Full Title: Wax: Pearl Harbor Changed Everything
Author: Therese Ambrose Smith
Publisher: Blue Star Books (2011)
Number of Pages: 324
How long it took me to read: 1 week, 5 days
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
Like a Moth to a Flame
When I received the book in the mail, I was excited to read historical fiction. I hadn’t read one in a while. An endorsement from Dr. James Tipton on the back cover was a good sign. He was one of my creative writing teachers as an undergrad. The author’s bio states she went through UCLA’s “Writer’s Program.” I wasn’t sure if this was a college extension program or an actual MFA. Either way, it sounded promising.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book (cut from a shortlist of 14 and a long list of about fifty) are:
5. “The first time Sylvia saw her, Tilly was forcing a canvas duffel through the door of Airstream No. 27. The bag was as wide as the door, but fortunately, it was soft sided. Sylvia watched as Tilly manipulated the bulk of it and pushed it through. The operation reminded her of the chef stuffing sausage back at the Kansas City steakhouse that, until last month, has been her place of employment for over a decade.” (p.39)
4. “They said little as they drove north through San Pedro Point, Linda Mar, Valley Mar and other small communities north of Montara Mountain. Each village now hosted seaward facing bunkers. Carved from the Salinian granite and sedimentary rock underlying the bluffs, the bunkers were reinforced with concrete, protecting the coast from a foreign enemy. The Pacific Ocean wasn’t enough.” (p.29)
3. “The building superintendent responded slowly to the bell; they waited on the mat. A peeling blue door opened to reveal an unshaven man unlatching the chain. He was wearing a white, cotton undershirt with deep-cut armholes and dark hair curling at the neck.” (p.73)
2. “But Tilly couldn’t take her eyes off Sylvia, who was wearing a new emerald green dress that clung to her ample curves. She touched up the roots of her bottle-red hair and wore perfume that was more spicy than sweet. Tilly decided that Sylvia might be the sexiest woman she’d ever met. Not sexy like a pinup, but sexy like a real woman.” (p.94)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “The Blue Diamond was about escape, excess and extravagance. There were no windows to the outside world and the lighting was low. If sound could be described as a color, what she heard would be smoky blue. Fabrics were heavy, velvety, lush, and they deadened the ambient noise so that intimate conversation was possible; couples sat close together. The carpet felt like down underfoot.” (p.94)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“From the first couple of chapters, I can see a nice use of contrast. We are given glimpses of right before and right after tremendous change in American history. Smith starts each chapter with a specific date, which helps because of the jumping around in time.
“Smith also uses cultural icons to help situate us in the forties. I’m currently working on a short story that is set in the seventies, and I’ve been working on cultural images and icons to sprinkle into the narrative. I also like that Smith’s novel is set in Northern California, and I am able to recognize the towns her characters are from.”
“There are so many clichés in the narrative that are making me flinch, each time taking me out of the story. Why doesn’t the narrator ever dig deeper into the characters’ thoughts, motivations and more meaningful self-reflections? This would help tremendously to make their actions more visceral and believable. There is such an ambivalence between the characters, especially in what should be emotionally-charged moments.”
“Clearly, Smith has done her homework. Her research is quite extensive, so much so, that we must be reminded of it on nearly every page. Dialogue is often used to convey such information, from characters who either wouldn’t know the historical information or wouldn’t care to look it up, which I imagine was a much more complicated process in the 1940’s. It’s not like these characters could’ve ‘googled’ their information. This leads me to another issue with the dialogue. The characters are too modern in their speech and in their reactions to going against social norms. Why would Tilly have such an ‘open-minded’ uncle? Perhaps I’d believe it if we could’ve delved into his background for a sentence or two. And that’s the crux of the issue I’m having with this book. It is mostly devoid of any concrete, tangible details that immerse the reader in the story. Any descriptions are painted with a very broad brush (and I am being very generous when I use that metaphor).”
“It is evident Smith knows her history. But does she know how to write fiction? She name-drops Bay Area cities as if they’re one-name celebrities we all should know, like Cher or Bono or Madonna who need no explanation because they are icons, and all we need to do is fill in the blanks. I happen to live in the Bay Area, so when names like Richmond, San Francisco, Monterey are mentioned, I can fill in the blanks with my own notions of what it might have been like in those places in the forties. But what about the readers who aren’t from around here, and who didn’t spend their formative years memorizing the names and dates of California history? To them, I imagine, these are just names floating in their imagination.
“This brings me around to my question. One of the first basic lessons I learned in creative writing is that a story needs to be grounded in specific, concrete details. Teachers drum this into your head, from high school through grad school. (I learned this from Dr. Tipton, so his endorsement of the book is surprising.) If there aren’t any setting details, physical attributes, or sensory details, what can the reader connect to? How does the reader sink into the story? And saying ‘you are leaving it up to the reader’s imagination’ is a poor excuse. It means the writer isn’t doing his job, which is to create a fictional world with language.
