Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Suprise Packages

Recently I've been reading the novel "Surprise Packages." It is the last one in the "Company of Good Women" trilogy, by LDS authors Nancy Anderson, Lael Littke and Carroll Morris. Although it's the last in the series, it's the first of their work I have read, and that has been a bit of a struggle for me. Although I'm well over half way done with the book I've never yet determined a specific plot. It sort of unfolds like life, with event following event, some of them quite dramatic, but none of it seeming to necessarily be leading me to any specific destination. There are some deliciously interesting scenes. But I don't seem to grasp the big picture. My greatest frustration has been there seem to be too many peripheral characters being mentioned all throughout each section that never get fully developed. There are passing references to things that have happened which are never entirely explained, which feels abbreviated or rushed to me.

Then it dawned on me: perhaps these seemingly undeveloped characters are people who played more prominent roles in the earlier books in the series. I suspect they keep cropping up in the shadows to give the trilogy some cohesiveness as a set rather than each being a stand alone? I'm not sure. I feel like I'm at a real disadvantage for not having read the earlier works, and that makes me petulant.
It's like walking into a conversation midstream and feeling out of the loop.

To try to get some insight, I went to check out the blog the writers share: Crusty Old Broads.
Like the three characters in the book, these three women each live in different parts of the country, each with her own unique background and challenges.
As I read more about them they all seemed like women I would genuinely like to know.

I am intrigued by the idea of how these ladies each write their own stories and then weave them together into a single tale. It reminded me a bit of the way Jean Auel alternated between Ayla and Jondalar in Valley of the Horses. But then, I got impatient with that one too...reading the chapters out of order to give me longer segments with each character.

This book (and I suspect the whole series) is definitely aimed at the LDS women niche market, with all the references throughout to things unique to that culture. I've read some books about a particular subculture that seemed to invite others in to experience a taste of this other way of living/thinking/being...I did not get that sense from this book. Instead, it seemed like an insider's view of things for those who already understood what to expect. On the one hand, there are bits and pieces that as an LDS woman I can TOTALLY relate to. (Yes, during the summer my church building is so cold from air conditioning in one part of the building that the ladies do keep a stack of crocheted afghans to wrap around their shoulders during RS.) But on the other hand, I was concerned that non LDS people would be put off by the steady references to things like patriarchal blessings and temple covenants that set it apart from a wider audience. I could think of a couple different women friends I'd like to pass the book on to next, but wasn't sure they would care for it for that reason, even if they might really enjoy the characters and the main story.

Still trying to figure the book out I read some interviews the authors had done to promote it. For me, the key piece came with this:

What were the biggest challenges you faced as co-authors?
1. Merging files and making corrections. On the first book, Lael was the manuscript master. For the last two, Carroll took on that job.
2. Literary liposuction. The story of each character—told completely—would have filled its own book. So cutting the text without gutting the story was a challenge.
3. Writing the third book of the series. We knew where we were going in the first two books, but none of us had written ahead in book three. We had only general ideas about where it would go.
4. Making the series add up to something. We wanted our readers to finish the series feeling that they’d been changed by the time spent with Deenie, Juneau and Erin. We hope they will periodically read the series over, like visiting old friends.

Maybe that's the key. Maybe I'm not meant to "get it" all the first time through. Perhaps when I have more time I'll go back and read the earlier two books in the series: Almost Sisters and Three Tickets to Peoria. Perhaps then I'll get a better feel for who these three women (the main characters) are. That much I can do. However, the real disappointment is that I won't get to meet the ladies creating them. THOSE are the ones I'm really curious about.


Tristi Pinkston said...

Oh, I wish my church building got that cold! I would much rather huddle in an afghan than to sit there with sweat running down my forehead. :)

Thanks for the review, Belle!

Carroll said...

Thanks for hosting us on our virtual book tour, Belladonna!

We'd like to meet you, too. If you live near Provo, you could stop by the BYU bookstore during Education Week--we'll be signing on Thursday the 21st from 1:30-3:30.

I appreciate your frustration at starting with the last book of our series. But keep reading! The characters do learn something about becoming Crusty Old Broads, which has been their goal all along.

Jen said...

Thank you for your honesty. I'm working on my review and felt much the same as you did. I also have not read the earlier books in the series.

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