Friday, May 6, 2011

Book review: 'The Art of Forgetting'

It should be said that I don't read a lot of chic lit. In fact, I harbor a pretty deep resentment against that bookstore aisle of hot-pink paperbacks, slathered in cursive font and silhouettes of little black dresses. Is this the only way to market books to women? The Lifetime Channel does the same thing with its "Television for Women" slogan. Translation: melodramatic, over-acted, lower production value, not-good-enough-for-a-theater-playing-We-Like-To-Drive-Our-Cars-Fast-27 movies whose content turns on stereotypes and some interpretation of a horrific news story that could discourage a woman from ever leaving her house again. "Television for Women" is to regular TV as chic lit is to regular novels. That is: they make it exclusively for women, so, like the quality of our clothes and the chance of us rising as high in our careers as our male colleagues, it's probably not very good.

So when Damn Arbor received its first advance copy of a debut book by a local author--"The Art of Forgetting" by Camille Noe Pagán, on bookshelves June 9--I was put off by the light pink spine and the dejected-looking ballerina stretching on the cover. However, while it was drawn in some of the broad strokes characteristic of the genre--the blandly supportive and mature boyfriend, the exciting and inexplicably irresistible one that got away, the "close" female friendship that more nearly resembled the United States' relationship with Pakistan--I think there is more going on in "The Art of Forgetting" than in most stories about a women's magazine editor who is constantly preoccupied with her weight.

Plus, part of it is set in Ann Arbor.

"The Art of Forgetting" is, at its heart, a coming of age story. The fact that its protagonist is a thirty-something woman with a successful career and a committed relationship is unusual but ultimately irrelevant: in this novel, Marissa Rogers becomes an adult. The twist is that she does so almost as a coping mechanism to deal with her best friend Julia's memory loss. As Julia, who has been Marissa's best friend since high school, descends back into childhood as a result of her brain injury and disappears from Marissa's adult life, Marissa can forget the immature expectations of her youth: she finds a more fulfilling job, reaches out to her friends from work, can finally let go of her first love. In Pagán's novel, growing up is in some sense about forgetting who you were as a child so that you can be open to becoming something better as an adult.

In the end, though, Marissa's revelations are underwhelming. Running is better for you than fad dieting. Your boring, stable, caring boyfriend is better than the guy you dated in college who lives in a different state and whom you haven't seen in ten years. Healthy friendships with your coworkers are better than the self-destructive codependence you share with your controlling "best" friend. I had a hard time understanding her motives: sometimes I felt like Pete in that "30 Rock" episode where Liz tries to film a promo for her new talk show: "Wave like a human being." What are you doing, Marissa? Act like a human being. Her challenges seem deeper and more complex than she lets on, and her solutions seem too simple, with everything gift-wrapped in a big closure-bow at the end.

But did I mention part of it is set in Ann Arbor?

Check out her launch party at the Washtenaw Ave. Barnes and Noble on June 9 at 7 PM.

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