Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson ★★★★

This Vacant Paradise: A Novel
The 1990s—Newport Beach, California. Money is God. A man’s worth is judged by the size of his boat, the make of his car. A woman’s value is assessed by the blank perfection of her quantifiable desirability: dress size, cup size, the whiteness of her teeth. And oh yes: her youth. Though Esther Wilson, the heroine of Victoria Patterson’s profound and electric debut novel, has the looks to marry well, things aren’t going as planned. She’s nearing her mid-30s and possibly aging out of the only role she’s equipped to play: wife to a powerful member of the elite. Instead, Esther finds herself drawn to college professor Charlie Murphy, who challenges her and offers an alternative vision—one that he himself might not have the courage to follow.

Full disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review.
I knew nothing about Victoria Patterson or her previous work when I received this book, but I am always willing to try new things, so I love when I get to review something outside of my box. Reading the description for this book, I was fully prepared for a light, fun read, perhaps with a little bit of depth thrown in for good measure. Like a social satire in the spirit of Austen, for example.

But my goodness, was I wrong. This is no whimsical story, no fun satirical skip through the elite's playground through the eyes of a down-on-her-luck upstart stuck on the bench, no fairy-tale romance where the girl goes through some rough patches but gets her heart's desire in the end. This is a serious book that demands to be read and taken seriously, that drags the reader along in its wake, showing this world in all its honesty.

I felt like I was a party to this community, a part of Esther herself, and Nora, and Charlie, and Brenda, and Paul and even Grandma Eileen. I could understand and empathize with these characters' feelings and disappointments and hopes, even when I didn't necessarily agree with them. I love when I am able to fall into the pages of a book and experience it, not just read it.

And Patterson most definitely allowed me to escape into this world. I felt like I was there, could hear the murmured conversations in the background, could smell the ocean, could see the brightness everywhere: the sun, the reflections off of the water, and waxed cars, and sunglasses and martini glasses. The sparkle of whitened teeth and the brightness of all of the Haves' projected self-image... the one they show to hide the person they are.

I won't talk too much about the characters, because I feel that people should get to know them themselves. To form their own opinions and make their own judgements. I will say that I really enjoyed Esther's journey, all her ups and downs, all her bitter disappointments and glimpses of hope. I can't say that I particularly liked Esther, but I feel like I got to know her. I felt that she was willing and wanting to try, and so she gets credit from me for that.

I did have a few issues with the book, a few ends that I wish were tied up more neatly, but honestly, I don't feel like this detracted from the book very much. We're able to see a snapshot in the lives of these people, and life's circumstances rarely end up prettily wrapped with a red bow on top. I felt that Charlie's class and equality conversations were a little, unnatural at times, especially with Esther. She has never been trained to think with a sociologist's mind, and I felt that he should have made it a bit more accessible to her so that she could really understand him, and the concepts he brought to her world. But again, this was a minor issue.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much. It's not at all what I expected, but sometimes, the unexpected is exactly what we need.

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