I have a couple different kinds of Good Book Noise. Sometimes it's a high pitched vibrating squeak, sort of the Jack Russell terrier hop version of Good Book Noise. Sometimes it's a gasp, particularly when someone mentions a book that not many other people I know have read, and oh-yay-oh-yay I get to talk about it with someone. Other times it's a quiet, comforted sigh, because just thinking of the book gives me the happy mellow tingles. The Good Book Noise I made over this book (multiple times to multiple people) is one of the latter. It doesn't come with a squee cannon, because, while appropriate for the level of affection I feel for the story, it would be too loud. Oh, did I like this book. If it were a sweater, I'd wear it constantly.
I read this book while flying, and fought the Ambien I'd taken to keep reading it. The best thing about the story is that it's alarmingly easy to sink into. Epistolary novels work very well on me for that reason. It's a point of view that, if I like the narrators (and I did), is extremely accessible to my imagination.
The premise of the story is simple: it's 1999. Lincoln, a shy and quiet computer geek who lives with his mother, has taken a job at a local newspaper on the night shift in IT. His job, in part, is to monitor the email conversations that get flagged for inappropriate content and warn those who are using email for personal communication.
Initially, there are a few different departments and people whose messages are flagged most often, including Beth and Jennifer, two reporters who are best friends and thus email each other pretty much all day. (I so remember being in my cubicle at work and having long ass email conversations with people for most of the afternoon.) (I still do that, come to think of it.)
Lincoln begins reading Jennifer and Beth's email messages, but doesn't warn them, because they're not doing anything wrong aside from using their email for personal communication. And, more importantly, as conflicted as he feels about being a snoop, he really likes their messages, and he really likes them.
It was a challenge, I think, to keep Lincoln from falling into Creepy Ass Stalker territory, and in my opinion, he avoided it by a lot. He is conflicted about that aspect of his job, and is pretty sure most of what he's being asked to do is pretty dumb:
The worst thing about the Internet, as far as Greg’s bosses were concerned, was that it was now impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz.
And thus … Lincoln. On his very first night, Lincoln helped Greg load a new program called WebFence on to the network. WebFence would monitor everything everyone was doing on the Internet and the Intranet. Every e-mail. Every Web site. Every word. And Lincoln would monitor WebFence.
An especially filthy-minded person (maybe Greg) had defined the program’s mail filters. There was a whole list of red flags: nasty words, racial slurs, supervisors’ names, words like “secret” and “classified.” That last one, “classified,” beached the entire network during WebFence’s first hour by flagging and storing each and every e-mail sent to or from the Classified Advertising department.
The story is told through alternating chapters, and I loved this so much. Beth and Jennifer email each other, and their chapters are their email conversations. They fill each other in on their lives, with Beth's musician boyfriend and Jennifer's husband taking up a good bit of their attention and stress sometimes, and they cheer each other up via email. It's adorable, and they're both very funny and (more importantly) supportive of one another in ways that were just lovely.
< < Beth to Jennifer > > I know what you’re thinking now. You can’t believe I would knowingly get involved with a drug user.
< < Jennifer to Beth > > I knowingly got involved with a guy who plays the tuba. Finish the story.
Lincoln's chapters were third person but from Lincoln's point of view, and his life has its problems, too. He's very, very smart, but also without a decided direction in his life. His inability to figure out what he was going to do with himself in high school, then college, then afterward meant that he stayed in school and has collected a few academic degrees over the years. His life was cracked by the end of his high school relationship during college – after he'd followed said girlfriend to the school she chose – and he's been sort of adrift since then, healing emotionally (very slowly, I might add) and trying to figure himself out. So he lives with his mother, who could not be happier to have him in her home so she can feed him constantly. Lincoln's mother and his sister are both very strong women, and he doesn't really have any reason to stand up to them or define any limits because they don't mean any harm and he doesn't care much otherwise. Lincoln is caught in stasis, and part of the story is watching him figure out what he wants, who he wants to be, and how he needs to change to make both happen. And because he's been adrift and allowing life to happen to him for so long, his inertia is difficult to break.
