Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni should come with an instant refund
I want my money back.
I've typed and deleted at least 17 opening lines for this review, stumped by the prospect of finding a civil way to express my displeasure with this book and its publisher.

The premise was golden.  The reviews were glittering.  The words and the heart and the soul of this book are tarnished and rotten.  I can only assume that the publisher, Penguin, has paid off everyone from the the New York Times to USA Today in an effort to generate reviews good enough to get me to buy the book.   I want my $16 back.  

Let me attempt to make my case:

Minor Quibbles

1.  The title.  
Angelology.  It's clunky and awkward, as are words like "angelologists" and "angeleological."  Was there no interesting descriptive phrase or snippet of a Bible verse that could have sufficed?

2.  The cover.  
Could they have made this look more like an ad for a saints and sinners ball at a gay S&M club?  Ugh.  (If you haven't seen the cover, a quick Google image search will do the trick.)

Major Quibbles

1.  The writing.  
It's bad, folks.  Way too many compound sentences, too many coordinating conjunctions, too
many obvious thoughts, too much telling instead of showing, too many cliched descriptions and emotions, too many stilted and artificial lines of dialogue.  A few cringe-worthy examples:

Exhibit A
"Throughout the remaining weeks of October, Gabriella and I spent our days in Dr. Seraphina's office, working with quiet determination as we cataloged and organized the mountains of information.  The intensity of our schedule and the passion with which I strove to understand the materials before me left me too exhausted to ponder Gabriella's increasingly strange behavior" (173).

This sounds like schlock from the 19th century, B-level Balzac or a wannabe Bronte.  Why "quiet" determination?  To distinguish from "noisy" determination?   Why not describe the feel of the character's fingers, desiccated by shuffling papers?  Why not describe Celestine as she's keeping her eyes open, struggling against sleep, instead of merely telling us she's exhausted?  Also, since she's described Gabriella's behavior for us, she doesn't need to repeat that it's "increasingly strange."  We know.  We were there.

Exhibit B
"Standing in her white cotton briefs and cotton undershirt (standard garments ordered in bulk and distributed biyearly to all the sisters at St. Rose), she looked at herself with an appraising, analytic eye--the thin arms and legs, the flat stomach, the tousled brown hair, the golden pendant resting upon her breastbone.  The reflection floating on the glass before her was that of a sleepy young woman" (5).

"Biyearly"?  Google's dictionary function defines "biyearly" as every two years OR twice a year.  Which is it?  Was it too much trouble to distinguish between biannual and biennial?  Why use both "appraising" and "analytic"?  What's the difference?  Surely there's a better way than the old look-in-a-mirror gimmick to describe the main character's appearance.  And, having resorted to that gimmick, Trussoni then gives us absolutely nothing unique.  We get a thin, brown-haired girl.  That's it.  A totally wasted opportunity.  Does she have freckles?  Eye color?  Interesting shape to the nose?  Bangs?  Anything we can use to picture this
character?  Thin and brown-haired could be Angelina Jolie or Laura Bush.  And why that last sum-it-up sentence?  Why do we need to be told she's a sleepy young woman?  Thanks to the handy time stamp at the chapter's beginning, we know it's 4:45 am.  Unless she's superwoman, she's probably sleepy.  And unless she's a space alien confirming that her ectomorphic disguise is still in place, do we really need it confirmed that she's a young woman?

Exhibit C
"Her face had flushed as she spoke, and for a fleeting moment Evangeline could imagine the intense young woman who had arrived at St. Rose Convent more than fifty years before.  The physical effort of Celestine's speech overwhelmed her.  Lifting a trembling hand to her mouth, she began to cough.  She appeared to consider her physical frailty with dispassionate attention, as if noting how the mind burned brightly as ever even as the body made its way to dust" (341).

Why "a fleeting moment"?  Why not just "a moment"?  Far less cliche that way.  And why "intense young woman"?  Why not "tormented," or something a bit more descriptive?  And how awkward is "she appeared to consider her physical frailty with dispassionate attention"?  Bordering on pedantry, if you ask me.

