Laura Pederson's novel Beginner's Luck has given me new faith in the publishability of my own work.
First, a bit of background. Last week, a PR chap emailed me and asked me if I'd like to review a book with some Unitarians in it. Sure, I said. Turns out it's a trilogy, and he offered to send me the whole thing. I'm only actually asked to review the third, but I will review all of them, since I don't like to start a series in the middle so I'm reading them anyway. I will try to post those reviews Monday, Wednesday and Friday of this week.
The plot is solid enough and did keep me reading. It centers around Hallie, a sixteen-year-old gambling aficionado who drops out of school, runs away from home and ends up living in this house full of loveable eccentrics and doing their yard work for them. The minor characters' reactions to all of this are all reasonable, which makes the level of narrative tone-deafness exhibited in the characterization of the main characters all the more puzzling.
As this book is the story of a high-school senior told from her perspective, it took me a while to figure out whether the immaturity to the writing was intentional. Lots of things didn't quite ring true, but that could have been a narrative device of some sort to show the immaturity of the narrator.
But there are just too many places where the adults sound strangely like teenagers. and vice versa. After we've met the wacky old lady and the two gay men, who fall predictably into "Will" and "Jack" fictional gay guy archetypes, the "Will" gay guy whose name is "Gil" actually says, in an apparent attempt to justify himself to a sixteen-year-old whom he's just met, "I'm the normal one here," later adding that nobody else in the house typically knows what day it is.
I just can't see anybody over the age of twelve feeling so insecure that they would say such a thing about their own family to a total stranger, and Gil is clearly intended to be the family's voice of reason.
For another example, the Olivia, the old lady, writes pornography and once cheerfully interrupts the conversation to ask if anybody knows a good synonym for "pussy."
I had two reactions to this:
1. OK, you're ECCENTRIC. WE GET IT.
2. That's just not a realistic question. I have written pornography before. I have never needed to ask that question. Having an unusual term for a body part is not sexy, it's distracting. And if I did ask for a synonym, I would ask it including some context. We all use different words from time to time, but for fiction purposes, a man who says "vagina," a man who says "pussy," and a man who says "snatch" have three very different views of that body part and one might suspect women in general.
The main adult characters all have a Royal-Tennenbaums-esque wacky-by-design quality to them. I've read lots of books with eccentrics in them that handle eccentricity better than Beginner's Luck does. Auntie Mame and A Confederacy of Dunces' main character Ignatius J. Reilly spring immediately to mind. A Confederacy of Dunces might be one of the greatest books in modern literature so perhaps any comparison to that is unfair, but even in Auntie Mame, the characters seemed real. As theatrical as Auntie Mame is, she never feels forced and you never feel that she has a certain quality just because the reader might find it amusing.
Olivia has an alcoholic pet chimpanzee.
In places, it almost feels like the characters themselves are imagining the movie version.
The main character Hallie runs away from home without even really considering that people would worry about her. Her character in general has an odd coldness to her that makes her hard to feel for, though my impression is that I'm supposed to find her sympathetic. Also, she uses a gambling metaphor every other sentence for the first third of the book, then stops almost completely for awhile, then starts again somewhat toward the end. Gambling goes from her passion to her hobby awfully quickly and with little explanation.
So far, the Unitarianism in the series is pretty mild and is more or less treated as one more quirky thing about Olivia. Her character is clearly her church's resident old lady who does tons of social justice work, which is reasonable enough. I've never been to a UU church that didn't have one. There are a lot of UUism one liners of the "Yes, we have no religion" variety. They don't offend me, but they aren't very interesting or original, either.
If I had written this book, I would have said to myself, "it's not bad, but it's not ready for primetime, either" and not even have looked for an agent, figuring that I should use what I've learned from my first novel to write my next one. That's what I did with the novel I wrote last spring. But I'm starting to reconsider that if this Beginner's Luck book is actually publishable.
All that said, judging by the comments at Amazon I linked to above, this book's following is enthusiastic and passionate among people who like this sort of thing. To them I'd reccomend Ferrol Sams' Run with the Horseman series as I think it takes some similar ideas and does more interesting things with them.
Also, this is the first book of a trilogy. Maybe the author has learned some lessons and will apply them to the next book and it will be better.
I'll let you know on Wednesday.