Taking Back the Wow

by RS on February 29, 2012

A couple of nights ago, I was feeling impulsive and updated my status on Facebook, mentioning I had read Cristina Alger’s The Darlings and I gave it a “Wow.” But then when I went to bed, I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I was too hasty with that “Wow.”

The next day, in another update, I took it back. Why? Typically, when I watch a film or read a book, I take a few days to decide whether I liked it or not. In the case of The Darlings, I liked the story  because I’m interested in plots that revolve around the financial crisis. In The Darlings, Alger focused on a Ponzi scheme and the fall of a prominent Manhattan financier and his family.

The problem I had with the story was that Alger broke some basic rules in crafting her novel.It’s not that Alger doesn’t have the talent to tell a story, because it was good, but it could have been tighter. Characters popped in and then disappeared. A boutique doggy business was mentioned, but otherwise had no part in the story. A big deal about a pit bull who scared a child was introduced and then … nada. I learned from all my iterations of Julius is that if you plan to introduce a character—animal or human—into a story, they need to be a cog that helps move the plot along.

I’m a big fan David Downing’s John Russell series that take place in Berlin right at the cusp and during World War II. Russell is an Anglo/American journalist based in Berlin, he lives in a building where the concierge is always inviting him to coffee. Although this hausfrau has a minor part in the book, she adds flavor but also information about one of Russell’s neighbors who is in charge of the neighborhood’s air raid watches. And there’s a key scene where the hausfrau inadvertently helps Russell break-in this neighbor’s apartment. So a minor character needs to add something to the plot. It can be  tiny, but you need to justify they belong in the book.

What piqued me in The Darlings were scenes that appeared to be stuck in there for little reason. If I had been Alger’s editor, I would have questioned why she decided to include them and why not make their relevance clearer in a subsequent scene.

For instance, last night I watched the HBO film Too Big to Fail, based on Andrew Sorkin’s book. The story is about the economic crisis and how Hank Paulson, his team at Treasury, Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke tried to save the banking industry from the snafu of all the toxic loans that banks made during the real estate bubble. Most of the film is about the investment bankers, but there’s a short scene where General Electric’s CEO Jeffery Immelt calls Paulson to let him know that GE is also a victim of the crisis because of the company’s credit situation. The scene leads to an important part of the story: the banks refusal to give loans or extend credit.

This post isn’t meant to be  read as a review of The Darlings. These are simply my observations of what nagged at me while I read the book.  It’s worth repeating that I liked the story, but reading it turned into an exercise of what to watch in my own writing rather as a source of entertainment.

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