This is what Booklist, via, calls "textured prose as seamless as the never-ending stream of prayers offered up by St. Rose Convent's Sisters of Perpetual Adoration."  Hmm.  The author bio states that Trussoni is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  Note to self:  Never go to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  It obviously doesn't help.

2. The characters.  
I've seen more developed characters in children's cereal commercials.  You don't learn who they are.  You don't learn to like them.  They wander around like adolescent dupes, unquestioning, unseeing, unsympathetic.  Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Susann Cokal notes the novel's "dewy but adaptable heroine" and "dashingly cruel villain."  Um, yeah.  Not sure which book she got in the mail, but it's not the one that I bought.

3.  The plot.  
It has more holes than a colander.

Hole the First:  The background story.  Before the flood, when humanity was just starting to get out of control, God sent 200 angels (known as "the Watchers") to keep an eye on things.  They got the hots for human women, took them as wives, and had human-angel hybrid children, called Nephilim.  The Nephilim taught their children important skills unknown to mere mortals, like metalworking and healing spells and how to apply makeup.  The Nephilim go a little power-mad, banding together to bend humans to their will.  Humanity gets pissed, and the archangels come down to earth and cast the Watchers into an abyss, where they are still held.  The Nephilim, their children, ignore their cries for help.  Everyone in the book wonders why the Nephilim didn't help their fathers.  Even a premier angelologist, Dr. Seraphina, admits the Nephilim would have been stronger with the Watchers' help.  Why don't the sons rescue the fathers?  This is never explained.  Why don't the archangels do something to stop the Nephilim, if they're the real troublemakers?  This is never explained.  Why doesn't anyone ever question the god that's supposedly behind all this?  This is never explained.  Why can't creatures as smart and divine as angels can't find a way out of a few cages in a ravine, in thousands of years?  This is not explained.  Do you sense a pattern?

Hole the Second:  The artifact everyone's searching for.  It's a magical lyre that presumably belonged to the archangel Gabriel.  The Nephilim believe it will cure them of a wasting disease that has been attacking their ranks, thanks to an angelologist's research on the effect of celestial instruments on molecular structure.  That scientist, the main character's deceased mother, believed the lyre "was the primary instrument, the one that could return the Nephilim to a state of angelic purity unseen upon earth since the time of the watchers" (280).  At the same time, when the lyre is found and assembled, one character warns another, "Nothing is known about the correct method of playing the lyre.  The horrors you could bring upon the world are unimaginable.  I beg you, stop."  (440)  So...wait a sec.  There's a scientist who claimed the lyre would heal the angels thanks to its molecular vibrations, yet at the same time, it's also powerful enough to destroy the whole freaking world.  Which is it?  Cure-all or end-all?  It should be one or the other.  These characters don't know nearly enough to be speaking with such authority.

Hole the Third:  Nephilistic genealogy.  I'm still confused on this one.  "A child born to Nephilim parents, without the slightest trace of angelic traits, might in turn produce a Nephilistic offspring.  It was an uncommon occurrence, to be sure, but not unheard of...While humans carried the genetic potential to create a Nephilistic child, the Nephilim themselves embodied the angelic ideal.  Only a Nephilistic being could develop wings" (70).  Trussoni attempts to tie in Mendelian genetics and the idea of the double-recessive gene producing angelic traits.  The character who linked angelic traits to Watson and Crick's research is presented as a genius, killed for her valuable knowledge.  This is the same character who believed the lyre would both heal angels and rip apart the fabric of the world as we know it.  Later in the book, when one of the main characters actually develops wings, she is mystified.  Another character offers a lame explanation:  "Your father and I had you examined as a little girl, and we saw that your lungs were formed like those of a Nephilistic child, but from our studies--and the work Angela had conducted on Nephilistic decline--we knew that a large percentage of Nephilim do not grow wings at all.  Genetics are not enough.  there have to be many other factors present" (441).  Did I read that correctly....genetics are not enough??  Then why did Trussoni try and tie in Mendelian genetics earlier in the book?  It feels like Trussoni is trying to be Dan Brown (or Isaac Newton) and tie in religion, mythology, and science, when she doesn't know enough about what she's talking about to do it right, resulting in ridiculous disclaimers like this quotation.  The whole scheme feels half-baked, as if she started writing before she figured out the hard and fast rules of this universe she wants to create.  I don't buy it.

