Literacy and Longing in L.A.
Literacy and Longing in L.A. is one of those books that I was glad to finally finish. While going through the long slog reading it, I continually eyed my TBR pile and had to convince myself those books would have to wait. That strategy only worked because I realized that if I picked up a different book, this one would take me that much longer to finish.
The plot is difficult to describe as nothing really happens. Thirty-something Dora, who lives in L.A., separated from her second husband a year ago. She left her job as a journalist five years ago and hasn’t worked since. She develops a crush on Fred, a cute employee at her local independent bookstore, and they begin a rocky relationship. We meet her sister Virginia, who helps Dora with her job search, and Dora’s friend Darlene, who used to work at the L.A. Times with her. Dora spends all of her free time reading, and continually references and quotes from all the literature with which she is familiar. Anytime she is bored or depressed, she goes on manic book binges where she sits in the bathtub for days straight, plowing through books and drinking wine, ignoring increasingly worried phone calls from her sister and friends until someone actually comes over to her apartment and forces her to return to civilization. At first I wondered how she managed to fit these lost days in with her life, but then I realized she didn’t work or have any other obligations or responsibilities.
Besides the general lack of a plot, I found Dora’s attitude and behavior unappealing. It was difficult to identify with Dora as she was a trust fund baby who hadn’t done anything with her life, and who didn’t have any redeeming factors – basically she’s a stuck-up and shallow book snob. She constantly refers to and quotes from books and writers, apparently to show how well-read she is, but it comes across as name-dropping. She even describes how she and her ex-husband would classify readers into categories: the purists, the academics, the book-worshipers, the multi-task readers, and so on. This is supposed to be amusing, but it shows how judgmental she is. As for the status readers, Dora says, “These people consider themselves readers, but they’re not.” She calls audio books “the new version of condensed books” (a topic, I might add, that Stephen King laid to rest in a recent Entertainment Weekly column). She looks down on book clubs because she couldn’t handle the inferior works being discussed, and because she thinks she would make everyone feel bad with her superior intelligence.
Dora is also a snob in terms of Los Angeles. She looks down on what she calls “bored Brentwood housewives”, and delights in pointing out people’s shortcomings. She even thinks that her “friend” Darlene is white trash and manages to make it sound like she is slumming when they hang out. Although Dora seems to enjoy Darlene’s company, she calls her reading tastes stupid and seems embarrassed to be seen with her. She describes Darlene as “so far outside the mainstream as to be unclassifiable and thus interesting only to me.” This is yet another instance of the authors’ attempts at humor falling flat for me. Rather than being amused, I saw it as a perfect example of Dora’s egotistical, judgmental attitude, as if Darlene only exists as entertainment for Dora.
There are times when Dora seems to be aware that there is a disparity between how she describes things and how other people see the world, but it is fleeting because she also seems to buy into it. Even though she criticizes rich housewives who wear Juicy Couture and join book clubs, she gets Botox and looks down on people who have their roots showing. Dora is not funny. Dora is not at all self-aware or insightful. Or remotely likable.
I also was unimpressed by the style and quality of writing. The book opened on a strong note with a flashback to a dramatic family scene, but it didn’t live up to its promise. The book is co-authored and I sense a lack of coordination, even in tenses and time frames. This also may be the reason I had trouble feeling like I was inside Dora’s head even though it was written in first person. It’s not a charming diary style writing like Bridget Jones’s Diary, but the assumption is that we would be interested in Dora’s uneventful, self-involved life. Apart from her being mortified by Darlene or lusting after the pseudo-intellectual Fred, there isn’t much insight into how anything actually affects her. She may be as shallow as she seems, and not have any deep feelings or personal insights to express. Dora’s pretentious, judgmental tone did not come across as amusing, which I’m certain it was meant to be. Instead I found that it fell flat and put her in a wholly negative light as excessively self-important.
Literacy and Longing in L.A. is one of those books that those who believe Chick Lit is automatically inferior writing can use to prove their argument. I think the authors or publisher felt that the amount of literary reference would be enough to carry the book and pull the reader in, but it’s not. What it is is dreadful.