⇒Secrets and lies color a life on the verge of incalculable change. This is the Butterfly Effect on Xanax.⇐
Author: Tana French
(3.64 stars – Goodreads rating)
Format: Audiobook (CDs)
Published October 9, 2018, by Viking
Pages: 509 ; 18 Audio Discs (22 hours)
What if I never got another day in my life when I was normal again?Toby
In middle school, my friends and I (how I wish I could put it all on them, but I can’t) decided to prank our classmates. Just a certain few of them who we thought were a bit too big for their britches. We did the usual obnoxious phone calls – which worked back then because no one had caller ID yet (I’m dating myself) and everyone still used landlines. It was the perfect way for some bored pre-teens to spend Friday nights while also watching network TV and being housebound (no internet or social media back then).
One such prank went just a little further than the rest. We called one of our classmates and threatened to fight her (insert dramatic music and loads of judgment right here). She was a “mean girl” and totally deserved a good thrashing (Not really, but I’m trying to justify my 12-year-old mind). We told her to meet us by the water fountain on the red hall after lunch the next day – if she wasn’t scared. It was maddening to wait all those hours to see if she would actually show up!
So what in the world does this have to do with The Witch Elm? Spoiler Alert: this book is about questionable life choices. Well, it’s about a lot of things, but making bad life choices is key among them – bad choices that get justified along the way and then accepted as harmless or inconsequential. But let me let you read the Goodreads blurb to see what else it’s about:
Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
…one gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.
I’ve managed to get this far into the review without saying that I really didn’t like this book. Why? Well, I didn’t want to start out my fresh new year of reading with a dud. OK, let me be fair, it wasn’t a “dud”, but it wasn’t for me.
This book was a long, slow march to the death of everything I thought I loved about long reads and audiobooks. I started feeling like I was being punished around disc 5 and from there (all the way to disc 18) I was sure I had angered the literary gods somewhere along the way for them to steer me towards this dark, vice-riddled study in depravity. Then I started criticizing myself for being too critical! Maybe I just needed to get past Toby’s seemingly endless inner monologue and focus on the deeper meaning of the story: self-discovery, balancing perceptions with reality, etc. And I honestly tried to do that. But I still felt like getting through the whole thing wasn’t enjoyable – it was just drudgery.
There are plenty of people who 5-starred this book. It has been well-recognized and earnestly reviewed. And I should have left them to it.
To be fair, Tana French is a good author. Her prose is classically descriptive, and at some points reads like poetry. But… did there have to be so MUCH of it?! Half of the book takes place in Toby’s head (not a comfortable place to be, btw) and the best action only happens when he looks outside into the world for a change. What’s most troublesome about that is that he is not a likable character. You want to like him, but he doesn’t allow it. He’s unreliable for many reasons, not the least of which is that he’s wishy-washy. First, the answer is A, but then it could be B. Nope, back to A, I’m sure of it. Wait… but now C is looking interesting… But I can’t discount B again because remember that time back in high school… Arrrrgggghhhhhhh!!!!!!!!
…it was me, wronged innocent, white knight, cunning investigator, killer, selfish oblivious dick, petty provocateur, take your pick, what does it matter? it’ll all change again.Toby
High praise to Paul Nugent, the audiobook narrator, however, whose lilting Irish brogue was my only salvation as we both slogged through this 18-disc, 22-hour behemoth of a book. Twenty-two hours! That’s almost a full day of tainted introspection, Xanax-influenced rants, and the tiniest bits of truth tossed in here and there about guarded explorations into the weight of our perceptions of the world around us.
So by now you may be wondering whatever happened with the water fountain fight threat. Can you believe that she actually showed up? And with a group of her “mean girl” friends too! My friends and I stood just close enough in the midst of the gathering crowd to hear their heated conversation about what they would do if “whoever” showed up. We didn’t want any of what they were promising! Plus, we had no real intentions of fighting anyone anyway. Even though it was great middle school drama, it was ultimately a waste of everyone’s time and energy, and I stopped pranking after that. Life lesson learned. And another one learned years later: be very wary of 500+ page Tana French books.
Tana French is the New York Times bestselling author of In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, The Secret Place, The Trespasser, and The Witch Elm. Her books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry Awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family.