She gave up on me first

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I was struggling with Sara Paretsky’s BREAKDOWN due to the overtly political nature of the book’s content. After putting the book aside for a week or so I picked it up again last weekend and persevered for another week before giving up for good yesterday. For someone who normally reads 2-3 books a week only managing 73 pages of a single book in a week is an indicator that the two of us are never going to get along. One of the reasons I tried to struggle through to the end was so that I could feel able to review it properly but as the book glowered at me from the bedside table for the last week I realised I needed it gone from my life more than I needed to prove a point.

By the time I gave up on the book Paretsky had made me both sad and cross. About the only experience I can liken reading BREAKDOWN to is going to a meeting of Get Up (an Australian left-leaning multi-issue political group similar to Move On in the US or 38 Degrees in the UK). I admit I have only been to a couple of meetings but I found them full of people believing fervently in their own moral superiority on just about every issue you can think of yet so full of vitriol for anyone who dared to have an opposing opinion that I could not wait to leave. I saw little evidence of the tolerance and thoughtfulness the group demands from its opponents. I felt the same way as I picked up BREAKDOWN every night this week and read a few more pages of Paretsky’s didactic, lengthy prose on a variety of subjects that had little to do with the story she was meant to be telling and her thinly disguised and mean-spirited caricatures of real figures from current public life in America As soon as I opened the book each time I couldn’t wait to put the book down again.

I’m sure it would have been harder, but someone as intelligent and well-educated as Paretsky has the potential to write a book which makes all sorts of people stop and think about their view of the world. Instead it feels to me like she’s taken the easy route in which she’s given words of encouragement and succour to the people who already think like she does and treated everyone else like a child. Or evil personified. It’s like she’s given up trying to change the world through her writing and is happy to reinforce the stereotypes and divisions she sees. She’s certainly forgotten how to tell a ripping yarn.

 

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25 Responses to She gave up on me first

  1. Sarah says:

    What a shame. I will probably give the book a go anyway as I have enjoyed past novels but I’m certainly not prioritising it given the other stuff I want to read.

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  2. Maxine says:

    Such a pity. Your description of that meeting sounds a bit like various leftie political groups in the UK over the years – moral superiority, hatred for anyone with different view, etc. Yuk. (The Guardian comments threads often give a good example of this too, not that I bother reading them much but do very occasionally if pointed there for some reason).
    Note, I am not saying that rightie political groups with their smugness etc are any better! This is a politically neutral comment 😉

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    • I’m sure ‘the other side’s’ meetings are the same Maxine, I just haven’t been to any to be able to comment. It just saddens me that there is no such thing as discussion or debate any more in the public arena – it’s all us versus them or proving you’re right at all costs.

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  3. Kathy D. says:

    Anyone who hasn’t read it should try. I loved it. I couldn’t put it down. And I live in the heartland of those characters, and as I’ve said, it’s like circumventing a mine field to try to avoid seeing the right-wing Republican candidates on TV insulting poor people, immigrants, women and their use of birth control and need for health care. The right wing is frothing at the mouth every single on the media. Rush Limbaugh has been slammed by many and deserted by 20 sponsors of his show, but he’s only one and replaced by scores more everywhere. It’s an epidemic.
    And now the fights in the state legislators over horrendous legislation attacking women’s health care, with a new law every day, 1100 bills are in consideration to take apart women’s health care nationally. The daily newspapers are full of this. 130,000 low-income Texas women are losing health care because the governor won’t give money to Planned Parenthood clinics, so these women will loose out.
    But the rhetoric that’s on tv every night on the news and talk-shows and everywhere is revolting. I and friends can’t bear it. And their actions are hurting millions of people, their words, the sleazy words they call women, then their selfish, anti-women deeds. Right-wing think tanks are coming up with more ways to harm women and deny their rights.
    One part of the book does go back to a terrible story from the Holocast. It’s very moving. I have only sympathy for the character involved. The rest is a story, most of which is a murder mystery, not a political story.
    Also, I really do not think Paretsky is condescending. She thinks politically. This is her world, her life’s work, her philosophy. She does speaking engagements on encroachment on First Amendment issues, and various laws that so encroach. She is immersed in politics every day and is showing that in her books. And she can be angry at these selfish, slimy types.
    Also, her bookstore events are packed standing-room only. Maybe one has to live here to be so aggravated with the political scene, that we want a book that exposes what is happening. And it’s living with this 24-7 as it is all over mainstream TV and there is no escape.
    I’m not sure where the condescending feeling came from. I think she’s writing an informative book, which gave her enjoyment to write and she’s transmitting her knowledge and attitude. Is that condescending? Franklyn, I don’t see it.
    I’m around people all the time who spout politics and opinions. I enjoy it. I don’t take it as they are condescending, just talking and say what they think.

