Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Riverhead Books, 2002
It's not often I read a 500-plus page novel and manage to finish it over the course of a weekend, but Fingersmith is just the sort of book that enables that to happen. I picked it up late Friday night and suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and I'd turned the last page. Then I ran upstairs and grabbed my dvd of the BBC adaptation, because I wasn't quite ready to call it a day with this story.
And what a story it is! I really can't go into much detail because this is such a twisty novel that to tell would be to spoil. It's so twisty, in fact, that I got to the first major surprise and did a huge gasp nearly making me choke on the almonds I was eating at the time. I remember at the time thinking "that's f***ing brilliant!" but as it turns out, there were more twists to come. The plot is about as nefarious as it gets and quite frankly, while it's not my favorite Waters novel (that's a tie between Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger), it had this way of lifting me from where I was back into Victorian England and to shut out the rest of the modern world while taking me there. Okay - that's majorly cliché, but well, it is what it is.
Dustjacket material: Fingersmith begins in the locksmith's shop at Lant Street, "in the Borough, near to the Thames." It's a poor part of London populated by thieves. As Sue Trinder says, "We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street," and Lant Street has been her entire world since she was a baby. She had been raised there by a Mrs. Sucksby who was a "baby farmer," and Mrs. Sucksby was the only mother she'd ever known. She is totally devoted to Mrs. Sucksby -- as Sue notes, "She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that ain't?" Sue is seventeen when one day a visitor, Dick Rivers aka "Gentleman" arrives at Lant Street with a proposition that will involve Sue in a big way. It seems that Rivers has made the acquaintance of young and naive Maud Lilly who lives in the country with her uncle, for whom Rivers is doing a bit of a work on the uncle's collection of books. Rivers has learned that Maud stands to inherit a huge fortune when she marries. The plan is for Sue to go to Maud as her personal maid, gain Maud's trust, and to help convince Maud to marry Rivers. He will then get rid of Maud by stashing her safely into an insane asylum, and once Rivers has control of Maud's fortune, Sue gets a big chunk of the cash for her troubles. Sue, who's never been away from Mrs. Sucksby, isn't sure, but since the money will be a good way for her to repay Mrs. S's kindness, she decides she'll do it.
That's absolutely all I'll say about the plot because the joy of this novel is in the many twists and turns this story takes once Sue arrives at the Lilly home to help set Rivers' plan in motion. It is an absolutely, beyond-delightful novel that as I said earlier, totally engulfed me from the beginning. Yes, there is a ton of detail here, some of which could have been left out or pared down and yes, some of the material verges on Victorian-novel cliché, but in this case, I was too deeply wrapped up in the story itself to care, reflecting back on these issues only afterwards. It's a page-turning novel done in Victorian style (Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Dickens all came to mind immediately), and while the plot is so twisted, it's really the people here that are the main focus. And oh my gosh - Sarah Waters can write people so very well. She can also channel Dickens very nicely in her descriptions of London streets and slums, making it no wonder to me at all that Fingersmith was nominated for the Booker Prize in its day -- seriously, I would have voted for it had I been a judge that year.
Lovely book -- my advice: forget anything critical, go into it just for the story, have fun with it, and stay away from any spoilers. Readers like myself who are very much into older works will love it for the atmosphere; readers like myself who love Sarah Waters' novels will definitely want to read it for her ability to lift you out of where you are while reading it. It took me long enough, but I'm so happy I finally decided to take it off my shelves and read it!
Saturday, July 23, 2016
Peepal Tree Press, 2010
originally published 1951
"Berkelhoost teems with passionate, residual spirits."
Having recently discovered Mittelholzer's work (in My Bones and My Flute), I couldn't wait to revisit him again. Luckily, Peepal Tree Press has published a few of his books, including this one. The blurb for Shadows Move Among Them says that while reading this book it is "impossible" not to make comparisons to "the fate of the People's Temple commune at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978." I can sort of see it -- you have in this novel the establishment of a "utopian" community of Berkelhoost where people are free to express themselves in many different ways, but it's a place where the emphasis on "discipline" comes before everything else. It's a good book with a story that takes time to develop but once you're in, you're hooked.
