A few weeks ago, I went to the library and got a (small) pile of books that I was so excited about: The Assistants by Camille Perri, Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe and The After Party by Anton DiSclafani. I ended up reading them all and only one, The Assistants, lived up to the hype (in my head).
I’m not going to talk about The Assistants too much – just know that it was sharp and clever, full of wry observations and reminded me of The Devil Wears Prada crossed with The Knockoff. I read it in a day and it was a delight in every way.
Let’s start with Dear Fang, With Love. Amanda @ Gun in Act One really liked it. I was optimistic – this was from the same author as The Girls From Corona del Mar! Vera’s parents had her when they were little more than children themselves. Her Russian mother, Katya, sacrificed everything to raise her but never felt like those sacrifices weren’t worth it. Vera is her whole world. Vera’s father, Lucas, basically checked out as soon as Vera was born. He has since become a part of her life, but in an every-other-weekend-let’s-be-friends kind of way. When Vera has a breakdown and is diagnosed as bipolar, Lucas decides that a trip to Vilnius, where his family is from, is the perfect way for Vera to reset.
This book is crammed with characters, each a little more absurd than the last. There are also a number of storylines squeezed into less than 300 pages: the history of Lucas and Katya; Lucas’ grandmother and her escape from a death camp; Vera’s relationship with her boyfriend, Fang; Lucas trying to start a new relationship on the trip; Lucas’ long lost family in Vilnius; Vera’s emails and the way she views herself.
I wanted this book to be better than it was. The subject matter, a young woman struggling with a serious mental health diagnosis, is important. But it felt like it was being buried under all these other stories, making the important one less effective. It was only the last third, quarter really, of the book that it packed any kind of punch. It was a little too late for me.
Now, The After Party. The cover made me think I was getting something along the lines of The Swans of Fifth Avenue in Houston. That is, wealthy women behaving badly. It tried to be more than that and for me, it fell flat.
When Cece is a girl, she and her best friend Joan have the same name. Their teacher decides that two Joans is too many and so Joan Cecilia becomes Cece. This sets the pattern for much of the rest of Cece’s life – everything she does is in aid of her best friend Joan. When Cece’s mother dies when Cece is just 14, she goes to live with Joan and her family. Right after they graduate, Joan disappears for the first time. Instead of moving on with her life, Cece just exists until Joan returns.
Later, when Cece is married to a wonderful man and has a little boy, she spends all of her time worrying about Joan, to the detriment of her marriage and family. Joan is keeping Cece at a distance and all Cece wants is for Joan to love her.
Set against the backdrop of a certain kind of 1960s way of life (wealthy Texans with money to burn) this book could have been something. But the main character doesn’t offer us anything except a kind of pathetic yearning to be loved by someone who has moved on. So deep does this yearning go that she can’t even see what she does have.
In the end, DiSclafani tries to resuscitate the book by finally telling us all of Joan’s story but for me, it was way too late.
These were books that I was tempted to buy many times but I’m glad I borrowed them from the library instead.