"This Book Will Save Your Life"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage SEP 30, 2006)
"And it all became about the money, making enough to impress her and then enough to protect himself, and then just raking it in, making money from money. There was so much money out there, money that could be his for just having an opinion, a point of view, making a good guess. It was the game of money, the fun of money, it was addictive, and he kept winning. He’d tell himself that he’d won two million dollars, he’d won a big bonus, he’d won the admiration of all of those around him who took it to heart, who took it seriously, who got eaten up but it. It’s a game, he told everyone—it doesn’t mean you don’t want to win, but you have to be willing to lose, you have to not take it personally, It’s only paper."
In the novel This Book Will Save Your Life author A.M. Homes zones in on the life of middle-aged wealthy day trader Richard Novak. Divorced and alone, Novak spends his days in his Hollywood Hills home tweaking his investments via the internet and following strict nutritional and exercise programmes. Novak’s sole relationships are with his house cleaner Cecelia, his nutritionist Sylvia, his trainer and his masseuse. Novak’s life is so regimented, he rarely ever leaves his house, and he retains scant contact with his estranged teenage son, Ben who lives in New York with Novak’s career-driven ex-wife.
One evening Novak begins to experience excruciating pain, and he ends up in the emergency room where he’s diagnosed with…absolutely nothing. He ambles home to his lonely house and then discovers that a large sinkhole has appeared. These two events—the trip to the emergency room coupled with the appearance of the sinkhole precipitate a tremendous change in Novak’s life. Suddenly he finds himself unleashed—he establishes relationships with a bizarre range of characters—Anhil, the BMW-obsessed immigrant owner of a doughnut shop, Cynthia-the runaway housewife, and Nic, a counter-cultural 60s icon/screenwriter.
Homes does not dabble much with character development, and Novak’s bizarre adventures in the pow-wow-drum-beating-male-gathering-meditative-silent-retreat set of wealthy Los Angeles elites is never explored much in terms of motivation. Instead, Homes’ novel is an allegorical journey as Novak attempts to navigate through his catastrophic midlife crisis. Perhaps it was a good idea for Novak to stay secluded in his house—it’s not safe out there, and Novak can’t seem to leave his home without meeting disaster in some form or another.
There are elements to this novel that make it all too easy to dismiss. For we Plebs, for example, it’s great fun to read Novak’s story and dismiss his emotional distress as bourgeois angst—Novak is wildly wealthy and subject to episodes of outrageously misplaced generosity—and the novel provides a niggardly side-glee of no slight self-satisfaction to note Novak’s misery in spite of his liberating wealth. Homes seems to enjoy poking fun at Novak’s many attempts to place meaning into his bland life. At one point he attends a silent retreat that is conducted with almost nauseating hypocrisy. The guests—who are forbidden to speak—spend their silent mealtimes farting—thanks to a brown rice and lentil diet. Novak’s fellow silent retreaters write messages of protest against the rules on the bathroom walls. Yet while Homes pokes fun at this, she pulls back and allows Novak to actually gain something from the experience. Similarly, Novak’s diet is regimented by his nutritionist who supplies Novak with baggies full of healthy food. Some of it sounds quite appalling, and explains Novak’s attraction to the fatty, squishy doughnuts offered by Anhil, but once again Homes pulls back from dismissing the regimented diet as complete lunacy, and by the end of the book, the nutritionist’s food will be sold next to the doughnuts.
Nic, the wealthy, reclusive screenwriter acts as the authorial voice on several occasions, and yet he’s hardly the moral authority here either. He waddles around hooked up to an IV line to feed himself vitamins, and yet often spends the evening with various narcotics. According to Nic, “we live in a time when no one wants to remember. We pretend we are where it starts. Look at the way we live—we build houses on cliffs, on fault lines, in the path of things, and when something happens, we build it again right on the same spot, bigger, better.”
Ultimately Homes seems to say that the attempt to seek elusive answers to the meaning of life from so many exterior resources is the natural result of modern existence. Anhil—who observes the habits of Americans with mystifying sagacity wryly notes “Americans try on the spiritual life of others like they don’t have any of their own.” Novak’s disastrous odyssey through LA eventually allows him to come to terms with the major flaws in his life and his reunion with his son is both disappointing and realistic. Homes does not treat her characters with affection—but with a smattering of generosity—for everyone in these pages has problems, and everyone is flawed. Ultimately, the novel won’t save your life, but it may cause you to think about it.
- Amazon readers rating: from 51 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Jack (1989)
- Safety of Objects : Stories (1990)
- In A Country of Mothers (1993)
- The End of Alice (1996)
- Music for Torching (1999)
- Things You Should Know: Stories (2002)
- This Book Will Save Your Life (2006)
- May We Be Forgiven (September 2012)
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- Official website for the A.M. Homes
- Barcelona interview regarding The End of Alice
- Village Voice review of Music for Torching
- Reading Guide for Things You Should Know
- Salon Magazine review of Things You Should Know
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Mistress's Daughter
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About the Author:
Amy Michael Homes was born in 1961 in Washington, D.C. and grew up in its suburbs.
She has been the recipient of numerous awards including Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, NYFA, and The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, along with the Benjamin Franklin Award, and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.
She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and the New School and lives in New York City, New York.