The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Close to 1.5 stars, 2 only because I managed to make myself finish it (it wasn’t easy).
The publishers and other people who wrote all the comments and praise words on the cover of this book tried very hard to make me believe I was about to read something special and heartfelt. The book didn’t deliver.
The impression I got from this book, is that if I could gather it up and squeeze it in my hand, once I opened my hand only sand and dust would seep through my fingers. There was nothing inside. Perhaps it’s a mean thing to say…
But, imho, a book of contemporary literature like this, which picks and focuses on ordinary lives of a small number of people out of the millions living on this planet, has to either show something you won’t forget, or tell its story using words you won’t forget. This book fails to do either.
The writing is simply weak. The ‘fragmented’ structure of the text can be interesting when it’s used with a good reason, but here it unfortunately serves only a single purpose—to make it easier for readers to get through the text that has no powers to grip their attention otherwise. When a pause/space is inserted where neither POV not the scene have changed, the only reason it is there is to hide the fact that if you reconnect paragraphs in your mind, the flow of text would just be jaw-numbingly boring.
It’s mostly dry listing of every detail in sight.
Predictable reactions spelled out over and over.
Astonishingly stale dialogues.
Some of the sections consist of nothing but 7-10 short sentences beginning with the word ‘I”.
And even when it tries to express something ‘deep’, it somehow just doesn’t sound sincere.
Considering that this is a story of an English teacher with love for books and writing…all I can say is “…Really?”
Overall, the narrative bits mostly left me with a lot of unpleasant aftertaste.
The Ukrainian bits were slightly better on emotional level…if not for all the frustrating details—like the fact that people don’t wear shoes in houses in Ukraine, or how it’s always kielbasa everywhere, even when it’s not, or verb tense switching constantly back and forth. These parts would me marginally better is they made an effort to not be so Americanized. Figuring out kolbasa (not kielbasa), pirozhki (not pierogi), kasha, and what they actually are and their actual uses (as in, no kind of kolbasa would go into hotdogs, and that there’s no such thing as ‘just kasha’), as well as the proper shapes for paskhas, would be a good start.
The disturbing part is that I can’t really tell if the author didn’t have the knowledge, or did have it but chose to not put it in and over-Americanize it for ‘simple readers’ on purpose. Either way, I do wish authors would stop mangling other cultures because they’re either too lazy to do proper research, or, when they do, think they need to ‘localize’ and over-simplify everything for American readers.
Overall, food issues aside, the minds of people living in Ukraine in the last days of the USSR are not represented believably anywhere on these pages. These are just Americans in costumes with Polish kielbasa in hands pretending to act Ukrainian (just as they would be in any Hollywood feature, I suppose).
In terms of story, it’s just…nothing we really haven’t seen before? Picking up a sad story to tell doesn’t magically make it into a good book. Mixing in boring broken relationships makes it even worse. Everything is entirely too predictable, nothing really grips the heart strings. The main character is practically impossible to like. On top of which, most of the side characters feel very bland and empty. “Katya” especially feels like an over-simplified empty shell, where she should have been the core of emotion here.
The cliché doomed relationship of the “and why they were tougher to begin with?” variety, where from the first pages the empty character if the boyfriend is written in completely negative light (with the whole “sully my happiness with his pub breath”), while the replacement is better from every angle in comparison, perfect overall, and is praised with every word and description so much its nothing but ridiculous… Was this a necessary part of this book?
Long story short, even if this could be a good story, it is thoroughly spoiled by being told from a perspective of an mentally immature, unreliable, overly subjective, and too self-centered narrator…in bad prose.
I also do believe it is morally wrong for a teacher to actually read the letters “to future selves” she asked her students to write. They should have been private. But then that would have defeated the main point of this book, wouldn’t it?
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The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman