Yeah, the title here is sort of ridiculous, especially because mean means (sorry!) so many different things. Luckily the way I'm using it—as a synonym for nasty—makes it easier, because it helps me to think through how to talk about books. So: mean is the opposite of nice (right?), as nasty is also the opposite of nice.
And they're both pretty much the wrong directions to go in when talking about books. Perhaps that's because—and I'm trying to figure this out even as I'm writing about it, when probably I should have figured all of this out many years ago—a review should try to be about the reader, both future and present, while being either mean or nice seem more about the writer. Who maybe is best left out of the conversation?
I fear I'm not thinking quite hard enough about this, but I just read a gleeful piece about how hatchet jobs are back, and I thought…that's not what I am looking for right now, either to create or consume. So instead I am going to tell you about a book that I thought was so, so wonderful, and I'll do my best to be neither nice nor mean but only honest.
I was rifling through the "newly published" section of the library, and I saw it, and fell for the blurbs (I know you're not supposed to do that), like so:
“Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is gripping and strange in the best possible way: the perfect marriage of risky literary fiction and full-on thriller.” —Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette
The first page filled me with doubt, but from then on—oh, what a wonderful thing it is to be pulled into a story so thoroughly you're always marking time until you can get back to it. Smart, present, immediate, wry, angry, thoughtful, and beautiful. I finished it quickly, then requested every other book she'd written from the library. Each has something to recommend it, but this was my favorite. It felt the most grown-up to me, somehow.
One tricky thing about genre marrying literary fiction is how these books end. And I think this one doesn't fully sidestep that fate. To my mind, one of the greatest things about the best literary work is a powerful ending, something that brings together all the pieces and more besides into a resonating chord (I fear I'm stealing this metaphor from John Gardner). But a thriller that means to be a thriller has the added weight of needing to tie together ends in a different way, which makes it harder to end well. It's all more expected, I guess. (Though I never mind when everyone gets married at the end of a Jane Austen novel so why is it an issue for me here? I don't know.) At any rate, the ending didn't sweep through me with quite the same power as the rest of it did, but that could be different for you.
But it's a terrific book—such a wonderful surprise, and it's given me more hope on all subsequent visits to both library and bookstore. (And if you happen to be in a fiction workshop, all the more reason to seek it out, for reasons that will become clear.)