The most interesting thing about reading this book was how fleeting of a book club conversation it produced. For the first time two of my book clubs (like, the two most opposite book clubs on the planet) covered the same book. And each time it produced a pithy conversation that didn’t last. Each question we asked ended with limited discussion. Although there were definitely different opinions, there weren’t exactly points to argue on or expand the discussion. It was more of a “What’d you think of this?” with a flurry of responses. Then done.
So, what did we talk about? Each book club meeting kicked off with the ending. My first group liked the ending (they deserve each other) the second group liked it less. Personally, I wanted one or both of them to end up dead.
Next we talked about whether Nick or Amy were more likable to us as the reader. The group of women said neither and the mixed group seemed to fall on Nick. It seems that the second group really preferred the book before you found out the twist, found out about Amy’s plan. I don’t know that I agree. I think I felt equally disinterested-but-compelled-to-find-out-the-details via either narration. Neither character was likable, which also kind of made the book hard to read. However, there were parts of Nick and Amy (er, Diary Amy) that I did identify with.
I connected with Nick because of his job loss. I am also a magazine writer and editor, and while reading this book my large publishing company was going through layoffs. I understood so many of the things that defined Nick, whether that was his commentary on the industry, his questioning the world around him, or just some of the ways Amy talked about him. I had thought of it all—to some degree—at some point, too. But my book wasn’t going to be War and Peace it was Anna Karenina and I was already diving into Twitter and other social media to become marketable.
Passages about Nick:
I'd arrived in New York in the late '90s, the last gasp of the glory days, although no one knew it then. New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them. This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world-- throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won't kill us in the night. Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write. We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade. I had a job for eleven years and then I didn't, it was that fast. All around the country, magazines began shuttering, succumbing to a sudden infection brought on by the busted economy. Writers (my kind of writers: aspiring novelists, ruminative thinkers, people whose brains don't work quick enough to blog or link or tweet, basically old, stubborn blowhards) were through. We were like women's hat makers or buggy- whip manufacturers: Our time was done. (4-5)
This litany of crummy jobs. (69)
It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is self derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A fucking commercial. … I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. (72)
I think that’s what it is, that it’s all happened at once, so I have the emotional bends. […] He makes a massive list of things he’s always meant to do...And then he starts on bigger stuff: He reads War and Peace. He flirts with taking Arabic lessons. He spends a lot of time trying to guess what skills will be marketable over the next few decades. (83)
Both groups agreed that Amy was the more interesting character, though. She was a brilliant, villainous mastermind that we were unsure why she was wasting all her talent on petty things like getting back at people. She was also the most inconsistent character. All of a sudden she decided he loved her so she loved him? How did she lose sight of everything, even for a brief time? Also, why did she EVER act the way she did and lose all her money to those two hicks? I know there’s "book" smart and "street" smart, but, damn, she should have both. One aside regarding Amy at both meetings was the idea that Amy felt so very relatable to women. I’m not sure that the older women in my first book club felt it as much, if they did they certainly were not as vocal, but the rest of us really felt connected to a lot of the ideas and things that Diary Amy talked about in regards to being a woman, dating, being single, and creating a relationship. A fact that real Amy would have loved and hated.
I worry for a second that she wants to set us up: I am not interested in being set up. I need to be ambushed, caught unawares, like some sort of feral love- jackal. I'm too self-conscious otherwise. I feel myself trying to be charming, and then I realize I'm obviously trying to be charming, and then I try to be even more charming to make up for the fake charm, and then I've basically turned into Liza Minnelli: I'm dancing in tights and sequins, begging you to love me. There's a bowler and jazz hands and lots of teeth. (11)
Give me a man with a little fight in him, a man who calls me on my bullshit. […] So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. (29)
I am happy not to be in that club. I don’t partake, I don’t get off on emotional coercion, on forcing Nick to play some happy-hubby role—the shrugging, cheerful, dutiful taking out the trash, honey! role. Every wife’s dream man, the counterpoint to every man’s fantasy of the sweet, hot, laid-back woman who loves sex and a stiff drink. (56)
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving maner and let their men do whatever they want. (222)
I’d waited patiently—years—for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, “Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy.” But that never happened. … Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. … Every girl was supposed to be this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you. (223)
Other characters had brief turns. Tanner was a favorite character in my second book club, but I have to admit I don’t remember talking about him in the first group. The cops seemed shitty. Go was okay. At the first book club we spent a lot more time talking about just how creepy Desi was, and there was a definite sympathy for Amy in that position, even though everyone seemed to agree she deserved it. At the second meeting there was a dislike of Desi as a character, because he functioned more as a plot device than anything worthwhile. They also pointed out that Desi should have noticed how mutilated and bruised Amy was while he was busy keeping such tabs on her, and later kissing every inch of her body. Something like that, you think, would have stood out. Side note: I think in the movie he should be played by Javier Bardem.
