A Timeline is Not a Novel

I know for sure that I don’t hate this novel.  If anything, it made me wish I was able to interview my grandmother for a seventh grade historical genealogy assignment.  Every year, I have my students write about and research their name, like Sandra Cisneros did in one of her vignettes for A House on Mango Street.  Some teachers of the Holocaust have their students find and interview survivors or people who are related to those who suffered.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Unlike either of those projects, this was a fictional novel of an interview between a granddaughter and her grandmother.  You never hear from the granddaughter in The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, but the grandmother Addie Baum tells the timeline of her life in the interview from her beginnings in 1900 to 1985 when she is doing the interview.  Addie weaves the historical remnants of prohibition, speakeasies, women who are just being allowed to be professionals, Rockport Lodge for girls, and the artistic culture, with her life as a Jewish girl in Boston growing up between her mother’s yiddish, her sister’s bobbed hair, and her own voice.  Her story was a retelling of a life which I found fascinating because it was true to an oral history of a woman of 85 that has not lost even one marble.  She’s full of fairy wisdom, and never strays from the pain in her life which makes it seem true to a real woman’s history.

Smithsonian Magazine Photo from The Boston Globe

Where I had a problem was that this book is incredibly boring. It has very little narrative drive.  This is an 85 year old woman that has very little spunk, all of her friends claim throughout her life that she’s so smart and well-read, but her speaking language never comes off any sort of beautiful.  (I don’t think most people’s speaking language is particularly beautiful. My writing language can hold a leather glove to my speaking language.  This is my first argument against BookTube).  The Boston Girl is almost an exact timeline of a woman’s life.  The expected happens. Life happens.  The scary and turbulent happens (as shit storms come through with their dust rolls and sticking webs in most lives).  I left this book wondering what exactly the point was.  Was it to tell the history of Boston women as a gaggle from 1900-1985, or Jewish immigrant women during this time? That’s the problem with plot.

Gym full of victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak. Source: Dartmouth Medicine Magazine

It ends (for me) at Addie’s marriage which I think was a smart ending.  For the entire novel, Addie finds herself rubbing against the ideals for women during the early 1900s (particularly prohibition, the Great Depression, Spanish Influenza and not so much the World Wars).  I think when she gets married, her life as a girl “coming of age” is no longer driving the novel forward, and that is the justifiable end.  Plus, the soon-to-be-husband is easy for the reader to like, as is expected if we’re going to come to a happy ending.

Rockport Lodge featured in Designing Women

I wonder if the novel was severely lacking because I had very little emotional response.  There was almost no need to because I could predict what was coming.  I know history and so I knew someone in her family would be graved by the Spanish Influenza and as a woman she would face the beginning of woman’s fight for rights.   Maybe I didn’t feel so much for it because an 85 year old woman would not remember these details of her life so specifically, the big ones, yes, but all the little touches – I just don’t know.  Maybe I didn’t like it because the writing was so plain, there was very little beauty in the wisdom and I didn’t feel as if 85 year old Addie was talking to me, but instead she was a younger version of herself.  Throughout the novel she tracks her many key friendships; Filomena who faced a bleach abortion, and moved to Arizona to pursue her art practice, Betty, Addie’s her independent sister, Celia, her fragile sister, Rose, who she attended Rockport Lodge with and Irene, Rose’s sister.  All these women were women I, too, have shared a life with in some way or another, but that’s just what this was, a life.  A life spoken down.

Have any of you read this one? It has a pretty high 5-point score of 3.81 on Goodreads.  Maybe I’m a Debbie Downer? Send your feedback below.

22 thoughts on “A Timeline is Not a Novel

  1. Brianna Soloski says:

    People rave about the so-called great books by the so-called great authors, but sometimes I think they fall a little flat. I’ve never read anything by Diamant, and I don’t know that I ever will. Obviously, being Jewish, these sorts of novels spark an interest in me, but only if they’re done well. The concept of a granddaughter interviewing her grandmother is age-old, but doesn’t always work.

    I have to admit I like the contrast of the colored lettering against a black and white photo on the cover. And, as always, your writing is on point.

    • Cassie says:

      I think she has an interesting perspective, it was just plain. The family being Jewish is important to the story, and it isnt at the same time. You might find it more important because you have lived it, ya know?

      • Brianna Soloski says:

        True. I’m reading a book now you might enjoy: Neverhome by Laird Hunt. It’s about a woman who disguises herself as a man to go fight in a war (maybe the Civil War? I’m not sure it’s ever specifically mentioned). There’s not much action in the story, but Hunt’s writing style and use of language is gripping.

  2. Let's CUT the Crap! says:

    I read The Red Tent and loved it and have three other books by Diamant but haven’t read them. Disappointing you found this one dull. I suppose not each book by each author is riveting. I have heard of Neverhome. Now THAT sounds exciting.
    Thank you for another no-holds-barred review. I always trust yours. :-)

    • Cassie says:

      I havent read The Red Tent, but have heard only good things. I will have to give her a second try now. I feel this way about Diane Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale). I would have done anything to get my hands on her second book and it was a HUGE disappointment. I am not sure how that happens, but it does.

