Book Review: Family by Micol Ostow
Goodreads Description: It is a day like any other when seventeen-year-old Melinda Jensen hits the road for San Francisco, leaving behind her fractured home life and a constant assault on her self-esteem. Henry is the handsome, charismatic man who comes upon her, collapsed on a park bench, and offers love, a bright new consciousness, and—best of all—a family. One that will embrace her and give her love. Because family is what Mel has never really had. And this new family, Henry’s family, shares everything. They share the chores, their bodies, and their beliefs. And if Mel truly wants to belong, she will share in everything they do. No matter what the family does, or how far they go.
My Review: **There will be some minor-ish spoilers for the climax in this review.
Well... it was a book all right.
I picked up Family many years ago and added it to my TBR pile because I'm a fan of fucked up things, generally, so an exploration into cult dynamics seemed right up my alley. Over the years that it's sat at the bottom of my pile, I forgot (or never realized) that this was a verse novel, which is not something I usually partake in. Regardless, I did find myself enjoying the verse style at times, especially because it allowed the author to touch on some poetic emotions that might have been considered superfluous in a traditional narrative. As a fan of purplier prose, I did enjoy this, but quickly found the style tiresome in its repetition. A lot of the book felt like the same lines over and over, and I honestly wonder how much book would be left if all the repetition was removed. Some of this repetition worked to reinforce ideas, and other times it just became annoying.
The verse style also focused more on the main character's emotions than communicating details of the plot, which gave the impression of an unreliable (if not just freakin' clueless) narrator. Because of this, what actually happens isn't the focus, leaving a thin plot that bordered on boring and stereotypical. Part of my interest in this book, and what the back cover bragged it was, was an exploration of someone pulled into a cult. I was under the impression that the book would showcase the transformation: how someone from an ordinary life could turn into a cult member willing to commit murder. However, that was not what I got. I can't blame the verse for this either, this was just plain poor writing. The book presented Mel, the main character, as born broken, a concept that is highly problematic. Mel lived in an abusive home, with her mother emotionally neglecting her while her step-father sexually abused her. This is a fairly stereotypical set-up for a runaway situation, but not a death knell, if only the author put some development into Mel herself. Instead, Mel is the perfect cult member before she even joins the cult. The first time Mel meets Henry, the cult leader, she describes him as if she's already a devoted member: talking as if he's god, with abstract descriptions that give me no sense of who Henry is, aside from perfect. There is no attempt to show how a stranger on the street could become someone so important to Mel that she would willingly surrender her identity without thinking about it. It gave the impression that Mel is just 'crazy,' leading into that premise of some people just being 'born broken.' We don't see how she loses herself to the cult, from page one, she just willingly submits, taking a lot of the power out of the novel. Instead of reading about someone's fall, I instead get a boring story about a family who commits a murder, without any interesting plot twists. If the author wanted to focus more on emotions and relationships, they still could have accomplished this while having the 'murder plot' still be fairly simple, but there's no effort put into the character dynamics, nor does the book dig into how these dynamics could influence the cult 'family,' which would have made for a far more interesting book. Instead, the cult members all seemed like a hive mind at times, with only hints that they might have their own thoughts and ideas.
Finally, that ending just pissed me right off. If you're going to commit to writing a novel about cult members who do bad things, and more so if you're creating a fall arc, don't chicken out at the last minute. During the climax where Mel and several other family members murder a fictionalized Sharon Tate and Alfred Hitchcock, Mel backs out and lets the 'singer' free, and runs away from the family herself, which not only made no sense for how Mel was written, but robs the story of its believability. How and why would the family let her go? We didn't see Mel's transformation into this person, so how do we know what pulled her out of it? Why the sudden change of heart when she was so freakin' devoted to Henry? Not to mention, way to cop out on the promise of the novel. Readers picked up the book because they wanted something dark and gritty, and instead of showing us a true fall arc, we get a crybaby who runs away when things get tough.
Ultimately? Boring, unimaginative, stays within the box, flat characters, NOTHING HAPPENS UGH, and a cop out ending. But, uh... at least there's some pretty writing?
TL;DR: 2/5 stars. It's a book, but probably not worth reading.