Monday, November 28, 2011

The World As We Know It by Joseph Monninger

I definitely was concerned about reading Joseph Monninger's The World As We Know It. His book A Barn in New England is one of my all-time favorite books and one of my most read books. It is one of those few that I will go back and re-read (that seems like a good topic for a Friday Fave). I really doubted Monninger could write two books that I thought were awesome. Plus, The World... is a novel while A Barn... is non-fiction. I had a degree of skepticism.

I shouldn't have. It was really good. The World... is about two brothers living in the little town of Warren, New Hampshire (where Monninger lives). The story begins with the two brothers in their early teens. It is winter and they are trying to ice skate up a river to Canada. They round a bend and find a young girl and her dog have fallen through the ice. The two rescue her and the girl, who is the youngest brothers age, and the younger brother fall in love.

The book goes on and details the very idyllic life of the trio and their families. The girl, Sarah, has recently moved to Warren because her father won the lottery and they were looking to "get away from it all". The brothers, Ed and Allard (Allard being the youngest), have dreamed of starting their own film company, making nature documentaries. Sarah helps them and the three grow up in a wilderness filled with love for nature, their families and each other.

Once they reach college age, Ed goes out west for college and meets up with a noted nature cinematographer and begins working for him. Allard goes to school and gets an internship with Ken Burns. Sarah pursues journalism at an Ivy League school. Even being apart from one another can't break apart the bonds of the trio. Sarah and Allard decide to get married.

By this time I'm more than halfway through this book. I'm really enjoying it but I'm bothered by a few things. First, the absolute perfection of these folks lives. It's like they grew up in the Garden of Eden, pre-apple. Even the spat Sarah and Allard get into is resolved quite quickly and painlessly. Which leads to the second point that bothers me. Uh, Mr. Monninger....novels are supposed to have conflicts. And choosing which Ivy League school a character goes to is not a conflict (why doesn't anyone ever send their characters to St. Olaf College? Some smart college PR person needs to pay filmmakers or authors to insert their liberal arts school into their work. I'm tired of people going to Yale and Harvard and Stanford. I digress.).

It takes a long time - just after the point when I started wondering where it was and yes, more than halfway through the book - but Monninger gets his conflict in with a doozy. Everything is shaken up. The marriage does not go off. Tragedy strikes. Allard vanishes. Sarah finds another. But then it all works out in the end. Love conquers all.

I did enjoy the book. Monninger is a great writer, especially when it comes to writing about the outdoors. I was reminded a lot of another great nature writer, David James Duncan, as I read it. But Monninger also does a nice job with character development and dialogue. The story is what prevents me from putting him in the two two-star book author category. It's a little trite and sappy. The conflict takes way too long to appear and given how long it takes to get there, it doesn't leave a lot of time for the resolution. Also, the lives of the characters are just way too perfect. Ken Burns? Ivy League schools? Lottery winners? Oh, and Sarah just happens to work for National Geographic upon graduation. Not the Frog Blog or the Montpelier Times or something. Just one of the premiere magazines in existence. Why not?

I can understand wanting to provide contrast for when the conflict occurs but a great life is fine for that. You don't need perfect. So that rubbed me the wrong way. Still, Monninger's writing is great. It has a masculine feel to it but he yanks on your emotions, too. It's like coming across a group of flannel-clad lumberjacks crying. Not easy to do, I don't think.

So check it out. I think you'll like it.

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