Set on the banks of the Berbice River back when this country was still known as British Guiana, the leader of this community, Reverend Harmston, has developed a philosophy centering on taking life with "a pinch of salt," without having to "nail ourselves down to any set philosophy or flat conventions." Newcomer Gregory Hawke, the nephew of Mrs. Harmston, has come to Berkelhoost seeking a rest -- he's burned out by the war, he may or may not have killed his wife, and he's looking to heal his nerves and seek peace in nature. When he gets there, Harmston's precocious daughter Olivia realizes that the real Gregory hasn't yet appeared, that it's "only his shadow" that is with them. As Gregory becomes more familiar with the family and the way of life at Berkelhoost, he finds himself having to take stock of the meaning of "civilization" (the world he's just left) and "barbarism" as he's confronted with an entirely new set of values here, constructed in such a way as to be a sort of antidote to the problems of the outside world. There's much more of course -- sex, nature, religion, and of course, Guyanese history all have major roles in this novel.
There's a lot of subtle humor in this novel, as well as a growing awareness that even in this utopian oasis, all may not be as bright as it seems. Berkelhoost is a not only a place of phantoms and shadows, but it is also a place where contradictions abound. I found it to be an incredibly thought-provoking novel once I started noticing said contradictions and to me this was the big payoff here.
Shadows Move Among Them may not be everyone's cup of tea, but so far, I haven't been disappointed with either of the Mittelholzer novels I've read and there are more winging their way to my house as we speak. I appreciate Peepal Tree Press taking the time to publish his work; there are still some books that haven't yet been brought back into print, but I'm hoping the Peepal folks will consider doing so. His books are definitely worth reading.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
And Other Stories: Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera
I'm beyond impressed with these two short books: Signs Preceding the End of the World runs to 114 pages, while The Transmigration of Bodies comes in at 101, but don't let their brevity fool you -- they are amazing. If I was someone thinking about becoming a writer, I'd read everything Yuri Herrera has written, scan his library shelves for his literary influences, and learn everything I possibly could from this man -- to me, his work is just plain genius. Both novels are beautifully written despite their sparse prose style, which actually makes his work all the more powerful. A huge part of what makes his writing so appealing is that he does not have to elaborate in any way to get his messages across to the reader; his unique use of language here conveys all it needs to. They're both absolutely brilliant and highly original; it's like the author takes elements of different genres to create something that transcends genre. Both novels sink the reader into atmosphere from the first paragraph, and both stories work through characters whose lives land them smack in the middle of other people's lives and in certain situations that arise within the spaces they occupy. In Signs Preceding the End of the World,
And Other Stories, 2015
originally published as Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, 2009
translated by Lisa Dillman
we view a nearly mythical journey taken by Makina, who works as her small town's switchboard operator, and who is asked by her mother to deliver a message to her brother necessitating a journey across the border. In The Transmigration of Bodies, a man known as The Redeemer
And Other Stories, 2016
originally published as La Transmigración de los cuerpos, 2013
translated by Lisa Dillman
acts a go-between to ensure the safe exchange of the bodies of two young people to return them to their families. He has gathered a reputation as someone who fixes people's situations, someone whose handling of matters allowed his clients to have "kept their hands clean of certain matters" earning him their gratitude and respect in return.
Signs begins with the literal exposure of the underworld, as a sinkhole opens and swallows a man, a car and a dog in a town that is "riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver dust." As Makina watches, we watch her moving ever so slowly away from the edge of the hole. Her journey to find her brother is covered in nine chapters, bringing to my mind Virgil guiding Dante through the nine circles. As she moves from point to point we are brought into a story of immigration and its uncertainties, crime and violence, borders, and more, all so nicely done in such a short space. This book doesn't need to be any longer to get its messages across; the same is true with The Transmigration of Bodies. Once again, in this book the opening is significant -- the inhabitants of an unnamed town find themselves in the middle of a plague, a perfect opening for a book that examines the ongoing violence, crime and death in Mexico. The focus on the "bodies" of the title is also interesting, but in the interest of time I'll leave it for others to see how. There is so much more to glean from these little books, but above all, they are books that highlight an amazing writer's art.
There are all manner of reviews and synopses online for both books so I'd look at those for deep insight. I'd like to mention the translator, Lisa Dillman here: I was trying to find information on Yuri Herrera and came across an article from Lithub.com that offers some incredible insight not only into her process, but into Herrera's own stunning use of language as well.
