Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: House Arrest, by Ellen Meeropol

Reviewed by Christina
[This is my first Advance Review Copy of a book! I feel like I'm a real book blogger now!]

Published: anticipated for February 2011

It's about: The story centers around two central characters: Pippa Glenning, a young, pregnant cult member who is under house arrest after the death of her daughter during a solstice ceremony, and Emily Klein, the stuffy home care nurse assigned to monitor the pregnancy. The women build an improbable friendship that stretches the rules from both of their perspectives; Pippa isn't supposed to rely on anyone outside "the family" and Emily isn't supposed to buddy up with her criminally negligent patient. They both have major emotional baggage; their pasts and a bunch of supporting characters complicate things further.

I thought: I had very mixed feelings about this book. It's a fabulously provocative, carefully plotted story told from multiple, diverse perspectives. I enjoyed the time I spent reading it, and after I finished it I continued to think about it. The writing is clear and adequate, not beautiful; story and plot definitely come before style in this case. I kept thinking it smacked of bestseller-dom, and when I finally saw the official cover, that idea was reinforced. (My copy has a very plain Red Hen Press form cover.) Not that being bestsellery is necessarily a bad thing. Ms. Meeropol has lots of important issues vying for attention in this novel, and they are issues that the public would benefit from contemplating more (imho). Plus the story is engaging and will appeal to a broad audience.

One of my favorite ideas in literature is that of Chekhov's Gun. It can be summed up with this quote, straight from the horse's mouth:
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
House Arrest has a bunch of unnecessary rifles on the wall: details about Emily's other patients, a couple of random mentions of the Communist party, the entire character of Gina and especially the chapters told from her perspective. This is a fine line that I imagine would be difficult to walk as an author. How much detail is enough to create a well-rounded character and/or story? What's the difference between an interesting tidbit and a distracting red herring? I think the reason I found these proverbial rifles annoying is because most of the novel is very carefully constructed and tied together. My brain wanted everything to fit nicely within the whole, and some of it just didn't.

Another issue I had was, well, the issues. Mainly that there are too many of them. Here is a partial list:
  • Racism/KKK/neo-nazis
  • Medical ethics
  • Activism ethics (Is this even a thing? Maybe there's a real term for it, but I don't know what it is.)
  • Religious discrimination
  • Moral Luck
That's too many issues for my taste, and I do generally like some issues in my literature. This just isn't a long enough book to do justice to so many important ideas.

Now let's move back to the "Things I Liked" category for one more minute. I LOVED the medical aspects of the narrative. I loved that Emily was a nurse, I loved reading about spina bifida and latex allergy, I loved that some of the action takes place in a hospital. And while I generally didn't love the characters, I did think they were interesting and they presented unusual points of view. This novel is original, that's for sure, and it really was fun to read and review.

Verdict: It's an in-betweener.

Reading Recommendations: I've enjoyed reading Ellen Meeropol's blog today.

Warnings: A little bit of mild language, some adult themes. Nothing vulgar.

Favorite excerpts: [Sorry if this is a little bewildering as an excerpt, but it was my favorite part! And if I describe what's happening here it will be a major spoiler.]
"A tingling started in her hands and feet. It spiraled around each finger, each toe, then tightened. It circled her ankles and wrists. Spiraling then squeezing. The zinging sensation climbed to her knees and thighs, her elbows and armpits. By then her lips and tongue and earlobes were thick and sleepy and prickly. Hornets buzzed in her ears, whirred until they roared. they raced against her heartbeat, stinging and squeezing. The tingling became bursts of impossible light, sparkles marching through her stomach, burning up all the air. There was something wrong with her eyes too. A dreadful shimmering. Electric sparks that illuminated armies of dying embers in rows. Strobe flashes of radiance.
The oscillating dazzles rode her blood and nerve highways. They gathered in her chest, where they ricocheted against each other, sucked up every bit of air, squirreled along her ribs, crawled behind her breastbone. Finally they imploded into a solid mass, a furry animal caught in a blind trap, scratching and clawing and biting to get out, get air."

What I'm reading next: Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace