Monday, December 19, 2011

Model Home by Eric Puchner — 384 pgs

The Ziller family is experiencing growing pains. While father Warren is secretly unloading assets due to his failure in the real estate market, his wife, Camille, is beginning to consider an affair with the foreign man she works with. Meanwhile, the oldest Ziller child, Dustin, is in his punk rock phase, and though Warren tries to keep some connection between them, he’s drifting further and further away. Daughter Lyle is suffering from a healthy dose of ennui over her inability to fit in with other teenagers, while youngest son Jonas is just different in every way possible. As the three children encounter the trials of young adulthood and Camille finds herself pulling away from Warren, things go from bad to worse. It seems as if the family may lose their house as well as any ties that have been holding them together. But upon returning from an impromptu trip that may pull everyone back together, a horrible accident befalls one of the children, and it’s up to the rest of the Zillers to put their lives back together, piece by crumbling piece. But although the accident initially has some restorative effects for the family, soon everything begins to crumble in an alarming yet strangely methodical way, leaving each member to fend for themselves in a house of cards that is rapidly deconstructing. Dark and persuasive, Model Home reaches through the pathos with startling moments of clarity and humor that will surprise readers and keep them on the edge of their seats rooting for this strange family of misfits.

I have to admit that I didn’t like this book very much, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of it had to do with the fact that I listened to this one on audio, and the narrator, David Colacci,  just ruined the whole thing for me. He was nasally. He was monotone for most of the time and his voice showed no range when it came to expressing what I thought were serious emotions. I even played a snippet of this book in the car when my husband and I were running errands, and although he was intrigued by the story, he mentioned that the narrator was awful. I spent so much time glancing at how long I had left with this book that I wasn’t able to enjoy it very much at all. I think had I read it in print, this would have ended up being a very different review.

This book had an unexpected streak of humor, which is surprising given the subject matter. Puchner has a way of injecting humor into some very dark situations and it softens a lot of the tragedies that have befallen this particular family. Without these brief bits of humor, this book would have been about as bleak as bleak can be. There were times I snorted aloud at something that Puchner had intuited about his characters and the way that he shares it with his readers. When it comes right down to it, it was this dark and cynical humor that made me continue on with the book and not give it up in frustration. A lot of the situations that the family got themselves into were odd as well, and though at first I wondered if Puchner was substituting idiosyncratic elements for a solid and well written tale, I ultimately grew to appreciate the absurdness that was placed so liberally in this story.

One thing that really bothered me was the author’s willingness to be so cruel to his characters. For some reason, it’s always grieved me when an author thinks nothing of dumping the most distressing and horrible things onto these beings that he’s created and gives his characters no way out. I sort of felt that way with this book. Puchner spends a lot of time being cruel to his characters, and aside from the cynical comedy that’s peppered throughout the book, there’s not much in these situations to laugh at. I felt a little overwhelmed at all this family was going through and kept wondering when they would get a break. Something about the needless cruelty really got to me, and I can fully admit that it may have been the period of life I’m in right now and not the book itself. I can imagine that had I read this at a different time,  I might have never given this aspect the consideration that I give it today.

When all is said and done, this isn’t a happy story, though it does have moments of dark humor. It’s not redemptive or hopeful, but it is very emotionally complex and it does tell a story that, like life, is unpredictable and slightly strange. I did admire the way Puchner harnessed his tale and kept all the elements tight and organic, but the combination of the horrendous narrator and the casual cruelty of the author to his characters makes me think that either I read this book at the wrong time or that I should have tried a different format. It was a difficult book for me to get through, and though there were some brilliant moments, I would have to recommend this one with caveats.

19 comments:

Nymeth said...

I also prefer authors who treat their characters more kindly, although I can see how sometimes a story requires something different.

TheBookGirl said...

Fantastic review Heather.

I admire your perserverance in the face of an awful narrator -- that's a deal breaker for me with audiobooks. I won't listen if I don't like the narration, period.
If I do try this one, I'll be sure to look for the print version.