And Other Stories has done it again, and I can't wait to read Herrera's third book in this trilogy when it's translated. Highly, highly recommended.
Monday, July 4, 2016
Dodo Press, 2008
[originally published 1893]
(read earlier; still playing catch-up with posting)
A few nights back my friend and I were having a conversation about what we've been reading lately, so I brought out this book to share. Her first reaction: "there were feminists in Cedar Rapids back then?"
Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant actually published this novel under the pseudonym of "Two Women From the West." The first publication of this book was by Arena Publishing Company, an outfit that published "books on political and economic reform," as well as a number of Utopian novels, a genre that was quite popular at the time. Arena also published speculative and science fiction by authors who have long since faded into obscurity. The owner and editor of Arena, Benjamin O. Flower, liked Jones & Merchant's book, which saw two editions before going out of print.
As Carol Kolmerten in the introduction to the 1991 edition of this novel (Syracuse University) states, Unveiling a Parallel is
"one of over two hundred utopian novels published from 1888 through 1918 that envisions a better world -- the largest single body of utopian writing in history." (xxiv)Perhaps that time frame can be pushed back a bit. After a bit of research, I thought that the earliest example of feminist utopian novels in the U.S. came from Mary E. Bradley Lane in 1881, with her Mizora (which I just bought), but there was one that came along even earlier (1870) -- Man's Rights, or How Would You Like It, by Annie Denton Cridge. Moving forward, perhaps one of the most famous books in this genre of writing is Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published later in 1915. The point is that feminist utopian novels were quite popular through the turn of the century, although the utopian novel in general was largely the provenance of authors, who according to Kolmerten, were "unknown middle-aged, male ... Protestant, middle class, and white." For further reading on the topic, a good place to start is The Utopian Novel in America, by Jean Pfaelzer; now on to Unveiling a Parallel.
To keep things short and sweet, the male narrator of this story climbs in his "aeroplane" and takes a nice trip to Mars. He first arrives in Thursia, which surprisingly is very much the same as the 19th-century America our traveler has just left. He quickly learns the language of his host, so as to better communicate with the woman he's fallen for, Elodia, his host's sister. Elodia is a highly-successful banker and businesswoman, as well as a natural leader in her own social set. The narrator is smitten, until sometime later, when certain other things about this woman are revealed, at which point he loses his interest because she's not the woman he thought she was, nor, he realizes, would she be willing to become so for any man. In fact, Thursia itself holds a number of surprises for this man, including but not limited to, women vaping a potentially-lethal mix of valerian and alcohol, and a place called "Cupid's Gardens," where powerful women like Elodia go to meet lovers or pick up prostitutes for their sexual pleasure. It seems that there is just too much for him to overlook in terms of the women of Thursia. The narrator moves on to Caskia, where he finds a more enlightened, more utopian society, one where people are able to enjoy some measure of leisure thanks to technology. This is a place where everyone works for together the greater good, one where the notion of universal love is a true reality, where material possessions are of no value, and where our narrator meets and falls for a woman as unlike Elodia as possible.
|original 1893 cover; from Wikipedia|
There is a huge amount of great satire to be found here, most especially in the dialogue between the narrator and the Martian people with whom he speaks. As he asks a ton of questions about the women there, what ends up happening is that we actually get a great contrast between more enlightened ideas about Martian women and the attitudes toward women back home. This book seems to reflect more than anything Jones' and Merchant's ideas about who women are and who they could be if equality could be attained. Sadly, while the narrator in this book can begrudgingly admit to some positives in terms of how women are perceived and treated on Mars, he never fully comes around, noting that his own views are just "too thoroughly ingrained" in his nature.
I won't really say more about this novel, except that while it is fun to read, it can also become polemical in nature, and sometimes a definite chore to get through. There are also a number of contradictions spread throughout the story. But it is also informative and I have to credit the authors with being so futuristic in their thinking. Writing this book in a time where literature pretty much stressed the patriarchal was also gutsy and something different. I'd say that anyone at all interested in American pre-20th century feminist writers will definitely want to pick up a copy of this novel for his/her library. For me -- while it was a bit tough to get through at times, it is a great find and a wonderful addition to my slowly-growing collection of works by lesser-known American women writers.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Modern Library Classics, 2003
originally published 1899
With only a few exceptions, I've been very lucky in my reading choices this year, and I count myself beyond fortunate to have discovered this book, Imperium in Imperio, which was published in 1899. The author, Sutton E. Griggs, was the pastor at a Baptist church, but he was also very active in promoting and working toward a goal of racial equality. In 1914, he began to organize a number of different groups including the National Welfare League and the National Religious and Civic Institute for the Baptists of Houston. The man had no fear -- evidently, in 1927, he spoke out publicly in Houston advocating that "the black race should enjoy the same rights and privileges as other American citizens." Griggs also was a part of the Niagara Movement established by W.E.B. DuBois in 1905, a civil rights organization which preceded the NAACP and one whose success was hindered by people like Booker T. Washington, who refused to support it or to give it air time in the Black media of the day. Becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of change, Griggs took to writing to espouse his cause and Imperium in Imperio is his first novel. Four more would follow, but it was this first effort that eventually led to Griggs' reputation as a Black nationalist. And considering when this book was published, it has so much relevance to our modern world that it's time to bring this author out of obscurity and into the light.
While I won't go heavily into plot here, the story follows two men who grew up in the same small Virginia town. Both were highly intelligent as children, even though they came from two different worlds: Bernard is the privileged son of a lighter-skinned black woman, while Belton comes from an impoverished background where his mom supports her children by doing laundry for white people. Belton's mother saw great things in her son, and she was wise enough to realize that a good education would be vital to his future. Eventually Bernard, whose father has secretly provided every advantage, goes off to Harvard. Belton, whose college career was funded by a local newspaper editor, makes his way to Nashville to Stowe University, a black school supported by white philanthropists in the North. Upon graduating, both settle into their respective careers: Bernard to Virginia and politics where he hopes to make inroads into taming white bigotry, and Belton to Richmond to teach "in one of the colored schools" there. Sadly, his time there was cut short; he moves on to another short-lived job as a stamping clerk in the post office. When that job is taken from him, he is stuck:
"The white people would not employ him..., and the colored people did not have any enterprises in which they could employ him."As the author notes,
"If a man of education among the colored people did such manual labor, he was looked upon as an eternal disgrace to the race. He was looked upon as throwing his education away and lowering its value in the eyes of the children who were to come after him."It wasn't just Belton, though -- as more African-American men were graduating from college, they slowly came to realize that "there was no employment for them." While this situation produced an "army of malcontents and insurrection breeders," Belton decides not to join them, opting instead to take a recently-opened position as president of an African-American college in Louisiana. However, he discovers what lies in store for black people who refuse to submit to a certain racist vigilante group there and undergoes a horrific experience that lands him in jail. It takes Bernard's political pull to get him out, but Belton has had enough. What follows in this novel continues this story, as the back cover notes, leading to the moment when the two meet up again and are
"driven to join a radical movement dedicated to the creation of an all-black nation in Texas."That's about as much as I'm willing to say about his novel. While it's possible to read this just for story, its brilliance is that it works under the surface on so many levels, providing much food for thought, as well as a large number of topics prompting me to further research for reading.
|Sutton E. Griggs, from Blackpast.org|
While as one might imagine, a certain amount of melodrama comes into this story (I mean, come on -- it did have to sell and people love a good melodrama), it is such a great novel that it really deserves to be more widely read by anyone interested in American literature, in African-American literature, or in Black history. I think this is most certainly a milestone work, but while different, it's certainly not the first black political novel or the first novel advocating black nationalism as a number of people claim. There is an earlier, probably even more overlooked book called Blake, or the Huts of America written by Martin R. Delany in 1861/1862 that should also be appreciated for its author's understanding of "the realization of the intensity and persistence of white racism," and for the actions taken by the characters in that novel. I just never know which book I open is hiding that unknown, obscure hidden gem -- along with Blake, I've found it in Imperium in Imperio. It is important, it is powerful, and it is beyond relevant in our own time.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Harper Collins, 2015
Go Set a Watchman is my book group's last read until September, or it would probably still be sitting on my shelf unread. I was one of those "oh my god an undiscovered novel by Harper Lee" people who got it the day it came out. It's my practice not to read actual reviews of a book before I read the book, but it was really tough to not get that this book caused no end of controversy upon its publication. I mean, when people are taking their books back and stores are actually offering refunds, I take notice. I also took notice when I started hearing people complain that the Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird wouldn't espouse the same sort of racist, paternalistic and frankly horrific views that he does in Go Set a Watchman. Then, of course, there's the big scandal over provenance ... but quite frankly, I wasn't really that curious about these things enough to want to make me pull the book off my shelves and actually read it right away. Other books came along, and life, and well frankly I sort of forgot the book was there until I was scanning shelves to put together a book-group reading list for 2016.
