Title: Tied to the Tracks
Author: Rosina Lippi
Publication Info: Putnam 2006
Genre: Contemporary Romance
I’ve been meaning to review this book for months, but being a dyed-in-the-wool procrastinator, I put it off, and put it off, and put it off—and then when I finally got off my ass to write about it, I suddenly realized that while I remembered it well enough, I needed a refresher in order to write an adequate review. So a few days ago, while waiting for my annual Poke At Candy’s Girly Bits appointment to begin, I started re-reading parts of it.
Y’know, I’m glad I did, because I’d forgotten how quickly and effortlessly the book sucks you in. Lippi writes in a clean, beautiful style, and it’s probably the best feature of Tied to the Tracks—that, and her knack for creating characters who act and feel real. It just barely missed being an A, largely because the story as a whole was somewhat lackluster and threadworn. There was some truly meaty stuff in here, especially the stories connected to the extremely lively secondary characters, but Lippi chose instead to follow along the more predictable road trodden by Angie Mangiamele and John Grant.
The story kicks off with John, the newly-appointed head of the English department at a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Ogilvie, Georgia, attempting to navigate the intricacies of his new job—a task complicated considerably by the fact that he’s the eldest son of Lucy Ogilvie, the glamorous, scandalous daughter of the town’s founding family. The townspeople are avidly curious about every aspect of him and his life: his mother, his move to Ogilvie, his new position at Ogilvie College, and his upcoming marriage to Caroline, a brilliant and distinguished academic from the other family in town to reckon with.
And then he has to deal with Miss Zula Bragg and her fiftieth anniversary celebration.
Zula Bragg is the town’s literary lion. She’s won every literary award an author could win. Not only that, she’s Ogilvie College’s first black female graduate, and the college has many special events planned to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of her graduation, including the filming of the documentary of Miss Zula’s life. Miss Zula, however, is a lot less thrilled at the prospect, and agrees to have a documentary crew on her heels only if John and the board of regents hires a specific documentary crew: a shoestring indie outfit based in Hoboken, New Jersey called Tied to the Tracks.
Which is all fine and good, because they do good work—except Angie Mangiamele, who runs Tied to the Tracks, was John’s lover several years back. Their affair was brief but incredibly intense, and they didn’t part on the best of terms.
The book follows Angie and John as they attempt to become reacquainted and discover that they’re still as passionate about each other as they ever were, and much of it is a separated-lovers-reuniting story. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s been done a million times before, and the story didn’t do anything particularly interesting with a comfortable old trope.
But it was more than the predictability of the story that got to me. What bothered me more was how, for much of the book, there was a small but unbridgeable distance between the protagonists and me. To put it it in more concrete terms: I could see why John and Angie found each other attractive, and I could even see why Angie freaked out like a dumbass and ditched John all those years ago, but I couldn’t feel it. The best books allow me to lose myself in the characters’ heads and inhabit their skins, and this book came close in a couple of spots, because Lippi is very skilled at building characters who are interesting and real, people you can imagine meeting and liking in real life, but I still felt oddly disengaged emotionally from Angie and John as lovers.
Despite these issues, however, there’s still much about this book to enjoy and admire. I’m going to resort to a cliché here and say that the town is a character in and of itself, complete with fascinating, quirky inhabitants. Really, her secondary characters are fantastic. The story is populated by all sorts of interesting people. She did such a wonderful job that they distracted from Angie and John, to tell you the truth. I found myself longing to read more about Rivera, Angie’s awesome editor, director and partner-in-crime, “part English, part Jewish, part Puerto Rican, part Mohawk, all nose,” and whose stated mission in life was to help wean women from their preoccupation with being penetrated. I wanted to know more about Caroline, John’s reserved fiancée, and what was going on in her head. Most of all, I wanted to know more about Zula Bragg and what it was like for her to have grown up and lived in the deep South at the time she did. We get to see Ogilvie through John’s and Angie’s eyes, and Lippi is skilled enough to show us how differently the town is viewed and experienced through those different sets of filters, and I couldn’t help but feel that Miss Zula’s take on Ogilvie would be somewhat different—and a whole lot more interesting—than what John and Angie revealed.
I’ve mentioned the language and the prose, but I’ll say it again: Lippi writes well, y’all. Her dialogue-writing skills are stellar. That woman has a serious ear for the cadences of spoken language—I’d say something ridiculous like “Must be her PhD in linguistics helping her along, har har,” but the fact is, Lippi is tremendously talented, and a PhD in linguistics (or literature, for that matter) doesn’t necessarily help with jack-shit when it comes to writing.
If Tied to the Tracks were a dessert, it’d be a big bowl of premium vanilla bean ice-cream: it’s delicious, creamy and satisfying, but just the tinest bit bland. It’s worth reading, and if you’re a sucker for stories involving reunited lovers, odds are good you’ll enjoy this even more than I did.
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Oh, what a great review, Candy! I’ve been waiting for you to post your review of this, Candy, because I haven’t been completely sure about my own reaction to the book which was similar to yours. Your review really helped me crystallize my own thoughts about TTTT (because it’s all about me, after all!).
