Monday, March 21, 2011

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian........

****Spoiler Alert - You might want to skip this "review" if you intend to read this book.****

This isn't so much a review as it is my own personal reactions, some of which are still laced with confusion about whether or not I liked the book.

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian (how DO you pronounce that?) is about a young woman named Laurel who works at a homeless shelter, assisting the homeless get into places of their own and matching them with services when she can. When one of her clients dies, Laurel's supervisor finds in his possession a large collection of photographs, presumably taken by the homeless man (Bobbie), and they are not only excellent quality photographs, some of them are of famous people from a variety of eras.

Bobbie has moments of lucidity when he's properly medicated, but it is often difficult to distinguish his true past from his imagined one, even when he DOES offer details. 

Each chapter begins with notes from a psychiatrist's journal, detailing the patient's behavior and noting medications and the frequency of psychotic episodes. That will become important later. 

Laurel becomes obsessed with the photographs. Her supervisor had intended that perhaps they could have a formal show of Bobbie's work, with the idea that the proceeds would help the shelter tremendously. Laurel recognizes some of the places in the photographs, though, and this is where the details become fuzzy for me.

Laurel had been attacked while mountain biking seven years prior to the book's beginning, and one of the pictures is of a girl on a mountain bike in a location that appears to be the same general place where she was attacked. 

She recognizes a country club in some of the pictures, a place where she used to swim when she was a girl. And here is where the book began to insult my intelligence. She recognizes it because it was a part of Jay Gatsby's estate. You know, as in The Great. She begins to think that the young girl with Bobbie in some of the pictures is Pamela, the daughter of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and later she concludes that Bobbie is the result of the infamous affair between Daisy and Jay Gatsby. She becomes more than obsessed (is there a word for that - consumed?) with the idea and sets out to learn the truth, wanting more than anything to prove herself to her friends, her boss, and her boyfriend. 

Laurel puts the pieces together and discovers that the girl on the mountain bike IS she, that the picture was taken because Bobbie was in the area that day to visit his son, one of the evil men who attacked her on that dirt road.

Confused much? Bear with me. 

I was insulted and annoyed that the author would take such liberties with the characters from another famous novel. Even Alexandra Ripley acknowledged that she was taking liberties when she wrote a sequel to Gone with the Wind. I got all riled up and decided I hated the book and was disgusted with the author who didn't have any more creativity than to steal someone else's characters and make up new stories about them.

Until the end.

Because the patient notes that had been scattered through the book weren't about the deceased Bobbie after all. (You probably figured that out a heck of a lot quicker than I did.) They were about Laurel herself, detailing her obsession with the novel and her relentless quest to "prove" the connections among the characters and between them and her.

Now I realize I need to go back and read the book again, this time armed with my new knowledge and a slightly different perspective. But I probably won't.

I'm over my little snit about the author's presumptive tendencies, and I apologize to Mr. I-can't-pronounce-his-last-name for making disparaging remarks about his work. That said, however, I still have a few (completely legitimate) complaints about the book.

