Two of five stars
It’s difficult to rate this book: the writing is stellar, but two stars and “it was okay” is all the enthusiasm I can muster for the story itself. That’s the trouble with a rating system based on how much I like something. I came away from this novel feeling covered in dirt myself, not a feeling that engenders the warm fuzzies I associate with a three-star rating, nor the cheerful joy of a four-star rating, nor the stunned awe of a five-star rating. Two stars. Yep, that’s about it.
Maybe it’s because none of the characters, with the possible exception of Grandma, are likeable. And Grandma herself is a victim of some form of senile dementia, so who knows what she was like when she had all her faculties? Ah well. On to the synopsis.
Galen, age 22, lives with his middle-aged mother, Susan, in a rural suburb of Sacramento, in the old family home on a once-working walnut ranch. Galen lives inside his head, and seeks transcendence from this mortal coil through Eastern philosophies, Richard Bach novels, vegetarianism, and bulimia. His mother tells him there’s no money to send him to college. He’s not sure if he believes her, especially when his Aunt Helen continually brings up “the trust fund” and keeps asking Susan to write her a check so she can pay for her daughter Jennifer’s college education. Susan insists there’s only sufficient money left to maintain the homeplace and fund Grandma’s stay in the assisted living facility where Susan placed her, and this subject is a continued source of family friction and viciousness. They all say the most awful things to each other, and Galen wonders why they continue to call themselves a family and follow family traditions such as the annual trip to their mountain cabin.
This year, the annual mountain cabin trip results in a massive family meltdown, and they return early. Something has shifted inside Galen, however, which drastically changes his perception of family and of the world, and leads to the disturbing events of the rest of the novel.
As I mentioned before, the writing is stellar. David Vann’s gift for description makes Galen’s odd thought processes seem almost rational; his search for enlightenment through binging and purging almost reasonable; and the events of the last two-thirds of the novel almost inevitable. Ultimately, though, I did not enjoy my experience with Galen and his family. But this may be a story I will like better, later, upon more reflection.
Gorgeous cover art, though.
Many thanks to Goodreads’s First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.