Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: The War of the Roses - The Children by Warren Adler

The War of the Roses - The Children

Written by: Warren Adler

Published: 2004

Synopsis: Unlike the legendary Roses, Josh's marriage to Victoria should have all the qualities of an everlasting union. But when an innocent caper involving missing Milky Ways catapults out of control at their son's elite private school, the pair find themselves entering into a shattering warfare of a different kind. Armed with the emotional mayhem inherited from their parents, as well as compounded pressures involving a depraved headmaster, clandestine affairs and Victoria's male-hating mother, "The War of the Roses - the Children" presents a gripping story of the lengths to which parents will go to protect their children.

Little more than a child herself, Josh's ever sympathetic and over-stuffed sister Evie lavishes her 'food-is-love' obsession on her beloved niece and nephew coping with their own sense of loss. Meanwhile, Michael and Emily, soon-to-be children of divorce, orchestrate their own plan to keep their family together at all costs. Adler, once again, demonstrates his storytelling mastery by revealing the intricate blending of the past with the present, and how time unravels all things seemingly perfect to be darkly and even comically dysfunctional.

A copy of this book was offered in exchange for an honest review.

A few years ago I was skimming the tv channels and came across The War of the Roses, which starred Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. I came in about half way, but the story was pretty straight-forward. A couple was getting divorced in the messiest way imaginable, destroying every aspect of their lives and eventually both being killed underneath a crystal chandelier. It was darkly funny, the cast were pretty good and it filled in the time. Win, win, win. So when I got an email asking if I'd like to review the sequel I hoped that it'd conform to the usual paradigm of book > film, and I'd love it. Alas, there are exceptions to every rule, and I did NOT love this book.

I've been staring at my computer screen for about an hour (not to mention periodically over the last three days) and wondering how I'm going to handle writing this review when I actively hated great big chunks of the book. I almost never write actual notes when reading on my phone (ain't nobody got time for that) but I was so...astounded by this book that I couldn't simply highlight the offending passages, I had to comment. Not that I was particularly eloquent, most of them were "jesus christ" "ugh. gross" "I hate her" and "SERIOUSLY". But when I flip back through my notes I can notice certain themes running through my dislike, so in order to avoid devolving completely into caps and gif reactions I'm going to headline these issues.


The second I read the author's forward I was instantly uncomfortable.
"It is the dilemma of our times, a tragedy of epic proportions as more and more parents opt to break up the bedrock of a civilised society - the family"
As a child of divorce, I think I am well in my rights to say that Adler is completely full of it. Do you think people with children are happy to end their marriages? I guarantee you almost every single divorced parent struggled with the decision, and lost countless nights of sleep worrying how it would affect their kids. But divorce, unlike what the author continuously tries to suggest, does not put you at a disadvantage in life. Guess what Mr Adler, even though my parents separated I am successful, intelligent, I have no issue with authority, or independence, or trusting people or falling (and remaining) in love. My sisters are equally stable, and live unique and wonderful lives. Every child wants their parents to stay together, most parents would love to stay together for their kids, but life isn't that simple. Is it really beneficial to the child to live in a house where daddy cheated on mummy repeatedly, and the two barely speak to each other? Divorce isn't the issue, the issue is bad divorces. The kind of divorce when a child is caught in the middle of bitter custody battles, where a parent tries to turn the kid against the other parent. Or when the kid is ignored completely when both parents go off to start new and improved lives.

In fairness to the book, both Josh and Victoria came from crappy backgrounds. Josh was one of the children of the chandelier Roses, and Victoria's dad left when she was a baby and she grew up hearing her mum criticise not only him, but the entire male gender. In these cases, yes, they'd be lucky to have grown up without some sort of flaw and I can 100% understand why they would do everything in their power to avoid putting their kids through the same thing. This does not, however, explain why Victoria immediately jumps to divorce when she finds out Josh cheated on her. Not that I blame her, I'd do the exact same thing myself, but after a couple of hundred pages full of dramatics about how they don't want the same thing for their own children I can't help but wonder why they didn't try a different course of action first.

If the book had been about two children of messy divorces dealing with the breakdown of their marriage, it could have been a really interesting and complicated character study. Instead of this preposterous idea that all divorce is evil and damaging, why not consider that after years of being terrified of divorce, of scarring their children, what would happen if one of them fell in love with someone else?

And before I move on, let me share this doozy of a quote which leads me into my next heading.
Yet, this exercise of counting blessings always required acknowledging that they had been lucky to escape the consequences of their past and by courage, discipline, and self-awareness risen above their early traumas, she as a child of divorce, he as a premature orphan.

Oh my god the drama. I've read a few reviews (and the actual synopsis) which suggests that this is supposed to be a dark comedy. To me this feels like a dark comedy in the same way the cult film The Room is billed as a dark comedy now. It failed in it's original intention and when people seemed to find their interpretation of drama ridiculous they quickly back-peddle and cry "but it was always meant to be funny and over the top!"