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I read The Red Tent after the recommendation of a woman who raved about it and bought it for both her daughters. It was a fascinating story and something of a word of mouth modern classic it seems, which no doubt is why the bar is high in terms of expectations, but also a reason why such authors can easily disappoint, because its difficult to see them through our ordinary filter of “Is this the kind of book/writing that will resonate with me”.

    • Cassie says:

      I really need to read that one. I havent read anything by her before so I was going in blind to any of those expectations which I think is good and bad. I had expectations based on the blurb for it, if she was an author that I knew and trusted, I still would have written this review, but there may have been a disclaimer about her other great books.

  4. cricketmuse says:

    I might look this one up. My mother who was a teenager during WWII in Germany finally wrote her memoir of growing up in a land she loved only to have it be ruined by a man the people came to hate, yet when she becomes a war bride her new country, the US, views her as an enemy. Even though we know the history, is it boring if it’s someone’s life? I guess it’s all in how the story is yold.

    • Cassie says:

      I love that your mother wrote her memoir. Now that sounds like a good book. If this was a true story of someone’s life, I think details would have been a bit more mapped out and less bland. There would probably also be more details of each moment in history that would steer the reader forward. Plus, voice would have been so much more clear and endearing. I probably would have found that fascinating. This was fiction though and as fiction, it was boring.

  5. Naomi says:

    I totally agree with your assessment of this book: the topic is fascinating to me (I’ve done a lot of research on the North End, settlements, the pottery, the lodge) but I could barely plough through the language. What a missed opportunity. I liked The Red Tent a lot, so expected something much better. That said, there were many details that I’ll make note of for my own work.

    • Cassie says:

      I really need to read this Red Tent novel because it sounds like a win. It sounds like you study books like I do. I cant wait to read your eventual book.

  6. Dan says:

    I very much enjoyed “The Boston Girl.” The story related the details of a woman’s life within a historical context which I found very interesting. It was a pleasure to read. I also loved Anita Diamant’s book, “The Last Days of Dogtown.” I am anxious now to get a copy of the “Red Tent.”

  7. Jan says:

    I thought your review was a little harsh. I really enjoyed this book. It’s true that it did for not have a lot of depth, but that was not the nature of this book. The story is the arc of a woman’s life as told by a grandmother to her granddaughter. Although chronological storytelling seems to be a thing of the past, it is an appropriate style for a verbal re-telling of one’s life. It would be difficult to tell a life story if you got bogged down in too many historical asides just for the sake of adding “depth.” You seemed to miss the beautiful prose that accompanies a well-written book. I also appreciate beautiful prose, but people don’t talk in beautiful prose. The voice in the book was believable. I could hear the grandmother talking. I think there is room for different voices in storytelling and different styles. Some books have become needlessly complex so that it becomes difficult to keep track of the characters and the plot. The “Boston Girl” is the simple story of a woman’s life from the early 1900s through the 1930s, with a brief touch into the “present” 1985. It’s an interesting time period and we get a tour through that period of history and some of the issues of the day, especially for women. It may have helped that I have recent read “The Orphan Train” about the children shopped to the midwest to be adopted by farm families, “My Notorious Life” about a midwife/abortionist in the 1920s, and “1918” about the flu epidemic – all topics that came up in “The Boston Girl.” “The Boston Girl” might not be fine literature but it is a pleasurable and worthwhile read.

    • Cassie says:

      Jan, I haven’t read my review back in making this comment, but I’m not sure I said that it didn’t give me pleasure. I, too, don’t appreciate books that get you bogged down but I do think there is a difference between beautiful prose and simple prose. I’m reading Their Eyes Are Watching God right now and it’s beautiful with a good chronological arc of a woman’s life and I find it breathtaking. This fiction can definitely be done well, I just found this to be quintessential “woman’s fiction,” which I don’t like as a category for the simple fact women don’t need their own fiction genre, but also because I think it’s seen as “less worthwhile” fiction in the literature world. Also, I love when people have different opinions than me on my own blog, but telling me I don’t understand the nature of a book or that I missed something wonderful in it that you saw is a bit rude for me. We are all allowed to have our own opinion, that’s the wonderful thing about blogging. This is mine, and you are welcome to yours. Thank you for sharing.

  8. JackieBP says:

    I have to say that I really like this book, but I’m listening to it on CD and Linda Lavin does such a great job reading it that I really feel like I’m listening to an 85-year old grandmother telling her granddaughter about her life. It’s riveting. Perhaps it’s just meant to be read aloud.

  9. Tristiane says:

    I just finished reading the Boston Girl. Myself born in 1959 in Germnay, trained and worked as a social worker till 1998 when I moved to the UK .
    For me the book is like window of a time and place I don’ t know much about; it feels like a portrait of woman’s life of my grandmothers, but from a Jewish immigration point of view. It also gave me an insight of the living of different migrant groups with or next to each other.
    I enjoyed the quite, almost plain writing and still I found it evocative as through the book I almost could see the protagonists!
    I wished I had asked my grandmother to tell more about her life. I still get glimpses in conversations with my mother, who is 87 years old.

    • Cassie says:

      So glad you connected with this novel. I wish I knew my grandmother longer so I felt like my guesses at her life were more accurate. That’s amazing about your mother as well.

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