Review: The Submission by Amy Waldman

Publication Date: August 16, 2011

Two years after the events of 9/11, a jury sits to decide on a memorial. Among the thousands of submissions lies a design that needs to be what everyone wants it to represent.

When the name of the winner is drawn and revealed to be Muslim, the media and the jury race to define what it could mean for a Muslim architect to memorialize a tragedy created by Muslim extremists.

Date Read: February 27, 2019

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Guys, I do a lot of reading for classes, but I promise that this is the last semester that I'll be writing reviews for class readings.

The premise of this book was very interesting and I was prepared to be challenged as a reader by the topic and the conversation within the book about racism. However, the first problem that I ran into was the writing style. I really wasn't a fan of the writing style, and that became apparent on the first page of the book. Something about the way Waldman writes this book feels incredibly pretentious, like she has the need to show off her vocabulary. Either that, or she thinks that the way to make her high-class, wealthy characters more realistic is to give them a vocabulary that I had to use the dictionary to understand. Seeing as I don't usually have to use the dictionary when I'm reading, I didn't appreciate having to set the book down every few pages to look up the meaning of a word.

I can usually get behind descriptive writing, as I love books with beautiful words and flowery writing. This book had descriptive writing that didn't work for me. There was something about the way things were described that I couldn't get behind. Something about it didn't work for me, and more often than not, I found that I was struggling to understand why certain descriptions were in the book when I felt like it could have been more concise or just not included. This style might work for other people, but it really wasn't my cup of tea.

Then comes the characters. Boy, did I struggle with the characters. I'm not sure how the other people in my class felt about this, as I had trouble telling the voices apart. This book is told from six different POV characters, split evenly between both genders. My problem was that the men and women sounded the same to me. Everyone's voice felt like a mix of frustration, anger, sadness, and some resentment toward someone or something else. I wanted to get to a point where a voice stood out, but honestly, if you read from a random part of the book, I wouldn't be able to tell you if it was a male or female voice. That, and I struggled to find any of them likable. Where I was supposed to relate to characters or feel for them, I was frustrated by what they were doing and thinking. Where I was supposed to feel challenged by their beliefs and ideals, I felt bored. I knew that Waldman intended for me to be challenged, but I didn't feel like it had that effect on me.

It's one thing for a character to be upset about what's happening to them, but it's another thing for that anger and frustration to come across in a manner that often feels baseless. The motives behind the anger kept getting re-explained, to a point that I felt was unnecessary. I'm smart enough as a reader to know why someone is upset after I encounter it for the first time, I really don't need it to be reiterated every time we return to their POV. I couldn't connect to any of these characters because they felt like two-dimensional characters trying to be three-dimensional without committing. All of their motives were essentially the same at their core, no matter who was talking. The lack of diversity in voice made it so hard for me to feel like I was learning anything.

One of the things that I considered while reading this was that I'm not the target audience. My background as someone who has lived almost exclusively in cultures outside of the one I was born in has given me a very different perspective on what I read. I've been faced with racism plenty of times, no matter where I've gone. I've had my beliefs challenged because of my faith as a Christian. I've had to ideas challenged because I'm a woman, not to mention a woman of color. It's not foreign to me to have to think about where religion, skin color, and ethnicity play into my capabilities and how people regard me as a person. Because of that, this didn't feel entirely convincing as racism was supposed to be challenged. While Waldman did a good job exploring both sides, in the end, it fell short of what I was expecting from a book on this topic.

There's also the matter of the random sexual content within this book. Certain characters have strangely sexual charges around them, particularly involving one of the main female characters, Claire Burwell. It seemed that every male character who spent more than five minutes with her found her attractive in some way that was purely physical. One moment, they're talking about how strong she is for what she's been through, and the next moment they really want to kiss her or have sex with her. These sexual charges felt forced and random, with no actual chemistry. One male character, specifically, expressed a deep dislike of her for their differences in beliefs, yet he desperately wanted to get in bed with her in a way that I can only describe as being very strange. Lines from this male character include "undressing her like his niece's paper dolls" and wanting to "drill into her" because he was angry with her stance on the memorial.

Oh gosh, we haven't even talked about the actual memorial. Okay, quick overview: I wanted the memorial in this book to be built because I understood the reasoning behind it. I also understand the hesitations, but at the end of the day, it was blown so far out of proportion that nothing remotely good could have come out of the memorial and the scandal around it. There were great points to it, but the majority of that was lost in the debate of whether it should be built and how everyone felt, rather than properly taking a look at what the memorial had to offer.

It's very safe to say that I'm not a fan of this book. The majority of the problems that I have with it are from a craft perspective, rather than from a content perspective, though they influence each other. It felt like Waldman was too excited to leave the rules of journalism and ended up writing in a way that didn't work for the book or for her. Her writing felt too forced for my liking, and it made me think about how my own writing transfers between journalism and fiction.

What I do appreciate about this book is that it tackled a topic that is very difficult to write about. I liked the premise, as it was something I'd never read before. The execution was the problem I had with the book.

Mo is a character that I wanted to be strong. I wanted him to be so much stronger, and while some of my classmates said that he was, I felt like he was a scared child playing at being strong and never actually coming into the strength I saw as potential within him. His constant anger and frustration at things that were created out of a decision he made with unspoken motives were annoying to read about and made him feel whiney.

Paul appeared less in the book than the majority of other POV characters. He's supposed to be some kind of older guide, but he felt equally lost and uncertain about his stance. Had he been removed from the book, there would probably be very little difference.

Sean annoys me to no end. I disliked him strongly from beginning to end. Not only was he an incredibly misguided and angry character with no direction, he was also full of privileged entitlement that he never learned anything. Rather than being someone who could grow and change, he was so stagnant throughout the book.

Claire's grief was understandable, but her flakey nature and constant flip-flopping in the second half of the book made it hard to read from her perspective. There were times when she expressed things that felt completely irrelevant to the overall plot, especially when it came to her personal life. I know that the glimpses at her personal life were supposed to make her more relatable, but it just didn't work for me.

Asma was the least annoying of all the POV characters, but she was simply underdeveloped. Like the role she was portrayed in as a minority, she didn't get enough of a voice in comparison to her white and male counterparts. Her lack of character development was reflective of how little of a voice she had in the book.

Lastly, we have Alyssa Spier. The journalist of this story, I was so incredibly angry at her the entire time. Not only was she an example of what journalists shouldn't be, she was also a very stereotypical portrayal of what the media would do. Quite sad considering that Waldman has been a journalist for over two decades. I wanted a more positive portrayal of journalists, rather than what I grew to feel was more of a giant "screw you" to my job as a journalist and my industry. I may be a fiction writer, but I'm also a journalist and I don't appreciate always being made to be the bad guy in every story.

1.5 stars. I can see what this book was trying to do, but it didn't work for me and I don't recommend it.

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