Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives – A Conversation with Aarti

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin — 288 pgs

Book CoverBaba Segi lives in modern day Nigeria with his four wives and their children, but has recently become very bothered by the fact that his fourth wife Bolanle has not yet conceived. Bolanle, a shy and unassuming young woman, has her own reasons for marrying Baba Segi, reasons that overshadow her life but are not shared with anyone. When Baba Segi begins to take this matter of non-conception into his own hands, a startling picture of the family's home life is revealed. It seems that Baba Segi's other wives are not happy with their husband's choice of Bolanle. To start with, she is far more educated than any of the others and where the other women are cruel and calculating, Bolanle is even tempered and mild. When the first and third wives begin to plot unfortunate accidents for Bolanle, a war begins to rage silently in their home. Though Bolanle knows she is despised and victimized, she chooses to remain with her husband and the other wives, no matter what it will cost her. Soon Baba Segi is furiously searching for answers to his wife's barrenness, but in doing this, he will uncover a secret that will threaten to disrupt his home in ways he can scarcely imagine. Written with a sense of directness and combustion, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives uncovers the life of a fiercely dysfunctional family living in the throes of polygamy.

When I found out that I would be reviewing this book for Library Thing's Early Reviewers Program, I was pretty excited. But when I also found out that my good friend Aarti who runs the great blog BookLust would also be reviewing the book for them, I was thrilled! We talked about it and decided that we would read this book together and post our thoughts on it. This review is more of a conversation than a straight review or a Q and A format and I really appreciated being able to read and discuss this with Aarti. As usual, her perceptive and thoughtful approach to this book really heightened my experience of it and I found that we had much the same opinion of the story as a whole. So please sit back and share our discussion with us! The first half is posted here, and the second half can be found over at BookLust.

Aarti: I found the book pretty disappointing. I don't know if it was my mood or my listlessness or what, but I did not feel engaged with it at all. I didn't like any of the wives, I didn't like Baba Segi and everyone in the book just seemed so selfish. I felt so bad for Baba Segi at the end, but I didn't like him before, so I wasn't THAT empathetic. Also, it took me a while to figure out the nomenclature- I just decided that Baba Segi must be the husband Iya Segi was talking about in her first section, even though he had a different name (or no name at all?) in that whole part of the book. I only later realized (because I think it was told to us) that all the characters were referred to by the name of their first child, except Bolanle, who didn't have any.

Heather: I have to agree with you that the book was not all that great. First off, I kind of felt that certain things were described and portrayed a little crassly at times. I didn't really need to hear so much about bodily functions and how greatly Baba Segi was endowed. I sometimes felt that these things really cheapened the writing and I wasn't sure why they were there at all. I don't think all this stuff was really necessary in the story. I thought it was mostly a little tasteless and I think the book would have been just fine without it. I was thinking while I was reading that maybe the author was trying to be earthy , but to me it was just kind of crude.

Aarti: You're absolutely right! I don't know why bodily functions showed up so much, either. I think your comment on it "cheapening" the book is very accurate. I am not sure if that is just the author's style or something else that maybe I just didn't catch onto, but it reminded me a bit of a somewhat vulgar movie, like Scary Movie. Not that I don't like vulgar humor, but this situation wasn't particularly funny, and so I thought it was a little off.

Heather: I also didn't really like any of the characters, and for the most part, I couldn't stand Baba Segi himself. He was a total misogynist and the way he treated Bolanle was just too much. I did feel sorry for him by the end of the book as well, but it was hard to feel too much for him since he spent most of the book being disrespectful, opinionated and rude. It was hard not to feel like he got what he deserved in some ways. I think his views on women and relationships were very simplistic and not all that admirable.

Aarti: Agreed. He was not in the least a character I could empathize with. He had no real personality until the very end. He was just a massive caricature.

