selfish and deserve to suffer. I guess this could be read as an accurate portrayal of women's lives under patriarchy but it comes across as melodramatic and contrived. Does someone have to die for a woman to have an orgasm? I hope not! At this point the book becomes a total let-down, if the "glamorous" idea of first-worlders vacationing in Mexico didn't turn you off already, not to mention some of the self-aware "essentializing" of the locals. This was presented as commentary on neo-colonialism, but I would argue, also worked to reinforce it...same goes with all of Josie's white-guilt and internal dialogue/conflicts about stereotyping people she meets.

I actually kind of couldn't believe how cliché the climax and resolution was. It's like, how do people get away with this stuff? This one also made me wonder what I am looking for by reading this kind of "chick-lit" where the characters are dumbed-down and vacant and the authors have little if anything to reveal about the world, despite their efforts to try and describe it. The main thing that bugs me about both Commencement and Trouble is that they are somehow, by default, seen as representing the modern woman or something. The assumption being that we can all relate to the lives and struggles of the characters.

Moving right along, I finished the last Sandra Scoppettone novel in her Lauren Laurano series this afternoon and have been thinking of comparing it to George Pelecanaos' Derek Strange series. Both are five books set in a location, based around a detective. So we'll see how that the meantime there are a few more books I recently read so I'll try and get to those first.


Sandra Scoppettone said...

Thanks for the comparison.

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Sandra,
Thanks for the comment.
I read the Lauren Laurano books right after I read the first four Derek Strange books so the comparison has been happening in my head for awhile now...there are things I like about both. Pelacanos writes in a style I like and I think he's really good at what he does, but, for me, his work is limited by his narrow idea of it was really refreshing to get into Laurano right after that.

I really like your portrayal of how no one takes her seriously as a short, female detective and all the crap she has to endure as a lesbian--it seems very real--the same kind of stuff female rock musicians have to deal with all the time, so I could relate.

I also enjoy the vivid description of New York City and, in two of the books, the surrounding rural area.

I've been reading your blog a bit as well and recently watched Pennies from Heaven on your recommendation and loved it.

Good luck with your next book, I'm dying to read more of your stuff. I've been a fan since Suzuki Beane and read Happy Endings Are All Alike in middle school but only became familiar with your later work recently. Take care.

x Tobi