There are few things the literary community relishes more than the appearance of a polarizing high-profile book. Sure, any author about to release their baby into the wild will be hoping for unqualified praise from all corners, but what the lovers of literary criticism and book twitter aficionados amongst us are generally more interested in is seeing a title (intelligently) savaged and exalted in equal measure. It’s just more fun, dammit, and, ahem, furthermore, it tends to generate a more wide-ranging and interesting discussion around the title in question. With that in mind, welcome to a new series we’re calling Point/Counterpoint, in which we pit two wildly different reviews of the same book—one positive, one negative—against one another and let you decide which makes the stronger case.
Daniel Handler is perhaps better known to the world as Lemony Snicket, aka the bestselling author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Starting in 1999 with The Bad Beginning and ending in 2006 with The End, Daniel Handler entertained and educated countless readers with his macabre, tragicomic children’s books. Outside of the series, he also wrote a book about a latke who couldn’t stop screaming (for the children) and one about fashion advice from the perspective of the Pope (for the rest of us).
Bottle Grove is his seventh novel for adults, and it tells the story of two fraught marriages (one born out of love) against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. Apparently, there is also a shapeshifting fox.
So far, Bottle Grove has been met with pretty polarizing reviews. Publishers Weekly praised it, saying, “Readers expecting Handler’s trademark humor and bite won’t be disappointed.” On the other hand, one reviewer at Kirkus felt that “while the brutal inhumanities of startup culture are ripe for satire and criticism, this novel fails to deliver even a glancing blow.”
In today’s Point/Counterpoint, we’re looking at Joshua Ferris’ New York Times review, in which he thoroughly eviscerates the novel, writing, “No spell is cast, no character takes root in the reader’s heart.” On the other side of the debate, after reading Bottle Grove, Booklist‘s Jonathan Fuller still considers Daniel Handler to be “a prolific jack-of-all-trades.”
What comes next is up to you, dear reader. Will you welcome Daniel Handler’s reentry into the realm of adult fiction? Or will you, like Ferris, deem it to be a rather unfortunate event?
If this is a story about two marriages, then one of them begins here. The bride is Rachel, who is marrying a man named Ben Nickels, very kind and not skinny.
“Nothing is believably conjured to life in Bottle Grove. No spell is cast, no character takes root in the reader’s heart. Captive to Handler’s cleverness, to his allusive play and lack of rigor, the reader tries to make sense of the proceedings, to no avail. Even as Handler stacks elision upon lacuna to paper over his plot holes and sudden narrative swerves, the whole house of cards grows more absurd, irrelevant, cloying and rickety. What’s worse, many developments follow an old sad sexist script … What on earth is a man justly celebrated for the books he writes under the name Lemony Snicket doing playing at rape? I couldn’t determine. One thing is clear: Throughout Bottle Grove, he is not in control of his larks and allusions. He’s simply having fun at his characters’ expense, and at the reader’s, too.”
–Joshua Ferris (The New York Times Book Review)
“Handler, adored by younger readers for his Lemony Snicket titles, is a prolific jack-of-all-trades who also pens quirky, postmodern love stories mostly set in present-day San Francisco. His seventh novel for adults reaches deep into those modes for a drunkenly humorous blend of alcohol, entrepreneurial ambitions, and a dash of cheating … Handler’s clever, highly stylized prose demands alertness in his readers, who may feel tipsy trying to follow the knotted story line. Nonetheless, his quick-witted, timely characters and offbeat but perceptive one-liners make for an intoxicating delight.”
–Jonathan Fullmer (Booklist)