For the Book with Bad reviews challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose Heather, The Totality. The book averages a 2.9/5 on Good Reads and 3/5 at Amazon. I know those numbers put it solidly in the mediocre category, but I really didn’t want to commit to a book that a lot of people hated. Another plus, the book is a slim 134 pages. Why commit to a huge book with bad reviews when I can suffer through a shorter one?
And while I wouldn’t say I suffered, I will say, I’m glad the book was short.
Heather is the generic passive female character we’ve seen hundreds of times. More object and ideal than person. Stunningly beautiful. Unbelievably perfect. Untouchable, unknowable. Blah, blah, blah.
Luckily, despite the title and the promises of the book jacket, she isn’t the focus. The story is more about Mark and Karen, Heather’s parents, specifically their marriage. It’s the plausible outcome when two people marry for the wrong reasons but stay together for the child they adore. From that perspective the book is spot on, capturing the almost imperceptible decline of a bond forged in convenience and gratitude. But that’s not what the summary promised. Taken from the jacket:
“But as Heather grows—and her empathy sharpens to a point, and her radiance attracts more and more dark interest—their perfect existence starts to fracture…. Meanwhile a very different life…is beginning its own malign orbit around Heather.”
Expecting conflict and confrontation between Heather and this “different life”, I was disappointed by what eventually happens or doesn’t happen.
The author makes other style choices, verbally and aesthetically, that could either be viewed as rebellious scribe’s bold challenge to the rules or a high school freshman who hasn’t learned them yet. Because author Matthew Weiner is an accomplished TV writer (Mad Men, Sopranos) one assumes he’s choosing to break the rules, perhaps as an experiment to see if it can be done well.
Here are some of the casualties:
Show, don’t tell. It reads like the diary of a housewife suffering from acute ennui. Character activities are chronicled, emotions are not. There are few conversations between characters. Mostly, singular lines of dialogue are embedded in a paragraph.
Chekov’s gun. This rule basically states, if you draw attention to something, you better have a good reason. In this case, Heather’s empathy is the gun. We are told ad nauseum that Heather has a preternatural sense of empathy.
“…her beauty became more pronounced but somehow secondary to…a complex empathy that could be profound.”
“Heather didn’t know for years that her ability to see people’s feelings and even feel them sometimes was unusual.”
“Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her…”
Weiner just lets the superpower fizzle into uselessness as she can’t sense the danger next to her, a malevolence so strong her father can sense it from across the street.
White space. Stylistically, the text floats on a sea of white space. The margins are wider than usual and every paragraph, even those in the same scene have at least three spaces between them. I’m sure this is supposed to indicate the distance between the characters, but it feels more like a college freshman padding a term paper.
The ending is a pleasant, if unceremonious, surprise. There isn’t enough inner conflict or angst to give the reader a sense of dread on the character’s behalf. Afterward, there are no real consequences. It just comes across as a weird thing that happened one day. And then the book was over.
This was one of the most passive reading experiences I have ever had. No imagining, no guessing, no caring.