Thursday, January 20, 2022

Book 319: Good Riddance


"I was never someone to let things go, and I wasn't going to start now. Besides being furious and impatient, I was worried that word would have gotten around Pickering. What if some bigmouth wrote to my father with misguided congratulations about how his late wife's yearbook had made the big time?" 

Dates read: June 3-7, 2019

Rating: 2/10

I think Facebook has destroyed the high school reunion. Where once upon a time people might have shown up to find out who got married, who got divorced, who succeeded and who didn't, now all of that information is available online on demand. If I want to know if the girl who was awful to me my freshman year had her life turn out okay, I can click over to her profile and see what she looks like and her husband and kids and where she works. It takes the mystery out of it. And once you get that primal gossipy urge satisfied, is there really a reason to go? Aren't you probably still in touch with the people from that time in your life that you want to be in touch with?

I do still have all my yearbooks, and when I go home I like to fish them out from my mom's attic or garage or wherever she has them now and look back at them, at the teams and the teachers and the classmates who managed to avoid social media, and read the notes from the people who I sat next to in fifth period Spanish and then never spoke to again. In Elinor Lipman's Good Riddance, Daphne Maritch inherits her mother June's cherished yearbook after she dies and isn't really sure what to do with it. It isn't from her mother's own high school years...rather, she served as the faculty advisor for the yearbook staff for the class of 1968, when she was herself a very young teacher, and kept detailed annotations on the lives of the students of that class. In a fit of decluttering, Daphne decides to toss the book. Only to have it turn up back on her doorstep, in the arms of a neighbor, Geneva, who thinks she wants to make a documentary out of it.

Though initially upset by the purloining and potential commercial exploitation of her mother's once-prized belonging, Daphne agrees to accompany Geneva to the next reunion so she can begin research into the students in the class. While there, she learns a secret about her mother that calls into question everything she thought she knew about who her mother was. With the help of her cute, younger across-the-hall neighbor Jeremy, things escalate into increasingly wacky hijinks as she tries to stop Geneva's plans from moving forward...and tries to help her now-widowed father cope with his move to join her in New York City and maybe find love again himself.

There's a good story to tell based on this general concept, I think, but it's not this one. I've always maintained that truly funny books are some of the most difficult to write, because it's so easy for the humor to land wrong, for the balance of real feeling necessary for people to care about characters and the funny stuff to wind up off. Lipman's book is not all successful in finding a balance, mostly because it seems to forget that it needs to be grounded in reality at all. She gives Daphne a sympathetic story (swept away by a charming man...who, it turns out, needed to be married to fulfill a condition of inheritance and had no interest in anything like fidelity, and so is now divorced), but barely gives us any time to get to know her or care about her before getting into the machinations of the plot, so I never connected with her. Which meant that I didn't really care about her relationship with her father, or her budding relationship with Jeremy, or if she'd ever put a stop to Geneva's yearbook schemes.

I can tell the plot is supposed to be madcap and absurd in a funny way, but it turns out the idea of having life-changing revelations delivered to characters in bathroom stalls with virtually no build-up just doesn't really work. The stakes are too high to be this breezy about it. It at least moves along briskly, but that's more because it doesn't seem to care to develop any of its plot threads in favor of just making new things happen instead. And the prose, while not actively bad, is deeply mediocre. There's hardly any wit or verve. I don't know who the target reader is for this kind of book, but I know it's not me. I hated it and wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

One year ago, I was reading: American War

Two years ago, I was reading: Mozart in the Jungle

Three years ago, I was reading: A Tale for the Time Being

Four years ago, I was reading: An American Marriage

Five years ago, I was reading: Snow

Six years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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