This Book Will Save Your Life by A M Homes

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This Book Will Save Your Life by A M Homes

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A tale of a rich man coming back to life to become a Nice Person in Los Angeles; filled with bizarrely improbable events and bizarrely improbable people, this is a very readable book and a telling satire on excesses of modern America, but with no lasting impact.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 380 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1862079335

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This is the first book by A.M. Homes that I have read and thus I had no preconceptions of my own approaching it. The professionals' reviews uttered things like 'glass-sharp' and 'acid-etched' while the readers' ones were more along the lines of 'nice' and 'uplifting'. And Stephen King said that it might even save somebody's life.

There is little doubt that This Book Will Save Your Life won't do any such thing, in fact it's one of those books that one enjoys a lot while reading, but which leaves no lasting impact. On the surface, it's an enjoyable story of some kind of redemption, of a man re-establishing his connections with human world and his own emotions and history and thus coming back to what's defined as 'life'.

Richard Novak is rich and independent. He is in fact, so independent of social connections that he's not sure that he's alive anymore. He lives in a house on a hill in Los Angeles and trades stock (or really, just tweaks his investments) from home; he has a housekeeper, a nutritionist, a personal trainer and he's not been out of the house for 24 days, when an attack of inexplicable and excruciating pain provides a stimulus for him to change his ways. And change he does. He starts eating donuts and in the process befriends an immigrant owner of a donut shop, he meets a woman crying in a produce section of a supermarket and offers her refuge without obligation, he goes on a silent retreat, he rescues a horse from a sinkhole and a kidnapped girl, he befriends a film star and he visits his brother's family, and he prepares for a visit from his grown up son, whose mother he divorced years ago.

I have seen Richard described as an Everyman, but he's no Everyman, he's rich and until its surfacing as pain, his internal torment is perfectly insulated, encased in a tomb-like structure inside him, where he's not aware it's there. It's the money that allows him to insulate and, paradoxically, it is the money that, ultimately, allows himself to reconnect. He becomes nice, in fact he becomes something of an accidental hero and a LA Good Samaritan - doing for other people what he can't do for himself.

This Book Will Save Your Life is a great read. The progression of bizarre incidents (as if Richard's resurrection resulted in a lifetime of events being crammed into few weeks) is very compelling and, despite the feeling of reading a 'Life on Mars' kind of story I enjoyed it immensely. I am not even sure why, as there is no particular intrigue to follow, but if finding out what happens next is one of the prime motivations to read, then certainly in This Book Will Save Your Life it is taken to a very enjoyable extreme.

And finally, there is the milieu in which the events take place, the wealthy Los Angelenos of the begginings of the 21st century, with its therapies and spas, retreats and an army of personal service personnel a rich person can employ: to prepare and buy his food, to adjust his limbs while exercising, to choose a shade of paint on the wall. 'Any abuse?' is asked as a routine question when you speak to the doctor, the cleaner won't work for fat people, people take IV vitamins and everybody, but everybody is on one or another kind of special diet. Oh, and people have 'issues'.

I have no idea if this picture is realistic, satirically overdone but fundamentally true to life or totally overblown, but it's all very funny, and of course the funniest thing is that nobody bats an eyelid at even the most convoluted 'lifestyle choices' which are taken for granted by all involved. Only the immigrant donut shop owner (his nationality stays annoyingly and unnecessarily unspecified but it's possible to work it out later on) provides an occasional commentary.

I had a strong inkling that food played some kind of symbolic role in the whole story: every time Richard reconnected with the rest of humanity he seemed to be eating something resembling 'normal' food, and not the controlled carb-free and red-meat free preparations of his private nutritionist. I even started wondering if this quasi-anorexic preoccupation with food wasn't a metaphor for the desire to control everything in life, and to produce the illusion of controlling death which seems to be a major spiritual disease of America in general.

All of that is written in a plain, cool, unemotional, almost ascetic prose. The contrast between utter bizarreness of the most of the events and the detached style is what makes This Book Will Save Your Life a bit more refined pleasure than the story itself would suggest. Also, the title leads me to suspect that the subject of Richard's 'recovery' (though THIS word, perhaps tellingly, never gets mentioned) is as much the target of Homes' satire as the artificial lives of the rich in the LA. I couldn't help noticing that many of Richard's good deeds wouldn't be possible if he wasn't rich and didn't need to work. But that might be going to far.

If I was to summarise I would say it's a bit like a Pretty Woman for intellectuals, though there is no love element in Richard's resurrection. Very readable, not very demanding and exceedingly well written, This Book Will Save Your Life is certainly worth reading, but perhaps better borrowed than bought.

If you like satirical stories about emotional life with strong element of the absurd, you might like Adrienne Miller's The Coast of Akron. Will Ferguson's Happiness. satirises the self-help industry, current notions of emotional health and the idea of Changing Your Life.

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