book review: Old Flame by Molly Prentiss

Old Flame
 by Molly Prentiss

Overview: Emily is in a somewhat stalled part of her life. She has a good job writing ad copy for a department store. She has an artist boyfriend so involved in his work that he refuses to move in together even after years. She has a passion for creative writing that's only ever expressed in fits and starts in response to a friend's drawings, and they never leave her notebook. Emily spends a lot of time reconciling the vision of herself from her twenties and what she wants moving forward as she enters her thirties. A twist halfway through the book is the catalyst that realigns all of these elements as Emily suddenly grapples for more control over the rest of her life. Overall: 3

Characters: 3 I like Emily, and I enjoyed spending time with her for the first half of the book. She has interesting and sometimes odd observations about the world and very much has a writer's voice. I love how her character explored the way that being a writer in any capacity hones your brain to see the world differently. I also enjoyed the probing of Emily's approach to her creative career in contrast to her boyfriend Wes's. While Wes makes many sacrifices when it comes to stability for his photography and actively loathes the jobs he has to do to make money, even if they are occasional, Emily has a "practical" job she holds alongside her art. Though Wes tries to make her feel like less of an artist for this, I like how the beginning of the book pushes back against this. There's more than one way to be an artist.

The rest of the characters are pretty flat. I liked Emily's initial friendship with her co-worker Megan and how they inspired one another. Because the book is so journal-like and deep in Emily's head, it's hard to see either Wes or Megan in a multidimensional sense. Everyone who passes through the story is simply there to serve the purpose of decorating Emily's world. The people who most escape this are Renata and her daughter Greta who Emily met during a study abroad time in Italy and who she stays in touch with over a decade in a very touching way.

Plot: 3 I loved the beginning of the book. I found the twist to be a cop out. It's a very similar one to what popped up in The People We Keep, which I'd also read recently (though, in that book, it came in the final act and was better executed and justified). I just thought this book was going to be one thing and it turned out to be another. It was billed as a book about finding yourself and your path in a confusing world as a young adult, but for much of the conclusion of the book, Emily was rendered totally lifeless, struggling to come up for air. It just took a turn that felt like the easy path to create a twist and upend the book without much effort and felt like a betrayal of Emily and her goals.

Spoilers Ahead: To make myself clear, I wasn't a fan of the surprise, accidental pregnancy twist with the boyfriend she hardly liked anymore. Emily decides to keep the baby and suddenly her boyfriend's career takes off while her life is rendered a shadow of what it was as she struggles to be, basically, a single mother. All her worst fears come true. She loses the time and mental space to write, her body no longer feels like her own, and her exploration of self all but comes to an end in service of another person. These are important realities to discuss in the inherent inequality of it and how men are always allowed to have one foot out, but in this story, it just felt like such a betrayal to Emily and what felt promised at the start of the book that it soured the whole thing for me. Additionally, the quality of the writing just went downhill after the ill fated Italy trip, and I started skimming to just make it to the end. 

Writing: 3 I liked the style of the writing. There are larger parts separated into smaller vignettes which generally follow a narrative pattern but also pop around through time when a flashback more appropriately sets the tone. It's a good venue for Emily's keen observations in the sense that they often feel like journal entries without fully committing to the format. Still, this style wasn't well maintained through the entire book and, as the point of view somewhat shifted, each of these stories got less tight and well executed and more loose and confusing. Perhaps this was done to intentionally match Emily's loss of her own voice/identity, but that doesn't quite feel accurate. 

Mentioned In This Review:

The People We Keep

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

The Villa by Rachel Hawkins

Memorial by Brian Washington

Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson


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