DJ wanted me to read Big Stone Gap. He had just finished it, but it’s more my type of story than his. He was interested in my opinion. Well, mostly, he wanted validation that it really is a terrible book and he wasn’t just reacting as a Man Reading Women’s Literature.
I read it. I validated him.
Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani was written in 2000, which is longer ago than I think it is. I tried to keep in mind that it’s basically a late-90s story. DJ and I both read the Mitford series in the late 90s and we liked it then; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it now. I extended as much charity as I could, but I ran out by about page 7.
The protagonist is Ave Maria (because her mom was Italian, see), who has grown up in the little Virginia mining town of Big Stone Gap. There’s not much of a plot, except that Ave finds out that the father she grew up with was really her stepfather; her real father is Italian and doesn’t know she exists. Mostly the story is Ave Maria’s self-discovery, set against A Year in the Life of Big Stone Gap, 1978. I really like these stories if they’re well done. This one doesn’t qualify.
The main problem is that this book suffers from Lisa Byrd Syndrome. You don’t know what that is, but I bet you’ll recognize it when I explain. When I was a young mom, I occasionally had playdates with Lisa Byrd, who had children the same age as mine. I hated these playdates. Lisa loved a captive audience, and she would talk and talk about whatever interested her. Which, by the way, wasn’t anything very interesting. If I spoke, she’d be quiet long enough for me to stop; then she’d get back to talking. I honestly was relieved for years afterward that we no longer moved in the same circles. So imagine my delight when I was at an event recently, and who sat next to me but Lisa Byrd! It had been ten years since we’d really talked, but that was no problem. She droned for an hour before I managed to escape.
Reading this book was like sitting next to Lisa Byrd for the entire story.
The narrator, Ave Maria, does not shut up, ever. She tells you about herself, about her childhood, about the people in her town, about what’s happening in front of her. “I asked an intelligent question about the mine explosion,” she says, but doesn’t let you actually hear the question. She’s too busy telling you things.
Or another fun feature is that one detail will distract her from the main point, and we have to sit through two paragraphs of sidetracked discussion. But there’s no real organization involved in what she mentions when, and certainly no pause to decide what’s really of interest and what’s just filler. It’s honestly like a playdate with Lisa all over again.
As if that weren’t bad enough (which it was) (by the way, the author loves parenthetical remarks, as she believes they heighten the sassiness), the story is sloppy.
One of DJ’s complaints was that Ave Maria spends too much time questioning her own reactions. He’s right. After nearly every line of dialogue or reaction, the author scatters a string of rhetorical questions. “Why was I talking to him like this?” or “Why did I even say that?” or “Did I really just reach out and touch his tie?” Lisa Byrd likes to do that, and she doesn’t stop to hear any answers either.
Plus, Ave Maria suffers from a serious personality disorder. I don’t think Trigiani meant to write her this way. I think she’s supposed to be a plucky heroine who wins the hearts of all with her good heart and sparkle. But the story is so carelessly written that the author constantly has to adjust for inconsistencies. You want examples? Why, I happen to have a good mess of ’em right here!
On page 9, Ave Maria says, I think most folks in Big Stone Gap know their secrets are safe with me.
On page 14, though, we are told, … I stop myself. I am telling this man confidential things. I never tell confidential things!
On page 51, she announces in the pharmacy that an unpleasant character’s birth control pills are ready for pickup, knowing that the town’s “three biggest gossips” will overhear.
On page 54, she’s surprised to find out that the town is talking about her. I never spread stories, so I figure none are spread about me.
On 117, Love Interest #1 proposes to her….
Hang on, pulling an Ave Maria here… a word about LI#1. He’s supposed to come across as quiet, strong, and polite. He’s mostly just awkward and creepy. He strikes me as the kind of man who would get a woman alone, and then want her to lick his toes and make cat noises.
… He opens by saying he broke an engagement because he had feelings for somebody else. Her reaction:
“Dear God!” I shriek. I’m a judgmental shrew, but usually I keep it under wraps.
But the thing is, she doesn’t judge anyone else for this kind of thing. Not the town sexpot who takes up with the man who has sick wife at home. Not her friend who “did the right thing” and married the girl he got pregnant, but is seeing his old flame on the side. Not her lawyer who ALSO “did the right thing” and is now unhappy with a fat wife. (Trigiani is clearly of a certain opinion about certain decisions.)
