Saturday, July 4, 2015

As Good As Dead, by Elizabeth Evans

As this novel opens, English professor Charlotte is surprised by a visit from her one-time friend and roommate when the two were students in the Iowa Writers Workshop, Esme. Both have lived in Tucson for years, and Esme never responded when Charlotte sent her a postcard announcing that she and her husband Will were coming to the University of Arizona to teach. Charlotte is a successful novelist, but her personality is such that she still obsesses over her betrayal of Esme and Will back in Iowa City. When Esme appears on her doorstep, Charlotte cannot help but agree to have dinner with Esme and her creepy husband Jeremy, also a one-time Iowa student.

The visit and disastrous dinner (Esme has ulterior motives) cause Charlotte to relive the semester at Iowa during which she and Esme shared an apartment and Esme dominated her life. Ultimately, she must tell Will the secret she has hidden for 20 years.

From this book and others I've read set at Iowa, the famous Writers Workshop seems to be a toxic place. For an insecure person like Charlotte, who is from a small town in Iowa and a family that is skeptical of writing as a career (in contrast, Esme is from a wealthy family in Evanston and attended an Ivy), the Workshop serves to reinforce all her self-doubt. Esme is patently a hideous bitch--as just one example, when the Atlantic accepts one of Charlotte's stories, Esme and Jeremy tell her it was probably a prank call--who does that? Only someone with Charlotte's self-esteem issues could fail to see Esme's manipulations and cruelties--and, as a result, find herself striking back in a way that goes against her own principles. By the end of the book, she has made some progress in pulling herself into a long-delayed adulthood, but for me it came too late.

One review I read mentioned that the reader was cheering for Charlotte throughout the novel. I wasn't so much cheering for her as wishing I could smack her. Although As Good As Dead is well-written, I found the characters so irritating that I wouldn't recommend the book.

Favorite passage:
Unfortunately, I did not understand that viewing yourself as a victim could make you, poor little you, liable to do damage to others; that victimhood itself was often sustained by self-inflicted wounds.

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