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    • Maxine says:

      The situation sounds dreadful, Kathy, we do hear about it elsewhere but nothing like living it. Perhaps this book resonates more for American readers sick of it all than for those elsewhere? (BTW in the UK now we have similar things going on but on a smaller scale, that will disproportionately affect women from less-well off families – currently the attempted dismantling of the NHS and the bringing in of competition with the private sector…hmmm..)

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    • I know the situation in the US is tough Kathy…but I suppose where we disagree is in thinking novels like this one will do anything to alter that situation. I don’t believe it will – or can. I have no doubt that her events are jam-packed – but I would guess they are full of people who agreed with her before they read the book – and if so what is the point? I guess it’s nice to have one’s views shared but for me if a novel is going to be political it needs to make people really think about their own views and this one didn’t do that at all for me. More importantly it would not – could not – speak to anyone who disagreed with Paretsky on any issue before they’d read the book – you can’t influence people’s minds while you’re insulting their intelligence.

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  4. Barbara says:

    I’ve always known Paretsky had strong opinions about social and political issues, but I’m very sorry to hear that she has let those opinions take over her novel. I’ve enjoyed her novels for years.

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  5. sharon says:

    How interesting that “political” is now a reason for not reading a good novel. I’ve seen excellent artwork juried and dismissed all because it had a “political” bent.
    What is not political?
    Murder, legal machinations, social mores, corporate and stock deals, workplace fair treatment, educational world views, profit vs nonprofit ethics, military spending and interventions, environmental degradation, and the importance of world attitudes towards the poor are all political.
    So, do we want a white-washed, dumbed-down novel which never ruffles the feathers of anyone?

    Please, be strong – read novels that have something important to reveal.

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    • Sharon it’s not that the book has political content that bothers me – it’s that it has nothing else AND that the politics is not depicted in a way that I consider intelligent or informative or thought-provoking. You’d probably struggle to find a more political novelist than George Orwell yet his works promote discussion and thought amongst readers even decades after they were written. This particular novel on the other hand is a diatribe – a lecture – it won’t change a single person’s point of view or even make anyone think. Those who disagree with it won’t be able to get beyond feeling insulted by her childishness and patronising tone. A truly great political novel has to have some nuance and leave room for the reader to come to their own conclusions – not have a particular point of view rammed down one’s throat in the manner of a teacher telling off a recalcitrant child.

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  6. KerrieS says:

    It may be the “American tones” of the novel that are getting to you too Bernadette. Certainly as I demonstrated in my reading choices last year my own preferences are for British crime fiction. I wonder, if you had been listening to it, what would you have done?

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  7. Mack says:

    As an American reader who shares KathyD’s disgust at our political situation, I think I’ll read this book to see how it affects me. I generally prefer a little politics in my crime rather than a little crime in my politics and I’m curious about my reaction. Will I feel like Bernadette or Kathy? I did stop reading James Lee Burke after Tin Roof Blowdown and that might indicate my disposition. I’ll come back here with my reaction.

