You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto–What Are Reviews Really Worth?

Treme wallpaper from HBOThe subject of this blog?  Oddly enough, not the reviews for Fortunate Harbor.  Yes, the book’s out now, and yes there have been lots of reviews, the vast majority, I’m happy to say, good ones like this from Publishers Weekly: “A juicy, sprawling beach read with a suspenseful twist. . .”  Or this from Randall Radic at Basil and Spice online who called the book: ” . . . a how-to manual for guys about women.  How they think.  How they feel.  And why they act the way they do.” 

But an author defending unflattering reviews is a lot like a chef demanding a retraction from the restaurant critic who pointed out there was too much salt in the gumbo.  Fact is, opinions are opinions.  And these days, not only does everybody have them, everybody and anybody can put them online with the click of a computer mouse.   Since I’m a big fan of reviews–taken with a grain of that aforementioned salt–I say bravo.  But let’s be clear about what a review really is.

I began thinking about reviews when I stumbled on a horrifying one of HBO’s Treme, my new television favorite.  My jaw dropped as I slogged through the prose, then read the comments, most of which agreed with the reviewer, a “pro” from a PBS station.  Clearly everyone who found the entire setup of Treme boring, the characters lifeless (!), the story wandering and unfocused, were clueless, mindless individuals who were probably praying for premieres of  CSI: Antarctica, or Law and Order: The Electric Chair to take its place.

But, of course, they weren’t mindless or clueless.  The reviewer and all his personal fans were simply detailing exactly the way this show, this indescribably moving and penetrating look at life in New Orleans post-Katrina, had failed them personally.  In fact as I read the review and comments more carefully, I was struck by the similarities between what these viewers believed to be lacking in Treme, and the few negatives I’ve gleaned from reading my own reviews.  And it comes down to something this simple and this complicated: What I need is not what you need.  Tomatoes and tomahtoes.

For me, Treme is a realistic view of very different people finding small ways to pick up their lives after a nightmare and moving forward.  Their bursts of violence and outrage?  I understand.  Their inability to focus, to provide support for others?  That could be any of us.  But never has a television show captured the heart of a city the way Treme does.  It is a crash course in New Orleans, not just its music and political corruption, but the soul of the city, the premises, the folklore, the streets and businesses which made it through the storm, and the neighborhoods that were washed away.  In the episode I watched last night, when a man tells street buskers that he used to live in Lakeview but lost everything in Katrina, including three of his neighbors?  I lived in Lakeview, on the border of Gentilly, another neighborhood that took a terrible beating.  I was long gone when Katrina hit, but I knew what that man had experienced, because Treme never, never lets us forget. 

The characters are flawed.  They slowly pick up the pieces of their lives.  They make mistakes and more mistakes.  They pick up pieces and then, themselves.  And through it all the spirit of this unique, remarkable city, shines through.   I root for everyone and everything. I want the minutiae, the name dropping, the luxurious camera views of the Mardi Gras Indians or Tipitinas.  Some of the questions are small and the answers will be, too.  But I am immersed.  I am saturated.  When Treme has finished for the night, I have been bathed in its glory.   I don’t need resolution or happy endings.  The trip is enough.  More than enough.  It is a gift.

To a far lesser extent, this is what I hope to do in my Happiness Key series.  Some reviewers are perplexed there are so many characters, and that I take the time to detail their lives.  That’s simple to answer.  These are friendship novels, about women coming together the way women have since we dressed in wooly mammoth fur.  The books are not meant to be roller coaster rides.  They are in depth looks at the lives of women who are overcoming their personal obstacles and their distaste for each other to come together at last.  Yes there are lots of twists and turns, but each woman’s personal story is part of that.  I wanted to wallow in their lives.  I wanted to know their quirks, their desires, their secret dreams.  I wanted to convey that to my readers.

That decision has stood me well.  Many of you love the women of Happiness Key as much as I do.  Some of you don’t.  You want faster, shorter, and I appreciate that.  I love those books, too.  But just this once, why not slow down a little?  Turn on Treme.  Pick up Fortunate Harbor.  Listen to Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.  Some of life’s greatest pleasures take their time arriving.  And by the time they do?  You have enjoyed the journey so much that when you say goodbye, you carry that work inside you for the rest of your days.

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