Reading is the only thing in the world I am good at. A lifetime of reading, fifteen years of working in bookstores, and libraries, and an obsession with the written word makes me qualified enough to talk someone's ear off about books. Now I am getting more ARCs than I have room for in the house. Let me get back to reading them!
I will always, always pick up any book called Land of Enchantment, and I will almost always force myself to read it no matter how bad it is. Any contemporary writer who sets a book in my home state, called The Land of Enchantment by some, will definitely get their book read by me. And then they have to deal with what I have to say about it, as I am very opinionated about books set here.
What was annoying to me about this book was that it was almost something good. A good story, with good characters was laid over a bad, bad foundation. Leigh Stein tells the story of her relationship with Jason, a boyfriend with whom she had a volatile off and on relationship for years until his death in 2011. in 2007-2008 they lived together in Albuquerque, while she worked on a novel. The plan was supposed to be that he would work to support them while she did this, but instead Jason spent most of his time drinking, getting high, flirting with girls, and losing job after job. Some part of me sympathized with Stein since I was once in a similar relationship, but her self absorbed way of telling the story turned me off to it from the start. Since I don't know the author I can't really know why her retelling of her own story was so grating to me. It could have been some combination of her immaturity, thoughtlessness, and neediness that made this story hard to read. I found myself rolling my eyes at a lot of it because I couldn't believe how stupid she sounded. I know full well that someone who has worked at The New Yorker and has had work published can't be as idiotic as Stein comes off sounding in this book, but her earnest descriptions of her depression, her brief return home to Chicago during her stay in Albuquerque, and her insistence on seeing Jason in the best light possible made the beginning, the middle, and some of the end of this book drag, and drag. By the end of the book Stein admits to her own failings, and as she gains some distance and some perspective on her relationship with Jason, she admits to realizing, one slow revelation at a time, how awful he was to her, and how dysfunctional their relationship was. I wish she had focused more on this instead of mentioning it briefly just as the book was wrapping up. If the story focused more on the final destination, and everything she learned while getting there this could have been good. Instead we have to suffer through the journey with Stein (complete with her insipid journal entries) and I was bored all the way there. I didn't care that Stein identified with Sylvia Plath and Georgia O'Keeffe, especially since she clearly wasn't as talented or as interesting as either of them.
However, the biggest disappointment of this book for me was the misleading title. Very little of the action takes place in New Mexico, although I understand that Leigh Stein developed a deep connection to the state, one that she doesn't quite understand herself, given that she was so unhappy when she lived there. In some ways this is a huge positive of the book. Instead of just dismissing New Mexico as a place that sucks because she only met the down and out while she was there, Stein returns again, and again, never writing only of her unhappiness, but of the beauty and acceptance she finds there. I loved this the most about this book. Stein writes Albuquerque completely honestly. She writes it almost exactly the way I feel about it; the gritty noir of the city, juxtaposed with the beauty of the sky, the Sandias, the sage (here we just call them weeds), and the people. She later returns to different parts of the state, Santa Fe, and Abiquiu in particular, and I like her writing of those places too, although when visiting there she is clearly a tourist, and seeing things from the eyes of a tourist. But so much of the book takes place in Chicago, and New York, and those were parts I found myself reading a little faster just to get through the book.
In the last pages of the book Stein also says something about how she's at peace with her depression and anxiety, how she likes living with the darkness it brings, as well as the light she finds. This made me like her a lot more than when she was comparing herself to Sylvia Plath and Georgia O'Keeffe. As I said, there were glimmers of a great memoir. If Leigh Stein rewrites this in twenty years it may be amazing. But for now it's somewhat annoying, grudgingly good, and mostly just OK.