Monday, June 20, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Violets of March'

** This review will contain spoilers. **

The Book:
The Violets of March

The Author: Sarah Jio

How I Found It: The cover and synopsis caught my eye as I browsed Borders, and my local library happened to have a copy.

The Review: I wanted to like this book. Really, I did. The cover was so pretty, and it hit two of the stock tropes I really love: stories taking place partially or entirely in the 1940s, and a mystery surrounding an old book, letter, or diary. I was powerless to resist it. I guess now I'm wishing I had. This book didn't irritate me quite so badly as Willow, but it left me with the same feelings I had about Water for Elephants: standard prose, characters with no personality, and no real emotional attachment to the story.

Emily Wilson has just gotten divorced from Joel, her husband. She's been suffering from terminal writer's block ever since she wrote her first novel, a smash hit. Seeking a place to heal, she decides to head to Bainbridge Island, the home of her eccentric great aunt, Bee. While staying in Bee's house, she comes across a mysterious red leather diary dated 1943, a diary that contains the story of a love triangle between Esther, the diary's author; Bobby, her husband; and Elliot, her ex-fiance, the man she still loved even while married to Bobby.

Emily doesn't know who wrote the diary, but it seems to be the key to figuring out why Bee and her best friend Evelyn won't talk about Esther, or why Bee is uncomfortable with Henry, another resident of the island, and Jack, the man Emily is beginning to be interested in. As Emily begins to dig deeper into the mystery of the diary, she realizes its contents may have more bearing on her own life and family history than she thought.

To start with, Jio had a problem with not giving details. There are things I like to know about my protagonists. A little about their lives would be nice. We know that Emily has a best friend named Annabelle, but not how or why they became friends. We know that Emily wrote the bestselling Calling Ali Larson, that it was turned into a movie, but absolutely nothing about the book's plot. (That just seemed silly, since Larson is obviously Bee's last name as well, so it seems there would be some relation there. Alas, no clarification is ever given.) We know she keeps writing paragraphs of an allegedly sucky second novel, but not what that novel's about.

Then there's the flashbacks. Emily remembers Evelyn because when she was younger, Evelyn arranged a shopping trip for Emily to get the shoes she so desperately wanted. That was sweet and fun to read about--except that the flashback stopped as soon as Evelyn told Emily they were going shopping, and the event and its outcome were never mentioned again. Did she get those shoes after all? I want to know! Often, a lack of details like this could have been solved with an extra sentence or two, but Jio never did that.

Besides that, Emily really didn't have a personality. Her old boyfriend tells her at one point that any guy would be lucky to have her, but I just couldn't see why, and that's not exactly a good thing. Much is made of her mother preferring her sister over her, but honestly, that's the only distinct thing I remember of a character I just spent 293 pages with. Emily was so bland that she faded into the wallpaper. Actually, I had the same problem with Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook; his supporting characters in early days were little more than cardboard cutouts. Luckily, he seemed to have rectified that in the later books of his I'd read, so hopefully Jio will be able to do the same in the future.

The story of the past was painfully predictable. I kept reading because I wanted to see if I was genre savvy enough to pin it down successfully, and I was. During their engagement, Esther sees Elliot with another woman in Seattle, a woman who hands him an apartment key. Esther bets lover; I bet real estate agent. I was close--it was a friend selling him the apartment. One for one. Esther sleeps with Elliot after she's married to Bobby. I bet she'd get pregnant. She did. Two for two.

Not only is the story predictable, but Emily is incredibly dense for not recognizing that it's about her own grandmother. It doesn't occur to her to ask someone Bee's real name, which would have made it obvious who the Frances in the diary was. Plus, once she asked Evelyn who Esther was, Evelyn started going off about how Emily's grandmother used to love starfish. Gee, I wonder what the connection is between Emily's grandmother and Esther!

In the end, the story sank under the weight of its own contrivances. Esther "somehow" escapes the car wreck that supposedly claimed her life; the fact that it's not clearly defined how makes it obvious that it's manufactured so as not to be too much of a downer. Emily's copy of the book Years of Grace, scrounged from a free book bin at a Tahitian hotel, turns out to be Esther's. Really? Is there only one copy of this book in the world? The last twenty pages or so left me shaking my head at how obvious the story's construction was.

To top it all off, Jio's writing style was a weird mix of plain prose, words no one would use when a plainer alternative was available, and repetition. There's this passage, which taught me an awesome word, but a word that was entirely replaceable: "I walked up the creaky steps that led to his front porch. I hadn't noticed the cobwebs in the windows, or the catawampus doorframe, so jagged and splintered" (259). I looked up catawampus wondering if it was some kind of obscure wood or flower or something, only to find that it's a synonym for askew. So why didn't Jio just say "askew," instead of using a word that's so obscure my browser is telling me it's not a word? Then there's page 277, where Jio uses variations of the word "grin" four times in one page. There are shiny things called thesauruses out there. I think Jio should probably invest in one.

Overall, this book was cliched, poorly characterized, and badly written. The plain prose makes it a fast read, I'll give it that, but the story just wasn't worth it. I can't say I recommend it all, really, just that I'm grateful it's a library book and not something I spent my money on.

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