Last Tuesday, I popped Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl onto my to-be-read list. With a beach trip on the books for this past weekend, I jumped right into this quick, paperback read.
At first, Addie Baum’s voice–heard through the lens of an interview conducted by her granddaughter–is sweet and charming. Growing up as the baby of an immigrant family in the early 20th century, Addie’s day-to-day life is a mix of plucky-heroine-coming-of-age-story and meant-to-be-poignant images of the harsh reality for the poor living in tenement housing in Boston’s North End. Addie is meant to be sweet and with a naivete courage, but she comes across as altogether fictional.
Addie’s childhood struggles as the youngest daughter of an eternally critical and pessimistic mother turn into adolescent power struggles against her mother, which in turn become adult struggles to break free of her mother’s constant onslaught of perceived failures. This central motif never shifts, never changes. It would be trite for her mother to suddenly soften as she ages, but I would have liked to have seen Addie’s attitude towards her change. We, as readers, want to see our protagonists become stronger people–we want to root for them! But Addie simply responds with hurt or anger to each barb. She’s a flat character, constantly reminding us she isn’t real.
Too many tragedies befall our heroine, too many if/then laments, too many rapid succession changes happen throughout the book to really believe this was a real story. When you are all too aware the characters on the page are, indeed, characters, they’ve lost their pull and staying power. My inner editor was itching for the red pen–where is the substance? Where are Addie’s deepest emotions in all this turmoil? As Addie’s voice starts to lose her charm, you start to wonder whether her story might have been told more interestingly from the perspective of a few different narrators.
To give Diamant credit, perhaps she simply held on too tightly to the premise of this story being told by a grandmother to her granddaughter. Maybe we could have seen more real experiences, real reactions, if they hadn’t been couched in a school project interview space.
When an author fails to find that beautiful space when the words on the page blur in their reader’s mind’s eye, and they’re completely enthralled in watching the protagonist’s story play out, they’ve lost you. Unfortunately, Diamant never quite captures that suspended sense of realism with The Boston Girl.
All in all, The Boston Girl felt like sitting next to an older, distant relative at a family reunion who’s prattling on about random tidbits of their life without invitation. Let’s just say it’s time to excuse ourselves and find something to spike your punch with.