Title: A Snug Life Somewhere
Author: Jan Shapin
Release date: November 16, 2013
Publisher: Cambridge Books
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy (TLC Book Tours)
Rating: 3 out of 5
Penny Joe Copper, the daughter of a shingle weaver more interested in labor movements than in putting food on the table, is determined to make a “snug life somewhere” for herself. In this pursuit, she moves to Seattle, where her younger brother is attending college. But a few months later, when her brother is killed in a labor demonstration, Penny finds herself the face of grief—propelled into the spotlight by no small degree by the slick, fast-talking Gabe Rabinowitz.
Penny, frozen by pain at her beloved brother’s early demise, hitches her wagon to Gabe despite her love for another young man, Marcel. As Gabe moves more and more into politics and demonstrations, Penny is given an unique perspective on the socialist movements her father so adored—and on the people the United States considers criminals.
Penny’s close proximity to Gabe does nothing for her opinion of him. “Men like Gabe, who take what they want, can be exciting or demeaning or dangerous for a time, but in the end they are simply boring,” Penny, as the much-older narrator, reflects.
Penny finds herself faced with a decision: does she turn Gabe in for illegal activities, thus risking her own reputation, or does she turn a blind eye? And will she ever figure out how to maintain a relationship with Marcel?
So, this was an odd read for me.
Jan Shapin is an interesting stylist; her sentences are well constructed, her characters are very unusual, and her voice is distinct.
I felt myself, strangely, pulled in more by the writing than by the story itself. Perhaps that is because, at times, the story feels more like nonfiction, verging almost on the academic about labor strikes and communist movements. Providing historical context in a novel is very tricky indeed; the author must provide enough information for the story to make sense, while also not letting the reader’s eyes glaze over.
While I wasn’t bored by these sections, per se, I thought they slowed down the story and kept the tension muffled. I never felt like we were heading to a climax or a big showdown. Perhaps that is indicative of the author’s more sedate style; in any case, I kept reading, so it was successful on some level. But I didn’t feel much satisfaction in finishing Penny Joe’s story.
I enjoyed the writing, but the narrative arc felt like it could have been bigger, with more at stake. But that’s not quite it either; there is plenty at stake, Penny Joe’s life and freedom and ability to love. But I never felt like these issues were quite articulated; it was left to me to assume what motivated her. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader, but this disconnect left me feeling rather restless toward the end of the book.
I was most drawn to the Copper family, which, as the book progresses, seems less and less cohesive. “We Coppers were an odd lot, partitioning off our lives, telling each other it was for their own good,” Penny Joe relates early in the novel. And then, later: “I had never known families where feelings were something others did not intrude upon.” Penny has an inbred habit of suspicion, but also the ability to embrace and live with people she doesn’t really seem to like. It certainly makes for some interesting life experiences for her.
Don’t just take my word for it! Check out what other people on the tour have to say:
Monday, February 10: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Tuesday, February 11: The Road to Here
Wednesday, February 12: Ms. Nose in a Book
Monday, February 17: Priscilla and Her Books
Tuesday, February 18: Lisa’s Yarns
Thursday, February 20: Dwell in Possibility
Monday, February 24: Booksie’s Blog
Tuesday, February 25: The Written World
Wednesday, February 26: The Most Happy Reader
Thursday, February 27: Time 2 Read
Monday, March 3: Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, March 4: Book Loving Hippo
Wednesday, March 5: Unabridged Chick
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Categories: 3-3.5 stars, Book Reviews
Thank you, Melody, for a really thoughtful review of a Snug Life Somewhere. You picked up on the element of grief, which is central to Penny Joe’s muffled emotional responses and the odd life choices she makes — how, as you put it, “Penny Joe’s life and freedom and ability to love” are the real arc of struggle in the story. And you are right, the mix of fiction and history is a blend that goes down differently for different people. Thank you again for a really perceptive reader response. Jan Shapin
It sounds like this book reads more like a memoir in parts, and I think I’d enjoy that.
Thanks for being a part of the tour!