Americana, biographical quest genre, cosy fiction, empathy, genealogical fiction, Jonathan Franzen, popular fiction, suicide
Researching a dissertation, I’ve ended up reading some things I wouldn’t normally read. That can be a good thing, although my experience reading some popular fiction has been an unhappy one so far. At the moment, I’m pursuing the idea of ‘genealogical fiction’, and came across the Torie O’Shea series, about a genealogist, written by Rett Macpherson. Several of the blurbs on the back cover proclaim the series as a masterpiece of the ‘cosy’; another says ‘a slice of Americana as warm and comforting as apple pie a la mode’, with the Americana bit being true and the second half being true for a particular type of reader in America’s mid-west, I’m sure.
The one I’m reading is Thicker Than Water, and it’s actually better than another ‘cosy’ novel about a biographer I tried to read. I had found Torie O’Shea annoying but not objectionable. Every twenty pages she proclaims her need for ‘caffeine and sugar’ (in that order), and downs a Dr Pepper. I think this is her ‘quirk’ – it creates character, presumably. One of the blurbs claims there is a ‘characteristic blend of wit and sarcasm’, but for me it’s about as witty as listening to middle-class, middle-aged people banter in a supermarket, and laugh exaggeratedly.
I could forgive this – humour is a taste, and I bet fans of Torie O’Shea don’t find Jonathan Franzen funny – even and especially though he writes in the same milieu. What horrified me was a scene late in the book where Torie O’Shea decides to visit an acquaintance, Leigh, in hospital who has failed in a suicide attempt.
First, Torie and her husband
made a few jokes about my mother winning a year’s supply of bagels. In fact, I think Rudy and I sort of overdid it on the bagel jokes, and suddenly there was an awkward silence. That very thing I wanted to avoid. (177)
At this point, I was glad Torie wasn’t visiting me in hospital regaling me with her banter. But Leigh misjudges her audience and asks them if she will go to hell if she commits suicide. This already makes them uneasy, and the final straw comes when Leigh adds ‘I just don’t see the point [of life].’ To this, Torie narrates:
Time was up. I couldn’t do this one second longer. We said good-bye and wished her well…. Finally Rudy said, “Why did we come to visit her, again?”
“That was God-awful, Torie. Absolutely horrible.”
“With my position in town, and especially with our new inheritance – not to mention we’re her landlords – it’s sort of expected of us.”
“Are you serious?”
“It comes with the territory, Rudy. Get used to it.” (177-178)
End of section. There are no authorial hints that Torie and her husband have failed terribly in the empathy stakes, no censure from another character, nothing to make me conclude anything other than the fact that readers are meant to share Torie’s frustration with this ‘unstable’ woman and congratulate her on at least making an effort and telling a few bagel jokes.
I have a few chapters to go. Perhaps the priest character who was conveniently waiting in the confessional several chapters ago will reappear and tell Torie how nasty she is. But I’m not counting on it. ‘Cosy’ is only cosy for those on the inside of the American dream.