Tuesday, June 8, 2010

book review: Based Upon Availability by Alix Strauss

Based upon Availability: A Novel
The backstory: I jumped at the chance to read this book because the summary sounded so amazing. Here's part of the publisher's description:
Based Upon Availability is the story of eight women, each exploring the basic need for human connection while seeking to understand themselves better. They are lonely, strong and driven women who, when pushed to the edge, must fight for their lives as they struggle to become the women they wish to be...The hotel offers sanctuary to each—for an hour, for several days—and while some find solace, others find only despair. Strauss portrays nuanced portraits of these seemingly ordinary women to create an utterly original read, filled with dark themes and light prose.
It sounds fantastic right? Eight women whose lives intertwine at the Manhattan Four Seasons? I'm always fascinated by the stories of people I meet and see in passing each day.

The basics: Yes, technically it is the story of eight women. Mostly, however, it's the story of Morgan, a manager at the Four Seasons who is still reeling over the death of her sister. The first half of the novel is about Morgan. It's broken up into chapters with locations. In the second half of the novel, the same events are revisited from the point of view of the other character.


My thoughts: I've had trouble evaluating this novel as a whole. I really disliked the main character, Morgan. It felt as though her story was going on forever. She was a caricature; she was so self-absorbed and had zero self-awareness. Sometimes characters can be a successful satire, but I didn't sense satire from Strauss; I sensed sadness. Her descriptions of characters fell flat for me:
"Anne is shifting from one foot to the other, antsy and fidgety. She looks like a librarian-in-training. She's what my grandmother would have called "dowdy mousy." For some reason I have a soft spot for her. It makes me want to apply some blush to her cheeks, paint her lips a tawny red. Add some life to her face. Help her become the person I think she aches to be." (page 27)
Yes, I bristled a little at the librarian stereotype, but when it appeared again five pages later, it was hard to ignore:
"She has on her librarian expression now. Everything is stoic and she's speaking matter-of-factly, like a robot trying to get humanized." (page 32)
Seriously? I hope I'm disliking these passages because I think they're weak, silly descriptions void of nuance. These descriptions do, however, provide insight into how Morgan sees the world and help explain why she's so difficult to relate to.

Once the novel veered out of Morgan's voice, I actually began to love it. Anne, our dull librarian described above, is the first voice to take over narration. Her story would work brilliantly as a short story. She's nuanced, dynamic and interesting. She is the antithesis of Morgan, and I hope that was the intent of Strauss. Ironically, Anne's description of why she loves her job at the Four Seasons so much reads like the role of a reference librarian:
"Once she was asked to locate a miniature dachshund for Madonna. She spent all day tracking down the pedigree and finally unearthed a breeder in Vermont who had just one pup left." (page 137)
Librarians serve customers, but we call them patrons. We answer their questions, find information and help them the same way hotel concierge would.

I understand I thought I was reading literary fiction and this novel would probably do better with a chick lit cover, but if you're using pop culture to make points and seem cool, spell the names right:
"She laughs, thinking this is like a badly written Harlequin Romance novel or sappy movie of the week starring Shannon Doherty." (page 145)
Throughout the book, the similes fell flat for me, even when I enjoyed their intent:
"My sister is a terrific liar. It's a gift, like knitting or cooking." (page 207)
This book was uneven for me. There were parts I enjoyed, parts I despised and parts I read without emotional attachment. I admire what Strauss attempted, but there wasn't enough depth to the characters, writing or stories to make it work as a whole. I appreciate the unique literary structure, but with half of the novel telling Morgan's story, it fell somewhere between short stories and a novel. Some of the stories are wonderful, and part of their wonder comes from knowledge gleaned through Morgan's stories. Overall, the characters and the novel are caught somewhere between genres. The cover and description led me to believe it was literary fiction, and it is at times. It also attempts to be chick lit and fresh with pop culture. The ending, which could so easily have brought the chaotic reading experience together, was frustrating, vague and forced.

There were some odd mentions of time as well. I'm not entirely sure when the novel was set, as there are several mentions of personal CD players and mp3 players seem new. Morgan is 33 and graduated from college in 1993. There were a few moments it felt as though references had been updated. Perhaps I was reading too carefully, but this seemingly modern novel appears to be set in the early 2000s. The time doesn't change the story, but it was interesting to note.


The verdict: There are some wonderful bright spots, but there are far more flaws in this work. This book will appeal greatly to some and not at all to others.


Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 340
Publication date: June 8, 2010 
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours

For more thoughts on this novel, check out the rest of the tour schedule. Booklist gave it a starred review and Publisher's Weekly called it "stellar."

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

11 comments:

  1. I'm really glad I read your review of this because I was considering accepting it for review. I'm still interested in it, but think I would rather find my own copy than accept it for review. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read an advance copy of this book and it is a wonderful and well written Summer read. The characters are colorful and fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Too bad it was a disappointment...but the cover is gorgeous. It reminds me of spring. Or maybe Paris.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh, that's disappointing! I had thought about reading this for today, but alas my BEA books have not yet arrived!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have just finished reading the Morgan section and I have found her to be a little bit frustrating. I do have some hope now that I know it picks up a bit in the next part. I will be curious to see how the perspective of the story changes once she isn't telling the story anymore.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You're right - the description does sound great! Too bad that it doesn't live up to the potential. If I can't relate to a main character that always does it for me too.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I read an advance copy, too, and I really enjoyed it--especially in the second half, as we get to learn more about the characters mentioned in Morgan's narrative. You can check out my review here: http://www.more.com/2053/22065-a-review-of-alix-strauss

    ReplyDelete
  8. I know what you mean about Morgan's story going on for too long. I would have appreciated more balance between her story and the other women's stories. Still, I enjoyed the way they intertwined. I also was intrigued by the way each woman had such an emotional trial to work through (albeit a bit dramatic). Have you read Atwood's Robber Bride? In several aspects this book reminded me of that: a look through many different points of view.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yours is the first review I've seem that isn't "glowing". Thanks for giving a balanced opinion - I find reviews like this much more helpful than ones that are strictly positive. It helps me come to a book with more realistic expectations. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great review. I agree with a lot that you had to say, though I think that I liked it on balance more than you did. I linked to you here:

    http://everydayiwritethebook.typepad.com/books/2010/06/based-upon-availability-by-alix-strauss.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. I so totally agree with you...I did not like this book at all...it left me feeling absolutely sad that I wasted time reading it.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!