I have never read a Daniel Handler book. This is half-true. I grew up reading and loving A Series of Unfortunate Events, written by Handler under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. But I have never read one of Handler’s novels written for adults, under his own name. With that in mind, I really didn’t know what to expect when approaching Bottle Grove, his most recent novel. The synopsis promised something along the lines of magical realism, and I was definitely intrigued to see how Handler approached writing for adults versus writing for children – would he still have lots of fun wordplay and interesting prose? Unfortunately, I didn’t love Bottle Grove. I don’t know that I’d say it’s a bad book or anything, but it definitely wasn’t what I expect and I’m not sure it’s what I wanted, either. (Mild spoilers for the novel follow.)
This is a story about two marriages. Or is it? It begins with a wedding, held in the small San Francisco forest of Bottle Grove–bestowed by a wealthy patron for the public good, back when people did such things. Here is a cross section of lives, a stretch of urban green where ritzy guests, lustful teenagers, drunken revelers, and forest creatures all wait for the sun to go down. The girl in the corner slugging vodka from a cough-syrup bottle is Padgett–she’s keeping something secreted in the woods. The couple at the altar are the Nickels–the bride is emphatic about changing her name, as there is plenty about her old life she is ready to forget.
Set in San Francisco as the techboom is exploding, Bottle Grove is a sexy, skewering dark comedy about two unions–one forged of love and the other of greed–and about the forces that can drive couples together, into dependence, and then into sinister, even supernatural realms. Add one ominous shape-shifter to the mix, and you get a delightful and strange spectacle: a story of scheming and yearning and foibles and love and what we end up doing for it–and everyone has a secret. Looming over it all is the income disparity between San Francisco’s tech community and . . . everyone else.
The first thing to talk about is the novel’s prose. It’s written in the present tense, which is always a disarming choice in prose. Something about reading a novel written in the present tense makes my brain refuse to process it, which is weird considering how many film/tv/stage scripts I read – all of which are written in the present tense. I know Bottle Grove is not the first or only book to be written in the present tense, and many other books written in that tense have been very successful. But something about the way Bottle Grove was structured just didn’t quite work for me. I wanted and expected a lot of fun wordplay in the novel, much like Handler’s prose in A Series of Unfortunate Events, just aimed at an older audience. But that’s not really what I got.
I found the first third of the novel almost unreadably dense. There were so many characters the story was bouncing between and it was incredibly difficult to get a grasp on how time was passing in the narrative. Frequently, Handler would be talking about what one character was doing and then very quickly switch to the point of view of another character, and it never stopped being jarring. These rapid-fire switches greatly contributed to my initial trouble following what was actually happening. By the time I finished the first chapter, I genuinely felt mentally exhausted from having tried to keep up with the quick-fire pacing of the story. Obviously, some books are gonna be harder reads than others and not every reading experience will be fun, but I just found it taxing as hell to get into this book – and I desperately wanted to.
With that said, once Handler actually settles into a groove and a plotline, the novel gets easier to follow and it becomes a much less frustrating read. Essentially, Bottle Grove is the story of two couples – Rachel and Ben, married in the first chapter, and The Vic and Padgett, a tech mogul who ends up marrying the daughter of the Bottle family – who was urged to date the Vic by a bartender she met at Rachen and Ben’s wedding, Martin. The bulk of the story just follows these characters as they navigate their various interpersonal relationships – and, honestly, it does make for a fairly interesting read. After a while, you do find yourself invested in the lives of these characters; you root for them and you want to see what they’re going to do or how they’re going to react to whatever new thing happens to them. Most of the characters have a ton of faults and those are always the characters that are the most interesting to follow. They genuinely feel like real people, fully fleshed out and three dimensional, and it’s always a joy to see such rich characters in fiction. I definitely think it’s fair to say that Bottle Grove‘s characters are its best asset – I just wish we had more time to spend with them.
And what, I hear you ask, of the shape-shifting fox promised by the synopsis? Well, he’s barely in the story and when he is, you tend to forget the character is actually supposed to be a shape-shifting fox. And it’s here where I think the book’s synopsis really does it a disservice. To me, the synopsis seemed to promise a story that involved the shape-shifting fox more. Perhaps he was manipulating various events? I expected something much closer to magical realism than we got. In fact, the shape-shifting fox is basically just a metaphor for temptation in its various forms. Which, I can’t lie, is a good idea – and it’s utilized very well throughout the story. But I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the overall handling of the fox, especially as he weaved in and out of the lives of the characters. His arc just sort of fizzles out – much like the climax of the book in general, actually – and you don’t really get any satisfying answers related to him.
And that’s kind of my problem with the book as a whole. Once it gets going, it does get pretty good and significantly easier to read. But it just kind of fizzles out at the end. A really interesting plotline involving a potential kidnapping is introduced, and then nothing really comes of it – due to other events that sorta put a wrench on that plan. And that, itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. But we don’t ever come back to that plan. We don’t really check up on the characters who were plotting this kidnapping to see their reaction or if they’ve learned anything. The story just sort of ends arbitrarily. Only one character arc really seems to be resolved; the rest just kind of come to a stop. I suppose that’s realistic, and Handler does seem to be striving for realism throughout this book, but I can’t help but feel disappointed by it. It makes me feel like there wasn’t a point to the story. It never really ended and most of the characters never got any kind of closure, so what was the point in telling it? What was the point in me reading it? I’m sure that kind of ambiguity will be appealing to some, but it wasn’t appealing to me and I found it especially disappointing after having finally found myself interested and invested in the novel’s story. I wanted an ending – even an open-ended one – and I feel like I was robbed of one.
All in all, Bottle Grove isn’t necessarily a bad book. It starts off both promising and immensely difficult to read but eventually coalesces into an interesting story – albeit one with a somewhat disappointing ending. Once my brain finally adjusted to the style Handler used to write the novel, I found myself having an easier time getting into the story and enjoying it. The characters are well developed and it is easy to find yourself wanting to know what’s gonna happen next to them within the story. I found the plot a little unfocused and, overall, a bit disappointing, but the novel is probably less about the actual story and more about the lives of these characters. In that regard, Handler probably achieves his goal fairly well. But this isn’t really the kind of book I enjoy reading. I very nearly decided to not finish it at all. I know it’s not fair to compare his adult work to his work for children, but I also don’t think it’s unfair to have expected something that played with language in a more fun way than this did. I’m sure this will be a novel some will enjoy, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I can’t say that it was bad, but it wasn’t for me.
3 out of 5 wands.