We’ve all heard the old saying, “sex sells.” Apparently, shoes also sell.
Those are even the same shoes! Just different colors. (Now that I’ve looked closer at the two covers, I realize they feature the same photograph. They’ve been cropped differently and the color of the shoes has been edited.)
I haven’t read many books where the main character shared my first name. This may seem trivial, but it set me up to looking for similarities between myself and the protagonist in William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could cling to. She was Catholic and I *used* to be Catholic. She liked Chinese food and so do I. She was also very lonely. That was the extent of it.
Amy–the main character, not me–was a former party girl who worked in bars and had a tempestuous relationship with a girl who was possibly even more wild than she. When her girlfriend moved across the country, Amy withdrew from her former friends, stopped frequenting her former haunts, and gave up her work in bars.
She started doing volunteer work for the nearby church by taking communion to shut-ins. While visiting one of her regulars, she encountered Vincent, whose odd and menacing behavior woke up something in her. She had to know what he was up to, ostensibly to make sure the old lady she was taking care of would’t come to harm at his hands, but also because she craved the feeling of adrenaline coursing through her system. When tailing him through the streets of Brooklyn, she witnessed something that shook her up and destroyed the quiet life she had built for herself.
I’m torn about The Lonely Witness. I enjoyed some passages and found others tedious. This was due to the precarious balance created by the character’s decision-making.
The main problem with this book is that Amy does many things that make the reader cringe. Most of us would recognize her choices as bad ones and just wouldn’t do those things–and seeing her do them can be infuriating and make it hard for us to empathize.
At the same time, her perversity is one of the intriguing things about this book. We are wise enough not to do some of the things she does, but we’re not above watching the fall-out. The suspense of the book comes from wondering if she can extract herself from all of the messes she has made.
For me, what made the book worth reading was the excellent way William Boyle handled the setting. He made Brooklyn come to life. He painted the scene so vividly that I could see the old churches, bodegas, run-down restaurants, apartment buildings and funeral homes. I knew the sounds and smells, and felt the energy of the people treading its streets. It wasn’t a vacation to the Caribbean, but it was excellent armchair traveling.
This book chronicles the meeting of the “perfect” American family with a nomadic artist and her teenage daughter. It details their multiple and complicated entanglements and how they eventually unravel.
I enjoyed how the imagery of fire and burning were used throughout the book. It evidenced the author’s skill at structuring a book and added depth to some scenes that seemed minor in comparison to others.
I liked the suspense of not knowing for sure who set the fires that destroyed the Richardsons’ home.
I was disappointed when we found out who the perpetrator was. There was no surprise or shock, which undercut what was supposed to be the novel’s powerful denouement.
I appreciated the author’s observations about feeling trapped, whether you were in a repressive little community or living a “free” bohemian lifestyle.
It’s not a new revelation that children are a bridge between the past and the future, but the way in which Ms. Ng discussed the idea was nuanced and interesting.
Ms. Ng apparently grew up in the Shaker Heights community described in the novel. It’s a real place, but the fact that every last detail of that community is planned out, well-groomed, and whitewashed, makes it seem fake. It was hard for me to attach Shaker Heights to the real world–in no small part because it seems a lot like the communities in the dystopian literature that’s so popular these days. Realism has a particular sort of power that was lost in this book.
This book is a good example of how telling rather than showing drains fictional scenes of life. The narrative came across as clinical. The rough edges of the characters’ experiences were filed off and their passion was squelched.
The author’s portrayal of how well-meaning white people completely miss the point in discussions about race and culture made me cringe in a way that helped me learn and moderate my own behavior.
This book raises some big questions about motherhood.
Are wealthier people more fit to be parents than poor people? Mentally-well vs. mentally-ill? Married vs. Single?
Are there people who deserve to be mothers and those who don’t?
How much structure vs. freedom should mothers give their children?
Is cross-cultural/racial adoption ever appropriate?
Is abortion ever an appropriate decision?
How much self-effacement is required of a woman when raising children?
After being a mother for nearly 17 years, I still don’t have any hard and fast answers to many of these questions.