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Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

You'd think I would know better than to read a book that was the source material for a movie I'm not crazy about. I thought the movie was fine, although it didn't make me cry (and I hate Jack Nicholson). But I adored Lonesome Dove which I read in the winter, and since this is considered a modern classic (and Larry McMurtry is my best friend's favorite author), it seemed like a no-brainer to give it a shot. It started off badly as I began it on the very end of the longest flight in the world (Sydney to Dallas, 16.5 hours) after not sleeping a wink. After that, I think my body just associated the book with tiredness.

I've spent a couple of days trying to really figure out what I think about the book, and the best I can come up with is, it's fine. I am having a hard time coming up with any emotional response either way. It is a fantastic character development with Aurora Greenway, but that's pretty much it. After Aurora, Vernon and Rosie were the best developed, but some character were pretty wooden (The General), or just plain confusing (Flap, Emma). Oh, and there's not really much plot to speak of. Here's what goes on, essentially:

Aurora is upset that her daughter Emma, who married young and badly, is now pregnant as she fears that becoming a grandmother will hold back her many suitors, which is how she mostly occupies herself. On a date with The General, Aurora hits Vernon with her car and he becomes suitor #4. Vernon is shocked and bowled over by Aurora but she won't marry him (nor any of the others) because he is no match for her and it wouldn't be fair. Meanwhile her maid Rosie's husband has run off even after Vernon gave him a job, we see Aurora go on various dates with her many men, and Emma exasperates her. Things come to a head when Rosie's husband is stabbed by his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend the same night Emma goes into labor. In the last bit of the book we fast-forward ten years and switch to Emma's life being the focus. She has a series of unfulfilling affairs, her relationship with Flap goes from bad to worse, yet she doesn't leave him (I'm not sure why except perhaps inertia.) And - spoiler alert - she gets cancer and dies.

I'm really not sure why the book switches to Emma at the end. Maybe to show how Aurora's theories and parenting comes home to roost? Except that it doesn't exactly. Emma neither repeats her mother's mistakes nor goes so far in the other direction to be a complete reaction to Aurora. The beginning and middle of the book are more languorous, taking 250 pages to get through about 6 months. Then we just skip 10 years altogether, and fast-forward through about two years in the last 50 pages. The pacing is off, the tone changes abruptly, and I still don't understand the purpose for the great shift.

That said, Mr. McMurtry is a master with words. His dialogue, imagery, and descriptions are spot-on. Aurora is both a completely unique character, and yet totally believable. (Emma on the other hand is a bit of a dishrag.) I really wish he'd just stuck with her. It truly is Aurora's story, after all. I really did enjoy spending time with her, as cranky and moody and flaky as she could be. I also really liked Rosie and Vernon, who were both endearing in wildly different ways. I wish the storyline with Vernon hadn't just tapered off. I wish the women in the book weren't so willing to put up with wretched behavior from their men: Flap tries to throw pregnant Emma out of a window, Rosie's husband tries to run her over with a truck, even Rosie's daughter's husband is abusive. Maybe Aurora is supposed to be a counterpoint to all of those women by her authority and refusal to put up with anything? Except that she does. I'm sure The General isn't physically abusive in any way, but he does seem to be emotionally abusive, rigid, cantankerous, and argumentative.

I did very much like the title. I'm sure most people assume it's referring to words like "darling" and "honey" that we use to refer to our loved ones, but that's not what it means at all. It refers to the terms under which we are willing to have relationships, almost like terms of a truce. I love titles with multiple meanings.

And if you're a big fan of the movie, be warned that it's quite a bit different, starting with the movie mostly being from the last 25% of the book, and the very unlikable General being transformed into the Astronaut (who, despite being played by Jack Nicholson, is supposed to be wily and irascible and seduces Aurora with his love of life and playfulness. That's pretty much the opposite of how The General is written.) I do think the casting of both Aurora and Vernon were perfect and I did keep imagining Shirley McLain and Danny Devito while reading the book.

So it turned out to be not a great book from a plot and pacing angle, but the characterizations and writing were almost enough to overcome that. Almost, but not quite.

And when did they stop putting movie stills in movie tie-in editions? I really enjoyed my little 8-page photo insert.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

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