Author! Author!

As much as I aspire to judge everything I read on its individual merit, I'm always forced to start a new book with preconceptions about the author (I mean, assuming I've already read any of their previous books). Sometimes, I'll allow critical praise or recommendations to overpower my suspicions about a book by an author I don't generally like. Sometimes, I willingly pick up a book that has an off-putting premise just because I've enjoyed the writer's other work. This method doesn't always work out. But there have been pleasant surprises, too.

I got the opportunity to test this on both levels recently by reading Tom Perrotta's 2013 book of short stories (Nine Inches) and Lisa Jewell's 2014 novel (The House We Grew Up In). Let's get this out of the way: I think Tom Perrotta is a very talented, capable writer...whose books I don't like. I'm in the minority on this one; everyone else I've talked to about Perrotta really loves him, but his writing just keeps striking me as Diet George Saunders. Meanwhile, I've really liked (most) everything I've read by Lisa Jewell. It all took place before this blog was started, but Ralph's Party and One-Hit Wonder were great! OK, so Thirtynothing wasn't my favorite, but she's still got a good track record as far as I'm concerned. So, I snagged Nine Inches on a friend's recommendation, despite some reservations. And I snagged The House We Grew Up In based on not much more than residual affection for the author. How did it go?

Well, it went about how you'd expect. Nine Inches is a perfectly well-written collection of stories that I wound up not liking very much, and The House We Grew Up In gripped me from the start. Nine Inches has a lot of Perrotta hallmarks. That is to say, the stories are mostly about families being ripped apart, the regrets we have in old age, and aimless teenagers wrestling with having no real sense of identity. Like The Leftovers, there doesn't seem to be any resolution (either positive or negative) to the characters' despair, and perhaps that's the point. So I'll just paraphrase a statement I read from a person much wiser than I: I feel about reading Tom Perrotta books the way I feel about the World Cup. I'm glad it's successful, and I'm thrilled you like it, but I'm going to be over here doing something else.

The House We Grew Up In fared much better. It's about the seemingly perfect Bird family in a small English town. They've got a loving household, and the family is tightly-knit, always finding time to mark special occasions, especially Easter. But when tragedy strikes, the family begins to crumble, thanks in large part to the mother (Lorelei) giving in to her hoarding tendencies. The remaining family members react in wildly varying ways. Beth remains at home and hopes for the best, giving up any expectation of a normal life. Rory bolts, trying to grab at as many life experiences as he can. Meg swings the pendulum hard in the other direction, not allowing a single speck of dust or useless clutter to cross her doorstep.

The family makes an effort to stay somewhat tethered to each other and to offer emotional support to the mother that won't admit to the mental illness she clearly suffers from. It's a tough road, though, and each of the family members has their own issues to work through as well. Hoarding has always been a fascinating topic to me, and makes a terrific premise to center a novel around. Jewell writes with her usual wit and relatability, and I tore through the book in no time flat.

So, maybe objectivity isn't all it's cracked up to be. While I'm still open to being disappointed by an author I enjoy or happily surprised by an author I tend to dislike, these two books reinforce that my favorites are my favorites for a reason.

Nine Inches: C+
The House We Grew Up In: B+


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