Reviews with snark and Salem Witch Trials

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. At the time, I was living in New Jersey, and though my apartment, car, and other possessions mostly escaped damage, I was among those who were left without electricity for days afterward. The day immediately afterward, especially before we were sure what was safe and how far we could venture without tempting danger, I had only books to keep me company. So I grabbed a pile of books I had been meaning to read and then huddled up, wrapped in a blanket, near the living room window with the best light.

That day I read two full books. One was a Dave Eggers book that I should probably re-read because I liked it and remember nothing. The other book was called The Beginners, and it purported to be a contemporary coming of age story with historical parallels to the Salem Witch Trials. I had seen a recommendation for it in one of the online literary magazines I used to peruse frequently. In other words: exactly the kind of book I would, more often than not, relish.

the beginners - rebecca wolff.jpg

But I hated it. After that day of reading, while guessing that classes would be cancelled for awhile and seeing that electricity probably wouldn't be restored soon, I got in my car and drove to my parents' house in Ohio. And I proceeded to log on to GoodReads and torch the book.

My review reads:

"I want to go back and find the person who recommended this book to me before I bought it a year ago and shake them. SHAAAAAAAAKE.

Reasons I bought the book (on deep discount, in a going bye-bye Borders): promise of ghosts, promise of New England coming of age for a bookish ginger girl, promise of history re: Salem Witch trials (my fav!).

Now... the ghosts and the Witch Trials are in peripheral bits that are not followed through on at all throughout the book, and the "coming of age" part is steeped in tremendously weird and, I felt, gratuitous sex, that also happens to be somewhat amoral, confusing, and (possibly) criminal. So... the book basically doesn't make any sense at all.

It's also one of those books that clearly is trying to seem literary- it sounds poetic. And sometimes this works for it. Sometimes the prose is beautiful. Other times, it's clunky and awkward because it's *so* obvious and deliberate. 

I could go on and on about the inconsistencies in the plot- if I had written this before I went to bed last night, I might have given it two stars, but now I've had time to sort it out and realize that nothing connects."

Somehow, that snarky, terrible, horrible, no-good review is the GoodReads review that keeps on living. Nearly five years later, I still get notifications that someone has "liked" it. I don't think I had ever really reviewed a book in print before, and I cringe when I read that review now. However, it's funny to me that other people keep reading it and finding it apt.

I can't remember much of anything about the plot of The Beginners now. Especially with things like mystery stories and magic/occult/mystical stories, so many of the details swirl together in my head. I am a person who can confuse an episode of Charmed with an Agatha Christie novel before my brain sorts it all out. What I vaguely remember is that the author did a bait-and-switch on her reader - the super sexy couple that entranced the teenage girl, teasing her with new experiences and also hints of witchcraft, just turned out to be crooked. Nothing mystical about them.

There's a part of me that wants to be the person who writes the truly great modern Salem Witch Trials novel, and the rest of me sympathizes with those who try, but fail, to get it right. The Beginners isn't the only attempt to bring the Salem Witch Trials into contemporary literature that I have read... and also hated. Yet The Beginners attempted to be more direct than the abstract, hysteria formulations in some of those other novels. 

In sum: it's not so much that I regret writing that review as that I might do it differently today.** I might talk about how disappointed I was that the author punted on the history she intended to evoke. Or why the Witch Trials resonate with women today - perhaps a comparison! A meditation on why I cannot spare the emotional labor necessary to watch The Handmaid's Tale. Or, I could write a memoir-ish post about why people like me remain fascinated by the Puritans and the culture that led to those events. I could talk about my visit to Salem, the peculiar bookstore there and the magnificent candy store, and the palpable feeling of place that transcended all the commercialization of that history.  But sometimes... sometimes there just needs to be some snark.


**unless there has recently been a terrifying hurricane, and I am super anxious and annoyed.