I wonder from reading your review if you got the feeling at times that the author was almost laughing at his characters, as opposed to encouraging his reader to laugh at the situations that befell them...if that were so, I wouldn't much care for the book either.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review! I've got to hand it to you for sticking it out until the end!

Harvee said...

It's interesting how much a narrator on an audio can influence your enjoyment of a book. I have had a reader make me less interested in a book, too. Too bad the plot wasn't one you liked either.

Steph said...

I think this book was on the roster for The Morning News's Tournament of Books, but even then, I didn't hear all that much about it. I don't mind books that take a darker nature and even that have unlikable characters, but you're right that a book in which the author offers unrelentingly awful circumstances to his characters repeatedly is a different sort of animal.

I also can't believe that you stuck with this one given how awful the narrator sounds! I know all too well how certain audiobook narrators can ruin a book (that first Sookie Stackhouse book was always doomed to begin with, but the woman reading the book definitely didn't help matters!), so it's a shame that was the case here. It does sound like there were some good elements though circumstances certainly didn't make it easy for you to find them!

Vasilly said...

I've read similar reviews about Model Home. I don't think I'll give this book a try. Hope your next read is better.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I wasn't as turned off by the narrator as you, but I would admit that there are better ones out there. But it was just one bad thing after another with this family, and even though there was a small glimmer of hope near the end, it just wasn't enough to make up for all the sadness and misery.

Jenners said...

Oh no … sounds like a book ruined by a narrator. I was totally into the premise of the book, so maybe I'll try it in print and avoid the audio version.

Andi said...

This one was on my "potentials" list for 2011 since it showed up in the 2011 Tournament of Books. I didn't get around to it, and I'm not sure I'd like it if I did. Meh!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

A bad narrator just destroys a story for me, also. In fact, I sometimes stay away from male narrators because I never find a great deal of range in their voices.

bermudaonion said...

I find that I don't focus on the story at all when the narration is monotone. I'm not sure how I feel about the needless cruelty - it does seem like some people's lives are that way.

Suko said...

Excellent, honest review! I don't think this would be my cup of tea, either.

Amy said...

Interesting points about authors being cruel. I think I agree with you to a point, but at the same time it sometimes feels more real to me you know!

Cruddy that the narrator was so terrible though.

softdrink said...

Ugh, nasally monotones are bad, bad, bad. Even though I have a horrid voice, I still expect better from narrators!

Aarti said...

Oh, I don't think I could get through an audiobook with a bad narrator- good for you! I think it's interesting what you say about authors that dump so much misery on their characters. I think that is how I felt when reading The Lonely Polygamist- it just got so painful for me to hear about all those heartbroken people. But sometimes, authors make the pain so BEAUTIFUL. Sometimes.

nomadreader said...

I was intrigued by this one when it made the finals for the Tournament of Books, but I never got around to reading it. I'm still intrigued, but I am sometimes bothered by authors who are cruel to their characters, particularly if there is no reason. If I do check this one out, it definitely won't be on audio! Thanks for a honest and thoughtful review.

Jenny said...

I was really looking forward to your review (I've been meaning to read it since you posted but I've been so busy the last few days). I'm disappointed to hear that it wasn't that great! I thought this sounded so good, but then I read a review similar to yours and forgot about the book. Then I read another great review and now I'm back to being unsure. Sounds a little dark for me right now.

Darlene said...

I have been really curious about seeing this book and had thought about picking it up but if it wasn't great for you, then it's unlikely to be for me either. I think I'll probably skip it for now.

Amy said...

I completely understand what you're saying about an author treating their characters with cruelty. I have difficulty with that, too. It sounds like all of the characters get kind of beat up in this book. I'm partly interested to know what happens to the people in this family but also concerned because it seems like they all go through quite a lot of difficulties and pain and it doesn't really let up. I do wonder why the author treated his characters in this way.

I'm not sure if I'll read this book but if I do, I'm going to read it at the same time as something lighter and entertaining....maybe a David Sedaris book!

I'm sorry the narrator wasn't very good. I guess that's the risk with audi books but, fortunately it doesn't seem to happen often and at least you now know to avoid other books he narrates :o)

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