I really enjoyed Improvement, by Joan Silber. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are simultaneously unusual and everyday, and Silber’s tracking of the way small actions impact lives around the globe and back again is intriguing and masterful.
But I have a small bone to pick. Improvement is marketed as a ‘novel’. To me, it’s not a novel, it’s linked short stories. We don’t follow the same characters the whole way through. There’s no clear start, middle and end of a single narrative. Many of the sections can stand alone as individual stories and the overall book would still work if some sections were deleted in their entirety.
Why does this matter? As a reader I went into this book expecting to be able to immerse myself in a continuous narrative. I got attached to eccentric Aunt Kikki, Boyd, Reyna and her 4-year-old son, Oliver, all living in relative poverty in New York City. I settled in to see how their lives would turn out after Reyna’s decision to withdraw from her role in a smuggling racket had catastrophic consequences. The characters were so well drawn and it was a world you don’t get to read about in fiction too often.
And then the book moved on. Suddenly I was following Darisse around in another state entirely. Darisse didn’t know Reyna or Oliver or Kikki. Darisse was also a single mother, but in a devastating series of events – mostly to do with poverty and single parenthood – she didn’t have custody of her two-year-old child and was forced to extreme measures to keep her regular access.
And then we moved again. This time to Teddy the truck driver, again in another state entirely. Again with problems and joys of his own. Again an interesting story. But he didn’t know Kikki or Boyd or Reyna either. He also didn’t know Darisse.
The story moved on again a couple of times – to German antiquities smugglers, a modern-day art investigator, and Aunt Kikki’s early days spent in rural Turkey – and eventually we ended up back in New York City with Kikki, Reyna and Oliver to get their narrative wrapped up.
Improvement is book-ended by Reyna’s story, but in between it’s a carousel of other stories. All related, though sometimes held together by the merest of threads. Most of the stories have their ending improved in some way by Reyna’s initial decision, hence the name of the book.
The stories are all – individually – wonderful, but my experience overall would have been greatly improved had I known this was a book of linked stories rather than an actual novel.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.