The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster
Scott Wilbanks, 2015
One morning Annabelle Aster wakes up in her San Francisco home to find a Kansas wheat field in her backyard. Perhaps even more confusing is the letter that appears in the brass mailbox that divides the properties. The letter is from the owner of the home in the Kansas wheat field – her name is Elsbeth Grundy and she writes to Annie from the 1890s. After the two women discover the secret that allows them to communicate, and a tragedy that comes about from it, Annie decides to take it unto herself to stop the past from coming true.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It had such an interesting premise – time travel and portals into the past. Who doesn’t wonder what it would be like to wake up with the ability to travel through time? Unfortunately, I just didn’t think this book lived up to the expectations I had of it.
First, the good. Again, the premise was a lot of fun. I liked the idea of Annie being able to travel through time and space and her attempts at changing the past. I liked the way that the author wrote 1890s Kansas and San Francisco – I found the past to be much better developed than the present locations, in this case. The story was interesting and I was curious to see how it played out.
Unfortunately, there were just too many flaws. Nothing too glaring – it’s obvious that this author knows how to write, as the prose wasn’t too bland or showy – but a lot of little things that, to me, added up to too much. To start with, there was too much happening in this book. Honestly, if it had just been Annie and Elsbeth and the main story line, the book would have been a lot smoother. But the added bits about Christian’s past and Edmond’s shaman dream, and Cap’n and her little band of misfits, and Annie’s health issues… it just had too much going on.
And the biggest flaw for me was in the characters themselves. I liked Christian (for the most part), and I liked Cap’n (very Oliver Twist), but I didn’t like anyone else. And that’s the issue. I didn’t like Annie at all. Maybe it’s just me, but being quirky doesn’t by default make you interesting. You can be quirky and interesting, but quirkiness doesn’t equal interesting. Annie fit right in to the 1890s, because she lived her life like she belonged there. She dressed in vintage clothes, hated modern conveniences, drank tea, and only even had a cell phone because her only friend (Christian) made her get one. I found this a) too easy and b) too far-fetched. People don’t act like this in real life. And I think that giving someone the ability to time travel to the 1890s who already lives like they belong there made things too easy, where it would have been more interesting if Annie had had some difficulty adapting. Also, because of her quirks, she tended to the melodramatic most of the time, especially in her scenes with Nathaniel, who I honestly could have done completely without.
I don’t want to give the unfair impression that this is a bad book, because it’s not. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I think that the author had two really good short stories here – one on Annie and Elsbeth and the drama that unfolded, and one on Christian and Edmond. The Annie/Elspeth story could have followed the book pretty closely (just because it wasn’t my taste doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to others). There was a lot good there. I almost felt, while reading, that the Christian/Edmond story was an afterthought, although reading the author’s bio it seems like those characters meant a lot to him, which has me confused….
*Small spoilers to follow*
Even in the “Discussion Questions” portion at the end of the book, a great deal is made about how Christian is having a hard time dealing with his sexuality (hence his ever-present stutter) and that Edmond’s drug history informs the way his character acts. But this is barely mentioned in the book. Christian’s homosexuality is implied rather than stated, and the fact that Edmond used to have a drug problem is mentioned at the end of the book and only in passing, relating to a separate issue. So why act like they’re such a big deal in the Discussion? I feel like they should have gotten more ink than they did, especially since, after reading the author bio, these characters and these issues seem important to him. I would read a short story about Christian and Edmond and what happened to them in the past and how it will now affect their future. But having it tacked on at Annie’s story almost as an afterthought just didn’t work for me.
In the end, I think there is an audience that will really like this book. I’ve seen reviews from people that really enjoyed it. Again, nothing about this book is really bad. I liked the writing (aside from the melodrama) and I thought the characters were very well-developed (even if I didn’t like them very much). It just needs to find its audience, and I hope it does.
Thanks to the author and publisher for an advanced copy through NetGalley.