Most helpful critical review
The Ultimate Misery Memoir
on 24 June 2015
Natalie Ann ('Tully') Makker is, as we are told on the book's blurb, a tough woman, born the 'wrong side of the tracks'. She's also one of the most unfortunate protagonists in literature. She's born to not particularly bright parents - her mother Hedda (the victim of an abusive childhood) left school at 14 with no qualifications, married at 16 and is convinced that her husband will leave her once they have children; her father Henry is a happy-go-lucky restless sort who married 'for a laugh' and who wants a son. When Tully is two, her mother tries to murder her. A couple of years on her baby brother dies in mysterious circumstances. When she's seven her father disappears and something (what we only learn later) happens to her surviving younger brother. When she's eleven her mother breaks her nose, twice. When she's twelve something so traumatic happens that she can never speak about it again - and her best friend's parents' efforts to adopt her fail. At 13, she rebels and starts hanging out at local clubs, working as a dancer and drinking. At 16 her mother twigs what's going on, and beats her up before insisting that in future she only hangs out with 'nice' people. This in fact isn't so bad, as Tully regains her old friendship with her best friends from her childhood, Julie (the intellectual, secretive daughter of a large Mexican-American family) and Jennifer (the brilliant, mildly autistic daughter of protective Italian parents). And through Jennifer Tully meets someone that could change her life... but then Jennifer falls in love - with disastrous consequences, which ultimately lead to the second major trauma in Tully's young life. Oh - and throughout all this unhappy childhood she's stuck in Topeka, a small town in Kansas, with only a dream of getting to California to sustain her as she gazes over the prairie...
There is in short, even more misery than in the average 'misery memoir' and so it's not surprising that Tully becomes rather a mixed-up young woman. Incredibly, she remains very balanced about her studies - after a couple of false starts she gains a Masters Degree in sociology, and becomes the most brilliant administrator of a foster-children programme in Topeka that Kansas has ever seen. But her personal life is a mess. She continues to date Robin (the young man she met at Jennifer's party) who is kind to her, but she doesn't really love him, finds his life (a job running a gentleman's outfitters plus lots of soccer at the weekends) dull, and soon starts cheating on him with one of her college lecturers. Soon she's in a terrible fix, wobbling hopelessly between the choice of a wild escape to California with Jeremy the lecturer (who loves her, even if she finds him far too nosy) or a safe life with Robin, who accepts her past but who wants to mould her, particularly in her relationship with her mother. Then - although she's a vigilant taker of the contraceptive pill, she gets pregnant. At least it kind of resolves her dilemma - until, a couple of years later, she meets up with Jack, the boy that Jennifer loved to distraction, now turned into a glamorous wanderer (a sort of modern version of a German Romantic, but less poetic) and ends up hopelessly stuck unable to choose between two men once again...
You've got to hand it to Simons, she is incredibly readable. Although I found this book too long (there's far too much of Tully's dithering between her various men) and some of the themes (Jennifer's autism, for example) weren't properly explored, and although the misery is laid on with the heaviest of trowels, I did find the book rather addictive - although I didn't like Tully (she seemed in many ways humanly quite stupid, however intellectually brilliant she was meant to be - and certainly horribly selfish) I did want to know what happened to her, and to Robin and Jack. The early section of the book, involving Tully, Jennifer and Julie, had some beautiful scenes (particularly when Tully told Jennifer stories) and throughout there were some lovely passages - Tully regaining her intimacy with Robin by reading novels out loud to him and her crippled mother, Jack and Tully rowing on the lake, Tully and Julie's growing bond. But in the end, I didn't feel that the novel's main themes were explored with enough complexity. Simons didn't seem interested in exploring why Tully was so selfish (her behaviour towards Robin after the debacle with Jack was particularly appalling) other than simply implying that 'she's had a horrible time, and so can't be expected to behave nicely'. The failure to get to California was clearly reminiscent of the failure to get to Moscow in Chekhov's 'Three Sisters', but with a much broader timescale got horribly monotonous - why on earth didn't Robin just take Tully on a vacation there, at least! Simons never examined really how Tully might feel about Jack bearing in mind what happened to Jennifer - Jack simply went from being an opportunistic villain to being a golden-haired hero in the later parts of the book. The idea that 'Tully really loved Hedda all along' hinted at towards the end didn't seem feasible - nor could I believe, bearing in mind the way Hedda had treated her daughter, that Tully's friends' parents hadn't notified social services when Tully was a child. Tully, by contrast to the chaos and utter lack of self-reflection in her personal life, seemed unrealistically perfect in her job. And far too much of the book was spent dealing with Tully's romantic dithering - between Robin and Jeremy, between Robin and Jack - and her feeling that 'it wasn't fair' she couldn't have things as suited her. She was meant to be a sensitive girl - wouldn't she have felt any guilt at all? Also, I don't believe that someone who took the Pill every day could get pregnant twice by accident. And there was too much 'self-help-book' talk - things along the lines of 'I can't carry you any more, Tully', 'I'll be your shelter, Robin' and the like. I still don't know why Tully made her final decision - I guess the author just realised that after 600 pages (this is a long book!) she'd have to end it somewhere.
This is a perfectly interesting light read, but it doesn't fulfil the potential of the subject, and the writing style ultimately becomes monotonous. Reasonable light reading, and quite interesting as a broad sweeping look at American small-town life, but it could have been a lot better!