Friday, August 15, 2014

Fluffy family read: The Art of Adapting by Cassandra Dunn

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 10:36 AM

click image Hardcover, 368 pages - Published July 29th 2014 by Touchstone
  • Hardcover, 368 pagesPublished July 29th 2014 by Touchstone
I don't like fluffy reads. When I pick up a book, I want to be gutted, exhilarated, titillated, saved. I want to find myself asking questions I didn't even know to be asking before opening the cover. And once inside, I want my characters to struggle, suffer and endure. I want them to get dirt on their knees and blisters on their thumbs. I don't want their hearts to break, I want those blood-pumps to be ground into a fine powder and blown into the wind.

So when I first glanced at the premise of Cassandra Dunn's The Art of Adapting, I thought it might be right up my alley. 

Lana, a 40-something wife and mother, thinks she has it all: security and respect in her 20-year marriage to Graham, whose job as a CPA allows her to substitute teach and live in relative comfort in sunny San Diego. Two children, Abby and Byron, good kids who take school seriously and fill their afternoons with athletics and art. But life quickly starts sliding downhill. Graham leaves her for a younger woman with artistic leanings. Lana's baby brother, Matt, has Asperger's and in attempt to slow his racing thoughts, self-medicates with pills and alcohol. He ends up in the psych ward after an overdose. Upon release, he moves in with Lana and the kids, who, Matt notices, aren't as perfect and healthy as they appear.

Add to this Lana's police-officer ex-boyfriend, returning to rekindle their old relationship and wanting to bust Matt's old drug-dealer; a cancer-scare; Lana's emotionally distant and controlling mother who doesn't approve of how Lana's handling Matt's treatment; vicious high-school rumors; budding love and other vicissitudes of privileged, middle-class, American life.

I was ready for The Art of Adapting to be similar to, say, Franzen's The Corrections: plumbing the depths of a family's dynamic, psychological and otherwise. Like in The Corrections, we read from multiple viewpoints — Lana's, Matt's, Abby's and Byron's — which permits a certain fly-on-the-wall engagement with the characters' lives. We get to see what they each think while also getting to see what the family thinks the others are thinking. It's a nice juxtaposition that shows no matter how close we feel to someone or how well we think we know them, there's a lot more beneath the surface to which we may never have access.

But unlike Franzen for The Corrections, Dunn put kid gloves on over her kid gloves while writing The Art of Adapting. She sets us up for drama — Love triangles! Two teenage children! Drugs! Anorexia! Divorce! — and then gives us a Hallmark movie.

How many chapters in before I realized we weren't going to get anything but a happy ending? Rather, how many pages in? Not many. With all obstacles — and as noted, there were many — resolved with little struggle, it was hard to worry or care about or empathize with the characters at all. I found myself hoping for something traumatic to happen — give us a death, or a drug addiction that takes more than a swat on the hand and a stern, “No, no,” to break, anything! — so I could have some response to the book other than eye-rolling and scoffing. No trauma came and I struggled to get to the end, where, just as I suspected, everyone was holding hands, smiling and practically singing “Kumbaya.”

If you find yourself watching re-runs of Friends and can't help but root for Ross and Rachel, or prefer the Disney fairy tales to the gritty, macabre versions from yesteryear, or just want an easy beach or airplane read that gives you the sense that, hey, everything is going to be okay, The Art of Adapting might be for you. But me? I don't like fluffy reads. I might go pick up The Corrections again.

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