Hey, a new category of fiction for me: the NFM. Not quite a DNF, it’s a Not For Me, a quit before I waste any more time. I just can’t like it. About a third into it I realized that it is essentially a character study of an addict, Maggie, and at page 50, I’m not even sure how complex she is. It could be that being an addict eventually eats up a lot of what personality a person has. It could also be that Schulman is first a non-fiction writer, and may have been using this book as her own personal Message Board, and as such has points to make beyond the average mystery novel.
I’m not the only one to note this. I’d have to agree with the reviewer who says, “Her Maggie Terry is 50% Maggie’s journey, 25% political commentary about the US and the present state of New York in particular and 25% crime resolution.” I’m at least 25% in, and quite possibly 30%, and only now has Maggie–and the reader–been introduced to the idea that there’s a case. As this point there’s been a lot of discussion about Maggie’s addicted life; the lost of her non-biological daughter to her wife, the biological mother; and days on the NYPD.
I was tempted into this by a friend’s review, the backstory that Maggie is a lesbian–not your average mystery hero, by any means–and by a blurb from Sara Gran, writer of one of my favorite books, as well as further comparisons to Gran. But no, not so much. It lacks the humor, pacing, and subtlety of Clare DeWitt. I’d highly suggest you try out Gran’s books over this one.
“By midmorning she was already itchy. By quarter to twelve, concentration had become impossible. Two hours of staring at the Fitzgerald & Robbins employee handbook’s list of procedures, interspersed with Mike’s witty catchphrases, produced no new understanding of her fate. Revelation was all she was looking for, apparently, and the other daily requirements of being normal and functional sat in the way of her transformation into a person happy enough not to be a burden to others. But rules were rules, so Maggie hoped she could pic up what she needed to know on the job. Winging it was both her secret strength and fatal flaw.
By the time church bells announced noon’s arrival, she strategically waited two full minutes and then rand down the stairs and hurried the three blocks to the local YMCA. Rachel had made a map of all the 12 Step meetings in a ten-block radius, which was probably a violation of Rachel’s Al-Anon requirement: Don’t Be a Doormat; Don’t Be a Nag. But Maggie was grateful. She never would have made it through the day without support, and she never would have been able to think clearly enough to have figured out a list in advance of the moment of truth. Need was always a crisis and crisis always a surprise. There were a lot of meetings in Chelsea, the West village, and Midtown; debtors, meth heads, gamblers, purgers, people who were not loved and therefore loved others to a degree that someone deemed “too much.” Maggie’s lunch break was spent eating her nails at an NA meeting in the Y’s gray-carpeted rear room. Despite qualifying for many branches of Program, she new what itchy meant. It meant she was an addict and had to get her sorry ass to NA.
It didn’t take long, feeling ill as ease in her normally familiar folding chair, to realize that this meeting was the first time she’d entered the Rooms as an employed person. The difference was immediately obvious. her uncomfortable work clothes made her standard fallback, slouching, impossible. No longer able to huddle against the force of her own self-created misfortune, she had to sit upright, legs crossed at the ankles. fear of wrinkles, and even more stains, dictated her posture. the made it harder for Maggie to feel. Fear usually did that job. Refusing to collapse took a resolve that interfered with pain, making it secondary to the effort of sitting up. Was there still only room for one thing at a time in her broken-down machine of a body? either pain or maintenance? Pain or posture? This was not the goal. The goal was integration, to have it all–pain, posture, clean shirts, nuanced thoughts, clarity. Alina within arm’s reach. A self, a self. She had none of that, but today, for the first time since she had been stripped of her badge in disgrace, she had a job. Gratitude!” (p. 28).
That’s what a great deal of the book is like, a strange mix of the narrative voice with Maggie’s, and a very exhausting one at that. I wavered on rating, and whether or not to do so. As I shared the quote, I realized my disinterest is also about subject and narrative choice. The writing itself is occasionally excellent, and the characters were all-too-human. Unfortunately, much of it is very rooted in a particular time period, particularly Trump’s presidency, and a NYC that is experiencing the same cultural shifting as the rest of the country.
Had it been differently written, I might have stayed with it long enough to finish. After all, Matt Scudder spent time in “the Program” in his mysteries, but I read the entire series, so it isn’t just the addiction angle. I think, for me, this was really more literary fiction about one woman’s search for personal growth with a tiny bit of a mystery, rooted at a particular place in time. It’s well done, but not for me.