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Book 24 Completed

April 18, 2010

I’ve read this book before. It was called The Post-Office Girl. And frankly, it was better the first time around.

The basic plots of the novels I read for Austria and Morocco are eerily similar. Rags to riches to rags — reversal of fortune — once you’re down, where do you have to turn? You’re naturally drawn to hanging out with political extremists. To discuss the endings of both of these books would give away too much — and I’m not interested in spoiling anything. But really, it’s the same story. Just one takes place in Post World-War I Austria and the other in modern-day Morocco. 

There is a part of me that is reluctant to give this book a lackluster review because it’s not a bad book; I don’t want to turn people away from it, because I think quite a few readers out there could love it. I just didn’t. Secret Son is a decent book — once I slogged through the slow beginning, it was a quick read — there is nothing overtly offense about it, but nothing done particularly well either. Maybe I’m being too harsh…but the plot was predictable, the characters shallow, the ending unsatisfactory.

I was also bothered by the dialogue — every character sounded the same. And I was intrigued by the author’s decision to play the same scene again for readers from a different character’s perspective, complete with the same dialogue progression and no real depth of insight. That device was used twice and with uninspiring results. I kept thinking, “If you’re going to show me a different angle, then really show me a different angle — change up the dialogue, have someone remember the conversation  differently. Isn’t that more likely?” 

This story was, at its heart, a story about mothers. But I feel like Lalami missed that herself by spending too much time with her main character Youseff and his biological father Nabil. Nabil’s inner-dialogue about his longing for a son wasn’t interesting — if he was going to be the story’s villain, as a reader, I didn’t like being inside his head. Those words were wasted — I wanted to know more about what was going on inside his wife Malicka’s head, Youseff’s mother’s head, or Nabil’s USA-educated daughter’s head. Behind the scenes Youseff’s mom was pulling a lot of strings — she was the catalyst for most of what happened in the novel, but it was all so understated that readers missed a chance to agree or disagree with her decisions. 

THOSE were the components of the story that were interesting to me. And just when Lalami would let her story pull in that direction, the story would jerk back to Yosueff and his friends, and their terrorist connections; and all of that felt forced for the sake of plot. 

What I did notice, about myself, is how thirsty I was for more knowledge about Morocco and its culture. Lalami didn’t (and I applaud her for this) stop to explain religious and social references. But I had to look up a lot of things as I went — not because I needed to know it to understand the book, but for my own edification. I didn’t know much about Ramadan or that Eid is the final day of Ramadan. There is a lot in here about Muslim traditions and practices that are very new to me. 

I’m not turned off on Laila Lalami’s work forever. I’ve just read some really amazing literature lately, and by comparison this one left me wanting.

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