Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Based Upon Availability: A Novel by Alix Strauss - 352 pgs

Book CoverIn this novel of loosely connected stories, a group of eight women fumble through heartache, loneliness and idiosyncrasies of fate that lead them stumbling into the future. The story begins with thirty-something Morgan, a woman who uses her elevated position at the famed Four Seasons Hotel to snoop through the guests rooms and relieve them of their personal effects. Due to a tragedy in her early life, Morgan is unable to make emotional connections with those around her and finds herself drifting further and further away from the people in her life. As Morgan's story winds to a close, we meet Anne, a shy and unassuming woman whose mind is plagued by the obsessive-compulsive disorder that takes over her life. As Anne moves towards a new and healing relationship, she discovers that things are not at all what they seem and is left even more broken then she assumed she could ever be. Following on Anne's heels is Trish, a woman whose jealousy and desires are creeping into her life in an alarming way, wreaking havoc on both her old friendships and new. Trish is hoping to find a soft place to land, a friendship that will edify as well as enrich her. Ellen is manifesting the symptoms of a hysterical pregnancy, driving her husband and family away with her ever-growing neurosis, and Robin is about to perpetrate a truly horrifying act on a sister that has abused her all her life. Shelia is hoping that her lover will suddenly change his mind about leaving his wife, and rock star Lou is being sequestered in a hotel room in an attempt to kick her raging drug habit. Franny is living a life of appearances and is clinging to a fantasy that will never bear fruit, frantically attaching herself to the strangers who pass through her life in an attempt to wring some meaning from her life. All of these women's lives intersect at crucial moments, but none are able to stop the terrible slow motion destruction of any of the other's futures. Both raw and uncomfortably moving, Alix Strauss deftly imagines the hidden lives of a group of women desperately in search of meaning and belonging.

About once every year, I do a reread of one of my favorite books. The book is called Self-Help, written by Lorrie Moore. Self-Help is a group of short stories that all share the themes of death, loss and isolation. I know, I know, it sounds kind of depressing, but the thing that keeps me coming back is the haunting humanity that comes through in every page, the subtle nuances of life that Moore captures in her ultra-realistic characters. I was wonderfully surprised to find a lot of the same qualities in this tale. I would be a little hesitant to classify this book as a novel (as it's suggested by the title), rather, I would call this a group of character sketches that share a lot of the same themes and subjects and that expertly capture the overwhelming sadness that sometimes permeates the everyday life.

One of the things I most enjoy about a good character driven novel is the fact that, if done well, it's interesting to recognize the emotions and traits of the characters in relation to myself. This book excelled at this. It was humbling and almost searing to watch these women painfully expose their true selves and maneuver around others with their frailties worn on their sleeves for everyone to see. Their embarrassments were magnified, their isolation seemingly extreme, and their self pity utterly exposed for all who cared to look. It was almost painful to read about how broken these people were, to see them caught in lives that had no meaning and lost not only to one another, but to themselves. These were successful women who had no success in the arenas of their hearts and minds, whose neuroses were only thinly covered by the egos that protected them. As each woman comes forward to expose her true self, it's as if she is shedding her skin to reveal the unfinished being beneath, the part of her that is too fragile to see the light of day and must hide beneath the veneer of polish that she presents to the world.

I do think that there were some women that I connected with in this story more than others. I felt particularly engrossed in Robin's story of revenge, and though it was appalling and frightening, I couldn't help but feel that she finally got the vindication that she deserved. I also felt very moved by Ellen's story of her turmoil with the false pregnancy. I thought it was very interesting to see someone so caught up in mental confusion while the world looked on in pity and derision. I think Ellen's story hit me the hardest, though I also felt for Anne and her struggles with OCD. Other stories didn't affect me as much. For example, I found it really hard to connect with Shelia and her obsession with her married lover, or Franny and her co-dependence. I think this might have been because these two women had very different morals and mindsets from myself and I felt like I couldn't understand their plights as well. Their emotions were still touching and painful to read about, it's just that I lacked the internal component for them to resonate with me.

The various themes that were addressed in this book were done in such an elegant and personal way that I really found myself moved by the book. These women dealt with some heavy and emotion-laden issues. These issues are things that we hide under our mental bed and never admit to others, and in revealing them Strauss makes her characters particularly vulnerable and afflicted. While I was reading this book, I wondered just how many women out there are suffering under the yokes of these same horrible feelings, how many are walking around looking whole while feeling so emotionally scarred and damaged. The book speaks of strong women with powerful weaknesses, heroes who all carry their fatal flaw just under the surface. As these women struggled through their days and nights, their wounds became ever more noticeable and debilitating until there was barely enough skin to cover them from the world.

