Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Report: The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes

Sparked by my renewed interest in writing fiction, I decided to reread The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes. Like most of my favorite authors, Keyes write women's stories (I refuse to call them chick lit) that are funny and touching yet deep.

The Other Side of the Story explores the publishing industry through the eyes of three very different yet inextricably linked women. Jojo is the seasoned and sharp shooting literary agent with a heart, Lily is the sensitive, starving artist novelist, and Gemma uses writing as a means of getting back at her philandering father as well as her ex-best friend (who just happens to be Lily). I'm not going to get into the entire plot (well, not too much), because it's complicated (albeit compelling). I'll just say that this story engaged me because it offered an illuminating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the business of getting published. Now, this is a light-hearted story. It has a happy ending, and the reader (at least this one) walks away feeling good. But it also exposes the ruthlessness of the publishing business rather than glamorizing it, which I found refreshing.

Take Lily. Her first novel, which is about a company knowingly tampering with a town's water supply, causing its residents to get cancer (she once worked for a PR firm that represented just such a company) and took her five years to write, is rejected by every agent she sends it to. Some suggest changes, which she makes, but the long-awaited acceptance never comes. Then she loses her job, falls in love with her best friend's (Gemma's) ex-boyfriend, gets pregnant, and is subsisting on the meager salary she draws from freelance writing. But even at this point, Lily's luck hasn't reached its nadir. Walking home from a meeting with a supermarket about writing a pamphlet on spinach, she gets mugged. As a result, she becomes utterly depressed and as means of cheering herself up starts writing another book. Although she has little interest in publishing it, her boyfriend, the ever-supportive Anton, intervenes, doggedly sending it to every agent in London despite Lily's protestations. Eventually, one of them (the illustrious Jojo) takes her on. But then Jojo has trouble finding a publisher, and even once the book does get published, the critical reviews are not so good. Anton lands her a book signing alongside a wildly popular, established author, and the only people who speak to her are the ones who think she works at the bookstore. It takes a very long time for the book to start selling, but once it does, Lily's popularity skyrockets. She receives glowing reader reviews on Amazon, and one group of readers even form a coven in her honor (the book is about a white witch). When the time comes for her to accept her publisher's advance immediately or hold out for more money, she decides to hold out. Anton persuades her to buy their dream house against her better judgment. She begins receiving fan mail, some of it nice but a lot of it scary. She has nightmares about the house being taken away. She obsesses over the possibility that Gemma is plotting revenge. She is so stressed that she can't concentrate on writing a new book, so she sends her editor the one about the contaminated water. The editor gobbles it up, anticipating a best-seller. But the public hates it. They wanted another feel-good book and are offended by the new one's weighty subject matter. Lily's publisher drops her, and the bank forecloses on her and Anton's house. (Ironically, the novel's critical reviews are excellent.) Lily blames Anton for the loss of their house and breaks up with him, taking their daughter with her. It isn't until she nearly dies in a car accident that she's inspired to write another feel good bestseller and reunite with Anton.

Okay. I realize that sounded very melodramatic and not at all like the type of story that could offer any practical insights. But to be fair, I don't think my synopsis did it justice. I promise that it's a fulfilling and balanced read, chock full of relatable scenarios and details.

That having been said, I'm now on the prowl for a new book. I'd like to read something new this time and am contemplating Julie and Julia.

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