Lincoln is one of my favorite types of beta heroes: he's very thoughtful, he's kind, and he's not interested in making anyone else miserable if he doesn't have to. He's fiercely intelligent, and he wants to do the right thing – which is part of why he struggles with reading Jennifer and Beth's email, and with continuing to read it, and with the way he feels about Beth the more he reads. It's a very powerful and slow building tension, too.
Beth and Jennifer are also terrific. Jennifer is struggling with whether or not to have a baby, and is unsure whether she wants to, while her husband is ready for pregnancy already, like, last year would have been fine. Jennifer's struggles with becoming a parent are paralleled by Beth's struggles with her boyfriend. He's a musician in a local band that has somewhat of a following, and she pretty much supports him entirely. She's waiting for their relationship to become more official, for them to move toward marriage, and seems to partially know that, despite her hopes, her boyfriend doesn't want the same things. And even though she knows it, and even though Jennifer points it out, sometimes bluntly and sometimes through hints, Beth doesn't want to face the consequences, and continues in a state of inertia as well.
The changes that develop each of the characters are slow building and subtle, and mostly internal. Lincoln has friends (he's been part of a RPG campaign for years, and that collection of people who clearly care about him is beautifully written) and Beth and Jennifer have one another, and they all group a bit between the start and the end of the story. The ways in which they've each built families who care for them and whom they care for in return is so charming and touching, and so real:
< < Beth to Jennifer > > Sometimes I feel really sorry for your mom … and sometimes I just hate her.
< < Jennifer to Beth > > Welcome to the last 20 years of my life. It’s like she thinks she did me a favor by raising me to believe that the entire world was out to get me, by making sure I never get my hopes up. When I got home, Mitch was fixing the light in the spare bedroom….
It’s always weird to go from my mom to Mitch. It doesn’t seem like I should have been able to get to this life from my old one, like there aren’t even roads between those two places. Anyway, I walked in, and Mitch— who obviously didn’t now what hell I’d just traversed— said something so nice, I was able to let it all go.
< < Beth to Jennifer > > What did he say?
< < Jennifer to Beth > > It’s kind of personal.
< < Beth to Jennifer > > I’m sure it’s deeply personal. But you can’t just say, “And then Mitch said something so wonderful, it healed the tubercular ill that is my mother” without telling me what he said.
< < Jennifer to Beth > > It’s not that profound. He just said, instead of hello, that I looked beautiful— and that, when we got married, he never realized that I would look more beautiful to him every year…. He was standing on a ladder when he said it, which made it seem almost Shakespearean.
< < Beth to Jennifer > > If you die in a freak combine accident, I’m going to marry Mitch and live happily ever after. (I’m going to live happily ever after because Mitch is the best husband ever. Mitch, however, will spend the rest of his life pining for his one true love. You.)
The ways in which Lincoln navigates his way out of his inertia and figures out how to introduce himself to Beth in a way that's not creepy or off-putting are intricate and slow, and there are times when he doesn't realize how much of a difference he's made in his own life, and how far he's come from where he was at the start. The danger for people like Lincoln is that it's very easy for him to live his life trying to fulfill someone else's expectations and trying to make someone else happy, especially if he's never built any expectations for himself. Lincoln's changes come in part because he's alone, and tired of feeling the way he's been feeling, and seeing the possibilities in the email conversations he reads make him want to feel better, to be better. He doesn't know Beth enough to make those changes for her, really. So while her conversations were the inspiration, his changes are mostly for himself.
Beth also struggles with changes she knows she should make but doesn't really want to deal with, and while some of her changes are more subtle, she also evolves during the course of the story in ways that I loved.
The romance in this book – it's not really a romance, I have to say, not in the way I usually discuss or label the genre – is very understated but it's a major theme in the story. The characters spend most of the book apart, communicating digitally instead of in person, and by the time they spent any time together in the same oxygen and on the same piece of floor I was twitching with excitement. My only quibble is that I wanted more of Beth and Lincoln together, because their dialogue would have sent me into a bliss coma.
If you like slow building attraction and really charming, funny characters, you'll really like this book.
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