This past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured Dylan Landis’ wonderfully positive review of Peggy Riley’s debut novel Amity and Sorrow (312 pp. Little, Brown & Company $25.99). It’s the story of a woman named Amaranth and her two daughters Amity and Sorrow; Amaranth has tied them together at the wrist and driven across four states to escape the polygamous compound where she lived with her 50 co-wives and her husband, the cult leader.
Reading the review and having had a somewhat different reaction to the novel made me wonder why people respond so differently to novels (and it’s a good thing we do).
Of course, a successful novel has to satisfy key craft requirements: the characters must be believable; the plot must engage and the conflict, whether internal or external, must be clear; the setting should work in tandem with everything else so that it can provide foreshadowing or other clues or offer a frame for the characters as they act and react to the events; and the narrative voice and point of view must be consistent and believable. Whether the book skews literary or commercial depends in part on the level of writer’s ability for each element and how they work together as a whole. The quality of the writing – use of imagery, skill using words – becomes more important for literary fiction.
Then there’s personal reader preference. Some readers will look first for beauty of expression and others for a distinctive narrative voice or unusual situations or settings that open up a new world, or novels that cover meaty and relevant issues like aging (like Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending) or relationships, race (like The Help). Some people want a redemptive note, or an elegaic acknowledgment of loss, or have a preference for funny, or for dark. And so on.
Finally, we often like to see ourselves (or the way we’d like to see ourselves) reflected on the page and gravitate to characters who experience the world the way we do.
Dylan Landis, who wrote the review, is the author of the much-praised Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a novel-in-stories about a teenage girl growing up in the 1970’s Upper West Side who is alienated from her peers and has a troubled relationship with her anorexic mother. In her review of Amity and Sorrow, which is perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from one’s community and of troubled mother-daughter relationships, Landis writes, “Riley has an engaging way of raising mysteries, then deferring their answers. How exactly does a man talk a wife into sharing him? Who set the temple fire just before the escape? Why is Amaranth grateful for Sorrow’s miscarriage? And why are women prohibited from setting foot in the fields?”
My own reaction to this technique differed; I found it frustrating and arbitrary to have these issues raised, sometimes obliquely, and not answered. While Amaranth feels deeply, the narrator reveals little about her emotional reaction to being the first of 50 wives, undermining her character’s credibility when it is not clear Riley meant her narrative voice to be unreliable.
The novel’s subject, of a woman escaping a polygamous cult led by her husband whose power over his wives is absolute, is both familiar and sensational, like a newsreel of an unfolding scandal we’ve seen but can’t help but watch again Amaranth’s teenage daughter Sorrow has just had a miscarriage, and in a compound with no young men and one patriarch, it is easy (though still disturbing) to guess the identity of the father. And this, ultimately, is the problem with the novel. The context is larger than life but the characters are are not; they are so dwarfed by the sensationalism of their story that they never quite ring true on the page. The ripped-from-the-headlines shock value overwhelms the story so that the characters’ journeys to understand themselves, each other, and the ties that bind them, become secondary. As a writer, Riley is not quite in control of her material.
It is unfortunate, because Riley’s writing is poetic and lovely. Amity, watching out the car window as barns and fields pass by, “is watching for the end of the world.” She tastes her first Dorito; it is a “dance of salt and chemicals” on her tongue. Riley’s characters have stories to tell and love to learn, as complicated and heartbreaking and hopeful and devastating as that prospect is.
Amity and Sorrow is a major focus for its publisher, and it getting a great deal of positive attention: my reaction is clearly in the minority. I can see why. The themes of family and alienation and the ties that bind are universal and appealing and are ripe for discussion. They are themes shared with Landis’s novel, which may help explain her appreciation for it. The look at a polygamous cult is a big hook that will also draw in readers wanting a glimpse into that world. It is easy to see the commercial possibilities for this book, and it’s good enough that it may reach that broad readership.
Riley is a gifted and promising writer who has an excellent novel (or more) waiting to be written. She would do well to showcase those gifts in a way that is not obscured by the sensationalism of her material.