I lied to you. This is not going to be a book review. This is going to be a book bashing. Only once before has a book made me angry, and it was because the author forced his characters to go through something unnecessarily vulgar just for the sake of it. This time, I’m angry because the writing is frustratingly bad. Okay, I might be overreacting. Let’s slow it down.
I picked up this book after looking at GoodReads’ list of top magic realism novels, and The Girl Who Chased the Moon (TGWCtM from here on out) was somewhere up there. It was described as taking place in a regular town where magical things happen, which sounded like what I was looking for. I like stories that take place in the real world and have bits of fantasy interwoven without and within, so I borrowed this title from the library.
It wasn’t long before I realized this book was chick lit, and it was a strange sensation, one that I had never experienced before. I kept reading and reading and at first I thought the narrator was quirky for mentioning things that seemed irrelevant to me. But then the characters were making strange choices and observations, and pretty soon I was vehemently disagreeing with the decisions and thought processes of just about every single character. It was the first time where after every single reading session a book left me in a bad mood, so let’s talk about why.
This review will look at plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers.
Some of my resentment can be attributed to the fact that I was deceived. As I said, I came across this book looking for magic realism, and TGWCtM is a very poor example of that genre. Let me list what gives this story the “magical” aspect:
(1) The wallpaper of the protagonist’s room changes by itself to reflect her mood (is it her mood, or her desires? The story is inconsistent on this)
(2) There’s a guy in town who can see smells (he’s also a jerk)
(3) There’s a family whose men glow in the dark (lamest superpower ever)
And that’s it. Out of these three, only the last one is relevant to the plot. So why do the other two exist? Maybe the author originally had bigger plans for a town filled with magic, or maybe the author wanted magic just for the sake of it, for aesthetic reasons.
No matter what genre a book is in, good fiction will always be about human beings. However, there is a reason why different genres exist. Not only does it give us context, but it informs the means by which the novel’s themes will be conveyed to the reader. Fantasy is fun because even when our protagonists are fighting dragons and wizards, they are still dealing with self-doubt, personal tribulation, and sacrifice. The fantasy context paints the setting and informs the protagonist’s situation.
In TGWCtM, the magic is diminutive and ultimately irrelevant. Emily, a teenager who goes back to her recently deceased mother’s hometown, discovers that her mother (Dulcie) has an unsavoury reputation, and throughout the course of the book she learns that her mother never really did anything wrong, and it was in fact the fault (to varying degrees) of the men in her life that tarnished her reputation. The event that caused all this was Dulcie’s discovery that her boyfriend could glow in the dark. It was a family secret, and Dulcie was blamed for exposing it to the town (though it wasn’t her fault).
So why does the wallpaper need to change? It has zero relevance to the plot. The secret (the Coffeys glowing) is also meaningless. The entire town supposedly knows about it, but when Emily arrives no one talks about it and no one seems to care, except for the Coffeys themselves. So why all the anger from Morgan Coffey? Why all the sorrow at what her mother had done (which was nothing)? The secret could’ve been anything other than glowing in the dark, and it would’ve been the same. This book sets itself up as magic realism, but that’s the biggest disappointment: it doesn’t use the magic for anything substantial, and the one plot point that deals with magic is trivial, both within the setting of the story and to us as the reader.
Let’s put that aside for a moment. What else does this story offer? Emily is the new girl in town, and she meets Win Coffey, and it’s a typical girl meets boy story, with something standing in the way of their “love at first sight.” And yes, destiny is heavily implied to be involved. I want to say something professional and elegant here, but I can’t. This is a fairy tale, and it’s childish and silly. Emily’s character and her story is bland. She does everything that’s expected of her, and she never surprises us in any way. She’s the character who wants to help the mysterious boy with a secret (even though the secret isn’t that big of a deal), and she isn’t even the major factor at the book’s climax (her grandfather Vance is). It’s just a plain, boring, generic, puppy-love story. I’m not gonna call this a love story. Emily and Win fall for each other, but it’s so shallow and stereotypically teenager. They meet each other, they talk a few times, and somehow they’re “in love.” Godamnit.
