I think my in-person book club has contracted “Annoying Child Narrator” disease. Before this book we read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which had an overly precocious child narrator, and before that we read Room, which has a very young narrator who mostly acts his age and is therefore, to me, annoying. The narrator of this book is not really precocious so much as very self-important, and he actually reminded me of Ignatius from A Confederacy of Dunces, which you may recognize as a bad thing.
Soooooooo this was a bit of a long read. I had a feeling it would be, so I read it primarily on a plane, where I would have nothing better to do. On the plus side, it’s not very long page-wise — there are 326 pages, but there are also pictures and weird parts with no actual story on them, so it’s probably more like a 275-page book. On the minus side, I probably understood about half of those pages.
I should probably note that this is sort of kind of a September 11 novel, and my book club did discuss this on said date, and that I have a very limited connection to the events of That Tuesday. I was in high school in Ohio, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone in New York at the time, and so I didn’t come into this novel with any sort of pre-conceived emotions. I imagine if I had, this might have resonated better. Please tell me if that’s the case!
Okay, so, anyway. This book is about a kid, Oskar, whose dad died at the World Trade Center. His dad was also very into puzzles and setting puzzles for Oskar, and so when Oskar finds a mysterious envelope with a key and a last name on it, he sets off to find the person the key belongs to and solve this final puzzle from his dad. His search takes him alphabetically to all of the households Black in the NYC area, and he meets new and interesting people along the way.
And you know, if this had been the whole novel, I think I would have liked it a lot. I like a good quest, and I like also a probably doomed quest, and for all that I found him a bit pompous, I could empathize a little bit with Oskar and his search for truth.
But there’s also this other part of the novel, which consists of, I think, a letter to Oskar from his grandmother and a diary of some sort written by Oskar’s grandfather. Both of these recount how the two met and married and unmarried in a very very weird set of circumstances, and they’re both really strange in different ways. The letter is written a very straightforward way, with an… explicitness that I would not put to paper for anyone, probably not even in my own personal diary, and especially not in a letter to my grandchild. The diary, on the other hand, is baffling in that it is the notebook of a person who does not talk and so it gets interrupted by pages with just a few words on them (used to ask questions and answer them) and it’s also maybe got some pictures in it, though they’re not clearly part of the diary, and it’s just… it’s weird. Very weird.
Sometimes I don’t mind working for my novels; there are a few books out there that I know I’ll read again just to figure out what the heck was going on (right, Mr. Peanut?). But I am also interested and invested in those novels, and I just don’t feel that way about this one.
However, a lot of my book club people quite enjoyed this book and/or its movie adaptation, so if you’re thinking about reading it, give it a try!