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Alice McDermott – A Bigamist’s Daughter

December 30, 2009

152. A Bigamist’s Daughter by Alice McDermott (1982)

Length: 290 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction

Started: 18 December 2009
Finished: 23 December 2009

Where did it come from? My boss, rather out of the blue, came over to my desk one day and said “You read a lot, don’t you? I think you’ll like this.”
Why do I have it? See above.

I finished this book,
although it’s not quite my style?
Well, that’s big of me!

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Summary: Elizabeth Connelly feels like a fraud in her job: she is the editor-in-chief at a vanity press, and her main responsibility is to convince would-be authors to sign contracts – and checks – to publish their “masterpieces.” Until one day she is approached by Tupper, a young man with a manuscript about a man who maintained multiple wives in multiple towns. His book lacks an ending, and he wants Elizabeth’s help in finding one, but the whole thing cuts a little too close to home, for her own father would leave her and her mother alone for long periods… ostensibly working for the government, but Elizabeth has always wondered if he was actually a bigamist. Now she must confront the ghosts of her past – those of her parents’ relationship, and those from her own past loves and lovers, for Tupper is not only interested in Elizabeth as an editor, but also as a woman.

Review: Maybe I am just not in the mood for literary fiction right now, but this is the second one in a row that I’ve read that just fell flat for me. My main problem with this one, I think, was that there was just nothing driving the story forward. It certainly wasn’t plot-driven, as very little actually happened, and pretty much nothing was resolved. But it wasn’t really character-driven either, since it’s debatable how much Elizabeth grows over the course of the book. Certainly, part of my problem was that I didn’t particularly care for Elizabeth. She’s one of those literary women who spends so much time (over-)analyzing every emotion, every memory, every situation that she never actually feels or experiences any of them, and for someone who spends so much time thinking about men and women and love, she reads as rather immature. Certainly, this may have been part of McDermott’s point, but it made it hard to find anything about the protagonist to latch on to or care about. I wasn’t really even able to root for her and Tupper’s relationship, in part because it seemed fatally flawed from the outset, and in part because we never really get to know Tupper as anything more than a prod to Elizabeth’s further self-analysis. The whole thing also felt a little dated – which, given that this book was published almost thirty years ago, shouldn’t come as a huge surprise – in some of its attitudes and revelations about sex and relationships and love and men and women.

I also wasn’t particularly crazy about the writing. To be fair, there were some absolutely lovely moments of clear and sharp perception, surrounded with a wealth of eloquent turns of phrase. But in general, the tone of the writing was too distant, too cold, and too removed for me to really ever get into the story. There were also occasional swaps between the third-person present tense that made up most of the book (not my favorite), and an occasional first-person past tense interlude in which Elizabeth discusses some memory from her childhood. The context for the shifts was never explained, and so I found them really distracting, breaking whatever small amount of momentum I’d managed to build up. Finally, my copy had a number of editing errors (“find” for “fine”; “nobel” for “noble”, etc.) that seemed doubly out of place in a novel that revolves around an editor. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’d pass, honestly, unless you’re a McDermott completist. This was my first time reading her work, and while I wouldn’t be averse to trying one of her later books, there wasn’t much here to inspire me to seek them out, either.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Incurable Logophilia
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First Line: She is almost beginning to believe him.

Cover Thoughts: It pretty accurately sets the tone of the novel – a woman at a desk, by herself, kind of dreary and gray – but it wouldn’t be enough to make me pick it up based on the cover alone.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 167: “They are lovers now, just like all the other couples in this tacky, overpriced restaurant (“Come in and fall in love,” says a sign in a glass case by the door, where other restaurants might suggest, “Come in and try our roast duck”), just like all the other lovers, leaning over small lights, peering into each other, searching for the significant, the special, the glowing, never-before seen compound buried in all that grimy, indistinguishable pitchblende.” – a massive variety of uraninite, occurring in black pitchlike masses: a major ore of uranium and radium.
12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2009 9:35 am

    Thank you for such a thorough review. I don’t recall ever reading anything by this author, and if I decide to, I won’t start with this one. I dislike those over-analyzing characters.

    • December 31, 2009 9:55 am

      Anna – I’ve heard that people like her later work, so this one might just suffer from first-novel-itis.

  2. December 30, 2009 11:00 am

    Bummer. I’ve only read a few of her books, but I enjoyed them.

    I’ve decided that bosses have questionable taste in books, though. :-D

    • December 31, 2009 9:55 am

      softdrink – Any recommendations on which one I should try next?

  3. December 30, 2009 7:48 pm

    I have always wondered about this author, but the book doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy…

    • December 31, 2009 9:56 am

      Kailana – I wonder how different her other books are?

  4. December 30, 2009 8:27 pm

    Thanks for the review. I’ll skip this one.

  5. December 31, 2009 2:00 pm

    I’m so tired of books that are all: The Blank’s Blank. It does mainly seem to be women, doesn’t it? The something’s wife, the something’s daughter, like that’s the only thing that defines them. I’m finding it more and more annoying. Good to know I can give this one a miss!

    • January 3, 2010 9:25 pm

      Jenny – I’ve never thought about it like that, but you’re totally right.

  6. January 10, 2010 3:30 am

    I recently read another book by this author that I really enjoyed: Child of My Heart. Your review of this novel does not sound as promising, but I think I may try it out for myself anyway. Oh, and I completely agree with Jenny’s comment!

    • January 10, 2010 9:04 pm

      reading100 – From what I can tell, this one may have a severe case of first-novel-itis, so I will have to be open-minded the next time I come across one of her books.

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