After reading it, it occurred to me that the same people who were so upset over the change in Atticus Finch between To Kill A Mockingbird and this novel are facing the same issue that Jean Louise (aka Scout) faces toward her father here. As so well stated by Jean Louise's Uncle Jack, there are icons being broken in this story, which is one thing I think many of the readers just couldn't handle, hence the returns of this book and the many, many people who said they wouldn't be reading this because they couldn't bear for their hero to turn out to be different than he was in To Kill A Mockingbird. It's sort of ironic in a way that the very disillusionment facing Jean Louise transfers over to some of the reading public as well. I have to admit that while I was reading I didn't think about the whole Atticus Finch controversy and all of the other issues associated with this book, because I didn't want to be influenced. So when I say that I wasn't in love with this book, I can honestly say that it has absolutely nothing to do with any of that, and I'm not going to talk about any of that here. My issue with this novel is that it is, for the most part, a big mess of a book. I have to side with the people who argue that rather than this book appearing as a sequel, this is instead a draft, an unfinished work, and I have to full-on disagree with the dust-jacket blurb that calls this book a novel of "... effortless precision."
Don't get me wrong -- I do think there are some really good moments in this book where Harper Lee's brilliance as an author shines through. For example, one thing done very well here is how she sets up Jean Louise's dilemma -- here's a girl who has strong ties to the south and to her family, yet finds herself at odds with both in terms of how she views the issue of racial equality. That is definitely a very tough situation to be in, and we feel it. While her anxiety is a bit overdone (okay, overwrought) at times, it does come through loud and clear.
My unhappiness with this book really is in how it's written. Aside from some not-credible dialogue and characters that feel sort of half finished, my biggest issue here seems to be a major tendency of the author to meander, to go off point and to interrupt the momentum at critical junctures. It is really all over the map, giving this novel a sort of disjointed feel, making me wish the story would please get back on track in several spots. For example, it takes until page 101, where Jean Louise discovers a racist pamphlet called The Black Plague near her father's chair, for us to get into the heart of this novel. This discovery is followed by Jean Louise secretly following her father and Hank to the courthouse, where, from her place in the balcony she hears the main speaker who as it happens, is a racist who travels all over to spread his gospel of hate. Worse for her though is the fact that she sees "Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men..." sitting there, seemingly taking in what this "man who spewed filth from his mouth..." is saying, and comes to the conclusion that Atticus and the people she's known all her life have "failed her." So now we're at the heart of this story but then what happens? Pretty much right away, from page 125 straight through page 140 we go back in time to Jean Louise's childhood to sixth grade where where Scout gets kissed by a boy, gets her period, thinks she's pregnant, and Calpurnia sets her straight. Momentum lost. When we finally get back from this interlude, Jean Louise visits her Uncle Jack and we're in for a long series of pages where Uncle Jack babbles on, giving Jean Louise "some kind of elaborate runaround," trying to explain things while not really saying much at all. But wait, there's more: while Jack leaves Jean Louise wondering what the heck just happened there, another flashback appears, another nineteen full pages of memories about the time Jean Louise lost her falsies at a school dance.
Perhaps the flashbacks were used to illustrate Uncle Jack's idea that
"...it's always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are."or maybe they speak to Jean Louise's ties to place, family and friends, but at the same time they pop up at exactly the wrong times in the narrative, sort of negating any momentum gained from a previous scene. At one point both Jean Louise asks "What's this got to do with the price of eggs in China?," which could easily sum up my feelings about including the long flashbacks.
