Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

6 Apr

I should probably start by saying that I adore the publisher of Jonathan Evison’s newest novel West of Here. Algonquin rarely publishes a book I don’t love, so it was with a special kind of glee that I sought out a pre-pub galley of West of Here at last year’s Book Expo America. I spend a lot of time in the Algonquin booth, and I got my galley signed, after hearing the publisher rave about the book in a Buzz panel. There was a lot of hype around this book at BEA ’10 and lots of people were trying to snag a copy so I was thrilled that I got one to take home.

Published mid-February, I read this around that time, but I’d put off reviewing it because I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. The marketing campaign was fantastic, and the summary on the website for West of Here is great, so I’ll start there:

Set in the fictional town of Port Bonita, on Washington State’s rugged Pacific coast, West of Here is propelled by a story that both re-creates and celebrates the American experience—it is storytelling on the grandest scale. With one segment of the narrative focused on the town’s founders circa 1890, and another showing the lives of their descendants in 2006, the novel develops as a kind of conversation between two epochs, one rushing blindly toward the future and the other struggling to undo the damage of the past.

An exposition on the effects of time, on how something said or done in one generation keeps echoing through all the years that follow, and how mistakes keep happening, and people keep on trying to be strong and brave and, most important, just and right, West of Here harks back to the work of such masters of Americana as Bret Harte, Edna Ferber, and Larry McMurtry, writers whose fiction turned history into myth and myth into a nation’s shared experience. It is a bold novel by a writer destined to become a major force in American literature.

I love grand, sweeping novels (see my review of Gone With the Wind), and I love multiple characters and complicated time lines where I can draw conclusions about major things like time and how things change and never change and consequences and all of that. I wanted to see all those things in West of Here – but I just didn’t. That’s why it’s taken me a month and a half to review. I really thought I was missing something, that I didn’t read closely enough. Because lots of other bloggers were reading this and talking about how powerful and expansive it was. Expansive, sure. But powerful? Not so much.

Specifically, the book jumps back and forth between the late 19th century and roughly present day, and there are multiple characters from the town’s founding that “show up” in hints and peeks through the names of businesses and streets during the modern day setting. But if there was supposed to be an implied impact of those ancestors on the modern town, I couldn’t see it. It was like, “oh cute, the bar is named after the saloon prostitute from 1890,” but other than glimpses of history, I didn’t see much of an impact from the founders to the present day.

Which was incredibly disappointing because, from the blurbs on the book, to the buzz I’ve seen from other bloggers and reviews – that was the point. To make connections from the past to the present. Instead of seeing threads weaved throughout and actions vs. consequences, I saw a lot of loose ends and not much synthesis.

I liked the historical portion of the novel much better. But I guess if the point of the book was a commentary about how decisions in the past affect people generations into the future, those “decisions” needed to be a little more obvious. As it was, I got to the end of the book and had a “That’s it?” moment. I wanted there to be a much bigger point. Instead this felt like two different novels stuck together in a disjointed, confusing way.

Evison’s writing is beautiful and on a micro level this was a good read, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that I kept saying, what’s the point? Very disappointed in the end.

Have you read this? What did you think?

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7 Responses to “Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison”

  1. Greg Zimmerman April 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    Very nice review. Totally get what you mean about being disappointed about the lack of connection between the past and present narratives. There really should be something more tangible than a bar name, etc. That said, I’m still going to read this eventually – even though some bloggers from the northwest have hated it too. One I read pointed out that the prose or dialogue in the past sections is totally anachronistic, to the point of silliness. You get that at all?

    Here’s a more positive review I liked: http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2011/04/west-of-here.html

    • Rachel April 6, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

      I’m not entirely sure how that’s a more positive review. I mean, her review reads more like a 2.5, 3 out of 5 instead of the 4 she gave it. The characters were stilted and anachronistic, now that I think about it. I was grasping for the larger message, but the dialogue did feel forced in the past sections. I really think that some people will love this book, primarily people that don’t need much plot or resolution, and love good characters; I’m just not one of them.

  2. Kerry April 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    I actually had a copy from BEA last year but I think it got lost (or donated?) when I moved last summer. Disappointing to hear there’s not real resolution, as the premise sounded interesting.

  3. S. Krishna April 7, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    I completely agree with your review. I also felt like there were way too many characters and I had trouble keeping them straight, so I didn’t really care what happens to them.

    • Rachel April 7, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      Thanks for your take. I kept felt like I was missing something because so many people raved about it. I have moments of caring about individual characters, but then the story would veer off in some other, completely different direction and my caring would disappear.

  4. Holly April 9, 2011 at 4:14 am #

    Just finished reading it and your review has come closest to matching my own feelings upon closing the book for the last time. I kept waiting for something meaningful, some “a-ha”, just one of the characters to do something purposeful or memorable instead of just continuing their flat lives. Honestly, the character I was most interested in was Krig’s ancestor. He seemed to have the most untapped potential. But nothing came of him and his great…grandson doesn’t go far to inspire confidence or hope in future generations. If Gertie fled town, why is there a bar named after her. The only one who cared about her was Eva. And when Eva left town, I had a definite “what’s the point” moment, which carried through most of the rest of the book.

  5. kathleen c glackin April 11, 2011 at 5:40 am #

    I also read and reviewed this novel and am right with you and your assessment. I also greatly anticipated reading this one. I love historical fiction but this just didn’t do it for me. I think with a stronger story line this could have been a really good book. I did enjoy the writing so I would look forward to this author’s next book to see if it isn’t better. Thanks for your review.
    My link – http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2011/04/west-of-here.html

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