Saturday, December 1, 2012

"What My Best Friend Did" by Lucy Dawson

For Alice, life's a bit too boringly grown-up lately - weekends at weddings and baby showers; celebrating friends' transitions to a life she isn't quite up for yet; and a sweet, stable boyfriend she suspects she's outgrown. So when she meets Gretchen for the first time, it feels a bit like falling love. Gretchen, with her air of impulsiveness and intuitive style, is that rarest of treasures: a true friend who knows how to have fun. Plus there's Gretchen's gorgeous brother, Bailey, who might turn out to be exactly what Alice needs. Before she knows what's hit her, Alice's brilliant new best friend is turning her world upside down - seemingly for the better.

But Gretchen has a dark secret, which, like a time bomb, won't stay hidden forever. There explosion may teach them both more than they ever wanted to know about how female friendships can go frighteningly wrong.

I intend to discuss this book as if all readers have read it. If you have NOT read this book and think you will sometime down the road, I would stop here. SERIOUSLY.

This was a rough read, folks. The book has some issues, the characters have issues, the editing has issues... I'm reminded of a line I once heard by a comedian, something along the lines of "Let's get them a magazine rack - they've got a lot of issues." That would definitely apply to this book.

OK, the book/plot first. I am not a fan of the present story framing the past story. Dawson does a good enough job of making it clear what time period we're in, which is good. However, it still feels "jumpy" overall, leading to some of my displeasure. Also, the book starts off with Alice at the hospital, the emergency with Gretchen, the angst of trying to reach others (Tom, Bailey) - then goes back to when Alice first met Gretchen. We, the reader, don't even know what exactly has happened to Gretchen when the flashbacks begin, only that it must be something terrible, possibly life-threatening, for the opening to be so dramatic. Once we go back in time to that fateful meeting, the story starts dragging, becoming the typical "I'm comfortable with my life but boy I wish something would happen" sort of tale. We're properly introduced to Alice and Tom, and immediately we find out that Tom sees their relationship as long-term: buying a place together, getting married, possibly even having children. Alice freezes up, realizing that while she loves Tom, she's not ready for that sort of commitment, and why, oh why, must he try to have this sort of conversation right before she leaves for the States?

The back and forth continues as we see Alice's friendship with Gretchen blossom at a rapid pace. Perhaps the only thing I did like was the reaction of Vic, Alice's best friend who moved to Paris to be with her handsome love, Luc; Vic is naturally a bit jealous of Alice's "new best friend", feeling a bit off herself in a foreign land with no new best friend herself. Of all the characters in this limp moral tale, I liked Vic - and she's the only one. That's problem #2 - character development. Honestly, these people are rather harsh, almost none of them likeable, and often not what I would consider to be fully-developed. I will grant the author that there are a lot of characters on the canvas, but still, wouldn't it have been more interesting if Paolo, flatmate to Tom and Alice, has been fleshed out a bit? As it stands, he's merely the hot roommate who happens to have sex with Gretchen at crucial moments. Also, I thought Bailey needed to be more than the guy that lured Alice away from Tom (not hard to do, grant you, but still...). There is some back story given by him during a scene with Alice, one where he describes the first time Gretchen goes off the meds and tries to hurt herself. I knew I was supposed to pick up on the fact that he feels responsible for her, but wouldn't it have been better to have him tell me that? And to see it more than once? Again, I would have been much more invested in his blossoming love affair with Alice with more development of his character, or at least, I think I would have.

Then there's Alice herself. This novel is told from the first-person perspective, so everything we know is from Alice's POV. That is, until chapter twenty-nine, when the author suddenly shifts and has different scenes from a third-person POV. Here's Gretchen's doctor coming in to work, amazed that the "overdose girl" is still alive. Suddenly we go back to Alice's first-person POV, then we're watching Bailey as he wakes and gets ready to go to the hospital (everyone had left to get some rest, reassured that they had time before Gretchen "woke up"). Then we see Tom, then it's back to Alice, and oh my - I'm getting dizzy. Anyway, back to Alice. Even while she was getting to know Gretchen and gushing to Vic about how wonderful it is to have someone to hang out with again, I didn't like her. There's just something off about her; maybe it's the way she doesn't want to take responsibility for anything that's happening to her (her wanting to lie to Tom about being attracted to and kissing Bailey, for instance, even though it's clear she sees no future with Tom), maybe it's because it's obvious from the start that she's hiding something major from everyone at the hospital. In any case, at one point I was really hoping she'd get her comeuppance, and I don't know that that's what the author was going for.

I also had a hard time with how mental illness was portrayed in this book. What could have been a very touching, yet difficult subject comes across more as a simple plot device. Yes, Gretchen and her brother both explain to Alice what it's like for Gretchen, how scary it is to be "ill", and I thought the author did a great job in the scenes where Gretchen tells Alice how she feels when she's on her lithium, and off it. There could have been much more said on this subject. What really bothered me was Dawson's decision to have Gretchen be a completely manipulative witch, one who seems to blame her illness for her actions. Instead of a frank look at manic depression, we get something more along the lines of a bad movie plot. I think it would have been brilliant if Gretchen had explained why she pretty much stole/destroyed Alice's life; was Gretchen doing it because she couldn't stand to see someone be happy? Or did she do it because she wants that sort of life so badly herself?

Finally, there are some editing issues that will seem nitpicky to a lot of readers. But keep in mind, anything that basically pops you out of the story is bad, be it editing or character development or whatever. In this case, it was quote marks - specifically the use of double quotes within double quotes. I would have written it off as some British thing, or perhaps a peculiarity of the publisher, but half-way through the book, the correct way to quote someone within dialog started showing up, the old single quotes within double quotes. To this reader, it was like nails on a chalkboard. And it had me wondering - with tighter editing (which not only includes basic grammar and such, but also spotting plot holes, character weakness, etc) would this have been a better book? Possibly. We'll probably never know.

Now, having said all this, here's the weird thing: I found myself racing through the last 50 pages or so to find out how this would end. Not in a skimming-so-I-don't-have-to-read-it-all way, but in a biting-my-nails-because-I-can't-wait-to-see-how-this-ends kind of way. I know, right? How did that happen? I honestly don't know. I can say that when I finished the last page, I was sort of glad at how it ended, and also a bit disappointed as well. It's one of those books that leaves you hanging, as you'll never really know what happens. Sigh.

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