fulfilling my 2019 goal to read (at least) one book each month that i bought in hardcover and put off reading long enough that it is now in paperback.
this is one of those very divisive books. some people were crowing THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE YEAR!! and some were howling WHAT IS THIS GARBAGE? i read it, fully prepared to be the booknerd arbiter, settling the matter once and for all, so imagine my surprise to find myself feeling the most shruggy of medium-feelings for this book.
i mean, it’s… fine. it’s like what if patricia highsmith wrote something kind of boring, or what if a book’s big twist was that … there was no twist?
before i read it, i thought it was going to be a story of an obsessive or co-dependent friendship between women, with a possible lesbian angle, scandalous secrets and murrrrderrrr. i thought it would be twisty feminist psychological suspense where the roles and expectations of women in the 1950’s were stripped away in the freeing anonymity of the expatriate experience, giving formerly constrained ladies the elbow room to become very naughty, indeed.
and it… was? kind of? it’s just not particularly groundbreaking. or resolved.
it starts off strong – i was intrigued with the setup – two former bennington roommates-besties separated after a mysterious incident during their final year; alice is now married, living in tangier, and never leaves her house, until lucy comes back into her life – appearing on her doorstep one day, and manages to coax her out into the bustling world once more. sort of. in this first-glance-intro, their relationship is cautiously affectionate, with an undertone of apprehension, maybe even fear. the book continues in alternating POV chapters that tease the reader with events from the past; the nature of the women’s relationship, the details of alice’s marital strife, her mental and emotional instability, lucy’s mysterious, conflicting background stories, and of course, the INCIDENT that split them asunder &yadda, and all of this is layered on top of the tumult of a tangier on the verge of independence. which, frankly, was a missed opportunity for a stronger feminist angle – the juxtaposition of shaking off the colonialist or the patriarchal shackles. alice can’t shake anything off, even lucy, and lucy never felt much shackled by the patriarchy in her life, so the whole revolution bit is just the “exotic” backdrop for the drama of white people on vacation instead of a thematic parallel. (yes, the unrest simmering into a boil parallels the same dramatic energy in the story of lucy and alice, but – meh.)
again, it’s fine, as long as you don’t go in with expectations. there’s no twist, no thelma and louise lady-triumph, and there’s a lot of really cryptic plot points. there’s a difference between leaving some mysteries unsolved for the reader to chew on and just introducing threads that go nowhere. one is intellectually stimulating, the other is frustrating. we’re left with half-understood events – never really knowing the origin of alice’s fragility or enough of lucy’s background, we don’t know what the extent of their relationship was apart from a few insinuations, whether it was consummated, whether it was even reciprocated, what was alice’s husband’s job, who was the man with the scar, what was lucy’s deal in college? was that love or menace?
there’s a half-noir feel to this story, which could account for some of the ambiguity being a stylistic choice, and if it were limited to psychological ambiguity, i could give it a pass – no one really knows another’s motives (like why lucy “walked on by” on THAT NIGHT), but you can’t just introduce a character who shows up on the doorstep making unsettling threats and then drop him. or, you can, obviously, because she did, but it comes across more sloppy and unresolved than intriguing. i mean, really – IS HE GHOST? IS HE HALLUCINATION? WHY HE MENACE LADY?
apart from that, the split-voice narrative between lucy and alice is not well-differentiated, the resolution relies too heavily on convenience/coincidence/preternatural foresight, and there are just too many unanswered questions overall.
honestly, if i hadn’t just read The Kind Worth Killing, which also featured an antiheroine and similar elements of revenge, murder, and obsession, handled a million times more effectively, i wouldn’t have been this meh about Tangerine.
it’s fine. it’s competent. it’s just not particularly shiny.
ALSO – it was selected as a BN discover book, which goes to show how standards have FALLEN since i stopped being a reader on that panel. i have made this observation in my head for a few other recent inclusions and i am making it for the record now.
feel free to hire me for any book-related needs, world.