I’m putting this one aside and may not come back to it. Much praise has been lavished on it, but it has too little narrative thrust for me, and I find that its charm can be overbearing to the point of preciousness.
This is my first Alexie and not my last. I’m struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it’s packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band’s steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It’s necessarily sad yet not depressing–there’s the humor, and there’s wonder and hope. There’s not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I’ve taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.
It’s fascinating to read Woolf’s reports on how her books were doing in terms of numbers sold and reviews (especially negative ones) when we know how esteemed they became and how they continue to sell. Time always tells.
Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She’s 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn’t have long to live.
This is not one of those novels of illness where there’s redemption ahead or that’s supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say “you can beat this thing” if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it’s not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can’t.
One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it’s clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she’s plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn’t blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she’s able to have any agency during her illness.
If this sounds grim, it’s not, or not only! Dahlia’s voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it’s about gender.
The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I’m always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!
In case some of you are also movie buffs, here’s a link to my newish account on Letterboxd, a film site that so far is way cooler (and less of a cesspit) than IMDb. There are free accounts, and you can rate, review, and make lists of movies. You can follow other users and comment on others’ reviews, too.
I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)
Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it’s written from Philip’s (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel’s. I’ve started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he’s childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.
I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather. She’s clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He’s also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel’s character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it’s more nuanced, thankfully.
My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women’s roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.