Review: Janelle Brown’s Fiction (Three Books + Counting)
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything
Let’s get this out of the way, my friend Janelle Brown writes really unlikeable characters, I’m told. Of course, I didn’t know this until she told me in 2018 that critics of her work have said that about her characters.
I have found her characters (as I’m clearly writing this review long after having read all of her novels)…wildly human, full of flaws and nuance, and haunted by the very kinds of tragic flaws that sink our ships on a daily basis.
What she does is give voice to a very specific time and place in our world. We both cut our teeth covering Silicon Valley during the Dotcom boom. (She more critically than me!) And so as I read All We Ever Wanted Was Everything I couldn’t help but click through the characters that we’d come across during those insane years in the Valley.
Yes, the Millers are the absolute prototypical nouveau riche family where the father has abandoned any emotional connection to his family in pursuit of wealth and success, the mother turns a blind eye to that believing her husband is acting in the family’s best interest, and the kids are—as you would expect—disasters.
Look, these characters aren’t the people you’re going to want to have over for dinner. And that’s the point. The pursuit of Everything leads if not to destruction than it at least to breaking. Every person in the Miller family is looking for Everything because they’ve bough into the mythology of the Valley.
Maybe the premise was too time and place for some folks. Maybe you had to have lived through the Valley’s meteoric rise, it’s transformation of society, and then it’s start-up collapse (version 1.0) to really see the characters are something more than archetypes. I don’t know. I can’t answer that for other readers.
What I can say is this: The Great Gatsby took on Long Island and New York City. Janelle took on Silicon Valley.
This Is Where We Live
If I was a better friend (and I’ve known Janelle for more than twenty years dating back to our time in San Francisco cover the Dotcom boom + bust), I’d have written this back when I first read the book. But I am not. And I didn’t.
Her first book took on that very Dotcom bubble lifestyle, which seemed right to do. If you didn’t live through it on the ground floor (this always sounds so weird, but I’ve had this discussion with a lot of folks from that time), it permeated your soul. You needed to purge. Some of us just…left. Janelle wrote a book about it.
But This is Where We Live felt more personal.
Here’s why: Janelle and I had a conversation—I can’t recall exactly when but it was before this book—about the cost of living in California and its impact on the creative class. I had long left California first for Texas and then back to my home in Appalachia, so I was removed from the scene. (Although, I left California because the cost of living was seriously impacting this creative class kid.)
She told that story through Claudia, a film-maker who didn’t quite make it and looks to become a teacher, and her flight-of-fantasy partner Jeremey, a musician who lives in a world where he believes he’s just about to be famous.
As you can imagine, those two world views collide as they try to pay their mortgage and live as artists. When Jeremey’s ex-girlfriend Aoki shows up, the partnership—and their worldview—are put to the test.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say this: several people who reviewed the book weren’t thrilled by how neatly the story wrapped up. But, I can say as someone who lived with a filmmaker in Northern California, we experienced this very real phenomenon. (Also, the book’s title wasn’t in the past tense, so…)
Watch Me Disappear
Watch Me Disappear is the best kind of mystery.
Author Janelle Brown allows her story to unfold slowly, taking the time to let the characters breathe, and giving the reader the opportunity to invest in the world where the story takes place. What she so deftly does is create complicated characters who can’t easily be pigeon-holed into archetypes, and who can’t easily be described as either good or bad.
Her characters—Jonathan, Billie, Olive—come with flaws, but their motivations are grounded in a goodness. Or at least a goodness that makes sense within the context of who they are in the book.
In other words: She’s written a story about characters who you already know in real life.
She traded in the cheap plot twists designed to get you to turn the page, and instead let her characters pull you into their world as they desperately—and sometimes not so desperately—tried to unravel the mystery of Billie’s disappearance.
Honestly, I couldn’t put the book down. Which is a good thing because the last two pages were everything!
Coming in April. I hate waiting. Pre-orders, suckers!!