Friday, August 12, 2016

"She Poured Out Her Heart," by Jean Thompson

I used to think I liked Jean Thompson’s fiction. My liking wavered a bit when I read “The Humanity Project” (about which I posted on 5/17/13). I have just finished reading her most recent book, “She Poured Out Her Heart” (Blue Rider Press, 2016), and although this novel mostly kept my attention, I found myself needing to take a break from it from time to time, and by the time I finished, I realized that for some reason I just didn’t particularly like the novel. It is quite well written, and the characters are well drawn. The plot has enough “mystery” that it draws the reader forward. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t like the characters much, although there were reasons to be sympathetic with each of them, and one of them (Bonnie) is more sympathetic than the others. This is an issue I – and many others – have often discussed: do we need to “like” characters in order to admire a novel? The answer is pretty clearly “no,” although sometimes in real life reading (as opposed to intellectual discussion of reading), it may feel otherwise. Or maybe I didn’t like the novel very much because the characters were presented in a complex-but-still-somehow-flat manner (a stylistic matter?)? Maybe it was a distaste for some of their behavior, even though the behavior is not out of the norm for contemporary novels, or truly outrageous, and even though the author shows us quite clearly the roots and causes of those behaviors in a way that should make readers sympathetic to them? The four main characters (all in their late thirties except for Patrick, who is a few years younger) are Jane, Bonnie, Eric, and Patrick. Jane and Bonnie have been best friends since college, and are very close although very different. Jane has lived a more traditional, expected life, with marriage to a doctor, two young children, and a nice house in a nice area of Chicago. Bonnie has never settled down, is hooked on the adrenaline and excitement of constantly revolving relationships with men who are attractive losers; even her job flirts with danger, as she works advising police in crisis situations involving people on the edge of explosion, such as hostage takers and armed suicide-threateners. She likes to think of herself as nontraditional, a rule breaker, a person who does what she wants, led by passion, rather than what society expects, but she finds at some points that this ideal and reality do not always coincide. Eric is Jane’s physician husband, who tries hard to be a good husband and father, yet can’t figure out how to deal with Jane’s problems, and is sometimes a little too quick to take the easy way out. Patrick, a handsome and sweet-talking bartender, is one of Bonnie’s loser-type lovers. The plot involves Jane’s unhappiness and emotional/mental health problems, Bonnie’s attempt to help, Eric’s attempts to cope, and Patrick’s increasing prominence in the tangled relationships of the other characters. Thompson is very good in examining complex emotions, the ways in which we are all inconsistent and even hypocritical in our behaviors, and the ways we justify those inconsistencies and questionable behaviors, behaviors that are both self-destructive and betrayals of our closest connections. I admire the psychological insights. And I understand the motivations of the characters. I actually admire the book on several levels; I just don’t like it very much. Perhaps what I react negatively to is an element of subtle creepiness I felt, although I can’t really back up this assertion clearly. Maybe -- probably -- it is just a simple matter of personal taste in reading matter. I write about it here because it is an example of something that happens fairly rarely to me: admiring and liking a writer to the extent of putting her high on my list of “must get every new title” authors, and then over time changing my impressions and preferences enough to feel I probably will not read more of this author’s fiction. This sometimes happens with authors I liked many years ago and then changed my mind about as I got older, but not often with those I seriously liked within the past decade.
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