Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: The Flamethrowers

I'm currently enjoying a snow day, despite the fact that it's 11:40AM and I still haven't seen one flake. No matter - this is my first ever snow day in North Carolina, and I'm happy for any excuse to spend the day reading, revising, and writing. To kick things off: a book review from my substanial backlog. A few more snow days, and I just might catch up. 

Let me begin by saying that I didn't love this book. This could be blamed on the fact that The Flamethrowers showed up on every single "Best Books of 2013" list that I eagerly read back in December, and thus expectations were unfairly high. Or it could be blamed on every character besides the narrator, Reno. Or it could be blamed on the fact that the book jacket was misleading, making it sound like the last fourth of the book was going to be the focus of the whole thing. At any rate, while I thought this book was okay - pretty good, even - I finished it feeling disappointed. 

But first, a synopsis. The book takes place in the 1970s, mostly in New York City, but also in Italy. First, Reno moves to New York City to be an artist, working mostly in video. There, she meets a group of artists and falls for Sandro Valera, an older and well known Italian sculptor. Eventually they go to Italy, so Reno can pursue an opportunity for an art project and meet Sandro's family. She ends up with a group of young Italian revolutionaries, essentially playing a role in a fight (though what that role is wasn't exactly clear to me) that isn't really hers (at least, not from my understanding).

Confused? Me too.  

While I clearly had some problems with the plot, I won't deny that there were  moments of absolutely stunning writing. I marked two sections that gave me pause in particular, and I'm going to share them here. First, this one:
He picked crushed little chamomile flowers out of my hair as we continued our hike, and pointed out a matted place among the underbrush where a wolf had slept. We stopped and looked together at the indentation that was the wolf's bed. There was something tender in seeing where a wild animal slept, the choices it made to seek softness, and I felt a twinge of envy for that wolf, its self-preservation, its solitude. 
This is a great example of Reno's voice. The story is told in first person, which I love, when done right, and Kushner gets it. Reno is sharp, observant, and poetic. I love her observations, and the way she views the world. Like in this section: 
I could never know the Rome that Roberto knew. Just as the villa itself, even if unpleasant, was an experience of Italy to which I would have had no access as a student in Florence. It seemed to me that if you were poor and went to a foreign place, you met poor people who weren't all that foreign to you, like the bikers and their girlfriends I'd hung around with at the squalid bar near the train station in Florence. And the opposite was probably true, too. For the rich, the world would be a series of elegantly appointed rooms similar rooms and legible social customs, familiar categories of privilege the world over. 
I haven't been to Italy, haven't traveled much at all, but I read that passage and I thought, Yes, exactly, that is how the world works. So great.

(Very minor spoilers ahead.) 

(You have been warned.) 

(But they are really very minor, so I wouldn't be too worried.) 

Gorgeous prose aside, I had some problems with the book. I didn't quite understand Reno's love for Sandro, or what she saw in him. Since their relationship is at the center of the book, this was problematic. In the beginning of the book, we get alternating chapters written in third person, from Sandro's father's point-of-view, which was confusing - at first, I didn't know who this Valera was, and then, once I did, I felt those sections dragged. They felt too political in a book which, at that point, doesn't feel especially revolutionary. They slowed down the momentum and I found myself skimming them, rushing to get back to Reno. And the end! I'm still not sure what exactly happened, and whether that's my fault as a reader, or the author's fault as a writer, is up for debate. All I know is that I finished the book and thought, "Huh." Which is not ideal, to say the least. 

Final verdict? The Flamethrowers is uneven, full of head-turning prose and an unwieldy plot. Have you read it? Did you like it? Can we argue about it more in the comments? See you there.