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.