Book Review – Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo

9780544074811_p0_v2_s260x420This was originally supposed to be a preview but unfortunately life got in the way so now it’s a timely review. Released this past Tuesday, May 6th, Stacey D’Erasmo’s latest novel Wonderland tells the tale of Anna Brundage as she tries to revive her musical career after a lengthy hiatus. Only ever having had modest fame and success, the comeback tour brings memories of past tours and struggles to the surface. The daughter of an innovative artist whose large-scale commissions led to a nomadic childhood, she relates many of her own struggles to those she witnessed in her father. The novel has plenty of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but embarking on the road after so many years, how has Anna’s perspective on those staples changed?

The narrative is first person and disjointed, jumping back and forth in time and place. I don’t usually have difficulties placing these kinds of jumps into a larger chronological timeline, but because of the way that Anna narrates, I did and it really bothered me. There weren’t enough of those little indicators to help the readers keep track of where and when things are happening. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the novel I could even get a good feeling for how old Anna was at the start of this comeback tour (when she comes right out and says her age).

Stylistically and plot-wise, there isn’t anything particularly wrong with the novel. It delves into the abstract when describing Anna’s approach to music and to sound while I, as a writer, identify more with lyrics and the stories songs tell. Plus, while I enjoy music, I have never played an instrument with any level of proficiency. I think this is part of why I had difficulty getting into the novel and relating to Anna as a character and narrator.

The places where I felt that I could have connected to the material were her relationships to those around her, but none of those worked for me either. They all felt superficial or like the reader was only being given the tip of the iceberg and left to infer the giant mass beneath the surface. Aside from the romantic entanglements of Anna’s past, I think that the most alluded to but underdeveloped relationships are between Anna and her family. So many of the issues she faces as a musician and artist seem tied to her childhood and her relationship with her father but they’re never directly addressed in a way that actually links them.

As a narrator, she never fully confides in the reader. It leaves me begging the question of whom she’s narrating for. Is she narrating internally and lying to herself? Or is there an actual audience in mind so that she’s still wearing a mask and concealing so much of herself? It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with an unreliable narrator. In fact, many of my favorite narrators are actively trying to play mind games with the reader. But Anna doesn’t feel so much unreliable as unaware. She lacks self-awareness and her character never seems to grow towards achieving it. She reflects without assessment or evaluation.

Given that the plot is so straightforward, I would have hoped for greater character development as a counter-balance but it wasn’t there, leaving the whole novel feeling off. I’m intrigued to think about the potential had it been a third person narrative approach that left Anna’s lack of self-awareness intact but let the reader go deeper. But for me, like one of Anna’s failed albums, the novel seems to reach for something that isn’t there, for something that only a handful of people will recognize and the rest will just nod politely before moving on to the next thing.

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