Friday, November 5, 2010

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Title: Our Tragic Universe
Author: Scarlett Thomas

Genre: Fiction (Chick Lit/Literary)

Love/Hate?: I really can't say. Both?
Rating: 4/5
Did I finish?: Yes -- I was consumed by it!

Why did I get this book?: The cover, and the font, and it was an author I'd never heard of.
Source: NetGalley

Do you like the cover?: Yes.  Quite striking, and very appropriate to the novel.

First line from book: I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby.

Review: This is a challenging book to review: the entire time I was reading it, I was convinced I hated it; only I'd stop reading it and find myself chewing over the themes of the story or the narrator or the promise of where the novel was going.  In the end, I have to say this is a very good and well-written novel that is maddening and thought-provoking and a little bit pretty.

The story is fairly simple: our narrator, Meg, struggles with her life.  She's living with someone she thinks she might not love anymore; she writes genre fiction that embarrasses her and wants nothing more than to finish a great literary novel; her friends and family have their own particular tragedies that she can't fix.  For a while, I really loathed Meg -- she was just so ambivalent about everything -- until I realized that much of what Meg both did and wished to do really hit upon how I felt about my life and the things I wanted to do.  Meg's relationship reminded me of my first serious relationship after college, right down to the struggling for money and tip-toeing around a depressed partner (it felt so similar I started conflating Meg with me so when Meg later indicated that she's in her late 30s and not mid-20s, I kind of started in surprise).  She was remarkably compassionate when my uglier self would have been mean and she was aggravatingly passive when my bolder self would have acted.  It was a shock -- and in the end, kind of a pleasure -- to find myself so challenged by a novel I started as a throwaway.

Thomas clearly loves Dostoevsky: his works and his style of writing show throughout the story; Thomas' characters have long philosophical conversations that are both interesting and a little indulgent. (Unlike Meg and Thomas, I skipped all the rumination-ing in Anna Karenina to get to the hot affair part.) 

There's so much unanswered in Thomas' book and it's unsettling and appealing.  I usually prefer to have my stories end neatly but in this case, it was appropriate and well-done.


  1. Fascinating review, especially since you related to the book so much. I could never figure out what kind of book this was going to be with so much going on in the cover. YA? Paranormal? Either if which is good, but not my mood at the moment. This sounds like a book I would very much enjoy.

  2. Thank you, Nicole -- it's def not YA or paranormal although she writes a great deal about genre fiction as Meg, the heroine, ghostwrites a YA scifi series.

    I hate the terms 'literary' and 'chick lit' for fiction, but I definitely think this book could be considered both: it follows a 'typical' white upper middle class woman as she tries to make sense of her love life and her job but also does the literary 'what-is-art-and-who-am-I?' thing. Rather neat, actually.

  3. The End of Mr. Y has been on my TBR since about forever. Now I'm even more ambivalent about reading it!

  4. @Nat - After finishing this, I went to Thomas' webpage to look at her other two books, and half of me thinks I should pick them up and the other half thinks I should dismiss her outright and move on. If you do ever read Mr Y you have to tell me your thoughts -- altho, of course, if you love it then I might seriously hate it!

  5. i am right there with you.
    the book was excellent but tough to get through.
    writing a review that accurately reflected my view was difficult.

    reading your take helped a lot as i was concerned that i was too harsh.

    glad to know i am not alone!

  6. Sometimes I wish I could be as compassionate as some characters I read...although some can make me really mad if they are TOO passive and just don't react - hell no.

  7. @Jen: I know -- I'm super judgmental and I have to remind myself that people (even fictional characters) are allowed to make their own choices (even if I think they're being a doormat!). In this book, tho, I just couldn't tell you if the heroine was v mature or super pathetic!

  8. @Erisian: It's funny you say that because I too wanted to see other reviews b/c I was worried I sounded too harsh myself!

  9. Sounds interesting...Seems like Meg is a real person to me ....with all these flaws...:)