Lately, I’ve been thinking about whether or not we can ever be truly objective when reviewing a book. Of course, we can recognize excellent writing, a devastating plot, or how complex the characters are. But when it comes to really loving a book, I find that it’s always because the book rings true about something I wasn’t sure we were allowed to talk about.
That’s what I loved so much about Jennifer Close’s new book, The Hopefuls, a wonderful slice of life novel about being newly married and living in a city that wasn’t your choice. So much of the book winds around this theme of what it is to be young and free on the outside but completely constrained on the inside by tradition, expectation, and trying to be good. For most of the book, I felt as though Close was poking me in the shoulder and asking, “Really? REALLY? Does anyone else see this nonsense?”
In the book, Beth, a thirty-year old writer has left her beloved city of Manhattan to follow her new husband Matt to DC, where he is working as a White House staffer in 2009, following Obama’s election. The book opens at bar where members of Obama’s election campaign are getting drunk and trying to impress each other with stories of “The Senator” riding shotgun in their Ford Fiestas during the campaign.
“I was making an effort to be positive about moving to DC,” Beth tells us, as she watches her husband engage in backslapping and Red Bull pounding. “But these people didn’t make it easy. Everyone at that happy hour seemed just a little off in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. … As we stood there that night, listening to another story about Iowa, I had a realization. All of the people there reminded me of high school student council members, the ones who fought for pizza lunches and dance themes with great passion. They were so eager. (And borderline annoying.) Was Matt one of them? Had I never noticed? Had he always been this way or just become one of them when I wasn’t paying attention?”
Ironically, it is Beth who pays attention to every detail, carefully uncovering the hypocrisy, pretense, and absurdity that comes with trying to be important in a city full of important people. From the partisanship to the ubiquitous Blackberries to the addiction Matt and his friends have to being an arm in an Obama photograph, Close’s details and observations are spot on and often hilarious. DC is a city that is hard not to love with its French architecture, soaring monuments, and its good causes. But it’s also not an easy city to like.
The Hopefuls contains a lot of politics, which is highly entertaining to people like me, who always pause for a headline about Sasha and Malia (I am counting the days to the new season of House of Cards.) While reading, I often felt as though I had a bedroom window view into the political underbelly and the despicable characters who claw their way to the top with that uncommon blend of charm, intelligence and a facile ability to lie.
Close’s gift is that she combines this dark edge with the honesty and awkwardness of Beth, who just wants a best friend and for her husband to put his Blackberry down while they drink beer and watch Netflix. Beth’s foil is a fantastic character named Ashleigh, a Texas girl who has followed her own husband, Jimmy, to DC.
If Beth and Matt are wearing Gap dresses and ill-fitting suits, Ashleigh and Jimmy are Donna Karan and Armani. They are both better looking, better mannered, and more sophisticated. Jimmy is so much more successful than Matt, that I sometimes hoped Matt would just give up and leave politics to become a high school history teacher. You might expect this foursome to clash, but like all good writers, Close has them fall in love with each other despite their idiosyncrasies. Jimmy is generous and wickedly funny and Ashleigh is tender and kind. The couples bring out the best in each other do everything together from Sunday brunches to White House Balls.
To reveal any more would be to spoil the experience of watching Beth get dragged along in the wake of her husband’s ambitions. I peeked and read reviews of the book on both Amazon and Goodreads, and the main complaint about the novel was Beth’s passivity. However, I found this to be one of the novel’s gifts. Beth is the friend you want to shake. You want to tell her that if she would only just try, a little bit, she could have a good, normal life. Yet, Beth is also more honest than we can be when we talk to ourselves. She is passive but she says everything you’ve never want to admit you’ve thought about.
What Close does is to use a Jane Austin-like approach to ask the question of whether a good and normal life is really all that good. While deadly accurate and often a tender portrayal of women’s friendship, The Hopefuls is a satire. Close has Beth pull back the curtain of her privileged life with a supposedly enlightened man and whispers in your ear, “Hmmm. Is this really what we have all been striving for?”
“I hated everything about DC,” Beth tells you while her husband is again riveted by CNN. “I hated how it was so humid you could barely breathe, how you started sweating as soon as you walked out the door. I hated the way people asked, ‘Who do you work for?’ as soon as you met them, like that was the only thing that mattered. I hated the shorthand people used to talk about their jobs. …It was like they didn’t have enough time to say the whole thing, like if you didn’t know what their acronym meant, you didn’t matter anyway. (I also hated how it wasn’t long before I used these acronyms, how they so quickly became part of my vocabulary.)”
Much like A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Hopefuls is a story about how to grow up. It is also a question about whether what we are doing is really working.
Have you read The Hopefuls? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!
Want to buy The Hopefuls? Visit our bricks-and-mortar friends at your local independent bookstore or by clicking the link here to Indiebound!