This book’s idea of romance is that of a high school girl’s daydreams. Maybe I am too far removed from that demographic, but it’s inconceivable to me that adults still accept and get excited over these types of plots. It is more likely to me that a boy grew up in a graveyard with ghostly caretakers than it is for a girl to meet a stranger and have him be the perfect guy of her dreams.
Running parallel to Emily’s story is Julia’s, but let’s talk about that in the next section.
Julia was an emotionally distraught teenager. Her relationship with her father became strained when he remarried a woman who demanded more of his attention and money. Feeling ignored by her father, she began dressing strangely for attention and engaged in self-harm. The only person who seemed to understand her was Sawyer, the teenage heartthrob of the school. He cons her into letting him have sex with her on the school’s football field one night, and after Julia becomes pregnant (and sent to an all-girls school) he is relieved when he thinks she is getting an abortion because he actually has a girlfriend (of the same social class) and his life-plan doesn’t include an emo girl with daddy issues.
TGWCtM is chick lit, and by definition it is necessarily corny and cheesy to the point of being gag-inducing, so you can already guess what happens with Julia’s story, right?
By the time the novel takes place, Julia and Sawyer have grown up. Sawyer has magically transformed into a responsible and devilishly handsome man with a steady high-income job. Julia also inevitably forgives him and falls in love with him again, and they end up living happily ever after. Oh, and guess what, the daughter that they had? She was put up for adoption, but don’t worry, she finds her way back to her biological parents at the very end too!
Julia is the character that angered me the most. I don’t know if she is an appropriate representative for all womankind, but I’m worried nonetheless because I see Julia’s story (and other stories that are much worse) way too often. It’s the story of being treated like shit from guys, having something horrible happen to them, and sticking with the guy despite him being the problem. In Allen’s story Sawyer changed for the better, but how often do you think rapists, wife-beaters, alcoholics, and misogynists change in real-life? It seems like the greatest fantasy for women is falling for a guy with a horrible personality in the hopes that he will change for her. And that’s how girls get trapped in bad situations.
And that’s fucking bullshit.
I was angry because Julia’s character perpetuates the fantasy. Every time I read her thoughts, I had to groan. She made inexplicable jumps in logic pertaining to Sawyer’s character. Does it make sense to trust someone who has sex with you while being in another “serious” relationship? She is also aware that Sawyer casually sleeps around, Stella (Julia’s roomie) being the evidence. She also resents him in the first half of the book, as noted by every “warning signal” that flares up whenever Sawyer shows up. But none of it matters in the end, because LOVE.
The love in this book is unconvincing because the characters never do anything to deserve it. Sawyer reveals the sob story that he’s now sterile and Julia suddenly forgives him for everything he’s done. Sawyer’s attraction for Julia doesn’t go anywhere beyond his fetish for pink highlights and cake. There is absolutely no reason to believe Julia and Sawyer love each other beyond superficial and physical reasons. There is a section where Julia believes Sawyer sees her for who she really is, which is why she gave herself up to him when they were teenagers, but Sawyer’s subsequent reaction to her pregnancy contradicts that. The whole book is just a fantasy entertaining itself.
The male characters of this story are also wholly one-dimensional. I remember one of my mentors talking about his publishing experience. His agent or publisher had, after reading his manuscript, said something along the lines of “This is great, but there’s nothing for women in here.” As I was reading this book, I had to wonder whether women authors were held to the same standard. Do they ever get asked whether the book would interest or be relevant to male audiences? Probably not. The two primary male characters, Sawyer and Win, are carbon copies of another: they are both handsome, have some mysterious secret, and they are in a social rank above Julia and Emily respectively. Sawyer and Win would fail the Bechdel Test, but no one gives a damn because they’re men. Sawyer wants to get into Julia’s pants (but that’s okay because he has a sad story and he’s just so good-looking), and Win has his glow-in-the-dark problem, but his confrontation with his father is all about being with Emily.
