Perhaps that's not quite accurate; I hate the books less than the pickle they land me in. Maxine Swann's Flower Children (Riverhead Books, 2007) was lauded in The New York Times; the short story it initially began as won all sorts of literary accolades. This should have been a brilliant, mesmerizing book. I'd describe the prose as "luminous," had it not been for a recent NPR interview I heard with an author who claimed any writing described thus simply had too many adjectives for its own good.
Yet that's not what's happening. Flower Children is a short book (211 pages, and about the size of a large index card), and I polished it off in a few hours ... but frankly, I'm still hungry. Hence the aforementioned pickle; on one shoulder is the cynical literary angel with coveralls and dirty fingernails, snickering about how the emperor has no clothes, and on the other is the bespectacled, iron-haired, definitely non-sexy academic librarian, wagging her finger about how I've so gorged myself on Anita Shreve and Jodi Picoult novels that I wouldn't know Quality Fiction if I tripped over it. (Immediately, I race to look up a relevant passage from The Overspent American: "Almost everyone who has interacted with persons rich in cultural capital has had at least one distressing experience that revealed their own deficiencies in taste: serving the wrong foods, dressing improperly, not knowing an artist or an author, expressing a poor opinion.")
So much for the meta-commentary. In case you haven't guessed, I really didn't care for this book. It started out promising -- really, it did, and not just for all the press I'd read. The premise is an intriguing one: What's it like to be the child of hippies? What happens when the children of the flower children eventually must make their way in the larger world? (While the story seems to begin at some unspecified time in the 1960s, for those of us in certain bucolic, left-leaning college towns, these days are not so long gone as you might think.) The opening chapter gives us a brilliant glimpse of these children's lives:
"They're free to run anywhere they like whenever they like, so they do. ... They aren't sure where their own land stops and someone else's begins, but it doesn't matter, they're told: It doesn't matter! Go where you please! ...And therein lies the paradox. The description is indeed, well, luminous, even crystalline. Unfortunately, that's all there is. While the story takes place over a number of years, and the four children -- Lu, Maeve, Tuck, and Clyde -- grow up over its course, not much else happens. They go to school, they visit grandparents, their parents separate, Dad goes through a succession of bizarre girlfriends. There's a mere suggestion of the challenges the kids face when they go to school and other less hippified corners of the big wide world, but only a suggestion; there is, to be blunt, no plot here. Some beautiful descriptions, but otherwise -- dandelion fluff. If that makes me a philistine, so be it.
"Their parents don't care what they do. They're the luckiest children alive! They run out naked in storms. They take baths with their father, five bodies in one tub. In the pasture, they stretch out flat on their backs and wait for the buzzards to come. When the buzzards start circling, they lie very still, breathless with fear, and imagine what it would be like to be eaten alive. That one's diving! they say, and they leap to their feet: No, we're alive! We're alive!"