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Cannonball Read #51: The World Below

05/31/2010

I’ll tell you what the world below is – it’s a mess, an uneven mess. The World Below by Sue Miller had enough promise to keep me reading till the end, but it was inconsistent and lacking.

Many novels switch between past and present from chapter to chapter. The World Below does this in its stories of Georgia Rice in the 1920’s and her granddaughter Catherine Hubbard in present day. But the transitions in this novel were abrupt and often didn’t make sense.

Catherine has just been divorced for the second time and moves into Georgia’s old house in New England. She hopes that she’ll find some answers to her life and why her path hasn’t been successful.  Georgia’s story is about having tuberculosis and going to a sanatorium after her mother’s death. Catherine finds her grandmother’s diaries and reads about her life,  but the sections about Georgia’s life are so detailed that it’s impossible for Catherine to know that much.  Parallel stories in general are no problem  – detail Catherine’s struggles with her divorce in one section, and tell us about Georgia’s life in others. But The World Below doesn’t separate the stories enough, it’s too sloppy.

At one point, Catherine learns something about her grandparents through the diaries, and the novel transitions back to Georgia’s time to give the details. Ok, I can go with that idea, but there’s one problem: Catherine keeps butting in. The section of the chapter begins with Catherine telling us that  “… she took my grandfather’s car and drove to Bangor.”  Ok, this character is telling us what happened to her grandmother,  except it continues with such details as this:

There was a fire going in the big cast-iron stove in the waiting room. She [Georgia] sat close to it, trying to warm her wet feet, her hard, stiff fingers. The windows had completely steamed over but for the trails of moisture running like tears down the panes, silviering a clear streak here and there.

A beautiful image, but how does Catherine know all of that when the diary entries are so brief and factual? We’ve seen some of the entries, and Catherine even mentions that they are so short as to let some of her grandmother’s major life events slip by almost unnoticed.

There were portions of beautiful writing in this novel, and the premise was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end without being incredibly annoyed. (Again, looking at you: Four Corners of the Sky) But ultimately the illogical transitions left a bad taste in my mouth. I wouldn’t waste your time with this one, there are better books out there.

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