Monday, September 29, 2014

The Bridges of Door County, Wisconsin

J.F. Riordan, North of the Tension Line

I accepted this novel for review because it’s set in Door County, Wisconsin. Jodi Lynn Anderson used Door County’s half-wild landscape, and the tension between its tourist economy and its year-round residents, to positive effect this year in her novel The Vanishing Season. However, where Anderson offered a complex novel with sophisticated characters and genuine conflict, Riordan offers an incomplete manuscript with no momentum and little reason to keep reading.

Semi-retired journalist Fiona Campbell has adopted Door County as her new home, and Door County has adopted her. Its languorous pace, rich characters, and mostly unspoiled landscape touch her soul. But she has car crash dreams because her life feels hectic and uncontrolled. Desperate to prove her resilience, she hastily purchases a fixer-upper on Washington Island, one of the most remote locations in the Lower 48, determined to spend an entire winter on her own.

Meanwhile, Fiona’s bestie Elisabeth decides to undertake a giddy late-summer romance with Roger, the taciturn coffee shop owner. I say giddy because Riordan has Elisabeth describe the relationship using words like “happiness” and “joy.” However, the relationship apparently includes little talking or action. He sometimes appears at her door and they sit together; this motivates Roger to undertake the domesticated nesting activities, like getting interested in decorating, that wives frequently wish their feckless husbands would undertake.

Riordan’s narrative stumbles first because it’s hard to care about these characters. Fiona complains about her unsettled, tumultuous life, but has time to visit coffee shops during the day, and spends entire days at the library. Elisabeth, a trust fund baby, runs an art gallery from her home. Together, these thirty-ish gadabouts lounge on Lake Michigan beaches, undertake shopping excursions to Chicago, and consume enough wine and scotch to trigger Brother Bill W’s alarm bells.

Door County, Wisconsin, along Lake Michigan
This entire story requires characters to act hastily, often despite reason. C’mon, houses aren’t impulse buys. People may fall in love quickly, but men don’t upend successful business models and become interested in craft fairs without having at least one conversation. Between Fiona and Elisabeth’s high life, Elisabeth and Roger’s frictionless romance, and Fiona’s low-stress adjustment to living in territory so hostile that Indians called it “Death’s Door,” this entire novel feels like Riordan’s own wish-fulfillment.

The hopscotch narrative doesn’t help. Riordan’s episodic structure gives plenty of story opportunities which she never ultimately pursues. Fiona’s brief flirtation with a handsome stranger she knows only as “Champaigne Man” could’ve offered chances to explore Fiona’s need for outside validation. Elisabeth and Roger bring out hidden traits in one another, but each discovery happens in essential isolation, never building to anything. Riordan has components for several good novels here, while offering us indistinguishable Mulligan Stew.

But investigating a strange typo (“hapcedarss”) leads me to the author’s blog, where she admits the publication arc, from acceptance through editing to general sale, happened much faster than she’d anticipated. Riordan’s publisher apparently distributed reviewer’s copies so early in the editing process, it still contains formatting errors from the author’s personal Microsoft Word file. If she’s still working with outside readers, paid editors, and others to fine-tune her text, how accurate can my copy be?

Therefore, if this feels like an incomplete draft, a novel still being written, that’s exactly what it is. I cannot attest whether my reviewer’s edition bears any resemblance to the edition you’d purchase. Any comments I make, about the shapeless picaresque story or undifferentiated dialog or romance that excludes male motivations, may be outdated before you’d buy the finished book. Beaufort Books has offered a title not only resistant to enjoyment, but immune to comment.

Fairly late, Fiona’s efforts to refurbish her house, and integrate into Washington Island’s insular community, become interesting. Though the resistance she meets remains overwhelmingly mild and salutary, we start getting a legitimate Bildungsroman as she excavates her spirit to uncover reserves of character she never knew she had. Had Riordan opened with this breakthrough process, I might’ve had more sticktoitiveness in reading. Sadly, it comes too late to rescue this novel from its silly opening chapters.

Despite everything I’ve said, Riordan’s debut novel isn’t bad. Between the fat that needs trimmed, she offers moments of touching human intimacy. Had Riordan focused on Fiona’s personal discoveries, or the non-romantic love between her two female leads, this could’ve been a decent airport novel. She just needs firm guidance to separate her finger exercises and odd cow paths from scenes that generate real heat. Without that, the product in my hands is merely lukewarm.

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