I can't tell you how much this book moved and haunted me, and the types of emotions that it brought forth while reading it. I think may writers have tried to achieve this effect in their books and I definitely felt that Strauss did it better than most. Though this book is a very dark look into the lives of damaged women, I feel that almost any woman who reads it will be able to recognize the feelings and behaviors that come creeping from these pages and be able to humbly feel for these women who try so hard to maintain their unaffected facade beneath the penetrating glare of the everyday. I think this book is another that I will be rereading from time to time, not only to explore the rich world of emotion that Strauss creates, but as a way to connect with the some of the universal feelings that we, as women, share and undergo. A very powerful and moving read. Highly recommended.

About Alix Strauss

Alix Strauss has been a featured lifestyle and trend writer on national morning and talk shows. Her articles cover a range of topics and have appeared in The New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire and Departures, among others. Her other books include the award-winning collection of shorts, The Joy of Funerals, an anthology of blind date horror stories Have I Got a Guy For You, and most recently, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous and the Notorious.

Connect with Alix:

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour stops to see what other bloggers felt about this very moving book:

Tuesday, June 8th: nomadreader
Wednesday, June 9th: Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, June 10th: Book Addiction
Monday, June 14th: Dolce Bellezza
Tuesday, June 22nd: Heart 2 Heart
Wednesday, June 23rd: Reading on a Rainy Day
Thursday, June 24th: As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves
Tuesday, June 29th: Booksie's Blog
Wednesday, June 30th: Starting Fresh
Date TBD: Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?


bermudaonion said...

I love a character driven novel when it's so well written that I get attached to the characters. This one sounds like a winner!

Steph said...

Fantastic review! This is probably the most in-depth analysis that I've read of this book so far, and you've made me really want to read it. It sounds like it's really complex and layered, which is something I really like in my books.

And, I've never read anything by Lorrie Moore, but now you've made me want to read her short story collection!

S. Krishna said...

Wow, I'm really glad you enjoyed this one so much! Great review!

Gayle said...

I am about 45 pages in, and really liking it so far. Thanks for a great review!

Cath said...

This book sounds amazing and juicy and moving and satisfying and now I really, really want to read it! Plus, I think the cover is adorable. :)

Thanks for this great review!

Literary Feline said...

Wow. This sounds like quite a book. I'm drawn to books like this, seemingly short stories connected together. And also books that bring out strong emotions. I will definitely have to add this one to my wish list. Thank you for your wonderful review.

Aarti said...

This is a wonderful review, Heather! I love it. I really like interconnected stories, especially when they are done well. I also like the idea of so many different ways of dealing with complicated situations and the like. Definitely sounds like one I'd enjoy!

Jenny said...

What an amazing review!! The others I've read didn't say great things but your review makes it sound like something I'd really like. I was hoping to try to read this by the release date, but my copy of this book is with my box that I sent from BEA that hasn't arrived yet!! Aah!!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I think I am going to love this novel Heather. As you've described it, it has all the elements I love in a good read. Got it from PBS last week.

Ana S. said...

The way you described this kind of reminded me of The Group by Mary McCarthy. They're probably very different books, but The Group was also about women struggling with many issues I could recognise, even if my life circumstances are completely different from theirs.

Suko said...

Another wonderful review! This sounds like a very moving book, a story about the hidden lives of women, with "the haunting humanity that comes through in every page".

nomadreader said...

I'm glad to see someone enjoyed this one! I was not a big fan of it, but there were some good elements.

Mystica said...

A really detailed review of this book which sounds very good. Thank you.

Marie Cloutier said...

I'm glad to hear you liked this. I have this to read for work and now I'm looking forward to it even more!

Lisa said...

Definitely sounds like one to add to the wishlist but it's good to know that it's not really a novel going in.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I was over at Boston Bibliophile, saw your site mentioned and thought I'd stop by to say hello. A great blog with some interesting reviews, it's nice to have met you.

Darlene said...

Great review! I'm glad you liked it so much - it's great when a book leaves you with the feeling that you know one day you will reread it. I had wondered about this one and wasn't sure I'd like it. I'm thinking now I may have.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like this book really resonated with you. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Gayle said...

I really enjoyed your review and linked to it from mine:


Melissa said...

I'll have to add this one to my list! I love character books, but for some reason they can seem to read a little slow to me. Hopefully soon I'll have time to devote to a book and will pick this one up.

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