This is the second selection of the Books, Babe’s and Bordeaux book club, and the reason that we chose it was because Tatjana Soli pinpointed it as one of her favorite books when we hosted her for an author discussion during our previous meeting. I must say that I was excited by the choice and had high hopes for this book after having read and loved her later book, Home. I discovered that this was actually Robinson’s first book, and while I thought that the ideas that it presented were very interesting, there was something about the execution of the book that left me feeling a little cold.
First of all, I must say that there was a curious lack of emotional cohesion in this story. Things were going on that had emotional weight and importance, yet the lack of feeling in the writing made the story feel almost clinical. I never was able to get close to the characters because of the lack of empathy in the writing. From reading the summary paragraph above, you would imagine that this book would be fraught with emotion and feeling, but curiously, it was utterly devoid of these emotions. It all felt very stale, like Robinson was writing case notes on a difficult psychological case. There was no spark and life in the story she told, leaving me to wonder if reading this book was going to be a pointless exercise in itself. I never felt that I really knew any of the characters and how they were feeling. Sure they did things, and oftentimes those things were bizarre and uncomfortable, but I never felt I knew the reason why they did these things, or how they felt about them.
I also got a feeling of intense claustrophobia when reading this book, and I can’t exactly explain why. Everything was so dense, from the writing to the way the family lived to the outcome of the situations portrayed, and it all made me feel like I was in a closed little box with little air. It was not a fun experience, and I began to dread having to sit down with it again and again. Everything was so crammed within the story and there was little room for light or easy and uncomplicated emotion. When a book is so filled with portent, it begins to feel too ponderous to handle, and though I do sometimes enjoy these types of books, I felt that this one was overly filled with a type of darkness and murkiness that I didn’t understand or enjoy. At times the tale attempted lightness, but because of all the weight that was dragging the story down, I couldn’t buy into it. Now that I think on it, I realize my reaction to this book is one of hopelessness due to the depression and subdued anxiety that tried to disguise itself as something else. What that something else is, I never quite understood.
Not a lot happens in this book. It’s more of a character study of the people who populate the pages. In Sylvie, Robinson has created a domestically and mentally challenged individual who has no business raising children. In the young girls, she’s created a repository for all the worry and anxiety that both the reader and Sylvie harbor towards the act of successfully raising them. It was a worrisome book that felt very slow and uneventful, and it had the quality of one moving slowly underwater, which, interestingly enough, is one of the things that was portrayed in the plot. Where the book strived to be deep and meaningful, I only found that it was maudlin and overwhelming, and where there was a brief bit of hope, it was always quickly extinguished. This was a book that surged in ebbs and flows of disappointment and strangeness, and I was never able to find my reading groove with it because reading it made me feel overcome with desperation. This is not a book that I would feel comfortable recommending, and I would tend to think that it’s only necessary for completists. Definitely not a favorite.