  • Laurel is attacked while she is mountain biking, and the description of her attack is very vivid. The author apparently knows something about cycling, because he talks about her shoes being clipped into her pedals. But she remains clipped in even while the men are lifting, dragging, and running over her, and I think that is going too far. I wear those shoes, and while I have had difficulty getting my feet clipped out in time when I have to stop suddenly, they almost always come unclipped of their own accord when I fall over. I guess it's possible that she could remain attached to her bicycle throughout a violent attack, but I had a hard time swallowing it.
  • Laurel is dating a much older man (all her boyfriends are much older after the attack), and he has two daughters. At the end of the book it becomes apparent that she invented the daughters. Huh? I'm not sure why. It is suggested that the two girls represented Laurel's relationship with her own sister, but why did they have to be made up? Couldn't a divorced older man have had two daughters? Or did she make him up too? 
  • I am not a prude, but I think that unless the details of a bedroom scene are vital to moving the plot along, they aren't necessary. I get that Laurel was attacked. It was mentioned over and over. I don't feel the need to know that she never let a man be on top of her during sex. Moreover, I understand the general concept of sex. I don't need for the author to describe just what she's sliding up and down ON. (My apologies to the tenderer readers of this blog. Go wash your eyes out.)
  • Similarly, I don't need the detail that Laurel's boyfriend doesn't wear deodorant. He wears some kind of powder instead, and she adores the smell of it. So? 
  • Laurel's last name isn't even mentioned until near the end of the book. If we've gone that long without it, just forget it. (It's Estabrook, in case you're interested.) 
  • There's a roommate who cares too much, and a possible love interest who has a crush on Laurel but pretends not to. He is also a cyclist - when he's not busy studying for his medical school courses. From what I've read of medical students, he had WAY too much free time on his hands to do things like go paintballing and cycling.
  • Speaking of paintballing (is that a verb?), Laurel's roommate, a youth minister at a church, organized an outing for her youth group to go play paintball (is that any better?), and Laurel was supposed to help her chaperon. Naturally Laurel forgot because she was deep in her obsession with the photographs, so the roommate (whose name escapes me) and the possible love interest (Whit?) go with the young people. The agony they describe of their battered and bruised bodies the next day rang false with me. Come on! You people are YOUNG! I just don't believe they would be as bad off as the descriptions. 
  • Speaking of the youth minister, she has a potty mouth. I realize youth ministers might not be paragons of virtue (had to work THAT phrase in somehow), but it seemed to me it would be hard to turn on her youth-minister persona and clean up her language when she had to. It would be like being a teacher and not cursing when you are at...... Never mind.
The book WAS a page-turner (or a page-clicker, since I read it on my Kindle), and it was interspersed with actual photographs taken by a real, live, once-homeless man who left the photographs behind, prompting the author to wonder why someone of such obvious talent would wind up in a homeless shelter. 

It's not one I would recommend to everyone I know so we could talk about it. But if you HAVE read it and WANT to discuss it, I'll be more than happy to do so.


Maggie said...

I think, and I'm almost scared to admit this, I recommended this to you???

As for me, I did like the liberties taken with the Gatsby characters and I was thinking it was cool to play with the idea that they were "real". I was surprised by the ending and bummed it wasn't a story of Gatsby reality.

I, too, thought the sex scenes were more graphic than necessary and I was sickened by the graphic nature of the letter the prisoner wrote to Laurel and read aloud to her near the end of the novel.

And it's funny because I thought as I was reading that for a med student the dude had a lot of time on is hands and the youth pastor had a foul mouth, I even commented on those things to Daddy-O but never thought about it again once I started writing my review...

Sorry you didn't like it better!!!

Camidee said...

I'm sorry to say I didn't enjoy the book, or at least I did enjoy it until the ending. It was a page turner, and I was so excited about everything, but the ending, to me, ruined the rest of the book, and considering how into it I got, I think that's why I hate it so much. I got angry that what she was searching for this whole time ended up being something inside her head, though that naturally couldn't be helped considering the nature of the book, but that's not why I hate it. I hate it because of HOW he did it. Like you said, he explains that her boyfriend had two girls that ended up being fake, but in the book, they had chapters from their point of view. They had their own thoughts, hanging out with their "father" but Laurel wasn't even around. So it's basically, what is the point of the chapters then? Yes, we know he hangs out with his imaginary children and that's why Laurel believes he's being distant, but I don't think it was necessary to have chapters of them with their own thoughts. Same thing with Bobbie's "sister". These people didn't even turn out to exist, so why are we reading their own thoughts and actions when Laurel isn't even around? I know the author's point was to fool us into thinking the point was going one way, but that he did it the way he did, made me hate the book. I've seen movies and read other books that had twists at their end, but comparing them to Bohjalian's book. His efforts seem a bit...pathetic. I really don't mean to offend the author or anyone who enjoyed this book, I just think that the author could have done better with it. To me, he made parts of the book completely pointless, and that's what angers me more than anything.

Jeannine Martino said...

I have read this book 3 times now usually followed by reading The Great Gatsby. I thought that knowing the ending I could dissect the story. I am still a bit confused but understand that the point of view chapters of the imaginary characters are actually Laurels writing, as explained by her Doctor at the end (remember the yellow lined paper pads). But the chapters where she has conversations with her roommate and co-workers I think were real, but hard to decipher from the imaginary conversations. All in all a great read, I just wish I could partition the real from her imagination. Like the Club she belongs to is that real? She talks about the photo's on the wall of Jay Gatsby.