Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hating Olivia: A Love Story

A little over a month ago, I got an email that I thought surely was a scam. It was from Goodreads, informing me that I had been chosen as a First Reads participant. Apparently publishers send advance copies of books to Goodreads, which then chooses people (who actively use their Goodreads accounts) as recipients of those advance copies. I was told that a copy of the book Hating Olivia: A Love Story would soon arrive at my home. I was asked to read it, write a review and post that review on my Goodreads account. No obligations. I was free to never read the book and never write a review. I never have to return the book and I never have to even acknowledge receipt of the book.

I was skeptical. Also I still can’t figure out how they got my address. On the other hand, my address is probably all over the internet. I regularly order things online – even pizza. I am on a hundred mailing lists. I subscribe to a lot of publishing, book review, and other literary blogs. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be very difficult for someone to figure out my address.

Anyway, long story short, I got the book a couple of weeks ago from Harper Perennial. It is a paperback book, with the words “uncorrected proof – not for sale” written at the bottom and “COMING DECEMBER 2010” shouted across the top. I was so excited. For days I bragged to everyone I know about how I am an actual, legitimate book reviewer. I’m not getting paid for this, and it will probably never happen again, BUT I got one free book out of the deal and I got a great story to tell at every Holiday party I go to this year, so I’m completely satisfied. Now I suppose I ought to actually talk about the book a little bit.

I could have easily hated this book. It sets itself up for ridicule so easily. The setting is cliché. Reading the synopsis of the book elicits a groan and an eye roll. I think that the publisher could work on their marketing and jacket description some. But in the end, the look at a passionate, failed relationship is simple, good, and the characters are not completely flat.

Max, as the paragraph on the back of the book tells us, is in a rut. He lives in a cockroach infested boarding house and works a manual labor job. But he has dreams and he has talent and genius. He just doesn’t ever get around to exhibiting them. The world is against him and on more than one occasion, he considers ending it all. Then he meets Olivia, and his life gets worse. There isn’t really a more trite or less interesting premise for a book than this.

However, the book was free, and there’s a chance more books could come my way, so I took the plunge. Fifty pages in, I was hooked. Which is weird, because nothing ever happens in this book. It’s full of philosophy and dream-like descriptions, which is stuff I normally hate.

The writing is good, if occasionally pretentious – it flows well, and for the most part, it did not distract me from the story. There is a lot of discussion of why things happen and almost no plot. Four years these two live together and nothing happens except craziness. Olivia can be sexy and fun, but she has a dark side. She’s mean, she’s manipulative, and after the first fight, each successive fight is the same. They’re on a downward spiral from almost the first week. Eventually and inevitably, things boil over and the ending you thought would happen happens.

But I was strangely drawn to Max. I liked Max. I’m guilty myself of having dreams about writing or acting or traveling. I never follow through on these. Writing sporadic blog entries about what I read doesn’t count as writing – it counts as vanity. I am guilty of wallowing in pity – my life isn’t exactly how I dreamed it would be. I’m 33 years old and I have not really accomplished much – not compared to former dreams. I have some career prospects, and I’m almost done with law school, so I’m way ahead of Max in that area. I don’t wish to imply that I’m unhappy with my life – only that it took a different direction than originally planned.

There’s a scene where Max finishes writing a novel. He leaned back in his chair and exhaled with a calming and quiet sense of accomplishment. Maybe something big would happen with it. Maybe nothing would happen. The point was that he finished something. He created something. He was no longer just talk and dreams. That was the moment that I really began to like Max. I was happy for him, and for the first time I was rooting for him.

This is not a love story, as the title tells me it should be. There is no plot to speak of, and there is no real resolution. It’s not even an evaluation of a failed relationship. For me, this book is about contentment and accomplishment in spite of life’s craziness. Max is going to be ok. Little things mean a lot and the big things – even passionate, all-consuming love – end up meaning nothing.

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