I didn’t like this book, but I don’t think this is a book that was written to be liked; enjoyment seems like a poor goalpost to measure the book by. It’s ugly, dark, and unpleasant.
So given that this isn’t something that Oprah is going to feature as a new book club selection, how do I judge fairly? It’s compelling and well written; it passed my “still interested after the first couple dozen pages” test, and I read it through completely. The central mystery – is there someone murdering college boys and covering it up by making them appear to be inebriated accidental drowning victims – played out exactly as I thought it would, but predictability isn’t even its worst sin.
It’s one of frankly too many threads in the book. There’s a lot in this book, and even with shinier happier subject matter, I don’t think it would all quite hang together. In the end of the book readers guide Chaon admits he let the writing guide him, he had no outline, and while I write that way myself and can see where it helped create interesting and authentic character beats, I think a heavier editing hand is needed when you just write where the characters take you. Even just naming the person who could’ve been cut from the novel with no appreciable loss (the main character’s drug addict son’s addict buddy’s mom dying of cancer) is so convoluted that it’s obvious she was kept in because Chaon liked what he wrote about her, not because she served a purpose.
The book is overstuffed, and that’s before we get to the weird formatting tricks to convey the protagonist’s dissociation, which just did not work for me.
Its tough to be sure, but I think that even had this concluded with our hero getting his life together, reconciling with the adopted brother he sent to prison with perjured testimony, and the resurrection of every dead character, I still wouldn’t have liked this book. We’ll never know, because this was vantablack dark, and now I’m reading Rainbow Rowell as a palate cleanser.