Sunday Wifely Sunday / OUTSIDE VALENTINE by Liza Ward

I may have hit the pinacle of housewife. Yesterday I cleaned up after the cats, changed, laundered, and folded the sheets, made the shopping list and weekly menus, SHOPPPED both at Trader Joe's AND the Mayfair to fulfill needs of said list, worked on wedding photo albums, and still found the time to make my own power bars.

In between all this I read the Sunday Times (new NYTBR: BLAH AND OVERBLOWN IN EVERY WAY ... how did they possibly make it LESS interesting/insightful?) and got through the underwhelming OUTSIDE VALENTINE by Liza Ward.

OUTSIDE VALENTINE is another entry in the pile of books/movies/albums about the Starkweater murders. (By the way, I can make this segue to my impressions of the book because much of the time I found myself quietly chastising the housekeeping skills of various fictional characters from my real-live couch while I waited for my home-made power bars to finish baking. Seriously. How sad is that?)

Anyway, the "hook" of this novel is that Liza Ward "lucked" into being the daughter of a Starkweather survivor (her father's parents were killed by the crazy teenagers), which meant she could easily get enough publicity to make most people blind to the problems with this book. Reviews were so glowing I bought into the hype, which is not a common thing for me, and may account for my disappontment, but there you go.

First, a quick plot check. OUTSIDE VALENTINE tells three stories: that of the middle-aged Lowell Bowman (the survivor in question, 1991); Susan Hurst, a girl who lives a few streets down from the Bowmans and will someday marry Low Bowman (told from her POV in 1962); and Caril Ann Fugate, Charlie Starkweather's girlfriend, who narrates the killing spree (told from her POV, 1957). Ward is pretty good at writing the girls -- she writes vivid scenes, and the teenagers are fully drawn and completely believable. The problem is when she tries to write the Lowell Bowman, whose adult life in 1991 is meant to anchor the narratives of the past.

I have two issues with Lowell Bowman. First, Ward presents him as terribly damaged and emotionally remote because of the tragedy he's experienced -- however, she never succeeds in bringing him to life, perhaps because he's so remote to her she can't feel him, either. (If indeed she started this project as a way to get closer to her father or understand him further, as far as I can tell she hasn't succeeded).

But worse, I thought, was the way she used Lowell to function in the plot. Because we see the girls as teens, and we experience the events that shape them, they are completely alive to us. However, Lowell is absent for the central event of his teenage years -- the murders -- so Ward chooses only to show him as a grown-up, having lived with that absence for decades. So she has to invent a "today" life for him that will drive and anchor the more vivid "past" parts of the narrative, but the life she chooses for Low is wish-washy and unbelievable. He's a failing art dealer in New York who has grown cold to his wife and distant from his children for reasons that are never explored (I'm sorry, but "30 years ago my parents were murdered" is not a good enough reason if you've been functioning just fine until now). Worse, the 1991 plot development that drives the descent into the 1957 and 1962 narratives is Lowell's adult wife Susan asking Low what's in a safe deposit box that they've been billed $3000 for: and he CLAIMS NOT TO KNOW.

Ok, I'm sort-of-in-a-fiction-sort-of-way okay with forgetting what's in a safe deposit box. HOWEVER, if you don't know what's in it, then why the hell do you refuse to go deal with it? Shouldn't you be curious, especially if there's a $3000 rental fee hanging over your head?

Totally annoying. If I had been the editors of this book, and my writer told me she needed a safe deposit box because the contents of said box were going to be the link to Susan's 1962 narrative sections and Caril Ann's 1957 narrative sections, then I would have had him OPEN THE BOX at the start of the novel, b/c this move of having Low avoid it and avoid it for 300 pages is completely stupid. It just makes him annoying, and more over, it tries to turn the contents of the box into A HUGE SURPRISE, which, of course, it's not. It's a really lame trick. REALLY REALLY LAME.

That said, Liza Ward is not a terrible writer. She was totally convincing with the female characters in this book, and had she written a novel entirely about Caril Ann or even Susan I would probably have loved it. But she didn't. Ah well.

However, today I get my copy of The Plot Against America, so onto better pastures tonight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is fiction. Lowell is fiction.
Mike Ward is an amazingly strong and honorable man. The real story is how he faced down the horror of the murder of his parents and made his life a tribute to them. They were fabulous people of intelligence, elegance and honor. I think his daughter missed the real story.