This review has been finished for a few months and was waiting to be edited and published. But, obviously it didn’t get posted, for various reasons. One of those reasons being is that I had to rethink the way that I worded my many issues with the book and if some points were relevant at all.
So here it is, finally. Hopefully from this point on, our reviews will be a more constant thing.
One again, here I am reviewing a New York’s Best Selling author, and –once again – wondering, “What the hell New York?”. Now, Anna Godbersen earned her place on that dubious list for her Luxe series about scandalous socialites in New York during the turn of the 20th century. I didn’t read that, so who knows, maybe it is quite good. I read the first installment of her new series Bright Young Things which is about scandalous socialites in the New York of late 1920s. It’s a fairly easy read with a Cinderella-esque. It is also much like what we imagine the ‘20s to be: a little sin, cigarette-smoking girls with bobbed hair, and a lot partying and glamour.
I downloaded the book for free from Amazon a few months back and it would have likely remained unread if I hadn’t seen it in all of its printed glory at the bookstore, in the discount Young Adult section. Somehow seeing free books in print gives them more credit in my eyes (oh how wrong I often am), so I figured this would be a fine time to review the novel because, after all, I love history and therefore historical fiction. Well, let’s just say I was glad that I did not have to pay the discounted price of $4.99.
At one point, I took a break from BYT, and then found myself dreading the prospect of returning to it. I can see that Godbersen worked hard at creating a colourful world of F Scott Fitzgerald who she obviously admires, but her unrealistic, rosey-toned plot and confusing narrative made it unpleasant and not as airy as it should have been. However, it does play out like you would imagine an old film romance to: exaggerated emotion, fragile girls, decadence and an unrealistic plot. So if that was her goal, then well done Anna.
While editing and rethinking this review, one of the points that I had to reconsider was the conflict between style & preference and “good” writing. After all, what makes writing good is quite subjective – much like any sort of art. Not that is a huge discussion when it comes to such a frilly book as BYT, but I think that as new reviewer I should consider it.
Godbersen’s sentences might be run on, but what makes her writing lacking is confusion. Thought interrupts thought, details muddle detail, and unnecessary points interrupt the pace of the narrative. Often I wanted to tell her to stop, gather her thoughts, and begin again. The pacing, confusing sentence structure and overburdened action make the narrative cluttered and limping. Godbersen needs to trust her reader and her own writing. I think she was afraid to not provide information so she overburdened the prose. Many things can be left unsaid: dialogue can tell a story on its own, action can be louder than words, sometimes events can be left ambiguous. Often enough, the reader can fill in the blanks or deduce what a character is feeling by something they say.
First, let me start with the characters. I don’t often do, or will, go through the main characters one by one, but I feel like much of my problem with this book was due to them. I found them to be generally unlikeable; I felt nothing for them and couldn’t wait to finish their story so I can move on to someone more interesting. You know that things are not going well when half way through a novel you care nothing for any of the characters and just wish it could all be over soon.
Cordelia Grey: The heroine of the whole story. Cordelia grew up in small town Ohio, with big dreams of finding her father. The book opens with her wedding – she is to marry a boy who she sort of loves, I guess, ‘cause he’s cute or whatever, and is charming and he popped her cherry so she was almost forced into it by her oh so evil aunt. At this point, Cordelia already has no intention to stay in that town and while she waits to tie the knot, she’s planning her great escape.
My question: Why get married at all? Run away now, while everyone waits for you diligently in the church, or a week ago before the cake was baked, and not wait to break a man’s heart after you promised to be his wife. But see, that is not how Cordelia Grey operates, for she comes off as a deeply selfish human being. Example: SPOILER, she leaves her less street-savvy best friend in the middle of the night in New York City of not even spending 24-hours there due to a petty fight. And after she finds her family the next day (she’s damn quick), she waltzes in during a party, acting like the entitled princess that she’s not. She then proceeds to lie and argue with the family who’s world she turned upside down, who already spend lavish amounts of money on her and who took her in (surprisingly without question). I could suspend my disbelief if this was a sort of silly gothic romance, but I worried that Godbersen might actually be genuine. Cordelia, the Cinderella that she is, doesn’t need rules or respect or gratefulness, especially when there’s a hot guy around. Show the secret passage way and betray my new family’s trust so a boy will like me? Why not! Father just died? Have a bath! Point is, Cordelia is unappealing.
Letty: The wanna-be star. The innocent, bright eyed, naïve beauty with the dot of a mouth.
“You’re a liar!” Letty shrieked, her tiny mouth like a balled fist…
I actually didn’t dislike her as much as I disliked Cordelia, but that is not to say that I liked her. She acts like the victim, often runs away from people while crying, and throws herself upon couches and tables to weep. And she has a dog called Good Egg. Yeah, I wouldn’t be friends with her either.
