Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a book is to be nice. Nice is boring. Nice is forgettable. Nice is something you continue reading in hopes that it will get un-nice, it will either turn vile or ascend to greater heights.
Nice is a drag.
I can remember with exacting detail why I loathed American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The reasons for abhorring Downtown Owl or The Wedding fall easily from my lips. The same can be said for the books that I love. Do you really want to hear me go on again about my love for A Prayer for Owen Meany? Because I will.
Sadly, Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is neither loathsome or lovely. It is okay. It is a readable series of linked short stories about Beatrice Hempel a junior high English teacher and some things that happen in her life. The things that happen in her life are pretty big. Her father dies, she calls off her engagement, but most of this happens offstage and we only learn about it in passing in a story about something else. Instead we get stories about helping her younger sister write an essay, a teacher returning from sabbatical, and a weird one about visiting a historical re-enactment site. Kind of boring. However, the writing is good. If there had been any plot whatsoever, this would have been a beautiful beautiful book.
I was always taught that fiction, specifically short fiction, thrives on tension. That it’s the conflict that moves the story forward, compels the reader to keep reading. That’s what’s missing here. There is no conflict, there is no tension, and there is no reason to keep turning those pages. I think the only thing that kept me from quitting was that by the time I got through the requisite 75-100 pages I give most books, I was halfway through it.
This one felt like a big bowl of missed opportunities. We learn at one point that Ms. Hempel was a teenage punk rocker. I was curious how she went from that to mild-mannered English teacher. What happened on that journey? And did she give up all her punk rock ways? And that fiance. . . what happened there? And why wasn’t she upset about it?
What’s sad is that I think I learned the most about the house she grew up in more than any character in the book. The house is described in intricate and wonderful detail about rooms and knick-knacks and bedrooms at the top of the house filled with sunlight filtered through trees. It was wonderful. However, and this gets at the main problem of the book, I could not tell you where that house was located. For most of the book I thought it was taking place in some nameless sunny, warm California town, but later there’s talk of snow and cold.
So I guess that’s why I muddled through this one. There were some really beautiful, specific details but they were about all the wrong things.