And on we go. Part one is here (and there's some really interesting stuff in the comments).
Meghan: I think I'm going to agree a lot with what Kassia had to say, especially about the pleasure of seeing a hardboiled voice associated with a female character. I enjoy Chandler most because his use of language is kind of out of its mind, which is is not something I see in Always, however. In fact, I love the simple, precise language here that somehow manages to also be lush, especially when describing food and sex. I'm drawn to that hard voice, and Aud's capacity for violence, in part because I've always skewed towards the aggressive end of the scale, especially for what's expected for women. I threw elbows while wearing a purple skirt and ribbons playing field hockey, and was captain of my college rugby team, where my main talent was running at people and hitting them (there were no more ribbons). I've always known there were women like me out there, but you almost never see them in stories. Aud is on a different level, of course -- compulsive in her precision, whether it be what she wears or how she throws a punch -- but that also makes for great reading, because you're getting a clear window into the character's mindset and into how the character does what they do. You believe Aud, and her world, precisely because of her voice, which describes the method and reason behind everything she does without ever becoming tedious.
And, along with Dave, I agree that the one thing she does not understand at all is her own emotions, and that's what makes her character truly compelling. You know she has a thing for Kick even when all she recognizes are feelings of annoyance. She's fragile, even naive, in the realm of emotional connection, and as a result you have this fascinating character whose strengths -- precision, clear-headedness, lightening instincts -- fly out the window with the people she's closest too. You also get those delicious moments possible with first person narration, where bits of dialogue tell you so much about what's actually going on in the character's life/head, which is completely contrary to the narrative you've been reading thus far. Griffith peoples the book with characters who have different kinds of insight into Aud -- Doran, her mother, Kick -- and you see through them how much more complex Aud is than even she realizes. Aud is a mystery to herself, even as she solves mystery after mystery in the real world.
I should also note that this is the first Aud book I've read, and I never really floundered. The one thing I struggled with was realizing that the Atlanta sections were a. set in atlanta and b. set in the past. It took me awhile before I got that, but I don't think that was a jumping-in-in-the-middle problem, though I was already set up to expect some disorientation. It was insane that those Atlanta sections worked, and I think they mostly did because I as a reader am really interested in how women are discouraged from accessing their own aggression. I mean, I can tackle someone, but I don't know how to make a fist -- that's insane, right?
I think I mostly answered Matt's essay test questions, but to state more directly -- Aud is a hyper-competent person who has no idea how she works on the inside, or at least is on a quest to figure that out. This could have been handled in kind of a lame way, but luckily Griffth uses the fact that no one knows how they really work to great affect -- Aud sees through everyone else, too, or at least thinks she does, and Aud's insight into other characters helps balance the theme of her own lack of insight into herself.
Finally, I have to say, I was drawn to Aud's voice because of her desires, and the way she gives voice to them (or doesn't). You don't see a lot of smart, unique lesbian characters in fiction, and Griffith nails the unique challenges and rhythms of a relationship between to women, and of desire between women. It's a very sensual book for all the coldness of Aud's character, and Aud's sensuality humanizes her as well.
Colleen: Always was my first Aud book but I had no problem getting caught
up in the story. After reading what Dave had to say about Aud's
evolution over the course of the series, I can see how reading all the
books would make for a deeper understanding of her character -- but Always does standalone just fine for the new reader.
I thought Aud's voice was very sincere -- as tough as she is, she still has major issues with her mother and her friendship with Doran comes across as quite honest. The only moment where the story faltered for me was when she had the prostitute sent to her hotel room to ask her for information about the city. Maybe if I had been on board with the series from the beginning this would have made more sense but it seemed like a 1950s kind of way to get insight into Seattle's dirty underbelly -- and not how a very rich and capable 21st century former cop would do detective work.
Then again, that might have just been all about getting laid which is fine, but I missed something in there and that did make the story falter a tad (momentarily) for me.
I thought the relationship between Aud and Kick was quite compelling and as Dave mentioned, that moment with the cherry tree was perfect. Of course Aud was going to try and sabotage this relationship -- she's so screwed up! I loved how they got through that, and found Kick to be a perfect foil for all of Aud's confusions.
And Meghan I'm with you on the language in this book -- Nicola has a way of simply describing skin that makes an impression. How she can be so lush on the one hand and yet effectively hardboiled on the other is really impressive.
As to the parallel storyline set in Atlanta, I blogged about this at my site back when I read the book as it affected me so deeply. I find it interesting that Matt didn't read these parts that much as they were the ones I reread! Ha! I really wonder if the ATL story might resonate more with female than male readers, as so much of what Aud says about women not knowing how to physically fight (and so much of what those characters in her class express) is true. I strongly doubt that there is a women in this country today who has not been in a position where they wish they could throw a strong punch; I know I've been there (more than once) and having to figure out another, less effective, way out of those situations is frustrating beyond belief. In fact, I probably never would have been in those defensive positions at all if I was a man, but the guys I was dealing with felt fearless because they knew they were stronger than me. Standing eye to eye with someone who could really hurt you if they chose is so not fair and every moment in those classes, particularly when they talk about making a fist, seemed like it was written for me.
