A Disappointing Book

American_bloomsburyDo you ever read a book you really wanted to love, only to find it a great disappointment?

I’m sorry to say Susan Cheever’s "American Bloomsbury" falls into that category.

As a lover of Louisa May Alcott, I looked forward to this book about the community of Concord, Massachusetts, and learning more about Alcott’s relationships with Thoreau and Emerson, about her father, Bronson, and about the connection of Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller to the rest.

What I got was a book crying out for the firm but loving hand of an editor, a "Come to Jesus" meeting for an author who had a sort of interesting idea that did not read as well as it imagined. (EditorMom, I thought of you often and wished a person with your gifts could have wrangled her manuscript!)

Repetitive and choppy, the book does no service to its author or its subjects. Many of the very brief chapters read as if Cheever made notes on 3 by 5 cards or on sticky notes and simply arranged them without thought to building a bridge between ideas or expanding on things that deserved more depth of exploration.

Many chapters of making these odd ducks friendly and admirable to the audience are followed by a lengthy excursus on their love for John Brown, a love which Cheever condemns, and suddenly we have a different book, or really what could have been a long essay about the dangerous naïveté of a group of vegetarian New Englanders and their infatuation with a martyr to the cause of liberating the slaves (which seems to be her conclusion). But a minute later we are right back to the declarative "post-it" style of writing.

Finally, as much as I love "Little Women," how can one make the case that it was the first novel to elevate the domestic sphere? Did Cheever miss the part in school about Jane Austen?

If you have read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “A Disappointing Book”

  1. I set the book down just before Holy Week, it being my chosen bedtime read. I too found it laborious and choppy. She fails to give an interesting portrait of any of the characters, each being too cut up in her development of them as persons and too redundant. I wonder how this could be – they are such interesting people! A good editor was needed for this book and a strong hand to point her in a better direction for developing the book. I totally agree with the post-it note or 3X5 card analysis…really, too bad.

  2. Thank you, Songbird, for that lovely wish!
    Not having read the book but having read your description of how it comes across, I’m guessing that this is what happened: Cheever did her first—okay, I’ll be charitable—or second draft, using her set of index cards, and sent it off to her agent, who sold it to her publisher.
    Her in-house editor perhaps knew that it needed a substantive edit but had a huge list of projects to work on, Cheever’s being only one of them. Plus, maybe the publicity department generated enough advance press for the book that the publication date was moved up, cutting even more time from the production schedule. So In-House Editor probably threw up her (or his) hands and passed off the manuscript to the managing editor, who probably instructed the freelance copyeditor (which is where I usually come in in this process) to do “just a light edit” and not query much. In other words, the freelancer likely was told to just fix the mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation). The freelancer, who was probably paid an hourly rate, knew that the publisher would never budget enough to pay her to edit as thoroughly as was really called for, but because she likes to keep clients, she did only the editing requested, muttering to herself as she worked, “What a waste of a good manuscript. It’s not my book. It’s not my book. It’s not …”
    This happens much more often than the big-name publishers like to admit. (Cheever’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, is one of the biggest … and is one of my former clients.)

  3. I would also imagine there comes a point in an author’s career when it’s harder to convince said author to accept editing.

  4. Yes, but the really great authors know that absolutely everyone needs an editor. (Even editors need an editor when they write.)

  5. I picked up the book with such delight from the bookstore shelf, and I have to say I had that same sense of disappointment with it. Frustrating — it could have been so fabulous!

  6. No, I haven’t read this one. I did read a friend’s book though, and didn’t like it much…now I don’t know what to say to her.

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