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Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in Confessionsby Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott
Synopses & Reviews
A two-sided look at modern love — and lust — by two bestselling writers at the top of their form.
Two rambunctious, romantic flameouts. One boring wedding. One heated embrace in a quiet coatroom. This is not exactly the recipe for true love. John and Jane's lusty encounter at a friend's wedding isn't really the beginning of anything with any weight to it; even they know that. When they manage to pull back, it occurs to them that they might start this whole thing over properly. They might try getting to know one another first, through letters.
What follows is a series of traded confessions — of their messy histories, their past errors, their big loves, their flaws, and their passions. Each love affair, confessed as honestly as possible, reveals the ways in which Jane and John have grown and changed — or not changed — over the years; the people they've hurt, the ones still bruised. The ones who bruised them. Where all of this soul-baring will take them is the burning question behind every letter — a question that can only be answered when they meet again, finally, in the flesh.
"This witty but self-conscious epistolary novel starts with strangers groping each other in a coat closet and ends with the beginning of a relationship. Baggott (Girl Talk) and Almond (Candyfreak) join forces for 'an extended power-flirt,' conducted through the snail-mail correspondence between Jane and John, two 30-somethings who meet at a wedding and almost consummate their lust before John puts the brakes on, wondering if it might be the real thing. Jane reluctantly agrees to take it slow, so John returns to New York and Jane goes to Philadelphia, where they pen their respective confessions revealing their erotic and emotional experiences — they've both enjoyed a 'past littered with regret.' They are, in Jane's words, 'two low grade Romantics. Tough but susceptible.' By the time Jane and John meet again face-to-face in Hopewell, N.J., we know their backstories as well as their literary quirks. Sharp humor and insights into the modern psyche pervade the book, but not enough to make it add up to anything more than a pretense for hot scenes and spicy talk, a lot of sex and a little 'low grade' romance." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"If it's true that men think sex leads to love while women think love leads to sex, this novel is most definitely a man. John and Jane are two single, thirty-something strangers attending the same Philadelphia wedding. For about seven pages. Then, with a striking lack of authorial foreplay, the two are half-undressed on the floor of a coat closet. They're about to close the deal when John... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) changes his mind. He can't indulge because he thinks he might actually like her, and pre-emptive sex might get in the way of their future (very female of him). She wants to indulge and fears a relationship (very male of her). His proposal: They retreat to their respective East Coast cities and confess their romantic pasts to each other through letters before going any further. It's a not-too-believable premise, outfitted with some not-too-believable dialogue. Her: 'Look ... My past is littered with regret, and I'd rather not add you to it. I'd rather not have to fit you into an overcrowded memory.' Him: 'We'll be like the pioneers, waiting by our windows for the Pony Express. In bonnets.' But it works to set up the rest of the novel, which is a series of his-and-hers short stories, some of which originally appeared in magazines such as Glamour and Sixteen. Each letter tells the tale of a former love affair: how they met, why they were attracted, how it ended. Oh, and how the sex was. It takes a certain kind of gal to want to hear this level of detail. Do we really need to know he and his 'hot Latin girlfriend ... had rough sex with mirrors all around'? Ick. But Jane herself is sexually rapacious. 'The home of my youth,' she writes, 'is the bodies of boys, sprawled out, adoring, that's the place I was raised.' By her own admission, she's not the kind of girl to have girlfriends (unless you count the other woman in a three-way). 'Which Brings Me to You' is a real pastiche: There are some lovely letters/stories, such as the one in which John falls in love with a cinnamon-scented pastry chef and her precocious 6-year-old daughter; some truly interesting descriptions of sex ('It felt like fishing, like there was casting and reeling and a bobber bobbing'); some raunchiness that I can't quote here; and plenty of witty pre-mating repartee. At first, it's hard to care about these two and their motley sexual pasts. And the book doesn't quite hang together as a novel. But somehow, as the various lovers come and go, all this screwing around starts adding up to something, maybe even to intimacy. (One point for the male team on the sex-leads-to-love debate.) To appreciate this book, you have to accept Jane's premise that 'you are made up of the details that your mind has chosen to keep.' 'You've explained to me a love life,' she writes to John, 'and what I got isn't the story. I got your way of seeing, your way of remembering, your way of telling.' And that's what we get from Baggott and Almond as well. Claudia Deane is a Washington Post staff writer. Reviewed by Craig Stoltz This book is full of superb writing, and that is precisely its problem. Billed as a 'novel in confessions,' 'Which Brings Me to You' consists of a series of letters exchanged by two young lovers-in-the-making. Jane is a feminist studies professor, and John is a media guy turned struggling artist. Both are a few years beyond their roaring twenties and seeking some of the adult stability they are trying hard to imagine. They meet at a wedding, proceed directly to the coat closet and nearly consummate their acquaintance. But John demurs at the last moment, blubbering about how he may really like Jane and all, and how he doesn't want this one to end like all the others, etc. The couple agrees to exchange letters — the retro, ink-on-paper-sort — and get to know each other by confessing all their sad and lousy loves. While not a particularly believable premise, it's made interesting by the fact that the letters are written by two authors. Julianna Baggott, writing for Jane, is a creative writing teacher at Florida State University; Steve Almond, voicing John, is a writing teacher at Boston College. They both got MFAs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They are widely published and frequently awarded authors of short stories and novels. The trouble is Jane's letters sound an awful lot as if they've been written by an award-winning author and writing instructor with an MFA. So, alas, do John's. To say this spoils the fun is to understate. Take, for instance, Jane's remembrance of high school boys: 'I loved them with primal biology; I loved them because of an internal bent, a moist yearning imprinted heavily on my genes, perhaps passed down through my mother, stunted (and highly polished, too) by her need for romance.' And here John remembers: 'Eve herself, who smelled luxurious from the shower, smoothed down in amaretto lotion, who went off to work in the city and returned with wads of grubby dollar bills and cabernet on her breath, who smoked on the window sill and wore her floppy breasts in scented bras ... took me up to her rooftop to make love on the hot tar.' Yo, Jane, John: Quit your day jobs and get fellowships at the Iowa Writers' Workshop! That said, several of these letters make wonderful short stories, ripe with keen observations, vivid ex-lovers and razor diction. They accumulate into a pair of satisfying character studies. But as each letter ends with its 'signature,' one is inevitably reminded that the authors have made these characters speak in voices that could not be their own, and, finally, the book falls apart. How did two such accomplished authors blunder into such an obvious trap? Perhaps the book's epistolary conceit encouraged an unproductive sense of competition. In any case, it feels as if Baggott and Almond couldn't resist trying to outwit and outperform each other, at the expense of the work's integrity. A man and a woman competing rather than cooperating on the playing field of love? Imagine that. Craig Stoltz is editor of The Washington Post's Health section." Reviewed by Claudia Deane, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Keen insights into sex, love and coming to terms with one's own unruly imperfections. A winner." Kirkus Reviews
"The writing is piercing, funny, and emotional. Baggott and Almond's collaboration makes for a delightful and robust work that readers will not be able to put down as they savor every messy confession. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"The couple's distinct voices and push-pull dynamic are terrifically engaging. Grade: A-" Jennifer Armstrong, Entertainment Weekly
About the Author
Steve Almond has published over one hundred stories and poems — in publications ranging from Playboy to Tin House to Zoetrope — and a previous collection of stories, My Life in Heavy Metal.
Julianna Baggott is the author of the bestseller Girl Talk, as well as The Miss America Family, The Madam, and a book of poems. She writes popular children's books under the pseudonym N. E. Bode. She teaches at Florida State University.
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