Astrid: The socialite. She comes the closest, I think, to mimicking an F Scott Fitzgerald character. Astrid is rich, flirty, eats tomato sandwiches at golf clubs, is vain but with a caring soft underside tucked somewhere far beneath a bobbed blonde ‘do’. She says wistfully pretty things like “They’re all going to be beautiful days from now on.” and often sees people around her as entertainment. For all of her pettiness, I found that I liked her. Not because I associated with her personality, but because with all of her falseness, she was the realest (or most believable) of all the characters.
This summary (taken from Goodreads) I feel promises more action and intrigue that the book actually delivers:
“Cordelia is searching for the father she’s never known, a man as infamous for his wild parties as he is for his shadowy schemes. Overnight, she enters a world more thrilling and glamorous than she ever could have imagined—and more dangerous. It’s a life anyone would kill for . . . and someone will.”
I keep on wanting say, “So close, Godbersen!” I’m not sure if this summary decided to cover the whole series, because the book falls short of it. In YBT, the extent of Cordelia’s father’s shadowy schemes is him being a bootlegger (a self-proclaimed non-violent bootlegger, at that) and SPOILER he gets shot at the end. I suppose that’s the danger and the killing part. Drama wasn’t achieved however, for various reasons.
My biggest issues with the story were these (list incoming):
- Cordelia has been there for a little over a week by the time her father is murdered. For half of the week, her father was in Canada. The reader hardly gets to feel anything for Darius’s character apart from being sort of thankful for not throwing her on her ass as he, in retrospect, should have done.
- The whole shooting scene lasts a page. His dying words to her were the promise that she will now receive half of her brother’ inheritance. If I was Charlie, and some chick I never met before walked into my life, claiming to be my long-lost half-sister, I’d be pretty pissed that a week after showing up she gets half of my inheritance. Especially when SPOILER she had a big part to play in the shooting, mostly due to her self-interest and ungratefulness.
- Nobody really killed to have her life as the quote suggests. Darius had rivalries as most illegal businessmen do. It’s competition, not the desire to shack up in the Cordelia’s special suite.
Granted, that last reason is pretty petty, but you get my point: the book falls majestically short.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this book has plenty of potential, which is the reason I do give it two stars. However, that potential is either not met or just doesn’t reach that satisfying peak. Much of that wasted potential lies in Godbersen’s writing. No doubt she has an ability to write and build stories; however it is a lot talk and little substance. This book could have been half of the size (or half more plot) if it hadn’t been for the painfully unnecessary detail. As soon as I began reading the novel, the phrase “Sentences are not mini-vans” came to mind (coined by the brilliant Dana of Reasoning With Vampires). I wanted to tell Godbersen to pause, take a breath, pace herself for God’s sake, and get her mind in order.
As much as I love a run-on sentences or two or thirty, a lá the Victorians, Godbersen makes them difficult and unapproachable by over-stuffing them with information. I understand that, as an author, she has a million of ideas and settings and character details running through her mind as she writes, but that’s what separated a good author from the unsuccessful one: the ability to pick and choose detail that is necessary to the story/character/setting. Or at least, you know, the ability to put that detail into different sentences.
Her very particular attention to detail goes as far as her narrating time at one point.
“A breeze picked up around 5:52 […] by 5:56, when she went around the next bend, every tiny shard of negative thinking left her mind completely.”
This does not create interesting narrative – it makes it painful and limping and boring. She even makes action tedious, labouring the simplest of gestures with unnecessary descriptions of body movement.
“He stepped forward, dropped the daisies, and bent his knees, wrapping his arms round her thighs and lifting her off the group, as though she were light as a ragdoll…”
There’s also the issue of awkward sentence structure that makes one pause and go “Wait, what?”. The very first sentence of the very first chapter made me do a double take:
“The handful of wedding guests were already assembled in the clapboard Lutheran church on Main Street, and though they had been waiting for a quarter hour, any stray passer-by might have noticed a lone girl still loitering outside.”
Now, this is by far not the worst offender of awkward sentences, but it being the first sentence of the book – the first sentence of the series, even – makes it that much more disappointing.
One thing that I did enjoy was the dialogue. It was crisp and even sometimes witty and I sorely wished that the narrative would be the same. But Godbersen couldn’t even trust the dialogue to do some of the work of storytelling. It felt like Godbersen took hold of her wordy reigns and was terrified to let go. She just needs to unclench those creative muscles and the style would be much improved.
Sentences of note:
Cordelia’s head came to rest against a sprawling pillow of her own hair on the ground. (pg. 99)
Cordelia laughed, showing her broad white teeth. (pg. 161)
He was almost too handsome to look at straight on… (pg. 161)
…She stepped into a small oak-and-mirror-paneled room in the lobby of an elegant hotel and felt the floor begin to rise beneath her feet. […] Then she realized this is was what was meant by a lift… (p.164)
Perhaps he heard her silent thoughts…
…she felt the nudging of something forceful and unyielding on her thigh, the grown-upness of which made her go sad all of a sudden.”(180)
Her hair was alight brown, almost metallic… (186)
She swayed with it, her consciousness rising up to the place where her mouth was open to his. (247)
Now, as the sky gave over to the pyrotechnics of dying light… (311)