4.  The timing.
Everything happens in one day.  The characters have to constantly refer back to this point with internal thoughts like, "was it only the previous morning?" (451).  The male hero, Verlaine, supposedly falls in love with the heroine, Evangeline, in 24 hours, a fact that we're repeatedly reminded of in case we forget.  It's as if Trussoni knows how illogical it all is and has to take great care to tell us that, no, it's fine, it's cool, Verlaine doesn't really understand it either:  "Recent events had left him numb.  Perhaps he was in shock.  He couldn't reconcile the world he had lived in the day before with the one he had now entered.  Sinking onto a couch, he stared through the window at the darkness beyond. Only hours before Evangeline had sat at his side on that very couch, so close he could feel her every movement.  The strength of his feelings for her baffled him.  Was it possible that he had met her only yesterday?  Now, after so little time, she filled his thoughts" (448).

Guess what?  It baffles me, too.

5.  The missing elements.
Namely, religion and God.  For a book based on a Bible verse, the novel largely ignores both of these, focusing solely on angelic cosmology.  Is this realistic?  I don't think so.  One of the main characters, Evangeline, is a sort of apprentice nun in a convent.  She rarely thinks of God, despite being in a convent for more than ten years.  The story's modern events unfold between Christmas Eve and Christmas night.  No one mentions God, or the fact that it's Christmas, the holiest day in the year for Christians.  No prayers, no moment to even recognize the significance.  In fact, the novel's chapter headings make it painfully clear when the story takes place--but there's no actual significance to the story taking place either on Christmas or in the year 1999.   The only reason I can think of for the novel's taking place in 1999 is because the sequel plans to make use of 9/11 in some reductive, sickening way.

6.  The total lapses in judgment shown by major characters.
Celestine, a young apprentice angelologist, does nothing but read and study about angels, Nephilim, and the thousands of years of struggle between the two. Then, when she sees her friend and rival Gabriella in an embrace with a man who is supremely beautiful, she fails to connect the dots.  Trussoni writes, "His skin was luminous white and appeared to me--so startled by his presence--to have an unearthly glow...Aside from the fact that male guests were restricted from visiting our apartments, there had been something disturbing about the man himself, something eerie and abnormal that I could not fully identify.  My inability to understand what I had seen and the chaotic mix of loyalty and rivalry I felt toward Gabriella made it impossible to tell Dr. Seraphina..." (131-32).

Really, kiddo?  You see a strange, glowing being making out with your roomate, in the midst of a millenia-old war between human and angel in which you are intrinsically involved, and YOU DON'T EVEN CONSIDER THE FACT THAT THE GLOWING MAN IS ONE OF THEM?  How stupid can one character be?  This would be like a fifteen-year-old Steve Irwin seeing a crocodile's scales rising up out of the water and walking on by, thinking, hmm, that's an awfully big floating log.

A second fatal lapse in judgment happens to Evangeline.  When she goes into the convent's Mission Office to see her personal file (after reading letters that reveal her family's role in the human v. Nephilim battle), she finds that her file holds much more material than she would have guessed.  She finds lab results (blood tests), handwriting analysis, notes from a doctor's visit, and x-rays.  Yet Evangeline distinctly remembers her father never taking her to a doctor when she was younger.  She ignores this glaring warning and keeps paging through the file.  Really?  Really?  You're in the midst of discovering you aren't who you think you are, that your family isn't who you think they are, that nothing is as it seems, and you skip over vital personal information that doesn't match up with your own memory of your past?  Are you that stupid?  Apparently, the answer is yes.

7.  The feel, the soul, the heart.
The book left me cold.  It made me angry for what could have been.  It made me angry at the agent, editor, and publisher who pushed this thing through the publishing process with all of these faults, so deftly described by a multitude of reviewers.  Why this book?  Why this deeply flawed book and not another, better-written manuscript?  It boggles the mind.

We, the reading public, deserve better.