Wednesday, September 28, 2011

book review: The Submission by Amy Waldman

The basics: The Submission is a story of building a 9/11 memorial. A committee has chosen a winner (although not quite unanimously) through a blind submission process. When they open the envelope to discover the winner's identity, they discover he is Muslim.

My thoughts: I started this novel on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and initially I loved it. I'm an art and literature lover, and I believe both can help us heal from collective wounds, honor those who died and who lived, and be a useful part of conversation. The premise of this book is lovely, and Waldman served as co-chief of the South Asia bureau for The New York Times. This novel had immense potential, but unfortunately it did not deliver.

I adored the first third of this novel. I did opine I wasn't sure how one could end a novel with all of these narrators and conflicting viewpoints, but I was eager to see where Waldman took it. Soon, however, it was clear Waldman was breaking the cardinal rule of debut novels: thou shall not overwrite. Both the story and increasingly the language suffered from overwriting. Instead of the story seeming tight, it seemed oddly meandering. I think a smaller set of narrators among the cast of characters would have helped focus the narrative.

More jarring to me, however, were the suddenly awkward passages. For every beautiful passage:
"The trauma, for Paul, had come later, when he watched the replay, pledged allegiance to the devastation. You couldn't call yourself an American if you hadn't, in solidarity, watched your fellow Americans being pulverized, yet what kind of American did watching create? A traumatized victim? A charged-up avenger? A queasy voyeur? Paul, and he suspected many Americans, harbored all of these protagonists. The memorial was meant to tame them."
there was one that made me groan:
"It was seven-fifteen, an hour when Paul would have preferred to be contemplating the soft hillocks of a sleeping Edith's rear country." 
More often, my problem was Waldman watered down both her story and her wisdom with unnecessary details:
"Across the street she saw green--Prospect Park, Brooklyn's lungs. She breathed air into her own." 
Even my favorite passage (below) includes an unnecessary phrase.

Favorite passage: "Bravery, she thought as she walked, wasn't about strength alone. It required opportunity."

The verdict: Despite a strong premise and beginning, Waldman's overwrites this novel to a frustrating point. It's still worth reading to discuss, as it does present a fascinating portrayal of the complicated emotions so many have post-9/11, but it isn't the novel it could be or I hoped it would be.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: August 16, 2011
Source: my local public library

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  1. That quote about the hillocks of the rear country made me groan as well! I am not sure if I would like this book. The premise sounds undeniably interesting, but the writing might also push my buttons. I am so glad to have gotten your opinion on it, and glad that you shared a few samples of the writing. I am sorry this one didn't work for you.

  2. Boo, disappointing! I was sort of on the fence about it but might pass because I don't know if I can recover from hillocks of the rear country either!!

  3. Groan.

    Too bad it couldn't be good, like other books. LOL.

    I detest overwriting myself. Ugh.

  4. I've been waiting for a blogger review of this book! I loved the way this book was introduced in all the articles, but now I don't think I'll read it. I'm very curious though, about how it ends - if they accept the submission or not (assuming that's the crux of the book).

  5. OMG...I don't think I could stand the writing just with what you quoted, but I am sure there is much more of that throughout....ugh

  6. Ugh - the 'hillocks' quote is awful!

    I had high hopes for this book - such an interesting premise. I'm sorry the balance of the book didn't work as well as it began.

  7. Oh how disappointing! I'm still interested though since you say it's worth reading. I tens to be interested in novels about 9/11.


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