Last week, I finally bought a Kindle collection that a friend has been recommending: “Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction.” To be honest, I held off for a while because the title of the collection bugged me — what makes it “women’s fiction”? The fact that women wrote it? We don’t call fiction written by men “men’s fiction”! Grrr — but in the end I couldn’t turn down six books for $13, especially when one of them was by Ann Patchett.
The first book in the collection is Almost by Elizabeth Benedict. It is the story of Sophy, a novelist (and occasional celebrity-biography ghostwriter) who has just separated from her husband and moved to Manhattan. She’s begun a passionate affair with a fellow New Yorker and is struggling with her latest novel when an unexpected call comes: her husband, Will, is dead. Sophy must leave Manhattan and return to Swansea, the Martha’s Vineyard-esque Massachusetts island where she used to live with Will, to deal with the aftermath of his death.
I loved the intimate scale of the book — it is (mostly) set over a handful of days just after Will’s body is discovered. Will’s family flies out to the island; funeral arrangements must be made and the appropriate people need to be notified; furthermore, Will’s dog seems to be missing. Will’s death also leaves Sophy in legal limbo. Did he sign their separation papers before he died? Is she entitled to challenge the terms of his will? Does she even want to make a claim against the estate? Worst of all, the cause of Will’s death is unclear. Did he commit suicide? Is Sophy responsible for his death because she left? Benedict’s account of that confusing post-death rush of events is compelling and realistic, and I was utterly drawn in by the story of Will’s death and its fallout among the people who knew him.
That said, I had some problems with Almost. First, the book ends rather abruptly. It seems to be building towards a full story of Will’s death and the emotional and legal aftermath, but then jumps ahead to a final chapter set a few months after the majority of the book. I liked the way Benedict was bold enough to leave questions unanswered, the way they so often are in life, but that final chapter came up so suddenly, with so many threads still dangling, that I felt a bit abandoned.
Second, I found Sophy somewhat unpleasant company. I think Sophy was intended to be a flawed protagonist, but I wonder if Benedict meant for her to come across as quite so judgmental or self-centered. Sophy’s descriptions of the other characters are often snotty. She calls her editor a “philistine” when he doesn’t know who Lili Boulanger is.* She mentally gloats over a feminist academic’s “intellectual hypocrisy” when she learns the professor enjoys classic novels written by men, like Anna Karenina. She also remarks, more than once, about how flabbergasted she is by her step-daughter’s baby weight gain. If postpartum nursing boobs are enough to shock you, Sophy, you may need to get out more.
Furthermore, there are only two places in the book where Sophy shows concern for –or even interest in — anyone besides herself. Otherwise she’s wrapped up in obsessing about her writing and her emotions and what she really wants out of life. If she thinks about other people at all, it is only in terms of how they are affecting her life and whether they are giving her what she wants from them. Towards the end of the book, Sophy remarks that another character is oblivious to her feelings. I actually snorted out loud at that line, since Sophy herself seems oblivious to the fact that other people even have feelings.
I enjoyed reading Almost, so I’m rating it a Library Loan, but I came close to rating it as YMMV. I am fine with ambiguous endings and loose threads, but the one completed story–the tale of Sophy dealing with her emotions over the separation and her husband’s death–was the story I was least invested in. I didn’t like Sophy enough to really care if she got her writing mojo back or found peace in her life. That said, I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by Elizabeth Benedict. She is clearly a talented writer.
Finally, I feel compelled to remark that the editing on the Kindle collection is a bit spotty–there are a number of missing apostrophes and typos. It didn’t mar my reading experience all that much but it was definitely something I noticed.
Rating: Library Loan
* Here is Boulanger’s Wikipedia entry. I’m reasonably well-versed in music history but that name was new to me.