book review: A Novel Obsession by Caitlin Barasch

A Novel Obsession by Caitlin Barasch

Overview: Naomi is a bookseller and aspiring writer who's returned to New York City after going to college in Colorado. She lives rent free in an apartment that was her grandmother's old writing studio–part of the abundant real estate portfolio in the city that's made her family rich and allowed her and her brother to pursue aimless careers in the arts. Despite having her life taken care of and a nice boyfriend who's her first steady partner, Naomi hasn't made much progress in her writing career and has a lingering discontentment with her life. That is until Naomi finds out about her boyfriend Caleb's ex-girlfriend that he moved to NYC from the UK for. Once this girl comes onto Naomi's radar, she becomes intent on stalking her to glean details for her twisted novel. Overall: 3

Characters: 3 Naomi reminds me so much of the unnamed protagonist from my least favorite novel of last year, NSFW. They're both troubled by having wealth and connections to pad their pursuits without actually caring to put in any hard work to take advantage of these benefits, and they both think that they're complicated, "unlikable" female characters. They're written with a self obsession that isn't probed through in the novel or interesting because of the cloying awareness they have of their position in their own story. I have nothing against multifaceted, interesting, and truly unlikable female characters that are over privileged (think My Year of Rest and Relaxation) when there's something of note to be said about them and their life or something that's meant to be observed. The blend of flat, exaggerated, and unnecessarily extreme characteristics poured into Naomi just makes the author feel like she's trying too hard with no understanding of where she's going. 

Naomi isn't fully unhinged in a way that makes you wonder if there's something deeply wrong with her. She's just a brat that's had her bad behavior encouraged her entire life–something she never really has to grapple with in the book. Her choice to ruin her happy, fine relationship to stalk the ex-girlfriend is never really mined beyond the constant justification that she has to do all these wild things and create so many elaborate lies as "research" for her novel. Naomi is a character that's given lots of random and sometimes outlandish details and a backstory that I guess is meant to elicit pity, but really, we never learn who Naomi is as a person. She could be anyone, purely existing as a vehicle for the outlandish plot. To make a story like this one work, with a writer main character who is seemingly writing the book that we're reading who is also a truly unwell stalker building fake relationships with multiple people, the character has to be nuanced and detailed and with motivations that the reader can contort themselves into seeing merit in. 

Rosemary, the unfortunate victim of the stalking, doesn't have a ton of dimension either. She's still not over Naomi's boyfriend but is trying to move on and find someone new. She works in publishing, and she's also a writer. Rosemary and Naomi have lots of encounters, but again, character isn't the priority. They meet and share ideas and thoughts with one another purely to advance the plot, not give the reader insight into who they are. Because of that, we can never really know or become attached to Rosemary. Similar things can be assumed for Naomi's family and her boyfriend who are both a bit stale and forgettable. Even her grandmother, the famous writer, feels flat and somewhat stereotypical. 

Plot: 3 Like I said, this book is all about the plot, but there were so many twists and turns that it made my head spin. Even though I realized I didn't like the characters or the voice in the first 15%, I did keep reading because I wanted to know how this chaotic mess could possibly end. The issue is that instead of settling in and trusting the outlandish premise to do its work while diving into who these central characters are and what truly motivates them, there's a million zigs and zags that suffocate the story. The need for constant escalation, to make Naomi increasingly unhinged, takes some of the fun and excitement out of really getting to linger in moments and take in their full magnitude. The plot could've had less points and created much more impact. I do have to admit, though, after the slow first quarter, I did read the rest in a single morning because it was a train wreck I couldn't take my eyes off of the pages, so I guess it gets points for that.

Writing: 3 The writing could use work. The characterization was pretty weak, and there's always a dangerous line you walk when writing about writers and writing. Sometimes it just gets too meta and it can veer into cringey with relative ease. There were also just too many instances where it seemed like while Naomi was writing self insert fan fiction of her own life on the page, the author was doing the same in the actual book I was reading. I have nothing against autofiction or borrowing from your own life to feed the characters, but in this case, after I read the author bio at the end, I just felt a bit uncomfortable with all the overlapping points, and it felt like some of these true details might have weighed the story down or lead the author to make too many assumptions about what the reader would know about the characters from the outset. 

There was definitely enough that compelled me within the book to keep reading, and there were amusing passages, but the concept was an ambitious swing that didn't quite end up hitting the target as exactly as it needed to.


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