Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Last Good Paradise - Tatjana Soli

21853659This has a fairly low rating on Goodreads, considering that I pulled it from the "Popular Reads" section of the library, and for the longest time I couldn't figure out why.  It seemed like it was going to be a really good study of character.  The story starts with Anne, a lawyer who aspires to be a "shark," and her chef husband Richard, who flee the country after Richard's business partner (and Anne's former lover) Javi embezzles money from their restaurant and lands all of them in a pot of trouble.  They grab the money they have left and head for a tiny resort in the South Pacific, somewhere near Tahiti.  Anne picks the place because it's completely unplugged--no phones, no internet, nothing.  While one of Anne's lawyer friends tries to straighten things out back in the US, Anne and Richard dissolve into island life along with the island's other occupants--guests Dex Cooper (occupation: rockstar) and Wende (occupation: muse) along with the staff (owner Loren, and multifuctional staffers/lovers Titi and Cooked).
For a while, this seemed like it was going to be an exploration of character and relationships, a novel that didn't really have a strong central "plot" so much as strong central "people," and that was fine with me.  The setting was wonderful, and I thought Soli did an excellent job of building the relationships and lack thereof among the characters, orchestrating a well-wrought drama that didn't need a lot of external plot influences in order to propel it forward and keep my interest.  And then...that all changed.  It's like Soli wrote half the book, and then saw a documentary about the affects of nuclear testing on the South Pacific and was so compelled by it that she felt a need to make it an intrinsic part of her narrative.  The book suddenly winged from slowly-built drama and character to talk of terrorists and staged kidnappings.  It just doesn't seem to fit.  The characters all abruptly find a sense of a purpose in a way that is completely disconnected from how the book seemed to be going before.  And then, after a bunch of what can be considered melodrama, it goes back to the way it was before--all serene and subtle and wonderfully written.  The switch of direction was jarring, and didn't seem to be particularly well done.  It had me gaping at the page in complete disbelief, because it felt like a different book entirely.
For the most part, I liked this.  The writing was very matter-of-fact, a style that I think lends itself well to character-driven works and works written with an omniscent point of view.  But, as mentioned before, the sudden switch in narrative left me jarred out of the story and altogether discontented with it until it resumed its original tone toward the end.  I was satisfied with the ending, other than one character's end scene which tended toward the purple end of the writing spectrum.  Because of that weird middle bit (I feel like it probably should have been worked into a different book entirely, instead of smashed into this one; the premise wasn't bad, but the execution and placement really was) I can't really endorse this whole-heartedly, and I can see why it has such a low Goodreads rating.  It was bound for 4 to 4.5 stars, but as it is, I feel like I can't give it that high of a rating.  I'd probably read something else from Soli, but I feel like I'd have to scrutinize the reviews on it first, to make sure that this disconnection in the middle isn't a recurring theme.

Oh, and there's a reference to Portal.
3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.

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