You Made Me Love You

by Joanna Goodman
400 pages,
ISBN: 0143017314

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Review of You Made Me Love You
by Ann Diamond

In choosing to read this book, you are choosing to move in with an irrepressible, bagel-loving Jewish family living in Toronto (the parents, nightclub singers Milt and Lilly, moved there from Montreal in the early '60s, when Milt got a job at CBC, and brought with them their music and their love of bagels). The year is 2003. The Iraq War is underway, but Saddam Hussein has not been captured yet. This only happens on page 108, when Lilly Zarr calls her daughter Erica, waking her up from a sound sleep, and tells her to turn on CNN.
In opening this book, you agree to become part of the family and share their heartwarming trials and joys, and of course their earthy humour. You learn all about the lives of their three grown-up daughters, one of whom, Jessica, is unhappily married with two kids while the middle girl, Estelle, is still single at 37 and dreaming of making it in Hollywood, even as her younger sister Erica studies creative writing in New York where she has moved in with her professor. Truly the stuff of romance.
It's like adopting a family for the weekend. You've never met these people before. They are, in many ways, like every other family you see on TV, manicured to measure up to some ideal of success. Perhaps that's why Goodman thinks their lives are interesting enough to fill a 400-page book.
After a few chapters, you have dipped into each of their lives often enough to realise that their cares and problems are much like everybody else's cares and problems; it's an occasionally absorbing, sometimes embarrassing mixture of tragedy and trivia. This combination creates low-level irony that permeates the lives of three very spoiled, deeply dissatisfied young women.
And yet their careers and boyfriends and marriages seem, in the scheme of things, relatively painless. It's the painlessness, perhaps, that is most painful for the reader. A third of the way through, we are waiting for an event to bring them together and ratchet up the plot. Perhaps it arrives when Saddam is captured, and somebody close to the family dies. The girls come to Toronto for the funeral. The woman in the coffin is their father's girlfriend, Gladys, whom none of them really knew very well, or particularly liked or disliked.
This scene is in some ways typical of the lukewarm tone, the emotional flatness that is not the result of bad writing, or lack of empathy or talent on Goodman's part. Perhaps this is simply what happens when a writer tries to tell several stories that, in themselves, lack the weight to sustain a novel structure. It's a shame because Joanna Goodman can see into people, convey emotion through dialogue, and sometimes she can write quite convincingly about the world she knows in intimate detail. Perhaps her interest in these characters is too unconditional. Perhaps she imagines that by creating a detailed portrait of all of them, she will draw her readers into their world and make us love them too.
The problem is that the Zarrs are just like everyone else's family. And the Zarr sisters, Estelle, Erica, and Jessica, are very much like other young women of their generation¨in fact, painfully so. Having never lacked for anything, their nonconformity is really a carefully maintained cover for their fear of failure. Their dreams are all about getting more comfortable than they already are. Their inner conflicts revolve around appearances, success, careers, excess weight, finding more exciting love partners, and keeping up with one another in the race for happiness and fulfillment, whatever that may be. These overwrought, banal concerns clutter a very crowded centre stage.
God knows, I wish them luck, but I could have divined most of this by glancing at the cover image of three young women playing ring-around-the-rosie, and skimming the jacket blurb. In the meantime, the absence of rising drama by page 127 is setting my teeth on edge and driving me to increasingly real despair. Next I'll be reaching for antidepressants, and my honorary membership in the Zarr family will be complete.
Game at first, I now shudder at the prospect of having to attend the funeral of Gladys along with the rest of my surrogate relations. As the unmarried middle sister, Estelle, gets off the plane at Pearson Airport, and her "head feels hot and floaty" after ingesting two Gravols and some wine on the plane, I begin to suspect that Estelle is nearing the limits of what, in Goodman's world, constitutes rock bottom. I'm thinking, couldn't she at least have dropped some acid? At the prospect of another 270 pages of this, I'm feeling too numb and "floaty" even to ask why she is attending the funeral of Gladys, her father's girlfriend, who was the cause of her mother's unhappiness for thirty years. The fact is, I simply don't care, because despite her best intentions, Goodman hasn't managed to give me a reason to.
There is no story here, only fragments, moments and images. This explains why I end up feeling like an unpaid therapist whose job is to listen, endlessly, to self-involved people discuss their aches and pains. Like an overfed guest at somebody else's family reunion, I didn't really ask to be here, and now I'd like to leave and get back to obsessing over the petty details of my own life, so fascinating to me, so deadly dull to everyone else.
This is the third women's novel I've been asked to review which is structured like a beehive. Multiple characters, multiple stories, grouped together to create a world that masquerades as a novel. Miniplot equals soap opera, and I don't watch those either, although I know people who do. If I want stories like this, I can switch on the TV anytime, and let myself be lulled into a coma half-hour segment by half-hour segment. ˛

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