There was also the quick whodunit conversation that each group had. As soon as someone asked, “Before you knew about Amy, who did you think did it?” A flurry of names and ideas and plots came out. Her parents. His dad. His sister. His girlfriend. Him. We all agreed we felt like we weren’t supposed to pick Nick because the book set him up so well, but it was hard not to wonder if he did it. No one really bought the Amy’s old friends/exes thing. Most people thought Amy was still alive, but didn’t get so far as to think that she had orchestrated the whole thing to make Nick look guilty.
We looked at portrayals of family and relationships, and each group agreed that there was no paragon that stood out against the rest. I didn’t get a sense that there was a right way and a wrong way to be a family or in a relationship—it seemed like it was all bad, so I don’t know what the commentary there would be. Stay single and avoid your family? Nick/Go and their mom seemed to have the best familial relationship. The award for best romantic relationship probably went to Tanner Bolt and his wife, and I don’t even remember much about them except that she was not white. Here’s a passage from Nick about his dad that I think is interesting because it actually has a slightly positive spin, perhaps because it’s about the father he invented.
… that after the divorce, I saw him so seldom that I decided to think of him as a character in a storybook. He was not my actual father—who would have loved me and spent time with me—but a benevolent and vaguely important figure named Mr. Brown, who was very busy doing very important things for the United States and who (very) occasionally used me as a cover to move more easily about town. (132)
Feminism was brought up in the second club, but not at all in the first group (interesting, since that was the gathering of 10 women of various ages and life stages). I don’t know that we actually came up with any kind of theory—in fact, I know we didn’t—but it was still interesting. Where does this book fall in the grand scheme of feminism? Does this book really combat the stereotypical Lifetime movie? In a sense, yes, because the husband did not kill his wife, but he did cheat, and lie, and do a lot of other stuff that would look great in a Lifetime movie. And then there's the fact that Amy was (and there is no other way to say it) batshit crazy. So did she do anything to further the cause of the feminist? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what she did, and it’s an interesting theory to really explore (not one that I would dive into, because I don’t really do feminist critiques. I like talking about sex and nature).
We also talked a little about the construction. The diary format (one member noted that she didn’t even realize the chapters had titles related to time until a while into the book. I wonder if that’s part of reading on an e-reader, but I certainly did not miss that fact) was extremely effective and integral to the plot. I liked it. In its own way it was a big lesson on assuming authorial intent in writing—clearly what she wrote and what she thought were two very different things. Learn that lesson, young book nerds!
Nick was very aware of how he came off to the reader throughout the book. He talked to the reader, knowingly understanding his place with them.
I have a mistress. Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me. If you liked me to begin with. I have a pretty, young, very young mistress, and her name is Andie. (142)
The older married man promptly exploited his position by launching a torrid fuckfest of an affair with one of his impressionable young students. I was the embodiment of every writer’s worst fear: a cliché. (145)
Amy had two personalities that the reader encountered, and she was very aware of both of those women as well.
I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likable. Meant for someone like you to like her. She’s easy to like. I’ve never understood why that’s considered a compliment—that just anyone could like you. (237)
They have to read the diary like it’s some sort of Gothic tragedy. A wonderful, good-hearted woman—whole life ahead of her, everything going for her, whatever else they say about women who die—chooses the wrong mate and pays the ultimate price. They have to like me. Her. (238)
Finally, a little roundup of descriptive writing that I just adored in this book.
We’ll eat lobster with butter and have sex on the floor while a woman on one of our old jazz records sings to us in her far-side-of-the-tunnel voice. (40)
But I do like a certain standard of living—I think it’s fair to say the garbage shouldn’t literally overflow, and the plates hsouldn’t sit in the sink for a week with smears of bean burrito dried on them. That’s just being a good grown-up roommate. (85)
She had an unnecessarily loud voice, a bit of a bray, like some enchanted hot donkey. (94)
It was one of those big-smelling days, when people bring the outdoors in with them, the scent of rain on their sleeves, in their hair. (119)
I’d fallen in love with Amy because I was the ultimate Nick with her. Loving her made me superhuman, it made me feel alive. At her easiest, she was hard, because her brain was always working, working, working—I had to exert myself just to keep pace with her. I’d spend an hour crating a casual e-mail to her, I became a student of arcane so I could keep her interested: the Lake poets, the code duello, the French Revolution. Her mind was both wide and deep, and I got smarter being with her. (214)
The woman’s entire music collection is formed from Pottery Barn compilations. (259)
His cock is slick with conquest. (366)