The nice thing about this book is that it gets better. For me that was almost exactly half way through the 400 page tome, when the t has been crossed, but the is have not yet been dotted, when the story finally moved out of the too-carefully constructed set-up phase and into the acting, reacting, and interacting phase.
More Than it Hurts You by Darin Strauss is a multi-threaded novel ostensibly about what constitutes the truth, at what level, and how hard are different people willing to look for it. The topic, even the subject matter are compelling and certainly worth the investigation. Unfortunately, the treatment of the material by the author left me wishing for a more thoughtful, more delicate, less heavy-handed approach.
The Publisher's Weekly review that accompanied the call for reviewers stated that in this novel "[t]he stereotypes are intentionally heavy-handed..." And are they ever. I am not sure that people like Josh Goldin actually exist-- shallow by choice, observant but not thoughtful. I can't call him a protagonist, although I suppose we are meant to. Is he compelling? Sympathetic? At times, yes. But mostly he is flat. Except for when he exhibits emotional awareness he should not by rights possess. I was, in fact, puzzled and almost offended when Josh, walking through the hospital to see his son decides that he can handle it, if worst came to worst, but that it was intolerably sad that so many people in the world would never meet Zack. Intolerable sadness of the world not knowing your child is one of the real, very real emotions of bereaved parents. But to me Josh getting to that place that fast and before he knew how dire (or not) his son's condition really was felt like cheating, like skipping a whole boatload of steps.
Likewise, Dori, Josh's wife, is drawn with two notes. Her backstory, I suppose, is meant to explain to us how she turned out this way. But it doesn't, not really, because nobody can be this squashed based on those events alone. Zack, their baby, is described in the most generic baby terms for most of the book, until, at the age of just over 18 month he is suddenly ascribed things resembling thoughts. Even in his parents' thought bubbles he is seen as mostly a lovable vulnerable lump. I know it has been a while since I have had an actual living baby under my care, but I do still remember definite streaks of personality, of determination, of expressed likes and dislikes, of behaviors, fercryingoutloud, that Monkey exhibited from much earlier than that. I am certain that when I thought of her then, I thought of those things, of her, not of generic baby descriptors.
To me, however, the most annoying character in the novel is the narrator, who, omniscient as he is, I must take to be the author himself. While possessed of excellent eye and, often, sharp wit and slicing metaphors, the narrator is heavy-handed. Not content to paint the picture for the readers and let us draw our own conclusions, often the narrator shoves his conclusions, his unassailable by virtue of his omniscience explanations for people's behavior down our throats. Really, Mr. Strauss, after you spend half a page describing a man's thought process to me, I am capable of calling it rationalization myself. Having you spend another sentence telling me so feels no less insulting and patronizing than the way your fictional reporter treats one of your fictional characters.
One character in the novel does speak to me, though. Dr. Darlene Stokes is, I feel, the most realistic character in the bunch, and most familiar to me. Though I did not rise from that little, nor climbed that high, I share Dr. Stokes' dislike for workplace politics, her social awkwardness, her reliance on objective truth, her drive to know, her passion for observing and analyzing society around her, her inability to lie to her child. This is another reason, I think, for my dislike of the narrator. Narrator explicitly wishing she would shut up in a socially acceptable manner on a date, as well as other similarly condescending notes, just didn't sit well with me.
I originally asked to review this book because, in the wake of the Texas child removal case, there was a rather intense discussion of the institution of the Child Protection Services among a number of people I know in real life. However, CPS doesn't figure nearly as centrally in the book as you would think, and is drawn in fairly neutral tones. I would, I think, have liked more on the inner workings of the system. I would have liked to see the CPS point person in the book actually get a speaking part, for example.
Finally, the book could've really used a copy editor. Was Darlene born in '66 or '68? Was that thing found on the third visit or the fourth? And was that one thing or both? And really, how hard is it to check that June 12th was not a Wednesday in any year the book could've possibly been set in? Likewise, repeating small observations in only slightly varied contexts in chapters positioned close together makes the observations far less astute. A copy editor is all I am saying.
Overall, this is not a bad summer read. It may, paradoxically, be an even better book club selection. Not because the evening can be spent discussing brilliance of the work, but because it can be spent discussing the many issues raised in the book (albeit via those heavy-handed stereotypes)-- race relations, media influence, authority vs. family, various corporate cultures. There is a certainly a lot there, so don't forget your mixed drinks.