Review: Which Brings Me to You, Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott

I am a sucker for an epistolary novel. I will read anything epistolary, even something so patently ridiculous as Clarissa. (Yes, I’ve read Clarissa. Yes, it was really silly. I have recently learned there was a BBC adaptation of it with Sean Bean and since I have for Sean Bean feelings that teeter on the boundary between man-crush and proper real crush, I will be checking that out from the library ASAP.) When Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkeysee blog mentioned Which Brings Me to You on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (the only podcast I listen to because it is delightful), all she had to say was it was epistolary and she’d like it, and I was on that like white on rice.

But, alas, I didn’t care for it. I liked that it was epistolary, but that was the only thing I really enjoyed. It is just not my type of book.

The premise is that these two characters, John and Jane, meet at a wedding, and they nearly have sex in the coat-check room, and instead they decide to write each other confessional letters. I’m not sure why this was a logical next step, but never mind, I was willing to go with it. The rest of the book is their letters as they chronicle for each other the major romantic liaisons they’ve had in their lives, and what effect each one had on them.

Why I read the end: I wanted to see if the meeting each other in person again for the first time scene was going to make me love the book. It didn’t.

You know how in movies sometimes, when one character is making his/her passionate declaration of love for the other character, s/he will say some things that show how well s/he knows the object of affection? And it’ll be like, Oh, you beautiful and unique snowflake! You splash in puddles in your rain boots! You refuse to eat anything without dumping a gallon of hot sauce on it! You squish puzzle pieces together when they don’t fit! I love everything about you! Be with me forever! And you, the viewer, haven’t necessarily seen any of these endearingly quirky traits, because the object of affection character has spent the whole movie stressing out about whatever the premise of the movie is. It all seems to imply a lot of off-screen joking and bonding between the two central characters, and it can feel a little cheap because you know it’s the writers trying to get you to believe that the characters’ love is oh so true and their love will thrive forever, even if they’ve only known each other for two weeks.

I felt that way about John and Jane, even though neither of them has one of those speeches. There’s no fun to their relationship (which I didn’t believe in anyway). The letters they write each other are — I don’t know, I found them terribly offputting. There was that modern-novel mix of coyness and oversharing that I find unbearable to read: I’m writing to you about penises! How delightfully upfront we both are! They had had all these experiences but their characters didn’t come across with consistency or clarity, and the impact their past love affairs had had on them was either nonexistent or way too obvious. I didn’t buy that they would fall for each other based on their letters because their letters didn’t convey who they were as people. It was one damn thing after another, and none of the down-to-earth everyday relationships and interactions that make characters people. (Like that they squish puzzle pieces and need a lot of hot sauce.)

Oh, plus, John and Jane? Really, those are their names? Real life can get away with that now and then. In a book, particularly a book like this, it’s too too precious to be believed.

They read it too:

Dear Author
bookshelves of doom
Books for Breakfast

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18 thoughts on “Review: Which Brings Me to You, Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott

  1. Ok, that bit about the penises had me snorting through my nose, which is not a pretty thing to hear. I totally get why you wouldn’t like this book, and have to say that it sounds like something that I wouldn’t like much either. I need to have some credibility in the love stories I read, and it doesn’t sound as if this book has any. And I also agree that John and Jane is just a little too twee for me.

    • I am possibly a little too cynical for books that are love stories and nothing else. Or else too impatient? I don’t know, this book didn’t sound a lot like something I’d have loved, but I went with it because of the epistolary aspect. And yeah, it wasn’t something I’d love, it turns out.

  2. Very funny – and thank you for reading this so I don’t have to. On the far more pressing topic of Sean Bean, I am awaiting the BBC adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in which he stars as Mellors. One review said simply ‘Sean Bean naked. What more could you ask for?’ which is a good question. But I wonder whether any man can keep his dignity dancing in the rain wearing only a few daisy chains. We will see. I will report back.

  3. ‘Really, those are their names?’ Totally. Are their surnames Redhat and Bluehat (this is a probably odd British joke centring around the early reading series that taught me to read).

    What’s the difference between a man-crush and a real crush then? He is delicious and I would watch anything with him in it (I’ve seen National Treasure twice and he’s full clothed in that- his voice is just ooooh).

    • Really? Those are the surnames in your reading primer? I don’t know if my reading primer people had names, partly because I barely recall my reading primer at all. I must have had one but it’s lost to me.

      A man-crush is where I have a platonic crush on a dude. I have to distinguish it from a real crush, because I don’t have sexy love feelings for Bill Nighy. And I am still undecided about whether I have such feelings for Sean Bean or not.

  4. That sounds… unfortunate.

    Anyway, I’m sorry it didn’t work out. That happens sometimes, and it’s always a relief when you next read something *good* because it’s such an improvement.

    (Also, I dated a guy named Aaron once.)

    • Hahahahah, I laughed helplessly at your parenthetical finish. I used to baby-sit, no lie, for a couple called Andy and Andrea. They made me think of the Raggedy dolls but I did not say so to the parents or the kids.

      • I had a pair of yellow labs — Jake and Dylan.

        I babysat for this couple with a son named Jake, and his friend Dylan. I never mentioned that it reminded me of my dogs.

  5. Oh, this doesn’t sound like my kind of book at all, and I like epistolary novels! Which is your favorite? My all-time fave is Lady Susan :)

    • Oh, hard question! Now I’m blanking on any epistolary novels at all! I loved Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy a lot from when I was a kid. Have you read those? A little bit of eugenics ideology apart, they are wonderful.

  6. You know Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, yes?

    I had to read Clarissa for a class. My favorite part was when she was kneeling against a door, pleading with her family, and somebody opened the door from the other side and she fell through it. Which may suggest that I was less than invested in the book.

    • Oh, I do know them, and I love them with my whole heart.

      Isn’t Clarissa silly? I tried watching the BBC miniseries yesterday, and it was just too silly to finish, even with a young and heavy-lidded Sean Bean.

  7. Have you read Griffin and Sabine? There were three or four of them, and part of the fun was that you actually took the letters out of envelopes in the book, and they had drawn postmarks and all sorts of visual stuff.

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