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10th October
2011
written by Steph

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I have not been having good luck with book tours of late. I am eternally grateful to TLC tours for turning me onto some really enjoyable reads, but lately I feel like I’ve been striking out with the books I’ve been covering for them. Sometimes it’s clear that a book is good but you aren’t the right reader for it, or maybe you just aren’t in the right mindframe for it (always one of the drawbacks of scheduled reading!)… I want to think that’s what happened with My God, What Have We Done?, Susan V. Weiss’s debut novel, because if I’m being honest, I did not really enjoy this book very much at all. So much so that I only read the first 50 pages in earnest before switching to skim-read mode for another 30 pages or so just to see if things would improve, and then finally I threw in the towel. The premise of the book was not uninteresting in theory: through parallel storylines Weiss tells the tale of newlyweds, Pauline and Clifford, who have decided to vacation in New Mexico, largely due to Pauline’s crush on Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb. Interspersed with P&C’s story is that of the great man himself, Oppenheimer, fifty years earlier, toiling tirelessly amongst a group of dedicated scientists to create the ultimate weapon. For the romantic or the naïve, the correlations between a marriage and the atom bomb may not be readily apparent, but with a little imagination or some life experience, I think astute readers can see how analogies between the two can be drawn! I personally thought the notion of setting the two references up as a means of comparison was rather clever, if a tad on the nose. It’s no secret that I really enjoy novels that feature interleaved (and seemingly disparate) storylines if done well, so my curiosity was certainly piqued.  I also admit that I was intrigued by the fact that MGWHWD? was published by Fomite Press, an indie publisher that I’d never even heard of before and as Trish pointed out to me her query email, it’s kind of interesting to see what these small imprints decide to pick up. So here’s the thing: you know that I have no compunction about trashing books on this site if I think they are deserving, BUT generally speaking, I only do this to books that I have completed and/or are written by wildly successful authors who likely aren’t going to be impacted by my lousy review. I feel very conflicted writing negative things about a debut novel that doesn’t have a huge print run and which many people may not even hear of save for on this book tour. It just feels shitty and unfair, because I can only imagine how insanely difficult it is to write a book and get it published, and it’s a lot easier to pick apart something than build it in the first place. That said, I’m not going to pretend to like a book if I don’t, so I’m going to try to explain why it is that I didn’t really care for this book, but I’m not going to be snarky about it (this time)! I mean, I really did want to like this book and feel bad that I didn’t, so I am now going to say negative things, but I will try to be diplomatic and back things up when I can. As I’ve said before when talking about books featuring multiple storylines, one of the huge risks an author takes when writing a book that forces readers to switch back and forth between disparate stories is that all of the storylines need to be equally compelling. Otherwise readers are going to be impatient with the parts that don’t focus on the story that they’re not invested in and that’s going to be a drag. Alas, I did not feel that the newlywed and Oppenheimer storylines were on equal footing. Normally I am a huge science nerd, but I personally found the Oppenheimer sections exceedingly dry and uninteresting. I just couldn’t get into the right groove with those chapters, and was unable to transport myself back to the 1940s and get excited about the development and testing of the A-bomb. However, if that was my only issue, I suppose I could have just skipped or speedread the parts of the novel that dealt with Oppenheimer and just focused on the bits with Pauline and Clifford. Only, I REALLY REALLY hated the character of Pauline and thus did not want to spend any time with her either, so I was filled with a lot of ambivalence when I ended the first Oppenheimer section since on the plus side, Pauline’s story didn’t bore me, but on the other hand: HATE. Mostly I just really found Pauline to be a super repulsive person early on, one who had really awful attitudes and maybe needed a personality adjustment (oh if only those existed!). For instance, when discussing her decision to marry Clifford, one is not swept away by the romance of their courtship, but rather how cold and calculating Pauline is. She says that prior to dating Clifford, she had decided that she wanted to get married and experience the social institution of marriage and pretty much Clifford was the only suitable person she had ever dated that she could consider marrying. It’s not actually clear that Pauline really cares for Clifford so much as she is able to see that he is a kind, hardworking man who would offer her stability so she SHOULD like him and would be foolish not to marry him. I just found that whole set-up so icky and degrading. And I’m not saying that Weiss is expecting her readers to find Pauline sympathetic, nor am I saying that there aren’t people who have ever felt as Pauline has, I’m just saying that I didn’t like Pauline… which in and of itself isn’t the kiss of death, since I’ve read plenty of novels with people who are unlikable but I have to at least find them interesting. And I didn’t find Pauline interesting. I just thought she needed to grow up and get over herself. [To be fair, Clifford himself may not be the perfect man as evidenced by the following reflection on Pauline’s part:
He, in contrast, hadn’t dated all through college and since then had had only one significant relationship, which lasted four and a half years. When I asked him why it had ended, he answered quite simply, “I don’t know.”
Ladies and gentlemen? That is a huge warning flag that the person you are dating is not someone you want to be dating.] I will share another quote with you to further elucidate how terrible Pauline is, and as fate would have it, this quote will also highlight one of the other big issues I had with this book:
Though my husband didn’t have to persuade me to look happy, my friend Rob, the volunteer photographer at our wedding, had kept coaxing me to smile while I tried to disguise my doubts and deficiencies, which must have been as visible as my ivory tea-length dress.
Ok, so obviously I think it's hateful for someone to marry someone if it means they are going to spend their wedding day wondering if they’re making a mistake such that the photographer has to tell them repeatedly to look like they’re happy in the pictures… but can we also just focus on the last part of that sentence? The part about the dress… I don’t get what that meant at all. She compares her doubts/deficiencies to her dress… by saying that her dress is visible. What does that mean?!? I don’t get the simile. I mean, maybe if there had been something suggesting that her dress was loud/over-the-top/ostentatious I would get the allusion, but to me “ivory tea-length dress” doesn’t suggest that at all, and while “visible as the nose on my face” would have been cliché it at least wouldn’t have been baffling and would have made sense as a point of comparison. Or maybe Weiss meant Pauline had doubts about her dress? I don’t know. The point I’m making is that the early part of this book was full of sentences that made no sense to me and/or gave me reading whiplash. For example:
A crisp, unused map of New Mexico was open on my lap as vastly as the desert reached out around us.
My brain really struggles with the “as vastly” part of that sentence. Is it just me or would that sentence not be just as poignant but infinitely more readable as “A crisp, unused map of New Mexico was open on my lap, as vast as the desert reaching out around us.”? I guess I don’t see how a map can be open “vastly”. And yes, I’m nitpicking, but for whatever reason this book brought out my inner editor and I was always stumbling over sentences that felt awkward (or nonsensical) to me and that I kept wanting to rewrite. It drove me bonkers and made me crabby. So essentially this book had one boring storyline, one annoying storyline, and writing that I did not like and found to be an insurmountable obstacle (I mean, even if the Oppenheimer storyline got interesting and Pauline magically became awesome, I tend to think Weiss’s style was not going to change halfway through the book and would have continued to make me crazy.). All three made it so that I just could not read more than 90 pages of this book. But if you check out some of the other stops on this tour, you will find that other people did not feel as I did. In fact others have felt the EXACT opposite, finding this book compelling and specifically praising the writing, so who knows, maybe it’s just some pre-existing condition in my brain that makes it feel like I’m having a seizure when I try to read this book. I don’t deny that a steady diet of peer-reviewed neuroscience articles  + Julia Quinn romance novels for the past few months have probably done something odd to my synapses. But also, one other tour host felt unengaged and gave up early on, so then again, my brain may not actually be on meltdown. Checking out the Folmite Press website, the submission section has the following blurb:
At this point, I (Marc) am the only one requesting, receiving, and reading mss. Consequently, acceptance comes down to “what I like” – and no accounting for tastes.
I am thinking that perhaps my tastes and Marc’s tastes do not overlap very much, which is fine and really, I doubt Marc cares very much because I get to express my tastes on my blog, whereas he has the clout and the cash to express them through the books he chooses to publish. Different strokes and all that jazz. Anyway, the fact that I have now written almost 2000 words about a book I didn’t even finish is kind of ridiculous, so I am going to stop writing now. You might find it enlightening to check out some of the other stops on this tour:

Monday, September 19th: A Bookish Libraria Tuesday, September 20th: “That’s Swell!” Wednesday, September 21st: Lit Endeavors Wednesday, September 28th: Savvy Verse & Wit Thursday, September 29th: she treads softly Monday, October 3rd: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books Wednesday, October 5th: Booksie’s Blog Tuesday, October 11th: Col Reads Wednesday, October 12th: Regular Rumination Wednesday, October 12th: The Well-Read Wife

12 Comments

  1. 10/10/2011

    I would say the dress simile refers to the fact that it is an ivory tea-length dress rather than the this-is-my-dream-wedding-white-princess-floor-length dress.

    Well, it both scares and intrigues me that you HATED Pauline, because you are very tolerant of dysfunctional and unlikeable characters – much more so than I! So that sounds almost like a fun challenge to me to see how I would react! :–) Also, yes, it’s sad to say, I also drag my husband on trips to NM because of Oppenheimer (and some other physicists of the Manhattan Project), and yes, even dragged him there to get married! And I’m afraid I outdid Pauline in similes by getting married in hiking pants! :–)

  2. 10/10/2011

    Yes, this book was a struggle, and ultimately, it was not the book for me either. I really would have preferred more engaging and “real” sections for Oppenheimer…those sections felt just blah…thrown in as a way for the author to illustrate certain points. It was more of a device than a plot to me. I really wanted to like this one, but it just didn’t happen.

    The Manhattan Project is a pet fascination with me, but this comparison and execution just didn’t work for me.