Girls are just never taught how to fight and Nicola's exploration of what that does to women over time was pitch perfect as far as I was concerned. And the ending of that storyline -- I thought that ending was amazing. (I will admit I didn't see it coming but that might have been because I was too caught up in each chapter lesson.) My husband and I (he's from Alaska so he's all about the fighting/shooting/flying etc.) have talked about this a lot, particularly how it affected me at work. So to answer Matt's question about how we see ourselves while reading Always, well it made me think a lot about strength and weakness -- which was a bit part of Kick's thoughts as she and Aud became closer. Maybe I was drawn so deeply into that aspect of the story because I'm a women who has spent years in a male-dominated profession (aviation) in a very macho place (Alaska). From dealing with aggressive passengers to aggressive employees to even the guys at the bank when we started our own business, I have had to prove my strength (be it physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual) over and over again. And other than showing he could fly, my husband hasn't had to prove a damn thing. He gets accepted on "paper" value; I had to show each time I was worthy of being at the "party." Aud establishes her strength from the beginning of every encounter she has and how the strength is parceled out between her and Kick is a major evolution in the story. Interestingly, even at the place I am today, I still do not feel strong enough -- I think I would like to have that physical edge that Nicola writes about. I can talk my way out of pretty much anything but if I couldn't someday, then it would be nice to be able to hit back with confidence.
Okay, enough from me. Aud is complex, conflicted and charasmatic as hell. She worries about what to wear for dinner with her mother while confidently plotting the takedown of a thieving employee. She jumps from high places with ease but panics over how to treat a girlfriend and maybe hurt a friend. She can throw a solid punch but not always correctly read those standing next to her. Smart strong and vulnerable. I found her to be one of the most human characters I've found in fiction in ages.
I'm going to go along with Matt's essay questions, because I find them
quite appealing. I agree with all of you, even the points that might seem to disagree
with each other. It's interesting that, even in your case, Matt, not taking
to the voice, it's pretty clear we all more or less read the
same book. That so rarely happens, it's an interesting phenomenon in
and of itself. Sure, we bring different parts of our own concerns to
the table, but at base, I don't think we're arguing about what the book is or what it wants to do.
Like the rest of you, what makes Aud so appealing for me is her complexity. In addition to the physicality -- which is thoroughly pleasurable to see explored in this way in a female character -- I like seeing inside a female character that is this smart. It's not just that Aud's strong as hell, precise as a knife, it's that she's brilliant as well. All this should add up to a Mary Sue, but it doesn't, and it doesn't because of the massive emotional blindspots Nicola's given her. The things she excels at create as many problems for her as they solve.
The thing that smart characters never seem to have in books as convincingly as I want is that sort of internal analysis of everything that's going on where even they don't realize what they're missing. Nicola shows that wonderfully in Aud -- the mind constantly processing, figuring out what to do next, and yet not always fully grokking the subtext. While she makes these amazing psychological assessments and leaps, she's also completely unaware of huge amounts of what's going on, especially of what's going on within herself. Wow. As someone who has to really struggle to keep my characters out of their heads in my own work, it's nice to see someone who can actually make the opposite work for the story. (Not something I plan on attempting, but nice.) And, just as impressive, have that same smart-as-hell character be this physical force who ACTS.
Someone mentioned Aud's vulnerability and the reminders we get of that throughout Always. Abso-fucking-lutely. This book is all about that. Even though we know she can handle herself with anybody, is this smart, this strong, this much of a force not to mess around with, did you doubt for a second that something really terrible could happen to her? In fact, we even see with the dosing that perhaps there are many things Aud is less designed to come back from as easily as other people. Losing control is a big one. And what's love about? Pretty hard to control that. And so she works really hard at regaining that control, unable to even see her real feelings for Kick at first -- defaulting to protector because the protector is in charge. Unable to admit she needs to regain confidence in her body, in her mind, and that even when she gets it back, it could go away again in a second. Being this much in the body means walking this razor's edge between how strong we are and how fragile. And that's how it is for Aud on the inside too.
A few more questions, if you'll indulge me. What do you guys think of these books in terms of genre? They're are so many potential ghettos for them to get shoved into and why does that suck? I think we all agree that Aud continues to evolve through this book; where might she go next? Do we think Aud can actually be in a relationship with Kick, actually do the day-to-day thing? Do you think that the physicality of these books and the fact they're about a woman make them a challenge for some readers? Are we less willing to accept a woman can use her body this way?
And the thrilling conclusion comes next!