1 out of 4 stars
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Two sets of twins are born on the same day: VJ and Ben Smith and Will and Joanna Brown. They and their families meet, intermarry and become inextricably intertwined. Life in a Box by JoDee Neathery begins in 1998, when 76-year old VJ and Ben are found dead on a beach in California. They have taken an overdose of drugs and alcohol. VJ's daughter, Andee, is devastated to lose her mother. When going through VJ's things, she discovers a pink box full of letters and other mementos, labeled "Life in a Box". Inside, she finds a letter from her mother addressed to her, asking her to piece together the story of the two families and to write a novel based on it. Determined to fulfill this mission, she dives into the journals and letters in the box and starts telling the story.
The rest of the book is divided into three parts: "The Smiths", "The Browns" and "The Unions". Twins Victoria Jeanne (VJ) and Ben Smith are born in 1922. Their older sister, Muriel, is a dreamy and sickly child with an imaginary friend called Hilda. For her mental and physical health, Muriel takes horse-riding lessons. When she's a teenager, she meets Sonny Brown at the horse stables, falls in love with him and marries him. Sonny's younger siblings, twins Will and Joanna, were born on the same day as VJ and Ben. At the wedding, VJ and Will meet and fall in love with each other. The brothers, Sonny and Will, do not like each other; an animosity that only intensifies with the years. The story follows the families through the years until WWII, when something happens that alters the course of each of their lives, and that of their offspring, forever.
This book is a sprawling historical novel spanning the better part of a century and four generations. It is densely populated by a cast of many characters. The language is flowery, expansive and full of literary references. It is also overwhelming, confusing and sometimes hard to get through. My honest feeling about this book is that it is too ambitious, trying to achieve an epic family history but not managing to pull it off. The concept of two sets of twins born at the same day meeting and marrying each other, and the story following their family through the years is a very interesting one. The secret VJ carries is dramatic and life-changing. But this promising concept isn't developed the way it could have been. The way I see it, too much time is spent dwelling on things that ultimately don't matter to the story, and not enough time is spent maximizing the effect of crucial elements. There are many characters who could have been left out and who only complicate the already meandering story, while others, who are important to the story, aren't developed very well at all.
I found Life in a Box difficult to get into. The first part of the novel is not very interesting. It follows Andee and her husband, Scott, who designs and develops golf courses, introduces Scott's entire family and informs us about Andee's battle with cancer. It also introduces Jackson, Muriel's son, and his daughter Flynn. I want to specifically mention the chapter in which Andee and her husband go to stay with Scott's family, because I found it deeply disturbing. At some point during dinner, Scott's father stands up and starts singing the American South's praises, saying: "The War Between the States, my children, divided our great country because those in the North didn't agree we in the South had the right to own slaves." (pg. 21). He then continues telling the children about General Robert E. Lee and what a great man he was. He reads out a sugary sweet exchange of letters between three little girls and the general.
I am not an American and I don't know much about American history and Southern culture. I don't know exactly how this passage comes across in the eyes of an American. But I found it absolutely chilling. Why refer to the terrible history of slavery as "we in the South had the right to own slaves"..? To me, this goes beyond racism – it sounds like white supremacy. I was very uncomfortable reading this and I gave up on the book for some time, which is why it took me so long to finish it. I did eventually decide to continue reading. No North-South argument is ever mentioned again, which in a way makes this chapter even more disturbing. If the book was set in the 'Deep South' and concentrated on Southern history and culture, the passage would be more in context. But it isn't - most of it is set in California. We never meet Scott's family again. The entire chapter could have been left out without it affecting the story in any way. Surely any book would be better off without sounding like it condones slavery?
The story of the Browns and the Smiths is more interesting than the first part, but suffers from the same ailments: too many descriptions, too many adjectives, too many unimportant detours, not enough character development. Another problem I noticed with this book is the lack of a point of view. It isn't that the point of view changes often or isn't consistent, but rather that there isn't one at all. The entire novel reads like it is being told by a narrator outside the story, not from the point of view of the characters. We don't often know what the characters think or feel. Only their words, actions and circumstances are described. This creates a very strange, detached reading experience, where it is impossible to identify with the protagonists – or even to identify who the protagonists are and who are supporting characters.
In the historical part, too, there are passages that touch on racism and white supremacy. VJ tells people proudly about her all-white, all-European heritage. Catherine wants to be a member of the KKK, saying: "What's wrong with law-abiding residents dedicated to the defense of American values?" (pg. 106). The children interrogate a Native American athlete, asking if he scalps people. Japanese internment camps are presented as a positive thing, something that protects Americans.
Another issue I would like to point out is the editing. There are quite a few typos, spelling and punctuation mistakes in this book. What caught my attention most is the lack of question marks, as in: "How did this happen," asked Scott (pg. 53). The lack of commas and sometimes strange word order makes the already long sentences even harder to read, as in: "Tucked in a corner of downtown LA Clara led Catherine up orange-painted stairs to the second floor occupied by the Kong Chev Chinese Buddhist Temple." (pg. 118).
Despite all of this, there was one thing I loved about this book: the character of Muriel Smith. She is unique, quirky, funny and endearing. Her imaginary friend, Hilda Hatter Otter, keeps her company throughout her life and even sends letters to the family, keeping Muriel's siblings informed of the latest developments. Muriel's love of horses since she was a little girl is something I share and can identify with. This book isn't actually about two sets of twins – it is about VJ and Will, Sonny and Muriel. Ben is at most a supporting character and Joanna plays practically no part in the story at all.
I did not enjoy reading Life in a Box, although it does have some redeeming qualities. I rate this book 1 out of 4 stars. I'm sorry I can't give it a more positive review. I did not enjoy it because of the flowery, adjective-heavy writing, the frequent unimportant detours in the story, the lack of a clear point of view and the lack of character development. But the most important negative point is the distinct thread of racism running through the book. I can't give any stars to a book that fails to condemn white supremacy. I honestly cannot recommend this book to anyone, but especially not to readers who value a realistic view of history that does not downplay racism.
Life in a Box
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