Thursday, June 27, 2013


What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, 1991

I'm a book-before-movie kinda gal, without question. I delayed seeing the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice specifically because I hadn't read the book - that's right, I didn't want to be spoiled for a novel that was published more than two hundred years ago. So it's kind of unusual that I actually saw the movie version of What's Eating Gilbert Grape before reading the book (of course, I didn't know there was a book until recently). I loved the film, a lyrical tragicomic slice-of-life with astonishing performances from Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. But I loved the book even more.

Gilbert Grape is a quiet young man living with his family in the tiny town of Endora, Iowa. The Grape family is still shattered after the suicide of its patriarch many years before. Gilbert's mother, Bonnie, is enormously overweight and entirely sedentary, his youngest sister Ellen is a self-obsessed teenager on the cusp of adulthood, his younger brother Arnie is mentally retarded and his frazzled sister Amy is barely able to hold them all together. As for Gilbert, his dream is to leave Endora - and his family - behind forever.

Taking place over the course of a summer in Endora, Gilbert is a small, delicate miracle of a novel. It's narrated, in a loose, unstructured, Holden Caulfield kind of way by Gilbert, and the narration could so easily have become maudlin, grating, or overly explanatory. Instead, it is just about pitch-perfect. Gilbert's thoughts are such a delightfully human jumble of wry humor and deep pain and observations both loving and cruel. Gilbert is invoked incredibly well - I feel like I know him personally, and yet, his motives and inner feelings are often as oblique to the reader as they are to the other characters. Peter Hedges simultaneously puts us right in Gilbert's head and makes us question his every thought. An incredibly difficult balance to get right, but Hedges nails it again and again.

The other characters are just as sympathetically drawn as Gilbert. The various broken members of the Grape family could easily have become flat stereotypes based on their overarching personalities, but every one of them is given incredible depth. Hedges mines some great black comedy out of Arnie and Bonnie in particular, but they're both given so much depth and a twisted kind of respect. Hedges makes these people deeply fascinating and appealing; I can't remember the last fictional character I wanted to hug as badly as Amy Grape. The various quirky minor characters are all a lot of fun, too; I've got a particular soft spot for Gilbert's dumb, gullible best friend Tucker.

The only character I didn't care for all that much is Becky, the wise-beyond-her years teenager that Gilbert falls in love with. I appreciate the role Becky plays in the story - it's her who helps Gilbert come to a series of important epiphanies towards the end of the novel - but I feel like she's a bit too untextured as a character in her own right. She's there as a sort of precocious guardian angel for Gilbert, a beat that's not especially original, which is jarring in a novel that is nothing but original (also, the age discrepancy between her and Gilbert really bothered me, for some reason). Anyway, that's my only real complaint, because I loved just about everything else.

There's an incredible sense of atmosphere to the novel, which is doubly impressive considering that there's not a ton of outright description. We feel like we're standing in Endora not because Hedges describes every lamppost and mailbox, but because he gets the people who live there so right. Likewise, there's not much plot to Gilbert (or rather, there are a lot of largely unconnected subplots); the novel is loosely structured around Arnie's landmark eighteenth birthday party, but most of the novel consists of vignette-like mini-plots that all contribute to Gilbert's sense of malaise and self-loathing. But the novel is weirdly addicting, despite the lack of urgency and the leisurely pacing. It's a testament to Hedges's writing that the novel sucks you in so deeply to the world of Endora and the people who live there.

Disillusioned, cynical young men as narrators have become a bit of a cliché in fiction since The Catcher in the Rye, but Gilbert Grape sidesteps almost every possible convention, instead delivering a story both bewitching and disarming, both subtly poignant and bizarrely hilarious. I doubt I'll read a book that moves me more this year than this one. And I know I won't read a more luminous, tragic, uplifting climax in a very long time. This is one novel I'll be coming back to.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding, 1999

Bridget Jones, that mixture between Carrie Bradshaw, Mia Thermopolis and Bertie Wooster, is one of the most beloved fictional characters of the last twenty years or so, especially in the UK. A painfully neurotic single woman in her mid-thirties who obsessively writes down the details of her wacky and embarrassing life, Bridget is the star of a hit newspaper column, two hugely successful novels and two blockbuster Hollywood movies.

I read the first novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, quite a few years ago, and enjoyed it a lot. The sequel opens a couple of weeks after Bridget embarks on her relationship with nice-guy lawyer Mark Darcy. Predictably, misunderstandings and miscommunication interfere, and Bridget finds herself single again. From soul-searching in Thailand to disastrous first dates to humiliating run-ins with Colin Firth, Bridget is out to find herself and find a man - not necessarily in that order.

The central conceit of the Bridget Jones novels is a really solid one: Bridget's diary entries are endearing and funny, and it's a clever, if not especially original, way to tell a romantic comedy story. Bridget's voice is definitely the best part of these books. She's so relatable in her insecurity and her desire to find poise and self-confidence, and so totally funny in her inability to do so. Fielding has the character's voice down absolutely cold, and Bridget's skewed, acidic perspective on her daily life are frequently hilarious. I don't know a woman who couldn't identify with Bridget's obsessive tendencies and her painful fallibility. I particularly like the way Fielding uses Bridget's naiveté as a way to poke fun at her. There's a pretty nice mix of Bridget being the butt of the joke and Bridget relating the joke to the audience herself.

But (and there's always a but) that's about all there is to Edge. Like its predecessor, Edge is memorable only for its distinctive protagonist, and for having some really funny writing. Everything else is so damn fluffy that it ends up being ephemeral.

Take the supporting characters, most of whom have an amusing central idea behind them (Shaz is both a dogged feminist and completely guy-crazy, Bridget's mother is flighty and self-centered, etc), but how many of them display any further dimensions? Mark Darcy, our romantic lead, is clearly a nice, normal guy, but he has precious few identifying characteristics. Or Tom, the stereotypical gay friend, who's just like every gay friend in every romantic comedy ever. Or Rebecca, Bridget's man-stealing archenemy who's as nasty - and as complicated - as a cartoon character. There are just too many one-joke characters in the Jones universe, and very few of them really get more than the one joke.

Or what about the plot? Or more accurately, plots. Since the novel is adapted from a year's worth of newspaper columns, it makes sense that the story would be fairly episodic. But do the stories all have to revolve around contrived coincidences and dopey misunderstandings that a toddler could see through? I get that the occasional Idiot Plot makes for good comedy, but at a certain point, it becomes clear that Fielding has no interest in introducing any real stakes into the story. I did enjoy the story of Bridget's disastrous sojourn in Thailand, if only for the mental image of her performing Madonna songs in a Thai prison to an adoring crowd of female inmates.

Ultimately, though, the book is supposed to be funny, and it definitely delivers the comedy. It's extremely funny, and perfectly readable in a breezy kind of way. No, I won't be able to remember the plot or most of the characters in six months, but I will remember Bridget and the v. amusing way she looks at the world of being a single woman in a big, scary world.