[Book Review] The Rosie Project

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Every once in a while, you run into a book that has more than a plot: it has a promise. You get eager to read it because it sounds so unique from its story alone, because you think you’ll run into something innovative and inspiring, something fresh and new. And with the game set, some authors still manage to ruin the completely brilliant premise they had.

That’s what happened to The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion, Penguin, 329 pages). The story is narrated by Don Tillman, a Genetics professor who supposedly has Asperger’s Syndrome and decides to write down a list of questions to be answered by random girls so he can solve the “wife problem” and get married at last. In the middle of it, he runs into Rosie, a girl who has all the wrong answers to his questions, but becomes his friend in her quest to find out who her biological father is.

The first 100 or so pages of the book are very good: Don is an interesting, out of the ordinary character and the story seems to be set for a great development. The writing isn’t exactly fantastic (it’s pretty ordinary, to be honest), but both Don and Rosie are fascinating in the way they’re presented, and there are some very nice scenes that can be both sweet and meaningful, just like love really is.

Unfortunately, the author gets lost in his own plot. There are so many completely useless and irrelevant scenes you at first wonder if the story really is complex enough to use them all (it isn’t). There are so many scenes that turn out to be petrifyingly embarrassing you wonder if the author really meant for them to be funny (he did). There are so many boring secondary characters you hope your copy has a defect and will actually end before it seems it’s going to end (it won’t). And then you wonder if the ending will be as obvious as you thought at first (it will).

And trust me, I tried. I gave this book a chance. I was so excited at its innovative façade after the first hundred pages I thought it would somehow recover and end in an also innovative way. Turns out everything in the last 200 pages of the book alternated between annoying and cliché. The author reached a point in which he had the main character watch romantic comedies to apparently learn how to be a “romantic comedy guy”: but why, just WHY would anyone want a guy who isn’t purely himself? Good romantic comedies (and chick lit) male characters aren’t loved simply for what they do, but for whom they are. What they do simply reflects their virtues.

As if that complete wreck of a plot weren’t enough, its biggest promise – Don and Rosie – is completely ruined by lack of consistency. If you’re going to write a book about someone with autism, this person better portrait autism throughout the entire book, otherwise it was simply a lie you told your reader to trick him or her into reading about an actually rude and insensitive guy who has no explanation for behaving the way he does. And if you’re selling me a girl who is easy going and comprehensive, she better not create idiotic problems because of small things that have no significance at all.

The author points out in his acknowledgements that he wrote this book in a hurry. It sure shows. Whoever edited it also seemed to be in a hurry, otherwise they would have cut half the pages in this book and told him to rewrite whatever was left after the character’s introduction. If you wanted to read this, take my work for it: just don’t.

[Book Review] Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

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Many of us girls spent our teenage years watching romantic comedies that went from Notting Hill to Love Actually, from When Harry Met Sally to You’ve Got Mail. And to many of us – myself included –, that doesn’t mean we live in a fantastic world of cotton candy and unicorns, but that we learned from the best that we can aim as high as we want and not settle for less than Awesome Job and Prince Charming.

Yes, Prince Charming. Many would argue there’s no such thing; I’ve been saying they are living, breathing creatures for a long time now and getting surprise in response. The thing is, you can’t expect Prince Charming to be just like Aurora’s or Snow White’s, to look like Hugh Grant and behave like Colin Firth. Those Princes do exist and are perfect, in a sense that they are perfect for you. No one is perfect per se, but people can be perfect for each other, and that’s what we should all aim for. I have recently been proven that I was right to think so by running into one. Settling for a “frog”, as many claim to be only option, isn’t settling at all. It’s either not being brave enough to be be happier on your own or not recognizing that your poor so-called frog is, in fact, a prince. Your prince.

And yes, Awesome Job. If we work hard enough, why can’t we get what we want? Why can’t we dream of having power? Why can’t we aim at being a top comedian at a big city? Or a doctor, or a lawyer, or an artist, or whatever we want to be? Many of those movies – the good ones, of course – have strong, powerful female characters who fight for what they want and know what they are capable of. There is no step one for being happy, but a single level: being happy with yourself. And it doesn’t really matter what you do or how high you aim to go, does it, as long as it makes you happy? (And, well, it’s legal, of course).

And that, I believe, is the essence of Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (paperback by Three Rivers Press, 222 pages). Mindy both worked as a screenwriter and played Kelly Kapoor in The Office; she now has her own brilliant show, The Mindy Project, which is an honest, funny, light romantic comedy that manages to be more feminist than other shows that brag about it. Mindy’s book is what I can only describe as a collection of thoughts: there’s no real timeline, no precise object of analysis, but it basically gathers some of the story and many of the opinions of a great comedy writer and sweet, sweet girl.

Mindy covers the most distinct areas: from growing up as a chubby Indian descendant to starting her career as a comedian; from romantic comedy heroines and how fake they can be to her relationship with her mother. Maybe it looks autobiographical, but the biggest surprise to me was finding out that Mindy’s life wasn’t really the focus of the narrative. What happens to her is only used as an excuse to share thoughts many of us had, but didn’t know how to phrase. And everything shows us how big dreams aren’t  actually fantasies, but only plans.

If I haven’t talked you into reading it yet, I promise there’s this entire page dedicated to how perfect Colin Firth is that is entirely worth it by itself. With her light sense of humor and delicate appreciation of the finest things in life (yes, Colin Firth being one of them; I hope we can all agree at least on that), Mindy manages to steal laughter and tears faster than Kelly Kapoor would run after Robert Pattinson. By the end of it, you’ll not only want to be, but actually feel like one of her best friends. And with such a big heart,  I’m pretty sure she can fit us all in there.

