My rating: 3 of 5 stars to Jonathan Richards‘s book, Nick and Jake: An Epistolary Novel, published in 2012. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I had to look up the word “epistolary,” as I had no clue what it meant. Usually I’m good at determining the meaning of a word by breaking it up into smaller words, using my etymological skills; I am either getting old or I just had brain freeze; it shouldn’t have been that hard since it’s Latin and French. Epistolary means “written in the form of letters,” which is exactly how this novel was created.
Why This Book
All hail NetGalley! I liked the cover. I enjoyed the overview. It seemed like something different, once I knew the definition of the word epistolary. It became #9 on my NetGalley reads this year. For those unfamiliar, go check it out at https://netgalley.com, a site where publishers and authors provide an opportunity to win free books in exchange for honest reviews. Family was visiting for the Easter holiday and had just left, so I opened this book on my iPad Kindle Reader and finished it in about 2 hours, as it’s only about 200 pages.
Overview of Story
Nick and Jake work in the newspaper business in the 1950s, but they’ve never met at the beginning of the story. It’s a few years after World War II, where McCarthy’s fear of the Reds and Communism has taken over the country. The head of the CIA and other operatives are working across the world to track down any Communist supporters and arrest them, but if you even said something nice about Russia, or once passed someone on the street who was a Red supporter, you’d be accused yourself. Nick’s accused himself, but gets out of it and leaves for Paris, having nothing but ill-feelings towards the US government despite his love for the US itself. Jake’s already moved to Europe and publishing a newspaper, but they develop a friendship through their columns and words, supporting one another through various personal crises. Nick even gets divorced and re-married during the course of the story. The book is full of other characters, all who seem to be playing each other on different sides in the Red War. You can never quite tell who is being honest and who is a secret agent. But over the course of a few months, a few “stings” are executed to catch the criminals, ending with a bit of freedom and a small surprise or two.
Approach & Style
1. For starters, the book is written in the form of newspaper articles, telegrams and letters. Of the 10 major characters, they lives in the US, Europe and Asia, staying at houses, hotels and with friends. You get to see various post styles and handwriting samples, trying to figure out who is connected to who throughout each section.
2. The book is full of made-up and real characters… from fictional people in novels like the Great Gatsby to Senator McCarthy and George Bush. It includes Christine Jorgensen, the first person to have a sex-change (man to woman) and various family members of the primary characters who could be gay or are playing gay, including Maurice Chevalier. It’s quite an unusual cast.
3. Humor and satire can be your friends.
This is a highly imaginative story, full of facts and fiction. As a reader, if you are familiar with all the books being used as fan fiction, and you know a lot of about the real people involved in Senator McCarthy’s war, you will love this book. It’s very clever and instantly transports you back to the fear-mongering of the 50’s. I am not familiar with the depth from this time period, but reading the transcripts of one “trial,” if that actually happened (the way people were questioned), I’m super ashamed for the US for that behavior. I have a feeling this was not an exaggeration, too.
The writing style is quick and easy, full of different handwriting styles, formats and voices. It’s a fun and quick read, as you maneuver your way through each of the sections to try and figure out who is good and who is bad. The friendship between Nick and Jake is a really strong basis, especially when you realize it was the 50s and one or two of them might be playing the other!
Open Questions & Concerns
1. What was with the obsession with the male body part in this book? I understand the sex-change story-line as that is an important piece of history, but Nick’s obsession with his own member… Jake’s curiosities about surgery, the way it became common conversation in letters… I thought I was reading an entirely different book at a few points.
2. Some of the characters and history were lost on me, as I’m not too familiar with McCarthy other than the basics of the communist war. I also didn’t read all the books being noted in this novel, so I feel like I missed out on some of the clever writing. That’s my fault, not the books… though I think the description and overview could have been more clear, so I knew going into it what I was getting myself into.
I wasn’t too keen on the novel when I first started it, but by about 15 minutes in, the quirky and clever writing made it a much easier read. It’s sharp and has good focus. I suspect had I more historical info on what had actually happened, this might have been a 4 out of 5 stars. So if you do, then you should read it. If you don’t… or the discussion of the male body part doesn’t appeal to you (I feel so peculiar putting that in a book review that’s not an erotic or romance book…), then perhaps this isn’t for you. But be warned… it’s an odd one… funny… not dirty at all… just a bit different.
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