Tuesday, April 7, 2009

REVIEW: Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. Published 2009 by Algonquin. Literary Fiction.

I've been dreading writing my review of Mudbound, Hillary Jordan's debut novel, about a family who moves to a farm in rural Mississippi in the 1940s, ever since I finished it. I wanted to like it- I really did. Mudbound has been selling well and is getting a lot of good buzz, and I was excited to receive it unexpectedly from the publisher. The author and I are alumnae of the same college (Wellesley)- and it's always nice to see a Wellesley woman doing well for herself. But alas, sisterhood only gets you so far, and like it I did not.

First of all, let me say that it's not without its good points. Jordan is a skilled writer and has crafted a strong, character-driven narrative about a family surviving in difficult circumstances, with lots of tension just under the surface. Her characters are solid and well-defined, each with a distinctive voice and point of view. Laura McAllan is an urban, educated woman and a spinster who is charmed into marriage with Henry, who seems to want the same things she does. But as it turns out, Henry has hoodwinked her, believing (more or less correctly) that she is desperate enough to marry the first good-smelling man to ask her, and sweeps her away to his muddy homestead to be a farm wife. Here Laura endures all manner of deprivations- no running water, no electricity, dirt, pestilence, and various unseemly rural neighbors, the unseemliest being her own father-in-law Pappy, a cartoonishly evil racist with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She also gets to know Jamie, Henry's formerly charming cad of a brother, now a washed up alcoholic veteran of World War 2. Laura has dealings with the Jackson family, poor blacks who live on the land, including salt of the earth wise-woman Florence and her son Ronsel, another WW2 veteran.

The drama is slow to build but centers around the racist whites and Ronsel; the denouement, almost seven-eighths of the way through, is harrowing and violent. The novel opens with the Pappy's death but takes all that time to get back around to filling in the details. In the mean time, we are treated to day to day life on the farm, Jamie and Ronsel's war experiences and post-war friendship and many other plots and turns of character. The narrative alternates between several characters- too many, in my opinion, and this cacophony of voices made it hard for me to connect with any one character. Having said that, I enjoyed Jordan's passages about farm life, about its economics and about its privations. I can tell that Jordan did a lot of research on these topics.

But on balance, I didn't enjoy Mudbound. Why? Several reasons. First, the characters. When I was in high school English class, a teacher once explained that the way to tell what a book is about, or who the main character is, is to see who changes over the course of the story. The thing about Mudbound is, nobody changes. Nobody learns anything, nobody grows- it's like there's no point at all to what the characters go through. As Lisa Simpson once said, it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. In the end everyone moves on in their own way, clinging to their same old beliefs, and nothing is different.

So what's the book about? Racism, maybe. But if so, Mudbound is a book about racism that condemns it (itself an easy, audience-pandering point to score- who's going to write the pro-racism book, after all?) while at the same time allowing the reader to indulge it, between Jordan's absolutely excessive overuse of the N-word (it appears on nearly every other page) and that every single character is a racist to one degree or another. Even Laura, the most obviously likeable character, is condescending at best in her attitudes. I also think that Jordan's portrayal of Ronsel as a martyred saint is condescending in and of itself. And don't tell me, well, Jordan's just reflecting the attitudes of the time and place. That excuse is just not good enough.

Reading Mudbound, I just spent lots of time being disturbed and upset and uncomfortable for lots of reasons, with very little payoff. I know I'm pretty much the only person who didn't like Mudbound, but that's okay with me.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

28 comments:

candyschultz said...

There have been many bestsellers which I couldn't stand. You should not feel bad about being alone. It just shows your discretion. Besides, as you describe it, I wouldn't like it either.

candyschultz said...

P. S. And your opinion matters to me.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

At first, I thought you were describing a plot similar to the Goldie Hawn comedy Overboard, but it sounds like this book isn't very amusing! But I find it interesting that your teacher advised you to see who changes over the course of the story. That assumes that people *can* change, which I think is an assumption, not necessarily a fact. It might be saying something as well that nobody does change. However, it sounds like there are some cardboard characters in this book, like Pappy and Florence, and those sorts of portrayals can ruin the credibility of the story. And really, I felt a similar way, I think, with Light in August - all that racism, n-wording, and violence may have been authentic, but I just wanted to take a shower!

Sandra said...

Sorry to hear it wasn't a better read for you. You expressed your points well so that we can understand your viewpoint. We're all different and I think we've all disliked some book that most others praised. It's always nice to see an honest review.

bermudaonion said...