  3. 10/10/2011

    I considered reading this book but something about the description made me decide to skip it. I am glad now that I did. It’s always discouraging to dislike a book you are hosting on tour, and I was in a similar situation a week or two ago with Waiting for Robert Capa, which I just could not finish, despite my best intentions.

  4. 10/10/2011

    I think you did a great job of explaining why you disliked the book while still being fair. I think it can be a bit unfair when a blogger goes “I don’t recommend this book to anyone, it’s completely worthless” and leaves it at that, because really, how CAN you know? But when someone writes a thoughtful and detailed review like yours, I can decide whether or not the book is for me regardless of how the blogger felt about it. In this case I suspect I’d agree with you, but in many cases I’ve read negative reviews that made me add the book to my wishlist.

  5. 10/12/2011

    @ Jill: I dare you to read this one given your low tolerance for blackguards and tiresome characters! From most of the reviews I read, most people found the Pauline sections more engaging than the Oppenheimer bits (and even I preferred them, despite hating Pauline), but perhaps given your own personal interests and background you may feel differently.
     
    @ Serena: The Oppenheimer sections just felt like dry history lessons to me, and it seems like they came across that way to others as well. I think if the writing had worked better I might have pushed through more of this book, but as it was I felt I had quite enough!
     
    @ Stephanie: It’s always the worst when you’re doing the blog tour thing because I feel like the probability that the people actually involved in the making of the book in question are going to read your review is very very high. And no one wants to read a bad review of something they were a part of. I tried my best to express my discontent without being a jerk, so I’m glad to hear someone else understands the delicate situation that these tours can produce!
     
    @ Nymeth: It’s very rare that I would pan a book in the “no one should read this EVER!” fashion, since as you say, you can never really know how others will react. All I can do is explain my position and reaction and hope others find that useful. Most of the times when I blog about books I don’t think I’m talking about them as much as I’m talking about how they affected me. If I dislike something, I try to articulate what that is with examples from the book so that others can judge for themselves whether those things are likely to displease them as well.
     
    @ Kathleen: I am totally with you that the premise had so much promise and sounds really neat, which was why it was all the more difficult for me that the actual execution just wasn’t working (in my opinion). I am sure there is an audience for this book, but I guess I’m not part of it!

  6. 10/10/2011

    I’m worried about the writing based on the bits of text you have excerpted here. That being said I do think the premise sounds interesting enough. With so many good books out there and my TBR list already overflowing, I probably won’t rush to read this one anytime soon.

  7. 10/10/2011

    This review was not only well stated, but also very interesting as well. I loved that you backed up your opinions with some of the quotes you had trouble with, and I have to agree that all of them baffled me too. I think it can be really tough to review a book that you so clearly have issues with when the book is from a very small publisher, but I do really appreciate your honesty and ability to tell it like it is. I can also tell you that I most likely wouldn’t have liked this book either. Thanks for being so honest and candid in this post, Steph.

  8. […] Monday, October 10th: Steph and Tony Investigate […]

  9. I really appreciate you giving this book a fair try. Thanks for being diplomatic about explaining what didn’t work for you – hopefully that will help other readers figure out if this book is a good fit for them or not.

    We appreciate you being a part of the tour. Hopefully your next few reads will work out better for you!

  10. 10/12/2011

    Steph, I know what you mean. I’ve been doing the tours, too and lately I haven’t been jiving with the books as much. Normally, I would just write that I didn’t like the book, but I’ve been trying to change that tactic and instead write about the few positive aspects of the book. However, I’m not feeling that tactic, so I’m pretty sure I’m returning to my old ways. Oh well. And as far as this review goes, I think you did an excellent job expounding on a book you didn’t like 🙂 I like your honesty – it definitely makes me appreciate your blog even more. Great post!

  11. 10/12/2011

    @ zibilee: When I stumbled across some of the quotes that I posted during my reading of the book, I actually would stop and read them outloud to Tony to see whether I was being obtuse or whether they really were that ambiguous/confusing. He couldn’t make heads or tails of any of them either, which at least quelled my fears that a seizure specific to the language parts of my brain was afflicting me! 😉
     
    @ Heather J.: As always, thanks for having me on this tour and giving me the chance to experience a book I would otherwise never have known about! As I said, it doesn’t always work out, but I really have discovered some really fun and wonderful reads courtesy of TLC Tours.
     
    @ Nadia: I do always try to find positive things about a book when I write about it… unless I have a laundry list of really negative things to say, and then sometimes I just focus on those instead! 😉 I am sure there are good things about this book, but I could only talk about what I experienced in the first 70 pages, which I realize is not a fully comprehensive overview of the book, so I hope others will take everything I say with a grain of salt!
     
    @ Susan: Thanks for being so gracious here. I wish you success and hope that your novel finds the right audience so that it can reach readers who will fully appreciate it. I know they are out there!

  12. 10/12/2011

    Thanks for being part of my book tour. Of course I’m disappointed when someone doesn’t like my novel. But I do appreciate you mentioning that others have enjoyed it and reviewed it favorably.

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