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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I'm Reading: Little Giant of Aberdeen County

Multiple people suggested that I read The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, a debut novel by Tiffany Baker.  I finished back in early December but have been waiting to write about it because, although I liked it while I was reading it, I was not completely satisfied when I finished it.

More on that later though. Here is the basic plot.  Truly, our narrator, is huge.  She has been that way since she was born.  Although we never learn how big she is, she is basically a giant.  The book is really in two parts.  The first deals with Truly's tough childhood and her relationship with (and contradiction to) her adorable and perfect sister, Serena Jane.

The second part takes place after Serena Jane leaves her husband and son behind, and Truly steps in to run their family. Serena Jane's husband, Bob Morgan, is the town doctor; in fact a male in his family has been the town doctor for generations.  But he is also a world class jerk. The Morgan family is also descended from the town's famous witch, Tabitha.  Rumor has it that Tabitha has left behind a secret book for her herbal cures.  Truly finds the "book" hidden in the embroidery of a family quilt, deciphers it, and begins healing people.  She specializes in euthanasia.

The story follows Truly as she cares for the dying Bob Morgan and attempts to right the numerous wrongs in her life and family.

I like how Bookmarks Magazine summed up the critical reviews of the novel:
A gothic, macabre tale involving revenge, redemption, folk medicine, and magic, The Little Giantgarnered ample praise from critics, who were perhaps surprised that the story of a gargantuan woman captivated them so thoroughly. Although the first part, which focuses on the relationship between Truly and Serena Jane, contains elements of melodrama, it allows Baker to explore the contrast between all kinds of beauty and ugliness. Baker moves on to explore issues such as family, betrayal, love, and friendship (her attempts to tackle topics such as euthanasia, rape, and sexual orientation fall a little flat). A few critics also faulted Trudy's unrealistic first-person but omniscient narration, but this was a minor complaint in a compelling, emotional, and intelligent novel from an author to watch.
Appeal: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is a good example of literature of the grotesque.  This does not mean it is scary in any way, rather it follows a character that produces both empathy and disgust in the reader.  Simple disgust would make that person a monster or villain. This is a big appeal of the story. As a fan of this type of novel, I stayed engrossed in the story for this reason. However, conversely, this could be a limiter for many readers.

The only problem with this novel for me had to do with the fact that it was a first book.  The Bookmarks comments above hit on some of it. I got caught up in the story while I was reading it, but the ending left me dissatisfied.  Kathy at BPL read it too and we had a short discussion comparing our opinions. She got upset at the end because she felt that the characters acted out of character in order to tie everything up. We both thought it needed a more unresolved ending.  Also, a book discussion leaders, we felt there were not enough unresolved issues to include The Little Giant in our list of possible discussion books.

However, overall this was a fun and absorbing read, while I was reading it. I will try Baker's next novel because I think she will get better. There is a lot of promise here. This is a good book to give to a reader who wants an interesting and fresh character centered story, and doesn't mind the macabre aspects. Just let them know it is a first novel.

3 Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, domestic issues, grotesque

Readalikes: I think Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is a better example of a grotesque novel with a giant. Plus the main characater is a librarian, so how can you really go wrong here? But in general, McCracken writes about eccentric, grotesque characters and situations.  You could also try her short story collection, Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?

People who, like me, enjoyed the idea of this novel but didn't feel it panned out, should see literature of the grotesque in the hands of its master, Stephen MillhauserMartin Dressler or Edwin Mullhouse are good choices to start. Other recent examples by newer authors are The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Goff (which I read here) and Darling Jim by Christian Moerk.

For an example of a novel that is similar and an author's debut try Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek.

This novel has also been compared to The World According to Garp by John Irving. I agree and think Irving in general would be a good option too.

People who liked the women's lives angle of this story but could do without the grotesque and macabre angles should try Sandra Dallas.  Our discussion group read The Persian Pickle Club in 2008.

In terms of nonfiction, books about the Vietnam War, folk medicine, thymus conditions, coming-out issues, and herbal gardening may appeal to readers of this novel.

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