Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Henry's Sisters

Henry's Sisters
by Cathy Lamb

Sweet merciful Jesus, it's rare that I read a book that not only sucks but also unleashes the full force of my ire and disgust. Alas, Cathy Lamb has written such a book. A book so mind-numbingly bad that I came within a camel's hair of putting it down (something I have not done with a book in almost five years). A book so poorly written that I actually read several reader reviews before I sat down to write this, thinking that I could commiserate with other readers about a book that just might be the worse thing I have ever read (and I've read Twilight).

Imagine my shock and horror when I discovered that Henry's Sisters seems to garner favorable reviews around the net. Goodreads, Amazon and Visual Bookshelf readers all seem to like it well enough, which made me check my medicine cabinet to see whether someone has been slipping me crazy pills again. Rest assured, they have not.

The atrocities committed by Cathy Lamb are so extensive that I have spent the last 300 pages (of a 400 page book) mentally cataloging them. I should have written them down because I fear I have forgotten so many that I will not be able to express my loathing in as much detail as I would like, but I will try. I figure the best way to organize this is with a simple list, beginning with:

1. One dimensional characters.

Christ Almighty, this pissed me off by the end of chapter four. Cathy Lamb writes characters like George Lucas creates a planet. Like Lucas' one-climate planets, each character in this book is characterized solely by his/her one defining quirk. Isabelle is a slut. Cecilia is fat. Janie is obsessive compulsive. Momma is cruel. It's as if these (cartoon) characters exist only through their one (and only, mind you) idiosyncrasy. None of these characters ever do anything beyond the bounds of this one, single attribute. By the end of the book when I should have been crying, I could only imagine cardboard cutouts of these characters being moved around on a cheap soap opera stage.

2. Constant reminders of one dimensional characters.

Cathy Lamb does not think much of her readers. I know that writing teachers will always tell a burgeoning writer to "assume your reader knows nothing." But there are limits to this. Lamb reminds me of Isabelle's sluttiness, Cecilia's eating and Janie's compulsions on EVERY PAGE OF THE BOOK! Holy hell, woman, I got it! Mentally disabled Henry is the only sane person in the Bommarito family. I can handle that. No need to hammer it into me every seventh sentence!

3. Characterization of men

This has bothered me in other books, but none more than this one. Aside from Henry (and he's mentally disabled, remember?) all the male characters in this book either rape, abandon their family, cheat, lie, mass murder, say impossibly insensitive things, act like a raging idiot or (just to mix it up) a combination. I'm not anti-feminist or anything, but c'mon! Some of the men in this book were about as intelligent as Curly from the Three Stooges. Great if you are writing absurd comedy. Absurd if you are trying to write great drama. When the only male character written with any compassion is mentally disabled (in case you forgot), perhaps you are trying to send a subtle message?

4. The dialogue is impossibly bad

Seriously. Lamb tried to write witty arguments between these sisters but it invariably sounded like the sorts of arguments that six year-olds have over who's father can beat up everyone else's. Case in point:

"Your momma's got good tits," he told us, smirking, when Momma was out of earshot.
"And you have a small dick," I told him. "Flaccid. Weak."
"And a fat ass," Janie added. "Like blubber cannons. I'd like to chop them off with a hatchet."
"Are you related to a pig? Your nose, it's amazing," Cecilia said. "Piglike. Snort for me, would you, you ugly pig?"

Who talks like that?

5. Mentally disabled people and Vietnamese people speak the same.

Guess who is mentally disabled and who is Vietnamese...

A) "I no take a second. I no want a shot."
B) "I no understand. Your face... Ah Isabelle."

6. The litany of tragedy

I wonder whether this may be Cathy Lamb's last book. I say that because she seems to have tried to squeeze as much tragedy into 400 pages as is humanly possible. Rape, murder, Vietnam flashbacks, cancer, death, abortion, family dysfunction, homelessness, cruelty toward the disabled, messy divorce, serial rape/murder, psychological disorders, abandonment, prostitution etc... etc.... etc.... I know this book is supposed to be about the triumph of the human spirit and the importance of family but jeez, Louise, save an issue or two for your next book, would ya?

7. Telegraphing the reveals

I can visualize Cathy Lamb sitting at her computer (or typewriter or whatever) thinking to herself: "Oh man, when my readers find out the truth behind this deeply imbedded plot tidbit, won't they be surprised. What she fails to understand is that her well-placed clues are dead giveaways for what is coming, which really takes away from the enjoyment of the book when you know exactly what's coming in a couple of dozen pages. The white haired man in the street was really their long-lost father? Imagine!

8. Blatantly obvious statements

Such as: Pancreatic cancer are two words you never want to hear.

You don't say....

9. Thinly veiled devotionalism

This is what really galled me. About halfway through the book I realized that I was reading Christian literature. I knew there was something askew, much like when you realize that the sort-of-good-but-kinda-odd rock you were listening to was actually Christian Rock. This is a novel akin to The Shack, a book I read and detested last year. Which, come to think of it, would explain all the positive reviews this book seems to get online. This is the sort of book that is read by a very specific slice of the reading public. People who are shocked by graphic language and sexuality. Readers who identify with one-issue people because they are one-issue people themselves: Christians.

Anyway, There are a host of other, lesser reasons that this book sucked, I feel like I've wasted enough time and words on this disaster of a novel. I wouldn't recommend this book to my worst enemy. Don't bother.


chrissyhsn said...

My experience with Cathy Lamb was so similar, I literally also started breaking the things I hated about the book into subheadings.

And the one I read? She decided to really challenge herself by including major themes of both childhood sexual abuse, and the holocaust. Because she TOTALLY has the chops to handle that kind of material.

chrissyhsn said...

Oh, and it also suffered from that whole 'litany of tragedies' issue: childhood sexual abuse, orphanhood (via 1 death a sea, 1 brain tumour), THE HOLOCAUST, Alzheimer's (and heart disease that cannot be care for someone with Alzheimer's). Oh, and apparently everyone involved in porn is actually underaged and coerced.

Virginia Llorca said...

I just received an epiphany. I am not good at bad characters. Thank you.

I am glad you read this book so I don't have to.

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