The Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller

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The Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A novel remindful of a few American modern classics, but speaking with its own set of original voices, this is well worth reading for its fresh imagery, a great sense of the absurd and eccentric, almost surreal characters involved in tangled relationships. A flavoursome and funny read, dealing with art and identity, lies and secrets and the ways we construct ourselves.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: February 2007
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 978-0099478874

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Fergus is organising a party: a party for his lover, painter Lovell. Jenny, Fergus' ex-friend and a college obsession, Lovell's ex-lover and an artistic partner is invited and so is Merit, Jenny's and Lowell's bespectacled, vegetarian, animal-obsessed, statistician-married daughter.

Artists Jenny and Lovell met in London almost 30 years ago and became one: Merit was born to cement that union. Lovell had became a successful painter, famous for his self-portraits while Jenny had never achieved anything as an artist. Five years ago Lovell stopped painting and the world wants to know why.

I don't think I can really tell you anything very coherent about the storyline of The Coast of Akron without either spoiling the pleasure or becoming incredibly convoluted. More to the point, I don't think it's actually needed. It's not exactly an action-driven novel although quite a lot of quite strange things happen, actually.

The current events take place in the few days preceding and at the party, but there are numerous flashbacks, both in characters' inner musings and in the form of a regular diary entries from Jenny, charting the course of her relationship with Lovell at its beginning and later, after they moved into the Tudoresque monster of Fergus' mansion. The other two points of view are Merit's (narrated in third person free indirect style) and Fergus' (first person). Lovell himself, although undoubtedly a pivotal character, is, rather meaningfully, never given a voice.

Miller handles these voices with admirable proficiency. They are all different, not only in their emotional characterisation, but also in style. Differing writing techniques help, of course, but there is also individual pace, rhythm and language that goes with each of the voices. She writes with an enormous confidence and her larger than life characters seem real rather than grotesque. Quite a few times I nodded to myself 'oh, yes, that's how people actually are', only to reflect after a moment that no, actually not many people are like that: Lowell, Fergus, Jenny and even seemingly most normal Merit are nothing if not out of the ordinary, but they still carry human truths in their farcical personas.

The Coast of Akron is a bold, flavoursome novel, well written and well designed. It's also often very funny and occasionally rather touching too. It deals with this ubiquitous modern subject of identity and I am not normally that fond of novels whose characters' main question is 'who am I?'. However, Miller writes with fantastic panache and weaves the identity subject into a wider landscape of family relationships, love and - notably - art and artifice, creation and self-creation, truth and lies.

There isn't much social commentary in The Coast of Akron, although Akron, Ohio (which doesn't have coast) as an archetypal provincial setting might have some richer meaning to American readers. To me, Miller's tale was an intensely psychological one and could have, with small adjustments, happened anywhere; though her deadpan humour and enormous sense of the absurd are very American indeed.

When reading The Coast of Akron I was put in mind of John Irving's characters, although Miller's novel is better written and has none of Irving's adolescent male sexual fixations (there is rather sexy sex though, despite couple of 'cupping' slips). The sense of the absurd and the distance, particularly noticeable in the beginning sections reminded me of DeLillo's White Noise while Merit could be somebody from a Douglas Coupland novel.

The lack of social aspect might put some readers off as it gives the tale a rather unreal feeling: Miller's characters live undoubtedly in our very modern world, but generally don't let the world at large intrude into their private existences and neuroses. Those who like their stories to have clear conclusion and can't bear lose ends should stay away: the climax, despite being as climactic as they come, provides no resolution whatsoever. And, as it's often the case with debuts, some editing (let's say removing 40 pages of Fergus' waffle) would be beneficial.

Nevertheless, The Coast of Akron is an impressive debut and an enjoyable, at times exhilarating read with larger than life, alternately annoying and touching characters whose high-brow concerns of art are dwarfed by their universal, human insecurities and yearnings. I dreamt of it the night after reading the first 100 pages or so. Recommended.

Thanks to the publishers for giving me a chance to read this novel.

Novels we've reviewed with similar themes or a similar feel include Don DeLillo's White Noise and Douglas Coupland's Hey, Nostradamus. You might also enjoy The China Bird by Bryony Doran.

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Jill said:

I would definitely like this. I particularly like the idea of being tricked into identifying with larger than life characters. I know what you mean about Irving and sex, but for some reason, it never bothers me with him when it does with other people.

Magda replied:

Irving: I really liked Garp, and Hotel New Hampshire a lot, but I read them in my late teens. I don't re-read now because I don't want to shatter the illusion; but every one I read since was just annoyingly like that, authorial descriptions objectifying women as sexual objects are particularly irritating. Pendulous breasts, my arse.