Before Before Midnight

kelley_before_midnightSpring break, 1995. I caught Before Sunrise in the movie theater. An American guy and French girl meet on a train. When the train stops in Vienna, he convinces her to spend the day with him. They walk around the city all day and night, knowing they’ll have to say goodbye in the morning.

I wanted that. All of it.

Continue reading on Propeller.

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Book Review: Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons

A Thousand PardonsA Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Finally that day arrived. The beginning (and by beginning I mean the first seven pages) was just as good as I remembered. The novel opens with a checked-out husband and frustrated wife on their way to marriage therapy, explained to their eye-rolling daughter as “date night.” Dee’s writing is crisp and I always enjoy bummed-out-in-the-suburbs stories, so we were off to a promising start.

The subsequent pages don’t pack the same punch. A Thousand Pardons feels a bit underwritten, almost like an early draft of a novel before it gets fleshed out with atmosphere and characterization. The biggest element missing throughout was a believable emotional landscape. The characters act like robots. Within the first couple chapters, Helen’s husband engages in a public scandal with a younger woman and the couple gets a quick divorce–and Helen doesn’t have any sort of emotional reaction. She’s not angry or sad or embittered or . . . anything. And their daughter’s response is bizarre, too: she figures her dad and the younger woman were both adults, so she doesn’t blame them. What kid understands when her dad does something like that?

I did enjoy Helen’s career trajectory, even if it wasn’t entirely believable that she could go from housewife to “crisis management” genius in a matter of months. The final plot thread has Helen coming to the rescue of an old acquaintance, an A-list star who finds himself in a troubling predicament. The resolution to this thread–which serves as the conclusion of the entire book–doesn’t ring true.

Despite the problems I had with the book, I still zipped right through it. Dee’s prose is so expert and engaging, he makes even the long (and frequent) expositional passages go down smoothly. A Thousand Pardons is a disappointing follow-up to The Privileges, but still contains enough of that Jonathan Dee magic to make it work.

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Write It So You Can Read It

Here’s a little exercise I like to give my writing students: think of your favorite book or movie. Describe it with three adjectives. Then list three adjectives to describe your own writing. The point is to see how much the art you create matches up with the art you like to consume.

In 2009, I did the exercise along with my students. Three adjectives that describe one of my favorite movies of all time, Before Sunrise: affecting, insightful, and romantic. My writing—a blog and book about raising babies in an eco-friendly manner—would best be described as practical, informative, and useful.

As much as I loved blogging on the The Green Baby Guide (a lot), and as much as I had to say on the subject of cloth diapers (more than you can imagine), I simply wasn’t writing what I wanted to read.

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Amazon describes Before Sunrise like this:

A French grad student named Celine (Julie Delpy) meets an American boy named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) on the Budapest-Vienna train. They get off the train in Vienna and hang out for a while.

So basically, boy meets girl and they hang out.

Now, whenever I start wondering what I should write about next, I think about all the stories that have affected me. What do I like to read?

I like stories about suburban couples who risk everything for an unattainable dream and then end up miserable in the end.

I like stories about nuns who realize they aren’t cut out for the abbey and run around the Alps with seven children dressed in curtains.

I like stories about best friends who get married, get divorced, and try to stay friends.

I like stories about pioneers who battle plagues of locusts and long, cold winters.

I like stories about writers who date models and snort cocaine.

Years after my revelation, I finished Broken Homes & Gardens, a novel best described as a startling cross between The Sound of Music and Bright Lights, Big City.

Just joking. Broken Homes & Gardens is a boy meets girl and they hang out for a while story. My characters don’t snort cocaine or run around the Alps in play clothes made out of curtains. I have to save something for my next book.