The List – Where Oprah’s book club went wrong…

I recently read two books from the 1997 year of my list, Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman, and Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott. They were both terrible, and a sad representation of the Oprah-fication of reading in the late ‘90s. Truly, I’m a fan of Oprah’s Book Club and anything that gets more people reading more books…but in the late ‘90s, as people began to see the power Oprah wielded in book selections, and take her imprimatur as an automatic mark of quality, there was a subtle shift in this kind of year-end best-of list toward “women’s fiction”…aka Chick Lit.

Before we go further, let me say that I love me some high-quality Chick Lit. Liane Moriarty’s books are a great example of really good fiction by and about women, especially Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret.

Here on Earth and Crooked Little Heart are, sadly, NOT examples of good Chick Lit.

Here on Earth is a ‘90s retelling of Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights. March Murray (the Cathy Earnshaw character in the original) returns to her New England hometown for a funeral, leaving behind a not unenviable life with her professor husband in California. She makes jewelry and raises their teenage daughter, with the usual clichéd challenges. Although we’re given no reasons to understand why she might be unhappy with her present life, when she returns home somehow her obsessive love with the now-adult boyfriend from her teenage years (the Heathcliff character of WH, here named Hollis) consumes her once again. Abruptly, she finds his bad-boy allure impossible to resist; suddenly, she’s giving up everything to stay within his orbit. She stops combing her hair. She doesn’t know what time it is. She no longer worries when her 15-year-old daughter stays out all night.

Hoffman’s trying to get at a big question about obsessive love here…namely: “Can a love that consumes you survive? And can you survive a love that consumes?” And as such, I get that the practicalities of everyday life aren’t part of this story and don’t enter into the equation; that’s not what this story is about. But that perspective also makes it completely unrelatable. As the contemporary review in the New York Times noted, maybe Wuthering Heights worked because the intensity of Cathy and Heathcliff’s world exists in the isolation of the moors. They were rooted in 19th-century mores, values, and customs, and couldn’t be affected by the onslaught of 20th-century armchair psychology that has helped the word “dysfunctional” become a household term: “Unlike March, Cathy doesn’t even have a telephone, much less talk shows, support groups and books about women who love too much. But it’s hard to believe that March could exist within such an emotional cocoon. And so, despite Hoffman’s confident lyricism, her novel’s premise — of doomed, fated love, submitted to without question — never becomes fully plausible.”

I felt validated by Kathleen Rooney, author of Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America. Rooney described Here on Earth as one of only five Oprah’s Book Club (OBC) picks that were “truly awful.” (For the curious, the other four Rooney deemed “truly awful” were Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives, Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife, Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road, and Elizabeth Berg’s Open House…none of which, mercifully, are on the list I’ve assigned myself.)

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Crooked Little Heart, meanwhile, is a sequel to author Anne Lamott’s previous book Rosie. It continues the story of the title character, 13 years old and a local junior-circuit tennis champion.

Lamott loves to write about friends that feel like family, and this book is no exception. The focus is on widow Elizabeth (now remarried), and how she and her daughter Rosie navigate life and Rosie’s tennis tournaments with the help of Elizabeth’s second husband, her best friend, the husband’s best friend, and Rosie’s best friend and tennis doubles partner, Simone.

Beautiful, messy life this may be (the kind Oprah loves), but interesting it’s not. (You’ll love this book if you love long written descriptions of tennis tournaments that describe each volley in detail and use a lot of tennis-y jargon.)

With an intense focus on love, romance, and sex, this book comes remarkably close to failing the Bechdel test. If you’re unfamiliar, the Bechdel test is often applied to works of pop culture to see if they have:

  1. At least two female characters
  2. Who have a conversation with each other
  3. About something other than a male

Because the female characters in Crooked talk about tennis, it passes…but barely. Elizabeth’s best friend Rae has recently broken up with her boyfriend, and their conversation often revolves around her desire to call her ex. Elizabeth thinks she shouldn’t call Mike. Rae wants to. Elizabeth hopes she won’t. Rae wants to. Elizabeth advises her not to. Rae’s trying not to, but really, really wants to. Etc.

The male characters aren’t any more likeable. Elizabeth’s second husband James, whom she genuinely loves and who genuinely loves her, can’t stop obsessing over his stepdaughter Rosie’s best friend, Simone. (Simone is 14 and has developed curves.) James apologizes for his attraction to Simone and would never act on it…but he sure can’t contain it, and references it often with his best friend Luther. And these are male characters that are supposed to be “enlightened”…the ‘90s version of woke, if you will. Guh.

This set of friends who behave as family can verge on the ridiculous. Both James’ and Elizabeth’s best friends can take days off at a time to sit with Elizabeth while she sorts out her feelings…and don’t get me started on the scene where 14-year-old Simone happily folds her best friend’s mom’s underwear while they chat warmly about life. I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough.

Anne Lamott has lovely thoughts about what it means to be a family, and what it means to be happy. She’s written beautiful nonfiction about it (for example, Operating Instructions). But this book feels like an attempt to have characters express Lamott’s own thoughts, and they just don’t flow. As a white, liberal, female of a certain age, who reads a lot, I feel like I’m supposed to love Anne Lamott. So don’t come after me with pitchforks if I say…I think she should stick to nonfiction.

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So here’s the real question: In a year (1997) that saw the publication of, among other things, Guns, Germs, and Steel; The God of Small Things; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; A Walk in the Woods; and Memoirs of a Geisha…why did these two milktoast, white-girl chick-lit samples make the “Entertainment Weekly” list of the ten BEST books of the year…? Is this what we liked back then? Were all so very much in Oprah’s thrall in the late ‘90s that the only books we saw were ones that had been touched by her sainted hand…?

Apparently we were. In the year-end issue of 1997, when EW makes its picks for the best-of in popular culture from that year, the blurb for the tenth-best book of the year reads thus:

“For 20 years, Hoffman has spun stories that flit effortlessly between serious literature and pop fiction — often overlaid with the dreamy gauze of magic. This, her 12th novel, is no exception. It begins with a fortysomething woman revisiting her hometown for a funeral, stirs in many troubled characters, and ends a darkly complicated, Wuthering Heights-esque brew of abuse, familial love, and female identity. Oprah, are you listening?”

Yes, Entertainment Weekly actually ASKED Oprah to select this terrible book. Sigh.

 

 

 

Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at info@nexttenwords.com

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