Wednesday, August 6

Divisadero: and the critics are divided

I've been gulping down books like water. When I stop reading I start worrying, so I just keep reading long into the night. With budget cuts looming in the county library, it's not a good time to be a substitute librarian. I'm sad, too, that my kiddo is taking off in two weeks (!) for Loyola University in Chicago. I'll miss him.

So, back to reading!

I've been reading "better" books, and fewer mysteries and thrillers, and enjoying them greatly. Mostly. I just finished Michael Ondaatje's "Divisadero," and found it a slog. The characters in the contemporary part of the book seemed wooden and two-dimensional. I got to page 153 before I felt a jolt of interest in the book. The last third of the book is devoted to the story of Segunda, a French writer whose history Anna is studying, and that was the section that felt most solid and real.

I read several reviews of Divisadero, trying to find out what others saw that I did not. This one was helpful:

From Bookmarks Magazine (cited on
How do we account for the critics' varied reactions to Michael Ondaatje's latest novel? Is it "a beautifully crafted tale" (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) or a "strangely broken-back beast of a novel" (Seattle Times)? Critics uniformly praised Ondaatje's graceful language and poetic imagery, but agreed on little else. Some applauded the nonlinear plot structure, while others found the constantly shifting times, places, and narrators confusing. Characters were pronounced both well-drawn individuals and flat, indistinguishable stereotypes. Several critics lamented the sudden, unexpected shift to Segura's life story, which left the previous plot unresolved. Readers should note that the critics who enjoyed Divisadero the most were those who approached it as a work of art rather than a conventional novel.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Here's my final answer: the time and place shifts were handled well, and I noted several lyrical passages, but it was the flatness of the characters and the storytelling, except for the historical look at the writer Segura, that made reading a chore.

Here's a plot summary from "What Do I Read Next?"

At age 16, Anna lives on a farm in Petaluma, California, with her father, an orphan named Claire, also 16, and a hired hand named Coop. The three young people are as close as siblings; however, their bond is broken when violence erupts on the farm. Anna runs away, and Coop uses his card playing skills to make a living playing poker. The novel traces the adult lives of the trio as they cope with the abrupt and violent end to their "family." Claire becomes an investigator for a public defender, Coop continues to play poker, and Anna becomes intrigued by the life and work of French author Lucien Segura, in whose house she resides. As the novel shifts focus to the life of Segura at the turn of the century, Anna finds remarkable similarities between his life and her own.

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