Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bittersweet: Confessions of a Twice-married Man--Philip Lee (book review)

Philip Lee has survived "the dark year" - a year in which two newly divorced brothers rough it, with no running water or indoor plumbing and contend with a feisty band of squirrels that inhabit their kitchen. Dishes are washed in the rain, coffee is made with a can and a blowtorch, a bucket becomes a make-shift shower, and renovation projects are abandoned almost as soon as they are started.

This first paragraph of the publisher's blurb totally hooked me. Grown brothers, living together again while recovering from painful divorces, contending with feisty squirrels! I was eager to be entertained by their exploits and touched by the brotherly love.

You know how sometimes books start out with a summary of what's been going on, and you're not hooked yet but you keep reading because pretty soon the thing will kick into gear? Bittersweet never kicked into gear for me. It wasn't poorly written. It just lacked some of the things I look for in both fiction and memoir. Dialogue, for example.

Author Philip Lee lets the reader peer into his heart as he moves from married man to divorced man to married-again man. His examination of himself and the institution of marriage makes for an interesting read, but he never invites the reader in off his proverbial front porch. He describes the house (feisty squirrels, water-bucket shower, and all); he talks about his kids, his brother, the women he loves; but the reader never quite steps through the threshold to meet them in person. Which is a shame, because by the middle of the book I had connected with Lee and was really rooting for him. But, should I have cared if he got together with the woman he eventually married? I didn't know her well enough to decide if she was a good-guy or a bad-guy (she was at the root of the downfall of his marriage, after all), and while I was still puzzling over that, he'd already sorted through his feelings, gotten remarried, and was on to the next hurdle.

Philip Lee is a professor of Journalism in New Brunswick and in addition to writing for various newspapers has published two other books--Home Pool: The Fight to Save the Atlantic Salmon, and Frank: The Life and Politics of Frank McKenna. Many were more impressed with his memoir than I was, including all these people.


  1. I'm trying to imagine my two brothers living together in that kind of environment. They work together and get along well, but living together in those circumstances? Nope, can't see that ever happening!! I think they had enough sharing of space when we were kids ;-).

    "she was at the root of the downfall of his marriage" -- I would tend to think HE was at the root of the downfall of his marriage!

  2. You're right, of course! What I meant was, the marriage ended because he started having feelings for this woman, his friend. He confessed his feelings to his wife, to clear the air, and the marriage shattered.

  3. Good review... Blurb tells me I'd like it... Your angle tells me to approach with caution.

    I knew there was a reason I loved your blog!

  4. Feisty squirrels? I HAVE to read this!

  5. Thanks Ali for reading Bittersweet and writing the thoughtful response. I was never a fan of the publisher's blurb because I don't think it was an accurate preview for the book, which is in part a memoir but also an exploration of marriage, love, families, and how to get happy. My narrative holds the book together but the subject matter is universal (I hope). So if you felt a little bait and switch, I'd say your reaction was right on the money. Your point about dialogue is also well taken. I am a journalist and I have a thing about accuracy and not making things up. So I didn't "recreate dialogue" but rather fussed over making sure everything I wrote was true. All names and places and events are true, and if you didn't cross the threshold as far as you would have liked, it may have been because I was trying to protect the privacy of some of these real people. I went as far as I could go - I'm sure there are others who would go further. All that said, I very much appreciate you reading and taking the time to write.

    Best wishes, Philip Lee

  6. Thanks so much for your comments, Professor Lee--I think they speak for themselves and I'll point them out in a separate post so they aren't missed.

    Regarding accuracy: ironically, I'm reading a work of historical fiction right now, about which the author--also a journalist!--freely admits to having made a bunch of stuff up (big things, not just conversation) for the sake of the story, and it's totally irritating me. You might think there's no pleasing me, right?

    I admire your integrity, especially when it comes to protecting your children's privacy. So important! I look forward to seeing what your next project will be.