Arm Candy, by Jill Kargman
I’ve written before about character and how important I think it is in a narrative.
On some level, the reader needs to identify with the protagonist, maybe see a little bit of him or herself in that character’s circumstances or mode of thinking. In more quotidian terms, the characters needs to be likable. I mean, we’re not going to love every character, but there must be some level of sympathy.
So. I’m on the hunt for books that I think are like the book I eventually want to write (am working on? whatever). I went to the library with this express mission and picked five books at random from contemporary female authors. I wanted some beach reads, some literary fiction, some middle-of-the-road.
Arm Candy was the beach-read selection.
There were several things I liked about this book–I liked the random newspaper entries that give the reader a birds-eye view of how the bourgeoisie view Eden Clyde, the main character’s, world; I liked that it was fluffy and took no time to read; I liked the cover design. I also liked the fresh language and the modern references, all of which I got and understood. I liked the tonality of the thing, once I’d decided that I should read this as low-level satire.
Here’s what I didn’t like: Eden. I didn’t like the main character at ALL. I couldn’t find anything about her I could identify with: I’m not strikingly beautiful; my vertebrae will never be called “bony,” I don’t know any New York bluebloods, and I don’t go to massive art galas or opening shows all that often. Worse, I didn’t really understand her mode of thinking: she dumps man after man after man, seemingly in search of…what? We don’t know. Worse, Eden doesn’t know, and therein lies the problem.
The book opens on Eden in high school, and we’re given a very short glimpse of her life at home. It’s short enough that we’re cued to just forget about her childhood in Shickshinny (population 3,000-something), but Eden’s many bad choices throughout the narrative prompt us to look for clues in her growing up. It’s a terrible disconnect, because there aren’t many clues at all in that skinny first chapter.
And there’s another thing–I didn’t find the book all that believable. Maybe it’s just me, but I was all too familiar with the restaurants, fashion choices, hangouts of the characters in this book–and I don’t think that’s supposed to happen. I mean, I’m definitely of the hoi polloi, so should I know about these things?
Okay. So maybe the saving grace of this book is its supporting characters. Maybe Allison, Eden’s best friend, who follows her to New York, will give me something to cheer for. Not so. Weirdly, Allison changes personality in the middle of the book, going from sensible friend to shrieking cougar-like sort, cackling, drinking too much, and, in general, just…ugh.
Still, I could have just plowed through the book and enjoyed it on a cursory level. But the whole experience tipped over into annoying with missteps–too often, the book, which is told from Eden’s point of view, skipped into other people’s points of view. So say Eden’s on the phone with Allison. We’re in Eden’s apartment, hanging out with her, watching her twist the phone cord around her fingers, and then, pow! Suddenly, we’re watching Allison do something on the other end of the line.
It was like being on an astral plane and then being jerked into someone else’s body. Talk about being taken out of story.
So what happens in the story? Really, do you need me to tell you it’s going to be a happy ending, especially for a girl like Eden, who seems predisposed to get whatever she wants in life?
Here’s the thing, okay? In a book, we want someone to cheer for. This person doesn’t have to be an underdog, but she might have a rough situation. She might have struggles that everyone else has. I could really be sucked into a narrative with a character like Eden, if, say, she suddenly realizes that she’s good for nothing but a pretty face. Or that she’s in need of a greater mission, a la Angelina Jolie.
The bottom line is, we want to see our characters grow. Eden doesn’t grow. She pursues her goal with the same dogged MO she’s been using all her life. And you know what? It pays off. So. Satisfying? For Eden, yes. But not for this reader.