[Book Review] The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight

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I have never believed in love at first sight. Not in the boy-looks-at-girl-and-they-see-that-their-lives-mean-nothing-unless-they-are-together sort of way. Sure, it sometimes works on some very romantic, highly idealist movies, but it always sounded to me more like passion than real love.

Maybe that has to do, though, with what you consider love at first sight to be in the first place. When I first started reading The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight (Jennifer E. Smith, paperback by Poppy, 236 pages long), I wasn’t so sure I was going to fall for the characters just as they fall in love with each other – and, when romance is involved, the reader has to fall for the characters or everything sounds fake, plastic, inorganic. I did.

The magic of Smith’s book stands on the fact that it isn’t, despite its title, all about love, and that the love it contains doesn’t happen, in fact, precisely at first sight. The main characters, Hadley and Oliver, aren’t airheads waiting for love to give their life purpose, but people with real concerns, concerns so great they – at least for me – steal the show and make the book worth it all by themselves. Their relationships with their families are very credible and well built, described in a way that isn’t melodramatic (which would make the reader impatient for the romance parts), but has actual feeling. Unlike so many novels that give characters backgrounds just for the sake of filling up space, you can actually observe how these intricate relationships have made the characters who they are and how they affect what they are on the verge of becoming.

The best part of it all is still the romance. Oliver will make any girl swoon in ways he himself probably never imagined, by pure accident, simply because of his charming personality. And what makes this a great love story is the fact that it is, indeed, love, and not pure passion or lust: these characters get to know each other, their flaws included, and only then fall in love. It reminded me of a line from John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars: “as he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”. They slowly get to know each other – even if they do it in a short period of time, nothing is rushed – and fall in love yes, at first sight, but after a very, very good look.

Without any spoilers, I can also say the end is perfect. The only sad thing is that Smith writes so, so well that the reader has no choice but to become attached to these characters, which leaves one longing for more when it’s all over. I find it amusing that prose this simple can be so effective and delicate. As short and basic as it is, it manages to be a beautiful story about love in every meaning, every manner and with every sort of beginning. Love requires friendship, and great friendships do not require much time to happen.

[Book Review] Why We Broke Up

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“I was stupid, the official descriptive phrase for happy.”

Sometimes the end of a relationship is difficult to explain. Sometimes it isn’t. When Min Green and Ed Slaterton – respectively a movie-director-wannabe and a basketball player at a regular high school that I’m sure looks a lot like yours – break up, it certainly isn’t easy to pinpoint what when wrong, but Min manages to do so with perfection. After filling a box with her ex’s belongings that were still in her possession, Min drops the box and a letter at Ed’s doorstep, explaining in a long, long text and going object by object, why they broke up.

That is the basic story line to Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler, Electric Monkey, 368 pages, read in Portuguese: Por Isso A Gente Acabou, published by Companhia das Letras). Handler, famous for writing A Series Of Unfortunate Events as Lemony Snicket, creates the text that, accompanied by Maira Kalman’s beautiful illustrations, covers the story of Min and Ed’s relationship, from object number 1 and how they got together to the last one, showing how every day they were a couple was a day closer to their breaking up.

The book is beautiful. Not only because of Kalman’s drawings – which seem to have been handmade by Min herself, so perfectly they fit the character’s style -, but also because it is rich in detail and speaks truthfully through the voice of a teenager, without sounding fake or pretentious. Min, a lover of old movies, is a great, complex character, who escapes all cliches and is, therefore, highly credible: she likes things, she hates things, she feels jealous, she feels numb, she takes a stand, she gets hurt. I have rarely come across a fictional teenage girl so coherent, reminding me instantly of Juno MacGuff and her strong personality.

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Other than Min, there were three very strong points for me in this book. First of all, the rhythm. I’m a big fan of authors who write on the perfect pace for the story, getting you to fly through pages and even (am I the only one who does this?) to breathe according to the lines and dialogues. Handler is a master of rhythm: there are paragraphs of Min’s thoughts that go through pages, some with very few dots, which gets the reader on and on with her opinions, understanding her logic and feeling her pain better. It made me wonder if the author had ever read José Saramago, who uses that same technique, even if he takes it to the extreme.

A second aspect that touched me was how Min’s friend, Al, clearly had a crush on her without her noticing. This isn’t even a spoiler, I swear – it is very explicit from the first pages on. Just like Meg Cabot, Handler has that great ability to reveal facts unknown to the character who is telling you the story, making the reader go wild, trying to shake Min by her shoulders and point out what she can’t see. And, of course, rooting for her to notice that her sweet friend is better for her than jock Slaterton.

The third – and best – aspect of Why We Broke Up is also the most shocking one. Reading the book, I was fascinated by Min’s favorite movies and wanted to watch every single one of them. She referenced titles, actors, plots, release years, everything. I considered making a list of all those wonderful movies I absolutely needed to watch as soon as I was done reading it. Imagine how heartbroken I was to find out that none of them existed. Not a single one. Handler created title by title, story by story, of at least fifty different movies, an information that, I must confess, brought tears to my eyes. You don’t have to write deep, complex plots to be a genius – brilliancy is waiting to be discovered by eager hearts in every corner of human creativity. I’m still desperate to listen to Hawk Davies, the fictional jazz artist whose songs seem to play as a soundtrack throughout the entire book.

Though the translation to Portuguese was poorly done (I even had to mentally translate some parts back to English in order to understand them), this is such an adorable, honest book that Min’s heartbreak will speak to any reader in any part of the world. Even if we can’t have Min’s movies, songs and thoughts, the author makes it possible to love them unconditionally, just as she loved Ed Slaterton unconditionally. Love is, after all, an international language.