My children are avid readers and we often share and discuss the books we read. My son, Connor, in particular, always wants to know what I am currently reading and what it’s about and whether or not I like it. More often than not, I feel relatively ‘meh’ about a book. The books I really love are few and far between, a fact which makes Con roll his eyes. “You never love any books, Mom,” he says.
It’s not true, of course. I love lots of books. I read constantly and I’m always ready to be wowed by a book. I want it to be the book that makes me shout from this blog: you MUST read this book. I have a whole list of books like that here.
So that brings me to Painting Juliana, the debut novel by Texan writer Martha Louise Hunter. About thirty pages into the book I thought to myself, I can’t read this. Then I thought, Am I missing something? I went off to read other reviews – most of which were glowing. So, I attacked the book again. I eventually settled into the book, but I have to admit that this one falls into the decidedly ‘meh’ category for me.
Painting Juliana is the story of Juliana Morrissey née Birdsong. She’s married to Oliver, a big-shot lawyer, and mother to thirteen-year-old twins Lindsey and Adam. When the novel opens, she’s just been told (while at a marriage counselling session, no less) that Oliver is divorcing her. It’s apparent pretty early on that Oliver is a total asshat, but Juliana is absolutely floored by the news that he’s kicking her to the curb. She has twenty minutes to pack her bags and get out of the family home. Oh, and the kids are staying put.
Juliana has no place to go and she has more problems than just dealing with Oliver and her fractured family. She’s got a rocky relationship with her gay brother, Richard, and her father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Plus, she has no skills. She was going to go to law school, but she got married instead. Now all she has are designer bags and a lot of debt. Also, there are some unresolved mommy issues and mysterious paintings that come to life.
Painting Juliana is the story of a woman reinventing herself and that’s a story that I can get behind. Having recently gone through a divorce myself, I empathized with her predicament and there were some moments when I felt as though Hunter got it just about right.
Where the book didn’t work for me, though, was some of the dialogue. For example, when Oliver and Juliana meet for a supposed conciliatory lunch, Oliver dismisses the waiter by loudly announcing: “Be gone with you, Jim. I must make out with my wife now” to which Juliana replies, “Unhand me, sir! I’m a married woman.”
At lunch with her friend, Kimberley, the women are interrupted by a man in his mid-forties who says: “I hear you’re in real estate now…I’ve been wanting to get into some real estate…preferably between your legs.” Do grown people really speak this way?
Another friend says to Juliana,”You’ve always gotten what you wanted, Juliana. The successful husband, the decked-out house, great car, the best clothes and jewelry. Plus you’re gorgeous with a smoking bod.” Seriously. Are we thirteen?
Moments like this – and there are many of them – made me cringe. The dialogue often felt clunky and expository and not at all the way people actually speak.
I also felt that perhaps Hunter tried to pack too much into this novel – as though the story of a woman trying to find herself post divorce wasn’t enough. There’s enough material in here for at least another novel and a half. I do think that some of the subplots were simply distracting and the novel might have benefitted from some judicious editing.
When, at the end of the day, I don’t feel strongly about a book one way or the other – it falls into the ‘meh’ category for me, and Painting Juliana is that kind of book. However, it appears that my feelings about the novel are eclipsed by readers who felt the novel is amazing, so let’s chalk my feelings about it to my own book snobbery.