If I consider the brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, it's definitely difficult to justify how a novel filled with this many flaws is the polished, finished work of the same author, which is why I don't really believe it's a sequel at all, although it was presented to readers as such. I have to agree with this article which states
"Lee handed in the manuscript of Watchman in 1957; her editor, Tay Hohoff, described it as ”more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” guiding a wholesale revision of the novel into Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. It’s not clear that Lee, now 89 and ailing, ever intended to publish Watchman as a separate book."I also agree with the author of this article from The New Republic:
"For once, none of those flaws in the novel can be blamed on the author: She was learning how to write when she composed Watchman, and wasn’t able to ready this draft for publication. In the two and a half years it took her to turn this mess into To Kill a Mockingbird, she evolved beautifully as a stylist and storyteller, helped along by an astute editor. "
I'm just an ordinary Joe kind of reader person, not skilled at all in literary stuff, but I do know that skilled, artful writing in most cases should take precedence over plot. Here I didn't really find that to be the case.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Random House, 2016
"Was it strange that people loved these creatures that could harm them?"
Let's just get this out of the way -- anyone expecting a redo of the Charlie Manson family story won't find it here, although there are certainly a number of striking parallels. No, at its heart, this book is much more a teenage girl's coming of age story as well as an examination of just how easy it can be for disaffected, immature, and vulnerable adolescent girls to become victims of others who offer them what they're lacking, and who are then ready and willing to take advantage of them, usually at great cost.
Now in middle age, Evie Boyd lives a secluded life taking live-in aide jobs when they come up. As the novel opens, she is in between jobs and staying at a friend's Northern California vacation home where the nearby beach is unpopular, rarely seeing anyone. One night, though, she hears what she thinks are intruders in the house, and ready for her fate, decides she'll wait it out in her room. That is the plan, until she hears "the girl." As it turns out, the people in the house are the owner's son Julian and a very young girl named Sasha; it doesn't take Evie long to realize that theirs is a relationship very much dominated by Julian. As she notes,
"Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like 'sunset' and 'Paris.' Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus."What she feels for Sasha is sorrow, but more importantly, she sees in her something of herself as a young teen.The story that follows is revealed retrospectively by middle-aged Evie, looking back on her own fourteenth year in the summer of 1969. It begins with something extraordinary happening in Evie's life, the day she first sees a group of girls making their way through a park to take food out of a dumpster. She's entranced by how they
"were dear to one another, the girls, that they'd passed into a familial contract -- that they were sure of what they were together."That was Evie's first sight of Suzanne, and Evie is immediately captivated. At home, Evie's parents are divorced, her mom is working to find herself, taking up all manner of therapies, classes, styles, and men. Dad has a new, younger wife; Evie and her best friend are on the outs and Evie is left alone to try to make sense of herself and her dull, sheltered middle-class existence. She wants more than anything to be accepted, to belong, and the fact that she understands Suzanne as " a part of a we" is something Evie envies. It isn't long until Evie is taken to "the ranch" where the girls live. There she is welcomed warmly by the leader of this group, Russell Hadrick, who sadly, Evie fails to recognize as the predator he really is, taken in by his charisma, his chord-striking teachings, and especially his personal attention to her. And while there are some things that give Evie pause, she is too into her newly-found freedom, her happiness at belonging, and her love for/devotion to Suzanne to recognize them as warning signs to be heeded.
Considering that I normally cannot stand coming-of-age, adolescent-centered stories, I have to give the author a lot of credit here. I was caught up in this book, but quite honestly I think it is because of a) the bold move the author makes with the Manson-like cult setting where Evie first gets to spread her wings and, b) even more importantly, because of the author's incredible writing talent. I was blown away knowing that this was her first novel. I marked and mulled over a huge number of passages that were, for lack of a better word, simply dazzling. But to me, if you remove the cult setting, you are really in very familiar territory here -- the teenage girl who feels alone, isolated and who senses she's being constantly being judged by and measured against others, the mom who is too busy with her own life to pay attention, the ineffective dad with his younger wife, the desire to overcome limits and taste a measure of true freedom when given the chance, etc. -- and actually, that's the thing that kept me from enjoying this book as much as I might have otherwise. On the other hand, this just may be THE big summer blockbuster once word gets out, and it's already getting great reader reviews everywhere you turn. I liked it, didn't love it. I also wouldn't be surprised if there's a movie.
Okay, now that that's out of the way, for anyone wanting a genuine review rather than just my own casual-reader reaction, here is a link to the New Yorker's review by James Wood, who I want to be someday when I grow up and learn to properly read and write.