Thursday, July 30, 2020

Book 244: The Feast of Love

"You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have."

Dates read: June 22-25, 2018

Rating: 5/10

What is it, exactly, that makes up "chemistry"? I'm sure many of us have sat through a date with a perfectly nice, reasonably attractive human being who just could not possibly be less interesting in a let's-fall-in-love kind of way. On the other hand, there's the stranger we were in the elevator chatting with for five minutes that lingers in our mind for weeks afterward. You can ignore it, but if it's there, you can't force it.

The sparks and romantic connections between various couples in Ann Arbor are the connecting thread in Charles Baxter's A Feast of Love. Most of them are connected through Bradley, a middle-aged man who owns a coffee shop in the mall but pursues his love of painting at home. Bradley's marriages, both of which end in divorce, are brought in, as are his young employees Chloe and Oscar, who are crazy about each other. His neighbors, a long-married couple struggling with how to deal with their drug-addicted son, are also players in the drama. The story is framed by the conceit that a friend of Bradley's, a professor and writer (meant to be Baxter himself), is interviewing all of the players one-by-one over a period of time.

There's not much in the way of a plot, per se. Each little story has its own rising and falling action...Bradley's first wife, who leaves him when she falls head over heels for another woman, is a bit player, but his second wife, who marries him mostly to spite the lover who refuses to leave his wife for her, has a larger role in the narrative. Chloe and Oscar's story, which appears steadily throughout the book and sees the couple dealing with his unbalanced father and a larger, more unexpected problem, provides probably the most straightforward structure in the whole thing. Also constantly recurring is the title, first as the name of Bradley's best painting, which then inspires the author-within-the-book to title his work in progress after it.

When this book is on, it has moments of real brilliance. The story I mentioned above, in which Bradley's first wife meets, falls for, and eventually divorces Bradley in pursuit of the other woman, feels alive with poignancy. A story Bradley relates about having to kidnap his own dog from his sister sparkles with dark humor. And it's more specific to me personally, but as an Ann Arborite in exile, I love reading about the city. Allmendinger Park, post-game traffic, the mall...all of these are deeply familiar to me and make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to see on the page. The experience of seeing places that are meaningful to me depicted in print is something I didn't even know could be as powerful as I found it.

Now for the critical part. I feel like I've read several of these interconnected-vignette style books lately and perhaps I'm just tiring of that presentation, but all of them suffer from a lack of traditional plot and tension. This feels more like a piece of writing than a book, if that makes sense. It feels stylized and over-written, and part of the issue is that the character work is spotty. Bradley's clearly meant to have a particular personality but it never really feels honest or consistent, and the way Chloe is written was extremely off-putting to me. She's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before that was a thing, insisting on a quirky pronunciation of her name and using some of the most cringey language to describe sex I've ever read. Anyone who writes a girl under 20 as using the phrase "lovemaking" to describe sex unironically has never really listened to a young woman talk about it, and that is far from the worst example. In the end, I just never really got invested in it. There's some very capable storytelling here, in parts, but it's not well-realized enough throughout to get an affirmative recommendation for me unless you're determined to read about Ann Arbor.

One year ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Two years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Three years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Four years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

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