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February 26, 2024

Review in Haiku: The Whole World Over

By Katrina Stonoff

Restless, Greenie leaves
her husband and home to cook
in New Mexico.

Julia Glass won the National Book Award with her first book, Three Junes so I started The Whole World Over with some pretty high expectations.

Too high apparently. Whole World Over is a wonderful book, crammed full of fascinating, fully-blown characters, but it suffers from an over-grandiose vision.

Wannabe novelists are told they need to be able to describe their novel in one sentence, 25 words or less. If a writer cannot, it's usually indicative that there's no primary plot line to drive the reader through it.

So what is Whole World Over about? NYC bakery owner Greenie Duqette becomes the New Mexico governor's personal chef, at least partly to avoid dealing with a troubled marriage.

So ... there you are. With a few words to spare even.

Except it's also about her customer Walter, a restaurant owner who is obsessed with a commitment-phobic man in a long-term relationship with someone else.

And about a woman who suffers memory problems after an accident with a tree limb who is trying to find a way to be productive anyway.

And now, sigh. I've gone way over 25 words, and I haven't even mentioned Greenie's husband, Alan, left behind to nurse a grudge and a struggling counseling practice. Or his most consistent clients, a gay couple struggling over one man's desire to adopt a child. Or Walter's nephew who arrives from the West Coast as an apprentice and to be straightened out. Or the memory-impaired girl's family that wants to oust her from her uncle's home.

Any of these stories would have been a wonderful book, but mixed up together, it's like an overcooked stew where even the garlic and onion lose their flavor.

Each character tells his or her own story, but with so many point-of-view characters, I had trouble remembering the details of one subplot while I followed, one after another, the others.

I bought this book because Miss Snark recommended it as an example of a narrator that isn't a POV character. And for that, it's a great choice. Glass has an incredible command, not only of the English language, but also of the craft of fiction writing.

But if I'd read the jacket copy first, I wouldn't have read the book. I didn't read the flyleaf until I was halfway through the book (hence committed; yes, I'm anal that way).

The jacket copy makes it clear that the book will ramble among many stories rather than telling a single story well.

But even worse is the jacket's warning that the book "culminates in the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center." Ugh.

I had to ask myself why including the 9-11 disaster in this work of fiction was such a huge turn-off for me. My husband wondered if I felt she was capitalizing on people's heartbreak to make a buck, but I don't think so. In fact, Glass handled the tragedy well, breaking the huge scale of the event into little chunks the size of one person's perspective.

But with stories on that kind of scale, true tragedies that resonate so strongly within our culture, the real stories, the factual stories are 1) so powerful and 2) so familiar that the fictional stories pale by comparison. And the factual stories are also, well, real!

It's like the movie, Titanic. At the risk of losing all credibility, I'll admit I loved it. But the whole Rose-Jack thing didn't work for me.

What I loved of the movie was the careful attention to accuracy, like the china in the butler's pantry: an exact replica ordered from the same factory that delivered the original set, all destined to crash into a heap of shattered porcelain. And the real stories: the captain who went down with the ship, the band that played on the deck, the unsinkable Molly Brown, the couple that quietly lay down to die, the mother in steerage who gave her baby away to give it a chance to live. Those stories resonate, and in comparison, Rose and Jack's love-at-first-glance romance seems a bit silly.

Ditto with fictional stories revolving around the twin towers. They feel a bit silly. But fiction on the scale of the true stories that came out of the horrible day would just feel maudlin.

I do have one more, very small complaint, the same complaint I made about that one book, you know, "that book, the really unforgettable one," by that one author with the unusual name, who wrote one of my favorite stories ... what was the name of that book?

Yeah. The title of this one just doesn't stick in my brain either.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-05-14
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