Relaxing social strictures and therapy are doing wonders for us as a society–but I sometimes wonder if they’re ruining the contemporary novel. I mean, what is there to fight about these days? What provides the tension? Nothing. Instead, the focus turns inward; the protagonist fights against himself (or discovers something, or whatever). And if it’s not really well done, then all the reader (well, this reader anyway) can think is, “God, this person needs a shrink.”
Which is what was running through my head as I read the soap opera-like Free Food for Millionaires, the story of Korean-American Casey (along with her friends), who graduates from Princeton, fights with her family, goes 24k in debt on mainly clothes, takes a secretarial job because she only applied to one investment banking house, goes back to school, takes out massive student loans to go back to business school, gets an internship, works her ass off, and then ends the novel giving up on business school because she “just can’t.” I guess it was supposed to be that hopeful note at the end of the novel speaking of personal redemption through self-discovery. But I found it tragic because it just all seemed so stupid.
And this is the thing. I am down with the tragic heroine. Madame Bovary? I’d have an aperitif with her any day. Lily Bart? She is my PEEP, man. But while Madame B and Lily B do stupid things, we still understand, our hearts rip apart as we read, hoping that this time–finally–things will turn out better. With Casey? I just want to shake her. So is it 1. the writing (I confess, this was a riveting read with Casey and all her friends)?; 2. the fact that I never really LIKE Casey; or 3. that we have completely different expectations from the modern novel? I suspect there’s a little of 2 in there, but perhaps a whole lot of 3. And maybe it’s why I’ve really been into mysteries lately. (Just worked my way through all of Donna Leon and Martha Grimes.)