Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Life as a Silent Movie by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Jesse Lee Kercheval is a well-known creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin and a local figure of some regard. I was assigned to review this for Isthmus and thought it would be easy and fun but instead I really struggled with it. While I found the writing to be lovely, I had a lot of trouble with the plot. I thought it was melodramatic and implausible; I thought Kercheval asked her readers to accept too much on faith, and was irritated that she expected me to do so. Ugh. I managed to write a review that skirted the worst of my problems and offered up some ideas for how to interpret the rest. But this book gave me an existential crisis. Why, in some situations do I feel confident in saying "this is a bad book" but in other situations I recoil from this extreme judgment and instead blame myself (as in, I must be missing something)? From here I spent days pondering what makes a book bad or good? What makes me like or dislike a book? If I dislike a book, is it bad? Sometimes I know a book is bad but I still like it! What is bad? What is good? What is evil? Who made the universe? See how far I can go with this? I told you it was a crisis.

If you are still interested, here is a shorter version of what I wrote for Isthmus:

My Life as a Silent Movie opens with a tragedy: a car accident kills a father and child instantly, leaving Emma, the wife and mother, to grieve alone. Emma has no siblings and her own parents are recently deceased, her mother by suicide. When her only relative, an elderly aunt, reveals the long held family secret that Emma was adopted, it becomes too much for her to bear. Emma’s shock and sorrow lead her to a breakdown of sorts and she sets off on an ill-conceived quest to find her roots. That quest takes her to Paris, where, using the scant evidence in her possession, she hopes to find her birth mother and perhaps put to rest some of her pain and isolation.

Emma embarks upon her quest with little other than an address scribbled on the back of a 40-year-old photo. Yet unlike in real life, where people search for years to find their birth families, Emma finds her brother within a day! And he recognizes her, even though he hasn’t seen her since he was three. Really? From there, coincidences pile atop one another, each less believable than the one preceding it. But then I realized that the book’s title says it all. Remember what it’s like to watch a silent move? The exaggerated acting, the quick transitions, the over-the-top plot machinations? Kercheval has translated the features of a silent film to her novel, incorporating not only the cinematic melodrama and the surprise revelations but the pacing as well. It works perfectly, if you know what you are looking at. My advice is to picture Emma in black and white and listen for the theater organ and it will all make sense.

(Book 28, 2013)



I rarely reviewed anything where I knew an author when I was at the paper. I think it's hard to be critical in that kind of a situation esp. in a town this small.

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