Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger
This is the story of two women. One of them, Holly, is a 42-year-old widow with two teenage sons. She works at the local newspaper in Bertram Corners, a two-hour drive from New York City. She struggles with finances, trying to keep up mortgage payments on her home and survives only with the assistance of her wealthy mother. Holly volunteers as one of the assistants to Vivian, the other main character. Vivian is a 63-year-old quadriplegic; she contracted polio and has spent the last 57 years in an iron lung and is totally dependent on others for 24-hour care. The two have become good friends over the years.
Part of the novel is narrated using the third person limited omniscient point of view, focusing on Holly. Periodically, Vivian’s first person narration is included in the form of her unaired podcasts. It is these podcasts which I found most interesting. Providing the viewpoint of a woman who describes herself as “someone alive but trapped like a fly in tree sap” is original. Vivian tells her life story in these podcasts, explaining how she coped and made a life for herself despite her extreme circumstances. I found myself wishing her story were more developed.
Holly’s story I found much less interesting. Her situation, trying to provide for her sons and to make ends meet, is one with which many people could identify. It is sometimes difficult to have sympathy for her, however, because, though her financial situation worsens, she has not done much to help herself and her family, relying on her wealthy mother to help her pay the mortgage. It is only when her mother can no longer help that Holly seems to realize the severity of her financial straits. Only then does she fear losing the house and not having the money for her sons’ college tuition? Even then, she only panics and does little constructive to help the situation. She is the damsel in distress awaiting a knight in shining armour to rescue her.
A stranger does come riding into town. Vivian decides to invest in a cash-for-gold store and Holly serves as her assistant, meeting with Racine, the man who has set up a number of these stores. As expected, a relationship develops between Holly and Racine, but it consists primarily of Holly running away after dates and Racine mysteriously leaving town. Since little information is given about Racine, the relationship hardly seems grounded.
The plot is weak. Some events are totally predictable; for example, when Holly’s mother’s engagement ring goes missing, we know exactly where it will show up. There are a lot of convenient coincidences; for example, everyone in Holly’s family suffers financial setbacks at the same time. Inclement weather always seems to cause a power outage? And then there are the unbelievable events. Vivian studied the stock market and built a financial portfolio, going from penny stocks to blue chips, and is described by her broker as having the Midas touch so she is able to invest $120,000 in a business. But then this same woman learns that “’most of my investments are basically worthless right now’”?
The novel examines society’s relationship with money. The author makes a parallel between oxygen and money: “If money were oxygen, [Holly] was the one flopping around like a fish outside the iron lung. Society expected people to have money. It really didn’t know what to do with people who found themselves outside the norms of earning and spending and paying taxes.” Unfortunately, the resolution to Holly’s financial problems weakens the realism of the novel’s thematic development.
This book is a quick read. I just wish that the focus had been more on Vivian’s story rather than on Holly’s.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.