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    • Norman Price says:

      Mack, what in the Tin Roof Blowdown did you object to? I am worried about you after you were exposed to the Daily Mail on your trip here. 😉

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      • Mack says:

        Norman, I still occasionally read The Daily Mail. This morning in fact where, amongst the murders, I was happy to learn that David Beckham has his Rolls cleaned at the local petrol station and saw an excellent photo of Beckham and Victoria in matching leather outfits. We don’t get this quality of news in the US.

        I’ll need to take another look at Tin Roof Blowdown to refresh my memory on details. I do know it was the last JLB novel I read, I didn’t enjoy it, and that I found it a bit preachy.

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  8. Kathy D. says:

    I’d say to people give it a chance, especially those living in the “heartland” of this horrible situation.
    I think most books have a political point of view, whether mild or strong, even the lovely Corinna Chapman jibes the U.S. political situation — I enjoy that.
    Donna Leon’s books are political, so are Henning Mankell’s and Sjowall and Wahloo’s, Kjell Eriksson and so many more. The beautiful Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter tells a great story in a very political setting.
    From what I read of Paretsky’s blog, some people who haven’t had her views appreciate her books anyway.
    I have preferences, too, and I won’t read books full of racist, sexist, or anti-gay or pro-war diatribes or language. But I do read books that agree and disagree with my views all of the time and I have to sometimes tread the minefields and grit my teeth, muttering to myself.
    But, again it comes down to reading taste and what’s enjoyable. True. There’s the freedom to read or not read, which is very valuable in this day and age. And no one should read any book they aren’t enjoying.

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  9. Mack says:

    I’ve read about 43% of Breakdown on my Kindle and I’m leaning toward Bernadette’s view of the book. Closing in on the halfway mark and not much has happened. It is coming across as one long screed against Fox News and conservative talk show personalities. Paretsky does capture the tone and content of the hate talk well but I can experience it everyday if I want to watch a particular channel or listen to conservative radio. I’ll probably finish it but I am underwhelmed.

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  10. Norman Price says:

    Maxine, in the UK both right and left are so smug and so full of hate that sensible debate about so many subjects is stifled. BBCs’ Question Time is a particularly annoying example of politicians bleating out the party line and predictably unrepresentative audiences spouting ignorant nonsense.
    We also have become politically neutral joining the “Who the hell do we vote for party?”

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  11. Kathy D. says:

    Just an fyi: Reviewing the Evidence has a very favorable review up of the audio tape of Breakdown and also Yvonne Klein wrote a review of the book that is available in their archives.
    I think Yvonne’s point of view is well-taken, that in the final analysis it’s not the politics but family relationships that are the essence of the goings-on here. I agree with her. The backdrop is political yet the complicated relationships form the basics of the story.
    I don’t feel insulted by this or any of Paretsky’s books. She has a point of view. She’s a political person but she’s also a story teller. She’s also Jewish, so it’s quite understandable that the Holocaust comes into the plot. I cried at the backstory here when the plot unfolded.
    Anyway, we all agree to disagree on this book. It’s fine. I’m hearing friends right now who are enjoying it. It comes down to personal taste. Some of us love Fred Vargas’ writings, some don’t.
    It’s the same here and with a lot of other authors.

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    • Mack says:

      Kathy D. You’re right. I had a much different reaction to Reed Farrel Coleman’s Hurt Locker which came from the way elements of the story affected me at a personal level. It looks like it is the same with you and Breakdown.

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  13. Kathy D. says:

    Yet, to be perfectly objective about Breakdown, I will say that the ending was a bit melodramatic. I agreed with the culprits named, but it could have been done in a different and simpler way. That was my only moment of disappointment. And also, what happened with one of the murderers, which I won’t say so as not to give anything away.

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    • Mack says:

      Kathy D, you are kind about the ending. I would say the ending is beyond melodrama and into the realm of soap operas

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  14. Kathy D. says:

    I don’t want to criticize Sara Paretsky’s too much, as she nearly always hits a home run, in my book. However, the ending is a bit melodramatic, true. However, the plot line that reveals the particular culprits makes sense to me. The method of the denouement was overdone, yes.

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