Sorry this one didn't work for you.

Jen said...

Oh jeez, I read that as Mudblood (too much Harry Potter has addled my brains)

Doesn't sound like my kind of book though ^_^

Marie said...

rhapsody- but if nobody changes- nobody learns anything, or grows, or evolves, what's the point? jordan is a good writer but she's no faulkner!

Seaside Book worm said...

Thank you for the great wisdom from your english professpr. I wanted to read this book last year when it came out. The synopsis drew me. I did not purchase it then. I saw the softcover and rediscovered it. But the synopsis did not do anything for me. Maybe because of the racism there are plenty of books on the subject. Thank you for sharing. Not every book you are going to like, that reviewers or other bloggers. There are books for different strokes for different folks. Something like that.

Lenore said...

I've been wanting to read this, but when I hear that none of the characters change...I don't think I can handle that.

Lotus Reads said...

I have learned the hard way that "bestsellers" do not necessarily include books I am going to enjoy. I love how you crafted your review BB, it is an excellent example of how to write about a book that you didn't necessarily like without thrashing the book. Well done!

Jules said...

Like others said, there have been some bestsellers or books with great reviews, which I couldn't stand, or n general see why they were so popular. The book sounds like it had some potential, but fell short somewhere. Thanks for the review.

Literary Feline said...

I have read mixed reviews of this one, and I do plan to read it one day. It'll be interesting to see what I ned up thinking of it when I'm done.

Zibilee said...

I don't think this is the book for me. I have been hearing about this book for awhile now, and like you said, mostly people thought it was great. There was something niggling me when I read the books summary, and after reading your review I am really glad I didn't order this one. Not really a fan of stagnant characters or over use of the "N" word.

Alyce said...

I have a hard enough time reading books with overt racism and the N word without adding in characters that don't change. This doesn't really sound like a book that would appeal to me.

Anna said...

Thanks for the honest review. I had my eye on this one, but now I'm not so sure. I agree that you like to see character evolution; I think it makes the story richer. Just a bunch of stuff that happens and no change doesn't really interest me.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

gautami tripathy said...

I read it and I am glad I did. Actually nothing has changed. We see racism in onr form or the other.

See how Indian students are being attacked in Australia. If it isn;t racism, then what is?

Actually I fel Ronsel evolves. His thoughts in a way summarises the book.

Not all of us can love all the books we read.

BTW, I am linking your review with mine:


Mudbound

Brian said...

I am reading the novel now and find it fantastically interesting.

I am also enjoying the chapters being narrated by the characters themselves. I've not seen this before in a novel. I think I've seen it in a movie, but not a novel.

Marie said...

Brian, I think it would make an interesting movie! Thanks for stopping by!

nancy said...

I am going to my book club tonight to talk about "Mudbound" and I desperately needed some support for my feeling that this was not a great book. I know all the ladies in the club will like it and be weepy about all the bad things that racism brings but books need to do more that just tell about "..a bunch of stuff that happens" . Thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting into words what I was thinking when I jumped from Chapter One to the End so that I could say I read the book.
Whew, It is nice not to be alone.
Nancy

Brian said...

Nancy,

That's kind of cheating isn't it?

Marie said...

Nancy, thank you for your nice comment :-) I'm glad I'M not the only one!

Brian, it was all for the best, trust me.

judy said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I thought it was just the writing that I did not enjoy but you helped me see the lack of growth in the characters as another problem. Also, what about Laura? Her story is like some Old Testament moral tale.

Anne said...

I had to search to find your review - thank you! I kept thinking about the profound Southern writer Larry Brown and how his characters live, truly, and how he brings you into their lives so deeply that you understand even his most racist folks. This book doesn't hold a candle to any of his.

Wendy said...

I TOTALLY agree with you! Just finished this book...and was disappointed by it. I linked your review to mine :)

Marie said...

Wendy- thank you! :-)

Suzanne said...

I have just finished reading Mudbound. I also did not like the book, but couldn't put my finger on why. This review perfectly articulated my reasons for disliking a book that I wanted to like.

LynT said...

I loved this book. And I disagree about Laura. She did change.

Barbara said...

You are not the only person who didn't like Mudbound. It was chosen by my book group, and I'm glad the audio version has the six characters read by six different voice actors. Otherwise I would have died of boredom. Flat, stock characters; painfully predictable plot line (if you can even call it that); superficial treatment of social issues; garden-variety prose -- honestly, if this is what's coming out of MFA programs, we're in real trouble. I can only hope that it was written to a market.