Monday, December 12, 2011

Reading Roundup: Not What I Expected, Part 2


As I mentioned last week, I’ve recently read a couple of books that ended up a complete 180 than what they had begun. The first was Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, which started off boring and convoluted but I ended up really liking. Sadly, Part 2 does not have such a happy conclusion. This commentary will probably be a little spoiler-y, so read with caution.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has seen a lot of list placement lately, including a spot on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2011. I discovered it on a book blog (can’t remember where) and it was one of those books I immediately thought I would love, and hoped that sentiment would be confirmed.

The premise of this book just sounds so great. Set deep in Florida’s Everglades, Swamplandia! introduces us to Ava Bigtree, the youngest of an alligator-wrestling dynasty. Swamplandia, an old-fashioned tourist attraction, is the Bigtrees’ livelihood. Ava’s mother is the park’s headliner, but she’s just died and the theme park is dying with her. Ava’s father, Chief Bigtree, has headed back to the mainland on “business” while a mountain of debt threatens the family’s home; older brother Kiwi has run off to the mainland, partly out of frustration and partly to earn money for his family; and older sister, Osceola, has lost herself in the world of the occult, chasing after a ghost boyfriend. Left alone, Ava embarks on an adventure with new friend, the Bird Man, to find her sister before she gets lost in the Underworld.

There were just so many things I liked about this book in the beginning.

  1. The setting: I grew up vacationing in Florida, and those tourist-trap sideshows are just so quintessentially Florida and have always piqued my interest. Who runs those? Do people actually visit them? 
  2. The plot: A little bit quirky, a little bit weird, a little bit of magical realism to create a tone oozing creativity and intrigue. 
  3. The main character: As an eleven-year-old Ava is just on the cusp of understanding things in the adult world. She shifts from having the perspective of an adult to the perspective of a kid, and it’s exciting to see how these perspectives influence her actions. 
  4. The writing style: Once the characters have been separated in the story, Russell focuses on Kiwi and Ava in alternating chapters. However, Ava’s chapters are written in her first-person perspective, so we experience Ava’s story as she is.

So, for the first 200 pages or so, I absolutely loved this book and was certain I would love it in the end. Then we’re hit with a major WTF plot point that was totally out of sync with the story and completely unnecessary. And to me, it just sort of lost its sparkle after that. The story had just seemed to be building up and building up, and after the WTF moment, I realized that in the end, the awesome beginning was never really going anywhere in the first place—a case of high expectations that fell flat. I can’t even remember how it ends now, because it just felt so unfulfilling. That BIG AWFUL THING signaled the end of the magical realism as we suddenly saw Ava’s story in the harsh light of adulthood instead of the muddle ambiguity of immaturity. Unfortunately, it also signaled the end of the story’s magic for me. So while I think it was intentional, I found it very disappointing.

I did so enjoy about 80% of this book, but I so SO wish it had ended on a more satisfying note as a whole.


Jenny said…

Oh that sounds so disappointing! I thought it sounded good when this came out, but then I read some other disappointing reviews so I never got to it.

softdrink said…

But the cover is adorable! (If alligators can be adorable.)

Kari said…

I KNOW! Just another reason I had high expectations. I had already envisioned it sitting on my shelves.