Ever since my friend Meka (whom you may remember from such blog events as our attempt to read The Last Hour of Gann) started reviewing books more frequently, we have had occasion to have the following conversation at least twice.
Her: “I hated everything about this book. I hated the characters. The plot was dumb, and the writing style was pretty much like word vomit on a page.”
Me: “So you’re going to give it an F?”
Meka: “Oh… No. I mean, it wasn’t *that* bad. Maybe I should give it a D.”
Me: “But you hated it. Smoke is coming out of your ears as you talk about this book. It’s an F book.”
I had reason to remember this conversation when I went to write up a review for Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist. I had prepared to call it a D book, but I can literally think of nothing positive to say about the hot mess that was this novel. Congratulations, Ms. Rindell. I had to create a category for F reviews, just for you.
But before we get there, here’s the synopsis:
New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin.
Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.
But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.
But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
Sometimes when I read book club books (and it was my turn to attend the Seattle Low Vision book group that meets every other month) I’m glad I had the experience of trying something new. This month, though, I entertained fantasies of informing my boss she couldn’t make me go to another meeting and furthermore entertaining fantasies of defenestrating the next person who suggested I might enjoy a particular book club.
My personal taste doesn’t tend to run toward books set in the 1920’s. I haven’t enjoyed any of the books I’ve read set in that era. Even, say, Libba Bray’s much-lauded The Diviners which is exactly the sort of book I like, failed to work for me. Maybe there are books set in the Prohibition Era that are right up my alley, but The Other Typist certainly wasn’t one.
My problem with The Other Typist is simple: I loathe unreliable narrators. It’s not that I’m too stupid to get what the author is doing when she uses that technique. It’s simply that I can think of exactly one book where the unreliable narrator didn’t drive me batshit by the time I was done. (For the record, that book was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, which come to think of it was also set during Prohibition Times. But the narrator of Loos’s book isn’t evil and psychotic, merely shallow and self-obsessed, and Loos is laugh-out-loud funny, so that makes all the difference.)It becomes clear early on that Rose isn’t nearly as reliable as she would like you to think. Even if she had been, I loathed being in her headspace. She is a self-righteous snob with a tendency to belittle everyone else around her, particularly other women. Ugh. When Odalie comes to work for the police precinct at which Rose is a typist, Rose’s obsession with her begins immediately. It’s easy to read Rose as a queer woman, though Rose herself denies there’s anything sexual going on where Odalie is concerned, but like I said, unreliable narrator.
Odalie herself is painted as an evil slut and a sociopath, so it’s not like I have any sympathy for her, either. In fact, I felt the two of them deserved each other. The evil lesbian should totally be paired off with the sociopathic slut. I wish them joy of each other. I just wish I didn’t have to read all of Rose’s creepily obsessive thoughts about Odalie in the process.
What really cinched the book for me, though, was the ending. Fairly early on, the hammer of Foreshadowing strikes with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head, and I knew there would be a Major Twist. (TM). Indeed, there was. The problem with major twist endings is that, once revealed, the reader should be able to look back on everything she’s read and think, “Oh. Yeah. That totally puts a whole different light on this conversation.” This didn’t happen. I kept trying to go back through the text to see if I could figure out if Rindell had dropped any clues leading to the big reveal. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t, and the reveal left me aware of massive inconsistencies and plot holes. I felt manipulated by the author, and that’s not a good feeling.
So yeah. Unreliable narrators. Ambiguous endings. Awful characters. Those are not deal breakers for everyone, but they are for me. Ugh.