Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Before by Irini Spanidou

I read Before months ago, and I held off reviewing it because I was hoping that a step back would help me pull my thoughts together. Unfortunately, life gets in the way of our original plans, and the book kept moving farther toward the bottom of a pile of books to review. With the end of the year fast approaching, I want to catch up on my reviews of books read this year, so I figured now is as good a time as any.

Before is set in SoHo in the 1970s, and Irini Spanidou does a wonderful job placing the reader directly in the story. You can see the empty factories, the vacant blocks, the few factory-to-loft conversion projects, and the new bars popping up here and there. You can see that the area is seedy before she mentions the robberies, rapes, and muggings. You know this is a neighborhood full of interesting people with interesting stories.

Spanidou focuses on three months in the life of Beatrice, a wannabe writer married to an artist with a bad temper, a drinking problem, and a thing for women who are not his wife. Beatrice is 25, very attractive, and depressed. She took a job at a publishing house in the hopes of getting a chance to read manuscripts and discover new writers; instead, she's forced to read manuscripts by well-known authors whose later works are not so great, and she must look for the positives to jazz up their rejection letters. She never graduated from college, and she seems to completely depend on her husband. For instance, Spanidou writes: She knew him. Her own self she did not know. When things started to fall apart, no ground was left for her to stand on. She had given herself over to him completely. Without him, she believed, she was nothing. (p. 33)

In addition to Beatrice and her husband Ned, Spanidou introduces several intriguing characters: Beatrice's childhood friend, Faye, who is a sultry nightclub performer; Cyril, Ned's brother, a Vietnam vet; Colin, a musician friend of Beatrice and Ned; Perkins, a creep ex-convict who lives next to Beatrice and Ned; Simon, who meets Beatrice in a bar; and Chris, a young boy addicted to heroin and turning tricks to feed his habit. The men all are attracted to Beatrice, but the attractions never really seem to go anywhere. In fact, the book doesn't go anywhere.

Spanidou creates a host of promising characters, but Before lacks any plot to carry them forward. It seems the book is more of a character study, and the reader is forced to watch Beatrice grapple with depression, hysteria, and anxiety attacks and do a lot of thinking about how her life needs to change. But she isn't motivated to take any action. If the character isn't motivated to act on something--anything--how do you build tension or resolve any conflicts?

It also seemed as though a lot of the writing was designed to impress and sound intellectual without really saying anything. For instance: She felt a wholeness in herself that was completely empty... (p. 210). I don't know about you, but when I feel whole, I certainly don't feel empty. And as much as I love character-driven stories, this one left me feeling empty at the end.

Disclosure:  I borrowed Before from the library.


Laura said...

I can understand why you put off reviewing a book that you didn't really love. I tend to have a really hard time writing about something that isn't either really good or really bad.

This sounds like it has lots of interesting characters! It's a shame they weren't developed.

Jeannie said...

I'm not really into books that are downers. But I have known people very similar to Beatrice. Maybe the author was trying to "keep it real", or at least show a darker truth.

Anonymous said...

Anna, it sounds like this one had potential that just wasn't realized.

I agree with Jeannie that there are people out there who seem incapable of taking the initiative to move forward or improve their lives.

On the other hand, I usually feel very frustrated reading about characters like this.

Serena said...

I hate when characters are is that supposed to make me sympathetic towards them? I also dislike characters that have no direction or are not well developed.

Anna said...

Laura: Hi there! Thanks for stopping by! I have the hardest time when I can't decide whether or not I liked the book. I think Before would have been so much better if the characters were well-developed and there had been a plot.

Jeannie: I like dark, depressing characters, and I think Spanidou did a good job portraying Beatrice as someone suffering from mental stress. However, there was only one or two things going on plotwise, and it wasn't enough to carry the book.

Shana: Unrealized potential, that's a great way to put it! It was frustrating because Beatrice did a lot of talking to herself but not much in the way of action. It wouldn't have been so frustrating if there were things going on with the other characters, or at least more going on.

Serena: I agree with you about apathetic characters. From all the classes I took on writing, the protagonist needs to be motivated about something, and that something will be what drives the rest of the book. And I've read books about depressed characters, but there was a well developed plot, and that made all the difference.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful and honest review. I understand "puttin off a review when it's hard to come up with much in the way of accolades. I'm in a yahoo writers group where we buy each others' books (1 featured author each month) and review them, and man - 3 months in a row now I've labored over what to say because one was just flat, one was so poorly edited it was a real Lulu (if ya get my drift) - and I just finished the third and although it DID have a good story, the author's style of TELLING me everything rather than even ONCE have a scene be SHOWN to the reader just spoiled the whole thing. She tells you what's in everyone's thoughts, tells you what they say and why they say it, tells you their motivation, tells you what they are feeling and why, there's just no end to it.

OK, done ranting. Good review,as always, Anna.

Marvin D Wilson
Blogs at Free Spirit:
Eye twitter 2 - http:/

Anna said...

Thanks, Marvin!

Serena from Savvy Verse & Wit and I actually were "kicked out" of a writer's group for giving honest advice. And we made sure to highlight all the positives, too. And he even asked us to be honest. But everyone else in the group would just say "oh, that sounds great" and be done with it, and we thought the point of the group was to improve our writing. Maybe that's why I'm so hesitant when it comes to reviewing books I didn't enjoy.