book review: The Hole We're In by Gabrielle Zevin
Overview: The Pomeroy family are fundamentalist Christians. When the book starts, the father, Roger, has uprooted the family to move to Texas while he completes a PhD in education. We follow the family's troubles that range from adultery to financial thievery to clashing values over how to see the world from the 90s all the way through until 2022. The book makes the argument that, perhaps, we never quite make it out of the holes we're born in. Overall: 3.5
Characters: 3 The thing about this book is that almost everyone is a villain. But they are also very average. The Pomeroys are bad parents, but, really, they just do the same things that heaps of other parents do. They put their belief systems ahead of their own children's needs, they're hardheaded, they're cold. They also open credit cards in their children's names when they go broke and ruin their credit forever, which is pretty exceptionally not great, but for the most part, they are deeply average, deeply flawed people. And they're interesting in their mundaneness through the first section of the novel. We spend that part of the book in the parents' heads and see the many lenses that they choose to approach life from. We also get brief insights into their kids worlds and how they've each taken the lessons from their parents' existences in different directions.
The trouble is that in the second half of the book, all of that goes away. We shift perspective to the view of the youngest daughter for the rest of the book. The nuance disappears, which is unfortunate because Patsy is an interesting character in the first part of the novel. As it progresses, she's rendered pretty flat and lifeless and everyone around her is too. Her parents go from being bad parents but also flawed, layered people to just being weird, God obsessed cartoon villains. Her siblings mostly disappear from the narrative. It becomes hard to care about anyone anymore. This might be a product of how much time skipping there is, but it also seems to stem from Zevin unsuccessfully attempting to write about the realities of PTSD and returning from war. There's really no depth to her portrayal, and it's really unfortunate.
Plot: 3 Again, the first half of the book, I couldn't put down. Seeing how each family member was handling their own horrible secret of the moment and how they compressed it into their perfectly normal, albeit totally fake, lives was interesting. I liked the book a lot, even though you always felt like you were on the outside of the story just peering in. Then we get the time jump and another time jump and the perspective shift and all of the interesting quiet nuance disappears. Zevin just bites off more than she can chew and as each section jumps through bigger and bigger swaths of time, the story really gets away from her. If she'd just continued telling the story she opens with at the start until its natural conclusion instead of the death of the parents, she'd have been much closer to a stellar story.
Mild Spoiler: The final section of the book is consumed by Patsy taking her teenage daughter to get an abortion in the year 2022. This feels like a confusing, random plot point aside from the fact that it makes her point about families being cyclical with three generations of Pomeroy women having unwanted pregnancies in the book. Aside from why it's there or if it's successful, it is interesting and a bit creepy that Zevin, who published the book in 2010 when Donald Trump was just a dumb reality star, forecasted that in the year 2022, it would be an apocalyptic nightmare to try to obtain a safe abortion in US. They end up going to Canada instead. While I still don't really get why this was the grand finale of this particular book, it was definitely a little freaky to read this "far in the future" projection from essentially the year it was written about.
Writing: 3.5 I love, love, love Tomorrow x 3 which is why I picked this one up. Barnes and Noble was promoting it in their newsletter, and I thought it was a new release until I looked it up. It seems like it's just gotten a new cover to take advantage of her increased popularity. While there were moments of great writing in this book, it was definitely no Tomorrow in is prose, plot, or character development. It was an okay novel with an interesting, if a bit mundane, premise. It's hard to even see how the two books are by the same writer. But I also think it's wonderful for that. Zevin has written a lot of books. She's been publishing for a long time. There's over a decade between this novel and her most popular one to date, and she's grown leaps and bounds as a writer. For anyone convinced that you're born as good as you'll ever be, this novel truly shows that even good writers get better and better with time and commitment to their craft.
More from This Author...
More on Reading, Writing, and Me: