When I review a book, I read it with a pen in my hand so I can jot down little symbols in the margins as I go. One of the symbols I use--and I try to use it sparingly--is supposed to represent a little person who's rolling his eyes as if to say, "Jeez, Lou-ise." The record for the most rolled eyes I've ever doodled in the margin of any book is currently held by A.M. Homes' This Book Will Save Your Life (Viking; 372 pages).
Which isn't to say it's the worst book I've ever reviewed. Not at all. It's carefully, maybe even elegantly constructed, and it trots along at a highly readable pace (good people at Viking, I would prefer it if you didn't quote that last sentence in an ad). One reader I respect, Stephen King, has even compared it to Catch-22 and The Catcher in the Rye. It's just that This Book Will Save Your Life is more densely packed with earnest twaddle, starting with the title, than any other book I've ever seen.
This Book is about a middle-aged man named Richard Novak who, having made a bundle and retired early, and having split from his wife and son, is now living in a state of isolation and emotional shutdown in a fancy house in Los Angeles. One day Richard suffers an intense, mysterious pain and is rushed to a hospital. The doctors find nothing, but he's sufficiently shaken to conduct a review of his life and how he's living it: "He couldn't cover everything up anymore, he needed to feel everything as it was."
From here on out almost everybody Richard meets is a Quirky Character whose purpose in life seems to be to jolly him out of his numbness. On his way home from the hospital, he stops at a doughnut shop run by a quirky immigrant named Anhil who sends up the foibles of Americans in broken English. ("America has two kinds of politicians--one has sex, the other has war--which do you like?") They become fast friends. When a sinkhole opens up near Richard's house, a quirky surveyor comes to survey it. A quirky neighbor girl's horse falls into it. A quirky, Brad Pitt-- like movie star who lives next door rescues the horse. And so on. When Richard moves to a new house (because of the sinkhole), the man next door just happens to be a reclusive, fantastically famous writer--quirky as all get-out--who shows Richard the importance of visiting the elderly.
The entire world conspires, in a shameless orgy of serendipity, to ease Richard back into some semblance of engagement with it. This is probably supposed to convey the idea that Richard is reaping the rewards of his brand-new attitude--if you're open to new experiences, they'll come to you--but it plays as one cloying Candyland coincidence after another. When he sees a woman crying in a supermarket--Richard only ever meets cute--he sits her down, listens to her problems, engages in witty repartee with her and thus rehydrates his dried-out emotional palette. Never mind that the main reason people respond to Richard seems to be that he has unlimited amounts of time and money. I'm sure the world appears to be populated with entertaining, emotionally revivifying people when you can spontaneously send a stranger you met in the produce section away for a spa weekend that would make Caligula's knees weak. And I don't have an estranged son, but if I did and could impulse buy him a VW Beetle (black, convertible, with bud vase) the way Richard does for his son Ben, I doubt we'd be estranged for long.