The first comparison that came to mind while I was reading This Is Where We Live was Nick Hornby. I consider this a good thing. As I’ve said before (inside my head mostly, but also to one or two real life people), and to use an outmoded slogan, Nick Hornby is the Bud Lite of literature. He’s got readability. Someone in a review that I read once referred to him as “shamelessly readable.”
But there are different kinds of readability. You can have readability from someone like Hornby, Vonnegut, Hemingway, et cetera, where though the text is easy to digest, it’s still thoughtful writing. Or you can have readability like Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, or John Grisham, where their easily digestible writing is actually just a shitty plot with preposterous dialogue and one-dimensional characters told at a fourth grade reading level. I would put Janelle Brown in the first of these two categories. I don’t know that I could comfortably put her on the same level with the writers mentioned in the first category, but the bar is set pretty high, so….
Anyway, I think what I enjoyed most about This Is Where We Live were the themes that it dealt with, which resonated greatly with me, maybe more because of my personal situation than the themes being universal truths. Although I think that no matter what people’s place in life, most of the struggles the characters endure speak to the human condition, except maybe the ridiculously wealthy.
Briefly, the plot revolves around the reality checks of two married artists, Claudia the filmmaker and Jeremy the musician. Both of them seem to consistently get built up with respect to their respective art forms, and then their hopes get dashed right as things seem as though they’re about to break (in the good way, like “break out”). Mix those damaged dreams with a difficult mortgage and a famous painter ex-girlfriend who starts coming ’round again and you’ve got This Is Where We Live.
In looking around at how other people are reacting, I’ve seen a few comments about how this is a letdown from Brown’s (Janelle, not Dan) first novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. Now, I haven’t read her debut, so I didn’t have any expectations going into this one. But in general, I feel that if artists find success with a debut there will always be people who are disappointed by the follow-up.
If there’s one thing with which I felt a disconnect in This Is Where We Live it’s that it seemed to be told with a third-person sentiment, like the events had been researched instead of experienced, or a mixture of the two. The closest thing that I can think of that would represent this feeling on a regular basis is when a journalist writes about an event that they were never at, but reconstruct it as if they were, based on an interview with someone who was present at said event. The result is something that may be factually correct (or close to it) while at the same time missing the tone. At times this thought could be applied to Where We Live, but Brown also seems to blend these researched events with personal ones so that there are moments of true feeling paired with more distant story-telling.
Bringing it back to Hornby for a second, after reading Brown’s book a few months ago, I happened to read Hornby’s most recent, Juliet, Naked, which focuses on a lot of the same themes as Where We Live in terms of artistic success. In Hornby’s case, though, I couldn’t help but feel that the characters were merely created as a way to express different facets of the author’s own life, which is kind of the exact opposite of how Brown’s novel came off to me.
In any case, although it didn’t blow me away, I would definitely recommend This Is Where We Live as a good read about the trials of struggling artistically and financially in a society that progressively commodifies such endeavors.Visit: Janelle Brown | Spiegel & Grau
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon