Top critical review
Potentially wonderful writer, first novel falls short.
Reviewed in the United States on June 3, 2014
I want to say up front that this seems to be Joseph's first or second novel, and as a working novelist and professional editor, I know that writers improve greatly after the first. I also want to say that if you are a writer, you will not find this read a waste of time: from a technical standpoint, Joseph does a few things beautifully, and others not so well.
The premise is fascinating, and brave: an exploration of the dynamics of bisexuality in a society that has little acceptance or understanding of it. I think this is an issue that needs to be explored (and one that I did in my book Gentlemen's Game).
Joseph is good at establishing an atmosphere. The character of Paul is well-developed, multi-layered, fascinating. He lives and breathes. His motives are clear, he is neither angel nor demon: he is heart-wrenchingly human. There are three major characters in this book, and they all three needed to have this depth. The other two, Maggie and Kent, always seem to be held at arm's length from the reader.
There is a lot to like about the book: it has a fascinating story, and the language is occasionally quite beautiful. (Joseph has enormous raw potential as an extremely lyrical writer! - I hope she has a good editor to teach her to do it well.) She obviously has a great imagination and surely "saw" her characters more than she was able to convey them. She knows how to hook a reader and keep the story engaging - and that is enormous.
I had three major issues with it, as an editor, as a professional writer, and as a reader:
- Joseph often attempts to meander into a sort of dreamy prose, which is pretty enough, but too often incoherent. Dozens of times I finished a paragraph or short passage to go, "Huh?" Metaphors and other such language nuance only works when it has meaning for the reader. When it is so unclear as to lose meaning, it is not successful. (I did question whether it was just I who had this issue, and ran some passages by other writer friends, who had the same reaction.)
- Characterization. The two major characters who weren't developed were one-dimensional and as a result they were impossible to respect as a reader. I often didn't understand their motives: although Joseph as narrator attempts to state their motives outright, their behaviors don't match it. I was constantly confused by them, and often annoyed. This, in combination with the sometimes meaningless passages, made this reader very weary.
- The ending. I still have no idea what happened. I actually wondered whether I was missing a chapter (I had the Kindle edition) and had to check that to satisfy myself that the writer had ended it where she had. As a reader I was frustrated - the novel is a long one, and there was no reward. Not only does the ending seem to come out of nowhere and happen way too abruptly to make sense, but because of the obscure style of language, the reader literally does not know what happened - namely, whether two characters are going to live or not. I had no idea what the implication was. (Again, because I wanted to be fair, I checked with others who had read the book, and each one of 4 had the same questions.)
I would have rated this higher if the ending had worked. But it doesn't. I felt as if the last about 1/4 of the book was hastily put together, as if the writer lost her way and had to tie it up somehow: as an editor I know that this is a common problem for newer writers. I was disappointed for her, because the book could have been so much better.
I am planning to read another book by this writer. I am hoping that, given her obvious talent with language, that she learned something about structure and clarity in writing in the interim. Because she has enormous potential.