I’m trying to think now if there was a single character I liked, and I don’t believe there is. Even Vance, the gentle giant and grandfather of Emily, is poorly written. In the beginning he is quiet and reserved, but when the plot needs him to he is suddenly ready to spit out tonnes of information that would’ve saved a whole lot of hassle had he spoken up earlier. One of the main plot points of the novel is that Vance learns from his mistake of being passive during Dulcie’s upbringing, but it’s unconvincing since he does the same thing to Emily for the majority of the book.
The characters in TGWCtM are fairy tale characters. By the end of the book, it didn’t feel as if any of the characters deserved their happy ending, either because they did very little or their motivations were unrealistic.
Out of the three categories this was the least offensive. There were some nice descriptions sprinkled throughout the book, but unfortunately it was drowned out by corny dialogue and nonsensical expositions.
Whether it was Julia venting on Sawyer or Win and Emily flirting with each other, the dialogue felt wooden and unnatural; everything just sounded fake. Here is an excerpt of Vance talking about Dulcie to Emily:
“I didn’t know how to handle her on my own. The only thing I could think to do was give her everything she asked for. She tested me at first, asking me for outrageous things, just to see how far I would go. But I never said no. So she got the best of everything. As she got older, she began to take great pleasure in teasing people who didn’t have as much as she did. She could be very cruel sometimes. Julia was a frequent target.”
There are so many things wrong with this passage. Vance was supposedly absent for most of his daughter’s young life, so how did he know she was being cruel to everyone? At the end of the book, Vance even says Dulcie never did anything wrong, so that’s a blatant inconsistency. Secondly, no one would talk like this in reality, especially about their own daughter. Read it over to yourself. Have you ever heard anyone talking like this about someone in an actual conversation? It is obvious this passage wasn’t written for Emily, but rather for us, the reader, as a direct explanation and lazy red herring. This is telling, not showing, and that’s bad writing.
I opened a random page for an example, and got one on my first try. The book is filled with instances of characters talking mechanically, laying out information for the reader rather than actually conversing like real people. Sawyer was endlessly suave and flirtatious. Win was always calm, cool, and collected. I can tell you right now: when a man is interested in a woman, he is none of these things. He stumbles, he wants to be perfect in her eyes, just like it is the other way around, and he is usually nervous, especially when he is trying to convince the woman he loves to stay with him. The diatribes are even worse. They all felt like one of those conversations you have in your own head, after the argument is over and you come up with the perfect responses in retrospect. That is why Julia doesn’t come across as strong or empowering. I know it’s the author talking, rather than the character herself.
The narrative mistakenly follows the example of the characters. It is poorly constructed and flimsy. It feels like everything about this book was made to fulfill some fantasy, and that is why nothing feels real or believable.
When I realized TGWCtM was chick lit, I kept on reading because I thought it’d be interesting. I never read one before, and it’s unfair to be critical of something without actually trying it out. So now I am able to say: I have read a chick lit book, and it was terrible. I have tried, with this review, to outline why it was bad in a way that was independent of my identity as a guy. The plot was superfluous, the characters were unlikable, and the narrative was artificial.
This book is probably not the pinnacle of bad writing, and there are even some good sentences to justify the author’s status, but never before has a book left me in a bad mood for the wrong reasons every time I picked it up. I do not recommend this book to anyone, even if you’re a fan of chick lit.
Instead, I would like to recommend Jane Eyre. There’s a story with a female protagonist who uncovers a secret about her male romantic interest, and it works. Do as I say, not as I do (i.e. do not read TGWCtM).
This has been a gamobo review.
P.S. – What’s up with the title of this book? Is Win supposed to be the moon or something? Emily chases lights, but she never chases the moon. And the end of the book talks about moons for some reason. Makes absolutely no sense.