Abandoning Fiction Ruined My Family

It’s been a long time since a book has made me actively angry while reading it, probably not since Downtown Owl. But I’m here to tell you that Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst is so poorly written I’m puzzled as to how it even got published.

What’s even more puzzling? This book is getting some pretty decent reviews and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. Do these people not notice the misplaced modifiers? The strange way sentence structure and basic grammar? The annoying habit of introducing characters without mentioning their names only to revel them four paragraphs later so that you’re all “Who the hell is Petey?”

The book is a memoir about a “wacky” family helmed by a wannabe novelist father and an alcoholic mother who uproot their four daughters from their swanky St. Louis life to live in New York where they allegedly struggle financially and, I guess, are eventually ruined. I don’t know for sure because I quit reading right about the time Jeanne goes away to college at the 100 page mark.

My complaints about this book are almost too numerous to list. First, it’s never firmly set in time. I know the family leaves St. Louis in 1976 to spend a year on Long Island so the dad can work on his novel. But after that, I have no idea when some of the events are taking place. I suspect that Darst is around my age, but there’s not a whiff of the 80s or 90s to be found or, you know, how old any of them actually are when some of the events take place much less when those events take place. This makes the reader feel groundless and floaty.

Also, Darst talks about how poor the family was because her dad lost his job and refused to get a new one and her mom never worked. She says at one point they couldn’t even give her lunch money. However, later on not only do they hire a math tutor for her, they hire an exterminator, pay for at least one year of college for two of their daughters, one of whom attends Vassar, the dad sinks thousands into a software project, and there is much talk of the elaborate meals her mother makes.

This is not poor. This is not anywhere near poor. Perhaps this is poor to the 1%. I wouldn’t know because I actually grew up in poverty, where utilities were often shut off for lack of payment, and we qualified for free school lunches. While I’m used to (if not still generally annoyed) by people being unable to recognize their own privilege (hell, I still have a hard time recognizing it myself), to categorize this kind of lifestyle as “poor” is offensive.

If you were to listen to me reading this book you would have thought I was doing a bit from Really?! with Seth & Amy from Saturday Night Live. Like, for instance, when I read this bit about how her dad would write her school papers:

. . . he usually got terrible grades at Bronxville High School, where his obscure and plentiful high literary references from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to a Voltaire pun to the thick of Faulkner — usually lost teachers.


Ugh. This was a pick by my Rock & Roll Bookclub and I cannot wait to discuss it tonight. I only paid $5 for the book and even at that price it was a total ripoff.

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  1. Suzy 05.May.12 at 4:27 am

    I love your book reviews; it saves me from making so many disasterous (and expensive_, bad choices. Obviously there are books I know I am never going to read (Fifty Shades for instance), but others seem like they will be worthwhile reads and aren’t – and then I am pissed. So thanks for biting the bullet for me.

    1. Jodi 05.May.12 at 9:27 am

      @Suzy, Thank you. I love writing about the books I read. This one was unanimously voted a dog by my entire bookclub, which doesn’t happen often. We usually have at least one person whose all “it wasn’t so bad.” Not this time.

  2. phantomxii 06.May.12 at 10:48 am

    BLEAH! The bitterness in that excerpt is amusing…bitterness, I’ll bet, that she got lousy grades herself for writing, a fact she only wishes she could attribute to so-called “high literary” knowledge. The author’s failings you describe remind me of “A Live Coal in the Sea” by Madeleine L’Engle, which is the worst novel I’ve ever read–at least, the worst novel with apparently serious aspirations. Except that this book sounds even worse.

    1. Jodi 06.May.12 at 10:50 am

      @phantomxii, Oh, I’ve never read that one. I have read plenty of stinkers. However, the more I stick to my ‘life is too short for bad books’ motto, I only half-read most stinkers.

      Though it had no serious aspirations, I always say The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks was the worst novel I ever read.

      1. phantomxii 06.May.12 at 1:53 pm

        @Jodi, that’s a good motto, and I don’t know exactly what drew me through that book to the (anticlimactic) finish. Maybe because all the sloppiness and flabbiness seemed funnier the farther I went!

  3. Charlotte Rains Dixon 08.May.12 at 8:13 pm

    I’d love to be a fly on the wall at your book club discussion. Sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant book, thanks for saving me from reading it.


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