This is my review of This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes.
Despite the gimmicky marketing-ploy title, this makes a promising start. Fifty-something Richard has used his wealth gained in the finance industry to create a self-contained modern bubble in a Beverley Hills-style Los Angeles suburb, with original Rothko and de Kooning paintings adorning the walls, a personal trainer to design his health programme, a nutritionist to prescribe unappetising organic concoctions, and a patient housekeeper to wait on him hand and foot.
An excruciating pain which provides a reminder of his mortality and lands him in A&E provides the trigger for a renewed urge to connect with the teenage son and workaholic wife he left years ago, for reasons which never become entirely clear, since he clearly loves them both. This is accompanied by a desire to engage with people – everyone he happens to meet – starting with Anhil, seller of donuts which would give his nutritionist a horror-induced heart attack. It seems a little unlikely that someone who has been so reclusive would be able to make the change with such ease. Also, Richard's ability to buy his way out of any problem – even if his house is falling down he can afford to rent another super dwelling – reduces one's sympathy for him.
There are some moving moments and the dialogue is often sharply funny, as when a woman who has run Richard over while he is walking on foot to a store demands, "Why didn't you just drive like a normal person?" This is all part of the author's desire to show the materialism and folly of American society. Yet there is a puzzle here because when, for instance, Richard is able to buy a couple of brand new cars as presents, there is no hint that the author sees this as questionable "conspicuous consumption" even though she implies at the end that the American way of life is unsustainable and will bring environmental chaos.
Having made her point as regards Richard early on, I began to feel from the "horse in the hole" incident that she had lost her way, stringing together a chain of often unconnected and sometimes implausible events or pointlessly "tacky" sexual encounters. I wonder whether the author's real strength may lie in short stories.
Although "it all comes together" finally in a neat ending, like the donuts on the cover, the novel is overall somewhat directionless, with a hole at its heart.