06 June 2014

Swans are Fat Too, by Michelle Granas

This book is just begging to be made into an incredibly charming rom-com. A very pleasant and surprisingly thoughtful romance, the novel tells the story of Hania, a heavy-set, former concert pianist who returns to her native Poland and gets roped into caring for her cousin's children. She strikes up a friendship with the upstairs neighbor Konstanty, helping him type up his manuscript history of Poland. Chapters of this history are cleverly woven into the story, giving the reader a genuinely interesting tour of Poland's past. Running alongside this narrative, however, is also a really intelligent critique of Poland's ways of reckoning with that past; its problematic national mythos.  These reflections on history are the conversational fodder that gradually draws Konstanty and Halina closer.

One of the things I really appreciated about this book was that the blossoming romance between the couple is an intellectual one. We watch it happen through conversations, and we understand why they enjoy talking to each other so much. This is no actually that common in rom-coms. Usually the attractions between characters is either taken for granted, or it's based on some carefully selected obscure detail or quirk. We have so often been told that this is how you fall in love: it's something about the way she swallowed her gum and almost choked that made you realize that this was the woman for you. So it was neat to watch a slow progression of like minds coming together.

Another thing I liked a lot was that while the plot occasionally drifted towards the somewhat overdone (ie, towards the kind of events you expect to see in movies, not real life), it was refreshingly devoid of melodrama. Someone may think someone else is mad at them because s/he didn't say hello on the stairs that morning, and be very very unhappy about that, but life goes on and then it turns out that actually the other person was just in kind of a hurry and it's really not a big deal. The human tendency to overdramatize is acknowledged but not indulged. The characters may feel sorry for themselves sometimes, but they pull themselves together and don't wallow.

Finally, this is my personal bias, but I loved the way the dialogue was flavored with bits of Polish. In a novel that is somewhat short on descriptions of place -- it is not a visual work at all, which paradoxically may be why I think it would make a good movie -- those occasional phrases were wonderfully evocative, and even made me a little homesick. I have no idea (but I wonder) how a non-Polish speaking reader will experience that aspect.

It's not a literary masterpiece, but it's a very enjoyable read, and would be very pleasant company on a flight or the beach.

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