Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review -- The Sandcastle Girls

The Sandcastle GirlsThe Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
My enjoyment rating: 2 of 5 stars
Book source:  Library copy
Genre:  Literary/historical fiction
Objectionable material:  multiple uses of the F-bomb.

Summary: When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The year is 1915 and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo and travels south into Egypt to join the British army, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.

Fast forward to the present day, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents' ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed "The Ottoman Annex," Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura's grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family's history that reveals love, loss - and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
(From Amazon).

I can honestly say that this was the ONE book I was DYING to read all summer. I vacillated whether or not to purchase it just so I could get my hands on the thing as soon as it was released. I refrained and waited on the library copy. It was $20 saved.

What I liked:

• Setting/historical significance: I knew nothing of the Armenian genocide. How did I not know that between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered at the hands of the Turks during WWI? High School and college history: Fail. Thanks to the author for trying to frame the atrocities within the limitations of a novel.

Also…I love any historical fiction dealing with war – especially WWI & II.

What I didn’t like:
• No maps: This book, in essence, is a geographical novel. The majority of the story focuses on location: the battlefronts, death marches, Egypt, Syria, The Ottoman Empire – seriously – how hard would have been to include a map in the front pages of the book? So many times I wanted to reference where the characters were at any given time – especially Armen and his trek to Syria, then to the front lines and back again. Putting the book down and Googling a map of the Middle East at the turn of the century was a major distraction.

• Alternating narration: This is common in novels – alternating voices of characters, time periods (future v. past), etc. Some are successful, (The Forgotten Garden) some are not (The Sandcastle Girls). In my reading experience, novels generally alternate narration at the end/beginning of chapters. In this novel…it alternated within a chapter – between paragraphs! Oh my gosh! One moment I’m reading about Elizabeth Endicott’s care of the ailing Armenian refugees, the next paragraph, I’m in Boston with her granddaughter at a middle school concert. Did not work. At all.

• Storyline: Now I’m nitpicking – but -- the relationship between Armen and Elizabeth didn’t resonate with me - no chemistry; the “story within a story” about the survival of photographs taken of Armenian refugees did not seem the least bit plausible (and if it is based on historical fact – it would have been nice of the author to include a reference); the ending – I felt totally manipulated.

Sorry 4 & 5 star ratings – for me, this was a huge disappointment.

I hope others enjoy it more than I did.