Belle Boggs is a witty, incisive writer, and The Gulf, her first novel, deftly satirizes everything from for-profit schools to the MFA industrial complex, American liberals and conservatives, and the hypocrisies of both sides ... These are fully realized characters, each with their own weaknesses and worries ... Scores of recent books, of every genre, have attempted to bridge the looming gulf in American culture and politics. It’s to Boggs’ credit that she doesn’t ... For all the satire, Boggs’ novel is also deeply felt, and moving. Perhaps its greatest strength is Boggs’ delicate, hard-won sympathy for her characters, and the sympathy they develop for one another.
Boggs is as inspired by our faith in reinvention as she is intrigued by the hubris that it permits, that tempts us by asking: Why not burn ourselves up if we can always be born again, or at least write a book about it? ... It’s a brilliant concept that skewers parts of the Writers Workshop Industrial Complex, certain strains of American Christianity, and the myth of meritocracy. But Boggs only partially executes it, largely because of the unwieldy structure of the book, which may have been more effective as a set of interconnected short stories. Several different characters’ interior worlds slide across these pages, competing for the reader’s affection and allegiance, introducing story lines that ultimately feel cheaply concluded and lessons that don’t justify the trauma that paid for them ... interesting premise peters out into puffs of clichés. By the final chapters, The Gulf feels perfunctory, reading like hastily fleshed-out scripts for a miniseries about atheists and Christians living together in a Sarasota motel. Given that much of the book is dialogue—clever and readily transferable to a screen—I wonder if this was Boggs’s intention, one that iterated into this erratic but generally enjoyable and often funny novel. While it didn’t leave me Born Again, it killed me with laughter more than once.
With this scarily plausible setup, Boggs nails the launching point for her satire of for-profit education and the unholy links between manipulation, money, and writing. But The Gulf is more than just a witty parody: Boggs uses the Ranch as a lens through which to examine our fractured country, where the inability to allow for ambivalence keeps us separated by a gulf. In Boggs’s ultimately redemptive novel, it is language—poetry—that bridges that gulf ... Boggs convincingly makes the case that the writing workshop can breed empathy ... Boggs gives Marianne more meaty matters to work out than will-she-or-won’t-she get back together with Eric—her primary dilemma before the students arrive—and thus lends The Gulf real depth ... Boggs makes us question who is worth signaling, and how.
... realist, near-historical, gently wry ... the book’s comedy emerges from its deft psychological observation, from how the gentle eddies of her characters’ psyches lead them into unexpected judgments, complaints and realizations about their own hypocrisies ... It’s hard not to feel affectionate toward these flawed humans, to quickly grow sympathetic to their social anxieties and their qualms. The stakes are compelling, if rather low. Nothing feels so terribly threatening ... The vicious extremes float up from beneath the placid surface of Boggs’ light comedy, just as they float up from beneath polite small talk and slightly strained Thanksgiving dinners.
...Belle Boggs does not fail to deliver in The Gulf. But her debut novel is much more than a comic sendup of fragile literary egos. It’s also a thoughtful, patient examination of the walls we create to separate ourselves and how looking past differences to find common ground can make them crumble. Without being shrill or simplistic or preachy, The Gulf is a timely commentary on our polarized political climate that offers a tiny spark of hope for the future ... One of the pleasures of reading The Gulf is spending time with Boggs’ vividly drawn characters ... On the surface, The Gulf is a genuinely funny look at an intriguing microcosm of disparate writers fumbling through life, striving to have their voices heard. But what makes The Gulf resonate is the fact that while no one’s political views are changed in the end, a mutual respect is forged that holds a glimmer of promise for a future less divided.
Each [character] is perfectly developed and flawed just enough to be lovable, if hapless. The book hums along with fitting momentum, so that when the storm hits, the reader is entirely invested in this well-meaning but ill-fated crew. Redemption is a risky ambition, especially with inspirational writing, but Boggs pulls it off with The Gulf's denouement. This is a novel of keen comedy, insight and empathy.
The fish-in-a-barrel liberal satire is quickly complicated ... Boggs’ first novel...beautifully balances absurdity and emotional depth, complete with a bombastic state representative, an epiphanic hurricane, and Marianne’s journey, if not to faith, then to salvation.
Boggs bombards her heroine with difficulties—artistic, ethical, romantic, meteorological—at an antic pace, and the book has slapstick charm. But the heart of this novel is its cast ... A smart, slightly kooky exploration of art and money, faith and politics.
Boggs...brings characters to unexpected rapport in her droll yet genuine unpacking of contemporary for-profit education and culture wars ... Readers will find this witty, nuanced work both satisfying and resonant.