I was reminded that Vendela Vida’s debut novel And Now You Can Go was languishing in the 746 when Susan at A Life in Books recently reviewed Vida’s new novel We Run the Tides, which I thought sounded really interesting.
And Now You Can Go explores the emotional fall-out following a traumatic experience, but despite a very strong opening, ultimately failed to deliver for me.
Ellis is a 21-year-old Columbia University student is out walking in New York. “It was 2.15 in the afternoon of December 2,” the book begins, “when a man holding a gun approached me in Riverside Park.” The man tells her that he is going to kill her, then kill himself, as he doesn’t want to die alone. Ellis does what she can to dissuade him, eventually reciting poetry and asking him to come with her to a bookstore. His resolve wanes and he finally lets her go. It’s a striking opening and Vida’s clear, sharp prose flawlessly captures the senseless and unpredictable nature of the attack and Ellis’s reactions to it.
In the immediate aftermath, Ellis does what she is supposed to – reports the attack to the police, sees a therapist and talks to her friends, and is terrified both that this event will come to define her, and that it won’t be taken seriously enough.
“He had a gun?” The professor’s bangs look like exclamation marks.
“I didn’t hear that part of the story.”
“But that’s the only part” I say.
Her boyfriend Tom reacts poorly, ‘I wonder how long it will take you to get over this?’ he muses, so Ellis leaves him and enjoys and endures encounters with various other men, including a suicidal ex. She broods over the child that an infertile couple conceived with her donated eggs and returns home to San Francisco to brood some more over her father’s unexplained four-year disappearance and subsequent return to the family home during her teens.
In a bid to distract from what has happened, she travels to the Philippines with her mother on a volunteer mission to help the poor and eventually returns to New York to confront what has happened.
There are hints of a really interesting novel here – as Ellis tries to navigate life through a new prism of fear and distrust – but it is buried under layers of plot and snark that add nothing to the overall theme. The supposedly cathartic trip to the Philippines is oddly flat and could be left out altogether and make no difference to the novel, while the fertile topic of her father’s disappearance is left frustrating unexplored.
Vida is trying so hard to be smart all the time that it is hard to feel any kind of emotional connection to Ellis at all. There is plenty of mordant humour and her characters are all quirky, if slight, but at times she pushes the eccentricity too far. A roommate leaves post-it notes around Ellis’s apartment asking her to clean up, but the notes are written in verse. A Sylvia Plath scholar’s wife kills herself by (you guessed it) putting her head in the oven, a suitor shows his love by sticking coloured drawing pins into his face while drunk. Pens come in the shape of toothpaste tubes, vases of flowers are replaced by vases of antique pipes and my goodwill was pushed to the limit by some very lazy and painfully crass stereotypes about the Irish.
Having said all that, there are some moments of real inspiration in And Now You Can Go. Vida perfectly captures the random and often very personal reactions that victims have to a traumatic assault and can at times write with an unremitting honesty.
“I think about making a break for it, about running so fast I can’t even look down for fear of stumbling. But I imagine myself being shot in the back. Paralysed. No, I decide, rape is better”
Despite these strengths, And Now You Can Go was a frustrating reading experience, with an uneven tone and arbitrary plot. Having said that, I would read more by Vida, as her prose has an easy readability but this debut was trying a bit too hard for my liking.
I swapped The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe for And Now You Can Go so am counting this as book 18 of 20 Books of Summer.
READ ON: BOOK
nUMBER REMAINING: 408
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!