Heather: You know, most of the characters in this book seemed like caricatures, which is seems to be pretty prevalent in books that deal with polygamy. Even some of the characters in The Lonely Polygamist fell into this trap. I'd love to see a book that deals with polygamy that doesn't employ this strategy sometime. I guess it's hard for me to say, because although I do know quite a few polyamorous people, I don't know any polygamists, so I can't say if these exaggerations are somewhat based in reality or not. I think sometimes it's easier for an author to create caricatures in writing about situations that are so foreign to them instead of creating a real life and toned down version that more fully represents the truth. I also thought that all the men in this story were jerks. They all treated women as if they were chattel and only wanted to use them sexually and then throw them away when they were done. It was almost like all the men in this story were just facets of the same man, a pompous and self serving pig who is constantly taking from the women of the story. I do wonder if the author is trying to subtly man-bash in this book, but seeing that her female characters are not really any better, I can't say for sure. I can say that the people who populated this book were all extremely unlikable, and not in a way that was particularly interesting or complex. They each embodied horrible characteristics and they were pretty much all hateful people. The women were really no better than the men and I couldn't get over all the horrible things they did to one another.

Aarti: That's something I wondered a lot about while reading this book, maybe because I just asked the question on my blog about the importance of theme in reading a novel. I have NO IDEA what the theme of this book was. I really thought it was talking about the importance of women taking care of themselves, but then at the end, there wasn't much reason to believe that at all. I have this vague idea that maybe the book was allegorical in some way, but I don't know what vices each character stands for...

Heather: I also couldn't pick out a theme in this story. Which leads me to believe either I read this book too superficially or the author wrote this book with no theme in mind. I think the plot of this book was basically hinged on a giant secret that the reader isn't privy to until the closing sections, and for me it just did not work. I had figured out the secret pretty early on and felt like the author didn't really do enough to disguise it in her narrative or to creatively keep it obscure to the reader. I felt like it was pretty shoddily executed overall and it kept me from really being able to experience the cohesion of the story.

Aarti: Yes, I thought it was very clumsily done, too. I just didn't get why the first and third wives hated Bolanle SO MUCH, compared to the other wives. It didn't make any sense to me at all. Just because she was college-educated? Does that mean that she would go around telling all their secrets to other people? I didn't make that leap.

Thanks for sharing this conversation with us! Now, please hop on over to BookLust to read some of the other thoughts we had on this book, including the mysteries of its main character and the strange implications this book draws on polygamy.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Jenny said...

Well, sounds like you both are in total agreement! Certainly does not sound like my type of book.

Amy said...

Huh, you do sound to be in total agreement, and I'm so disappointed as this is a book I've been really looking forward to getting my hands on at some point! Now I'm off to read part 2 of your discussion... :D

Aarti said...

Thanks so much for reading and reviewing this book with me, Heather! That was the highlight of the experience for me :-)

Suko said...

I really enjoyed the format of this post, and will visit Aarti's blog as well. It seems that neither of you "enjoyed" this book very much, not because of the subject matter but because of the way it was handled.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Love your conversations! It is a big fat bummer though that this book didn't rise to the challenge. It had potential from the synopsis. I wouldn't want to read about Mr. Man's endowments or his functions, thanks.

Ana S. said...

What a pity this was so disappointing - the fact that the characters are like caricatures really makes me want to stay away from it. But I really enjoyed reading your conversation :)

Jenny said...

I enjoyed seeing y'all's thoughts! And I know I'd have reacted the same way to the vulgar humor. I enjoy it occasionally in real life, but frequent use of it in books frustrates me. (Unless it's Tristram Shandy, in which case I make an exception.)

Darlene said...

In reading your thoughts on the book - the description and all I was thinking that this would really be a book I'd like. Then I saw your discussion. It seems the book is seriously lacking in some areas. That's too bad because it certainly sounded promising.

Literary Feline said...

What a great discussion! I'm just sorry the book didn't meet expectation.

Becca said...

This sounds like such an interesting story in the description. Such a shame that it doesn't meet the expectations. I read one other review of this book and they basically said the same thing. How disappointing. Great to read your joint review though!

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