“Smith simply hasn’t done all the work. She leaves too many blanks for me to have to fill in. I want to read what Tilly is actually experiencing in the moment, and I want those moments to be meaningful, authentic, and painful, if necessary, because they reveal to me a complex human being that I can relate to and sympathize with, but Smith avoids revealing any emotional complexity in her characters. For example, after telling (as opposed to showing) us of Tilly’s ambivalence to Mark, her boyfriend, she discards him like yesterday’s newspaper. However, we don’t get to actually experience this through scene. All we get is Tilly sitting in front of her mirror, brushing her hair (and that’s all we ever get for a descriptor for Tilly: her long, dark hair), imagining or projecting her break-up conversation with Mark. The next scene is her mother observing how happy her daughter seems after her break-up. Talk about a complete avoidance of an emotionally charged moment. A missed opportunity. Beginning writers avoid such moments, partly to protect their characters and partly because it is difficult to write scenes that require vulnerability and honesty of the writer herself.
“It’s obvious from the beginning that Mark is a minor character. He never rises above the Cro-Magnon, monosyllabic grunts of a stock character. And in that, he becomes little more than setting details, which we have so little of already. But to not let the reader experience the actual break up and to not let us read Mark’s reaction and the consequences of Tilly’s decision to completely change the direction of her life, is a wasted opportunity for deeper characterization and for creating a more meaningful relationship between character and action.”
“Amazing how we get such clear, descriptive details for very minor characters, while central characters only get the typical and shallow clichés about eyes and hair.”
“I just endured the melodrama of Tilly’s temporary blindness. Tilly might’ve gotten my sympathy when this happened, except I was again subjected to another history lecture. I can feel the author’s obvious hand when Tilly is helped by a minor character, who she can’t see but is later surprised to find out her good Samaritan is a black woman. The problem is that I was not at all surprised. I saw it coming paragraphs away. I’m getting rather tired of the tidbits of history that do nothing to push the story forward or provide meaningful characterization. I wanted to read a historical novel not a history book disguised as a novel.”
“Wax has no interesting characters, even when they should be. Sylvia, the closeted lesbian, or maybe she’s bisexual, is the closest we get. Either way, you would think it would be worthy, even revealing, to read how it might have been to live in an era, where being anything other than heterosexual needed to be repressed, hidden and denied for fear of societal reprisal. I suppose that would be far too interesting for Smith to explore. Instead Sylvia has meaningless sex with a young soldier who reminds her of her newly deceased nephew. I’d say that was a pretty odd way to start the grieving process, not to mention the ‘ick’ factor in such an act. If one of my nephews died in a war, the last thing I’d want to do is to have sex with someone who reminded me of him.
“One of the problems with this scene is that I have no prior engagement with this nephew to help me sympathize with Sylvia’s grief. On the page, her emotion appears shallow and unauthentic. Since Smith refuses to ground her scenes with specific descriptive details, I have nothing to imagine, nothing to carry me off into that world. If Smith is unwilling to invest in the characters and their relationships, why should the reader?”
“Now after eighty pages, there is an inkling of an actual story: an uncle, who Doris never met, dies and leaves Doris with a mystery to solve. Only I don’t care. Nor do I believe any of it. As I slog through pages of shallow scenes and meaningless, mundane actions from her characters, I am resentful of having to endure a narrative of empty fillers and unnecessary historical facts. In truth, history overtakes the story, not that there is much of it. It is painfully obvious Smith wanted to get all her research out on paper. And that’s a big problem here. This isn’t an academic paper. It’s supposed to be a work of art, of fiction.”
“The scene breaks are inconsistent and confusing. Smith employs either white space or three dots to indicate a scene break. To a short fiction writer, who looks for meaning in everything in a narrative, I want to know what the significance is between the two. Then there are the dates that start out each chapter. They are starting to annoy me, especially since they’re completely unnecessary. After the temporal jumping around in the first couple of chapters, the plot becomes completely linear. I don’t need to know that a scene is occurring in December if the characters are celebrating Christmas together.”
“I have to talk myself into picking up this book, if only to read a few more pages. That can’t be a good sign. I really want to give this story a chance, so here I am, waiting at the dentist and dreading the next page more than the dentist’s drill.”
“I keep asking myself, where was an editor in all this? The book clearly needed more serious editing rounds before being published. A good editor would have coached Smith about all the deficiencies – many of them basic fiction writing mistakes and misfires – in her narrative. An editor should have told Smith that a good story will connect the reader to the essential who, what and where: characterization, ground situation, setting, etc.
“Simply put, I need to know what it’s like to walk in the character’s shoes. Tell me the physical, the immediate and the surrounding environment or situation, but don’t tell me the emotion the character is feeling. Don’t say she’s angry, confused or sad, and especially in those words. Show me. Show me in the way she uniquely experiences her world, like the drizzling rain for a heart-broken lover, the hustle and noise of the city to a lost child. In other words, use descriptive words, please. Bonus points for including craft tools like assonance, alliteration and lyricism. Without it, the story doesn’t breathe, doesn’t live. Instead, it is flat and lifeless, like wax.”