Monday, October 01, 2007

As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me by Nancy Kincaid

A good reader friend of mine remarked to me once that I must read a lot of books, given that I review one or two a month, and supposing that I probably select from many. I was vague in my reply, but the truth is that though I start many books, maybe even dozens a month, I finish only a few of them. I almost never bother to stick with books anymore unless they hit me in the first hundred pages or so; there are just too many good books out there to use up my reading time on questionable ones. The book I am going to talk to you about today is one of the exceptions. Its title is As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me, and although it starts rather charmingly, it seemed almost too cute to me, too much like a young adults’ novel, and the fact that some reviewers compared it to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird only increased my doubts. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird when it came out in the early sixties, but it is not a book that would warrant a sequel. However an author whom I much admire, Lee Smith, called the book compulsively readable, so after initially putting it aside, I decided to give it the few dozen more pages I usually would not. I’m glad I did.

The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, and one who seems naïve even for her age, but the further one gets into the novel, the more surprising the events and the more adult the themes. The story is set in rural Florida, and though we are never really told, it would seem to be about the fifties or early sixties. Kincaid is exceptionally good at staying in voice, and even when the insights seem a bit too precocious for such a young girl, they are delivered in a way that allows the reader to believe that the girl, herself, is unaware of the depth of the messages she is conveying. There is also a pleasing mixture of suspense and intrigue that keeps the book moving along, and events that I find quite surprising for such a small town.

The young girl’s name is Berry, and it is really her story. The descriptions of the other children, of their games, their interpretations of events, gives the book its shape, its content. The only adult character who is well developed is that of Berry’s mother, and that, too, is primarily through Berry’s eyes. Berry’s father, the stalwart and admired principal of the local school, remains a kind of shadow figure throughout, the suggestion being that the reader knows him about as well as Berry herself knows him, about as well as adult men let themselves be known.

This is not the sort of book where I can find particular quotes that sum up the story or the message it is meant to convey. There are no profound asides about the economics of small towns, no carefully constructed critiques about the smothering effects of religion in such places. But that is not to say that one does not sense a message in the book deeper than the surface events described. I find myself wanting to read other books by this author: I believe that she understands children and the culture of childhood in ways that I don’t and never will. I sense that she is gently trying to teach me.

Let me read one quote from the book that I hope will give you a flavor for the charm of the lead character, and also for the deceptively simple style of the writing.

Boys had all their lives to get used to penises. But girls—we had to spend years waiting for breasts, dreading them or longing for them. They were more interesting to me than any other body part. I didn’t know if they were beautiful or hideous. I didn’t know if I would be comforted by having them—or ashamed. I had never seen any breasts except Mother’s once, when she was getting into her bathing suit at Cherry Lake. She mostly ignored them. But in her bathing suit there they were, small, pointed and sharp, pressed into her suit like a couple of innocent prisoners under false arrest waiting to make their escape. I thought of them like things that wanted to be set free—like they had their own little brains or something, like they dreamed dreams.
Berry watches her mother very closely, and she watches the mothers of her friends as well. She watches what happens to, what is said about the older girls who are considered beautiful, as well as to the allegedly humorous asides about those not so pretty. She understands that all of this has a lot to tell her about her own future, and she is a quick study.

During the course of the novel there is a huge storm that changes the lives of the people in drastic ways, flattening the school, damaging houses and churches, and sometime during that storm, Berry’s glasses are dislodged, stepped on, and crushed. But she finds her not being able to see clearly as much a blessing as a curse. Not only does she look better without her glasses, but the world looks better too. Not so sharp, not so distinct, not so ugly. Perhaps she is a girl who sees too much, but we as readers are lucky to be able to see along with her.

This is not a great book, but it is a good one, and very pleasing to read. I think once you get really into it, you will be unable to put it down, and glad you didn’t.

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