There is a scene early in the novel where Victoria is called into her son's school to discuss an accusation another child made. Her son allegedly stole a few milky-ways , and Victoria defends her son's honour the way a lawyer defends a man on trial for murder. And if this wasn't dramatic enough, when it turns out her son actually did steal the chocolates this is how she reacts;

"Don't you understand, Josh? Our son has betrayed us. We believed in him. He's pulled the rug out from under us...that goes without saying, Josh. But that doesn't get to the heart of why he did it. How can we trust him ever again?"


He's 11 years old. I know you have issues of trust with men, but he's your son! So is this drama for drama's sake, an example of the book's misogyny (those pesky females always over-react!) or...comedy?

Mothers, rape and misogyny

It took me all of two seconds to hate Victoria. She's ridiculous, and clearly made to be hated. On the first page she barks at a checkout girl who plugs in the wrong price for an item, and two pages later she notes that she likes to read the receipt after she shops because;
Either way, it opened up opportunities to exercise her moral superiority and mathematical acumen. 
Ugh. Another page on and Victoria has to visit the school to discuss her son's apparent chocolate theft. Remembering the initial confrontation, the book describes;
Michael, with all of his eleven-year-old indignation, had denied the accusation in presence of both Crespos and their nerdy little Madeline who lisped, ogling them through goggles far too big for her pinched little face.
Isn't she lovely?  But my problem is less that she's unlikeable and more that she, and every female in this book is unlikeable. Victoria is a nasty bitch, her mother is a man hating vindictive cow, Josh's sister is an overeating sex addict and the woman he has an affair with is conniving. They all work to fracture Josh's life as best as possible, and even though he's the man who has an affair he's presented as the victim, a considerate and family-orientated character who slipped up but is being wronged on many fronts.

Let's talk about that affair shall we? The woman is hired to be a designer at the ad agency Josh works at, and almost instantly she stalks into his office and says that she wants to "be his whore" and has sex with him on his couch. Everything is her fault. She seduced him, she made the first move, she refused to accept it was over. Let's forget that he bought her an anklet engraved with "my delicious whore". *GROAN*

There are only two sex scenes in this book and both made me incredibly uncomfortable. The first is Josh remembering the affair with Angela, and it's less the descriptions of sex (although the lines "I love hard, quick sex" and "I love that ice-cream cone you're carrying" were hard to get past) and more the implication that Angela basically raped Josh (climbing onto him amidst his calls to stop) and a hot and heavy relationship developed from it. That's not bdsm, that's not romantic, that's not sexy. That's fucked up.

The second is a sex act that takes place between Victoria and the school's principal. She forces her son to tell the truth and when the principal explains that this means expulsion, he quickly follows it with the very sleazy and cliché "well  maybe we can sort it out" reasoning. The next day they take a drive to the country, and after a few terrible "blow me baby" lines, she trades oral sex for her son's scholastic safety. And again, it isn't the implication of pulpy romance lines that upset me, or even rape in this case. In this scene it was one particular line which upset me.
He began to caress her knee. the other hand finally reached her breast. a finger began to play with her nipple. despite her disgust, she felt it harden.
Every. Single. Time Warren Adler chooses tawdry and cheap dramatics over anything of substance. In the hands of a better storyteller, this detail might be heartbreaking. It should have made me feel pity for Victoria and detest the principal. But in this book it just felt like a detail thrown in to make things salacious and maybe a little sexy. I found it insulting.

At times I feel like Adler thought he was writing strong characters because they mirrored characters on Sex and the City (she's a lawyer! She doesn't care about her weight! She has sex like a man!) but didn't understand that giving a female masculine connotations does not equal strong. Especially when any positive feature (she manages the family finances, she takes care of her friends financially) is overshadowed by half a dozen negative female connotations. They're either too emotional, or too cold, or man haters, or they can't keep a secret, or they've altered themselves surgically to the point of ridiculousness. The male characters aren't much better, they're just as stereotypical and wooden, but they're entirely more sympathetic than any of the females. Even Victoria's father is sympathetic, shown only once dying of cancer in a hospital room claiming he only stayed away because Victoria's mum was so bad.

So yes, I guess it's pretty clear that I did not like this book, and I haven't even broached the saccharine ending or the blackmail plot. On the bright side, apart from the terrible dialogue within the sex scenes, the writing is actually pretty good. Good enough that I was able to make it through the entire book even though I hated it with every fibre in my being. And there are a few flashes of brilliance, the son Michael's arc was interesting, Victoria gets a single kickass lawyer sticking-it-to-the-man moment, and there's a couple of really sweet scenes between Josh and his sister. But that's a pretty weak silver lining. Ultimately I think this book is fluff charading as an indictment of modern relationships, and there are half a dozen books that look at similar issues, with a dark comedy bent that are light-years away from the over-the-top dramatics of this book.


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