One of the most difficult things to do as a book blogger is write a review of a book that you didn’t love or hate, that you had “meh” feelings about. What’s worse is when you don’t know why you had those feelings. (I’m totally not making you excited to read this post, aren’t I?) With Nick Arvin’s new novel, The Reconstructionist I am torn about my feelings for sure, but I thankfully can point to the exact reasons. Which is why I’m writing this review only a few weeks after I finish the book, while it’s fresh. Aren’t you proud?
I absolutely loved half of this book – the first quarter and the last quarter. The middle half I was pretty much just pushing myself through it, in the hopes that there would be a pay-off at the end. And there was, a great, well-crafted pay-off. The middle though. It was rough. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads.com:
At a loose end after college, Ellis Barstow drifts back to his home town and a strange profession: reconstructing fatal traffic accidents. He seems to take to the work immediately, and forms a bond with his boss and mentor, John Boggs, an intriguing character of few but telling words.
Yet Ellis is harbouring a secret. He was drawn to the reconstructionist’s grisly world by the fatal crash that killed his half-brother Christopher and that still haunts him; in fact his life has been shaped by car accidents. Boggs, in his exacting way, would argue that ‘accident’ is not the right word, that if two cars meeting at an intersection can be called an accident then anything can – where we live, what we do, even who we fall in love with.
For Ellis these things are certainly no accident. And he harbours a second, more dangerous secret, one that threatens to blow apart the men’s lives and which, as the story’s quiet momentum builds, leads to a desperate race towards confrontation, reconciliation and survival.
There is a lot of suspense built into this story, and Arvin does a great job at using the suspense of the story and giving the reader just enough to keep them going. I’m pretty sure that those little nuggets and hints are what kept me going through the very quiet middle to the end, where – as promised – all is revealed. Ellis is a complicated and well-rendered character, who is ultimately relatable and very real. His life is defined by a series of events on which he really has very little direct impact. But he is profoundly driven by them, whether he admits that to himself or not.
If you’re at all aware of the pattern of books that are…problematic… for me, you know that high on the list of issues I have is believability. Plot is usually my main motivating element as a reader, and while this had a strong undercurrent of plot complexity, a lot of it was character heavy. And character heavy in a way that, to me, was beyond my ability to take it seriously.
**SPOILER ALERT** (If you haven’t read it, skip this next paragraph.)
Most of the middle half of the book is a spiritual quest for Ellis and Boggs though it’s not clear exactly what each of them are seeking out. The moment at the lake when they meet over a dead body, I actually said out loud, “Are you serious?” The journey until that point had been a stretch for me – why these men would start visiting old crash sites wasn’t a stretch, but I had a hard time understanding Boggs’ motivation. Ellis’ were clear enough – the man was totally and completely guilt driven – but I don’t think until Boggs went off the map, there was any sign of an impending breakdown. His drive wasn’t clear to me, and therefore Ellis’ reasons for following him started to go off the rails. The dead body that neither of them seem all that surprised to see was the point at which I mentally scoffed and stopped having faith in the narrative. And then the fact that neither of them call the cops until it’s basically an afterthought? The believability factor was a distant memory in that moment for me.
I do like the way that the book ended, and though it had the potential to feel hokey, I don’t at all think it was. It felt like the right and inevitable end to the story. The plot wrapped up neatly enough that the suspense created early in the book felt justified and logical. I think that I would’ve really liked this book had the middle half been significantly shortened and/or felt like less of a hallucination. I’m not sure if that was the intention – I know that unintentional sleep-deprivation is a huge part of Ellis’ journey – but I needed more from the story to justify that tonal and narrative shift from the beginning and the end. I know as I was nearing the end of the book I had a realization that it felt a little like the author had a page count to hit, so he fattened up the middle to meet that goal. I doubt very much this is actually the case, but that’s never a good feeling to have about a novel.
In the end, the means by which each of the characters arrives to their separate fates wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t see how the journey was necessary to reach some greater level of self-actualization or greater level of understanding about each other and the past. To me, Ellis could have reached the same conclusions without the epic quest and there wasn’t much new gained by that trip. Arvin certainly wanted there to be more, I could see that in the writing, but I didn’t see that it was realized successfully.
My poor review is all well and good, but I have seen great reviews of this book from several people I trust. I would encourage you to read it, and see if you agree with me. Was I too impatient was the subtly of the narrative? Did I miss something about the characters that made it all come together for you?
As I said, having mixed feelings about a book is tough. It’s tough as a reader, and it’s tough for someone who might think about picking it up. If it counts for anything, I have no compunction about not finishing books, and there was enough good and interesting in this book to make me finish it, and finish it quickly. The writing was beautiful, and I enjoyed the actual reading of it, if I was lukewarm about the final product as a whole.