You Are Here by Karin Lin-Greenberg: book review
Overview: The mall is dying, but it's also still such a hub of life. From the bookstore to the hair salon to the food court, the mall brings together a group of people that would never talk to one another without the uniting fact that they all work in the mall. The book traces the individual and intertwined lives of a handful of people who depend on the mall. Overall: 3.5
Characters: 3.5 I've been struggling to figure out if the characters fell a bit flat or if the writing just didn't gel with me and that kept me from really getting into the characters. I think these two things are probably more related than an either-or thing, but I'm still struggling with how these characters didn't quite work for me, and at the same time, I did feel endeared towards them by the end of the book.
There are a lot of characters, and they are revealed through their own sections of the book where they're the focus of the close third. They might appear distantly in other characters' worlds, but it's only in their sections where we really learn about them. There's Tina, a hair stylist and her son, Jackson. They both harbor dreams that they think are too impossible to bother sharing with one another even though they're extremely close. Kevin runs the bookstore across the way. He's still in the middle of a PhD that's ambled along for years, and everyone thinks he's failed to live up to his potential. He's scared to admit that he might not want what everyone expects of him. Ro is an elderly lady who visits the mall regularly because she's lonely, and while she's fairly racist throughout, she starts to question her beliefs and why they exist because of her connections to the people in the mall. Maria is a high school girl who works in the food court. She has big dreams, too, but she's failed in getting the support she needs.
Mostly, these defining one sentence lines are all we get from these characters. They glimmer in their own ways sometimes, but because of the structure of the book, we get these massive info dumps about them every couple chapters instead of a slow drip of information that assembles into people. Also, they're all written very similarly, so with so many characters, they all kind of blend together into people we're simply told about. While some of the characters form bonds that are sweet or make you think about the importance of making connections with those that peripherally pass through your life, they just never quite grew all the way past their archetypes.
It's always hard to wrangle such a large cast and define them as individuals but also as a group.
Plot: 3 This book felt insecure about what it wanted to be and a bit unsettled overall. While it would make total sense as a more aimless book solely centered around building a portrait of this mall and these inter-generational relationships, it gets injected with these awkward and somewhat random plot points that are just thrown in out of nowhere that feel either unnecessary or without the proper precedent to make you care. There's no weight to any of the plot points that are meant to be significant because they appear so passively. It feels like there was meant to be a bang because the author was scared the reader would get bored with the original idea, and the impact never fully landed while managing to disrupt her better instincts around building up these character portraits. There was so much promise in this idea, and the end product just feels insecure. Somewhat Vague Spoiler: Towards the end of the book, there is a shooting at the mall and one of our main characters dies. This particularly turned me off the book because it didn't make sense for the story and fell back on some pretty lazy tropes, in my view. It seemed thrown in because the author felt the need for more drama or a turning point from which to land the book, and I wholeheartedly disagree with that decision.
Writing: 3 This was a hard one for me to get through because the writing is dense. Thick paragraphs with thick sentences that dump a lot of information. The language isn't particularly engaging or pretty, but it's also not a lively, fast moving read. I contemplated DNFing it a few times, but I was intrigued enough by the characters and the concept that I wanted to see it through. There was just too much information and too many paths taken at once to meld them in a satisfying way. I also feel like maybe an omniscient third that held all the characters at once or even a first person with shorter separate chapters might have allowed a stronger connection between the reader and the characters. There are some lovely and tender relationships that are revealed here, but they also feel shrouded behind a film and hard to access. I'm also a bit confused about how little the setting is developed for the biggest hook of the book being that it's set in a dying mall. There's hardly any description of the mall as a world or atmosphere and heavily relies on the reader to bring their own mall experiences to build out the landscape when this could've been a cool opportunity to make the mall's universe a character in and of itself. This book unfortunately just felt like a series of missed opportunities.
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