Moving on. Love Interest #2 is her best friend. Really, for nine years they’ve spent all their spare time together. They know everything about each other! Then they share a kiss which each thinks the other initiated. Ave Maria is pretty stirred up by the whole thing, and point-blank tells him, “I want to have sex with you.” LI#2 calmly eats his pasta and explains that they can’t have sex because it will ruin their friendship. “Also, my boyfriend in the next town over won’t like it.” He doesn’t actually say that part. But how else is one to interpret a man who turns down a willing woman without even a little makeout session on the couch?
Oh. Maybe he’s a robot. That would explain a lot.
(For the record, after this little misunderstanding, they’re even better friends. Within a couple of weeks, they can joke about how Ave Maria wanted to have sex with him, and they laugh and laugh until they cry.)
Another annoying thing is that almost everyone has a cute name. Characters are named Fleeta, Portly, Iva Lou, Jack Mac, Spec, Otto, Worley, and “Apple Butter Nan” (because hers is the BEST apple butter. I mean, I totally refer to my friend as “Pottery Deige” because she makes the BEST bowls and mugs).
It just doesn’t sound like this author really lived in a small town. Heck, I’m not even sure she’s ever met real people. It’s a cartoon version of life, featuring all the elements that women of a certain age in 1999 loved. Why can’t I just put the book down? What is it about me that’s compelled to read terrible books? Am I the only one like this? See how I’m making fun of the book? Can you believe she can go a whole paragraph with nothing but rhetorical questions like this? Doesn’t it kind of feel like she just transcribed her story notes and called it a novel?
Yes, Lisa. Yes it does.
Gallery of Infamy
Some of my favorite terriblenesses from this book.
It’s written in present tense. I know, I know, that’s a thing now. It’s still annoying.
The author decided early on that Ave Maria is enamored with a book on Chinese face-reading, which claims to be able to tell a person’s character according to physical features. For the first fifty pages, she describes everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) according to these face-reading principles. By page 80, she’s completely forgotten about it and it never resurfaces again.
The author writes, The crowd woos. She meant The crowd SWOONS.
LI#1 is so polite that he reflexively calls Ave Maria “ma’am,” even though they’re the same age, both grew up in this town, and he’s in love with her. Real Southerners do not make that mistake more than once; it’s actually embarrassing to call your peer “ma’am” or “sir” by accident. The guy is creepy.
I mean, really. Here’s a quote about him: He smiles and moves closer, and I must say, everything this guy says sounds like a come-on. There’s something in that slow delivery and gluttonous pauses that makes you feel buck naked. I pull my cardigan closed and button it. This is supposed to be ratcheting up the chemistry between them. I’m more hoping she decides to sleep over with a friend that night.
At one point, someone’s eyes “fill with mist.” She must be another robot. With glass eyes. In the Southern humidity.
The author didn’t want to fool with a Christmas celebration. I sympathize. I hate having to account for holidays in my stories. Also, Ave Maria has to undergo some serious changes of heart before she can settle down with the Chosen Love Interest. So, Trigiani’s solution? A nervous breakdown, during which she sleeps, coma-like, for a week including over Christmas! And wakes up with a new perspective on life! Man. Surprising that more authors don’t think of this.
There are no black people in this book. A couple of people refer to a dark-skinned community, kind of a mix of various ethnicities, but they live “way up in a holler” and don’t associate with the valley very much. One shopkeeper is of Lebanese descent, although he grew up in town. Everyone else is white.
Remember the character who got birth control pills? She ends up pregnant later in the book. But don’t worry, the author takes care of it by saying, “And she was on birth control pills, too! Oh well…” Also, didn’t birth control pills have pretty significant side effects in the 70s? Heck, they did in the 2000s when my newly-married friends were using them! But the girl on these pills doesn’t have any problem with weight gain or acne. So really, all the evidence points to this girl not taking the Pill, but maybe selling them to friends at a jacked-up price.
The book ends with a wedding, a month-long tour of Italy, pregnancy, and a baby in the space of about sixteen pages. It’s like the author needed to hurry up and cram in that perfect married-with-baby Women’s Fiction ending.