I think there are two kinds of books in this world. The first kind knows exactly what type of book they are, whether it be fantasy, romance, literary, or contemporary fiction. They embrace what they are and try to be the very best book they can be. Sometimes they are great, sometimes they are good, and sometimes they are terrible, but at least they know what book they are.
The second kind of book doesn’t know what it is. Very often, it wants to be another type of book so badly but just doesn’t measure up, so it fails at being the book it should be as well as the one it wants to be.
In my opinion, Under the Same Stars falls into the latter category.
From the publisher:
It is late summer 2008 and, as the world economy goes into meltdown, forty-year-old Salinger Nash, plagued since adolescence by a mercurial depression, leaves the London house he shares with his girlfriend, Tiane, for his older brother’s home in the Garden District of New Orleans. Carson Nash has persuaded Salinger they should find their missing father, Henry- last known location Las Cruces, New Mexico. But it is with a sense of foreboding that Salinger sets off with his brother. Painfully aware that their own relationship is distant and strained, will dragging up the past and confronting their father going to help or harm them? Meanwhile back in London, Tiane isn’t answering Salinger’s increasingly urgent messages. Why? Tender, funny, unflinching, this is a road trip story in the great American literary tradition and an exploration of sibling rivalry that harks back to Cain and Abel. A vivid glimpse of a Britain’s ‘brother country’ through the eyes of a skeptical outsider, a profound exploration of fraternal love and a gripping journey of the soul.
The story of Cain and Abel is an old one, and has been retold in many, many forms. I think it resonates with us because our human nature, as well as and how we react to jealously, rejection, and guilt, hasn’t really changed and we relate to it still. I think Under the Same Stars wanted to be a thoughtful, literary retelling of the Cain and Abel story, but it feels forced and relies on references to other books to explain itself. It’s one thing to refer to another book, so when Salinger (this book’s version of Abel) picks up a copy of East of Eden (one of the greatest Cain & Abel re-imaginings), I rolled my eyes. But when he then reads a very thoughtful, crucial, and philosophical conversation from East of Eden out loud to Carson (the Cain character), I laughed and immediately wanted to put the book down and re-read East of Eden.
There were a few other things I did not enjoy about this story, namely a horrific act of violence against a dog. I almost did not finish the book after that happened, but I wanted to see if I could understand why the author thought it was necessary to include that bit. Honestly, I understand why it’s there, he’s showing us Cain’s violent side, but I don’t think it served the story and felt it was written for shock value more than anything.
I do believe this book could have been an interesting exploration of America and a good contemporary road trip story, but instead it tried too hard to be too many things and I felt it failed at all of them.
2 out of 5 Stars
Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott
Simon and Schuster UK (2012)
Hardcover: 352 pages
Special thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for my review copy!