Don't ever make the mistake of thinking you can anticipate and control your reading experience. Books will always get the last word. So to speak.
Elizabeth and After
by Matt Cohen (#19)
For starters, you should know that I've been hiding from Russell Banks's novel The Darling for a few months now. I want to read it, I really do, because I heart Banks big time, but after the psychic bruising administered by Affliction, the last book of his I read (which you should also read, because it's really, really good), I've been steeling myself. I'm not quite there yet. But then I got shanghaied by Elizabeth and After, which, while not quite on the same wrenching level as Affliction, definitely gave me a minor drubbing.
Also, if you read my thoughts on a couple of Cohen's short story collections a while back, you may recall that my biggest criticism of his writing is that, while it's definitely artful and subtle and nuanced and all that, his characters themselves seem basically unlikeable, so much so that I don't even think Cohen himself likes them.
I should clarify my terms: when I think about likeability, I'm not thinking about people who are paragons of virtue, because duh, those would be the least likeable people of all. I like flaws. Plenty of flaws. Deep flaws. Even mortal flaws. You get my drift. But I think that a writer's art lies in being honest about their characters' moral shortcomings while still representing their total humanity. This is where Cohen's short stories fell short, and I was expecting the same from Elizabeth and After. But then when Marianne posted in the comments section that she's been saving this novel to read, I thought I should give it a chance. I'm glad I did.
The novel form finally allows Cohen enough space to give his characters the humanity they need to be sympathetic. The characters in Elizabeth and After have issues, big issues: alcoholism, violence, infidelity, and a maddening inability to make good decisions. All this coupled with some wincingly bad luck. But throughout the novel I found myself rooting for them, hoping that THIS time maybe they'd make the right choice, THIS time fate wouldn't kick them in the guts. And to me that is the hallmark of a fine story: when you care about the characters. When you want them SO BADLY to come out on top. When, despite the ominous rumbling of foreshadowing, you find yourself in denial about the inevitable course of events.
This is suspension of disbelief, my friends, and Cohen nails it in this novel. I even forgive him for making me feel badly about my former assessment of his abilities.