Now that I’ve read your review, I think my own feelings run something like this: What I loved was the way I was drawn into the book and was able to observe the characters as somewhat of an outsider—through outsider Angie’s eyes, mostly—and the way the characters slowly unfolded through the course of the novel. Lippi doesn’t lay everything out in the book right up front, and I SO appreciated that, because I’m SO TIRED of telling rather than showing in romantic-type books.
I think the thing with Angie and John boiled down to this for me: IMO there was some tension in the novel between using them as a prism through which to be able to view the rest of the town (and the whole subjectivity of reality theme in the book) and as real lovers whose story is supposed to engross us as such. I kept wanting more background, more relationship history, more contact between them in the book in order to determine whether I was supposed to be focusing on them as lovers or as stand-ins for the reader (Angie the outsider and John the returning paragon). On one level I liked that tension, because it made the book richer, but on another level, as you said so well, it all felt a little derivative. Even 50 more pages would have pushed the book closer to the deep end, IMO, and to a stronger chance of breaking new ground. Obviously Lippi is interested in the ways of storytelling, not only as a teller but as a reader, and I would have liked to see that fleshed out more in the book. It may even have helped give dimension to the love story, and provided a stronger foundation for Lippi’s (IMO smart) choice to pick up in the middle of John and Angie’s story.
You’re right, IMO, though, about Lippi’s dialogue skills—what a treat that aspect of the book was. I have to admit that the first scene threw me, though, because it felt awkward and unconnected, somehow, to the rest of the book, and so it took me a while to settle in to the storytelling.
Yeah, that first scene was odd, wasn’t it? It came out of nowhere, didn’t really do anything and petered off back into nowhere.
I also agree that I wanted to read more about Angie and John’s relationship—both in the present time, and also what happened with them in the past. That may very well be a part of the distance I felt with them and their relationship. Tantalizing bits were revealed, but I wanted more.
And yeah, Lippi’s a lot more subtle than most romance novelists, which I greatly appreciated. Harvey’s real-life counterpart surprised me. That was fantastic.
That first scene haunted me for a while, because I kept thinking Lippi wanted me to see something, but obviously I was missing it.
As for the relationship between John and Angie, I kept wondering (and still do, really), whether part of my response to them was a certain conditioning to Romance. Even though there was a strong romance at the heart of TTTT, obviously Lippi wanted it to be something else, as well, and I didn’t k now whether my genre expectations were influencing my reaction to John and Angie. But I’ve sort of decided that even if that’s true, the lack of satisfaction I felt in that relationship wasn’t just a function of my own genre conditioning becuase even on that “other” level the novel skimmed at times I wish it had dived, if that makes sense.
That first scene haunted me for a while, because I kept thinking Lippi wanted me to see something, but obviously I was missing it.
I interpreted it as an extended exercise in showing us how compassionate and awesome John is because oh, look, he’s kind to the fat, awkward kid, and to let us see the sort of person Patty-Cake is, because John pretty much cut Patty-Cake off before she could elaborate on her “Isn’t that so unfortunate?” remark of hers after the student left. Which is a neat bit of character development, but it shouldn’t have kicked off the book, in my opinion, and it needn’t have been as long as it was.
But Iâ€™ve sort of decided that even if thatâ€™s true, the lack of satisfaction I felt in that relationship wasnâ€™t just a function of my own genre conditioning becuase even on that â€œotherâ€ level the novel skimmed at times I wish it had dived, if that makes sense.
YES. That makes sense on all sorts of levels.
For example: race and class relations in Ogilvie. While Lippi did allude glancingly to tensions in the community, didn’t you wish there’d been more to it? The fact that Miss Zula was Caroline’s godmother nagged at me through the whole book. Caroline’s family is Southern aristocracy, and Miss Zula’s generation was only two, two and a half generations away from the Civil War.
I’ve also noticed that black authors of Miss Zula’s generation(ish) had movements like the Harlem Renaissance to boost them along, but Miss Zula seemed to have made a niche for herself in a primarily white town with primarily white friends. Again, a fascinating dynamic that I wanted to read more of.
May I say: thank you? For the thoughtful review and for this discussion, which is really useful to me as a writer.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I almost did cut Lydia out of the beginning of the book. Other people had the same reaction you two did: Lydia threw you off track. But Lydia was a part of a greater scheme. I was hoping to bring her back in the next novel (Pajama Jones, title about to change but to what?) in more (but not primary) detail, and then to have her be at the center of a third novel.
In fact I did write a subplot about Lydia into Pajama Jones, but the book was too long for Putnam’s comfort. I had to cut about 50,000 words, and unfortunately Lydia’s subplot was the more expendable.
I wish I had had another 50,000 words to spend on TTTT, as well. Maybe you’d still have the same reservations about John and Angie, but then maybe not.
You’re welcome, Rosina. Sorry it took me soooo friggin’ long to get to it. Thanks for the insight into Lydia; who’s going to be the focus of Pajama Jones?
I’m looking forward to digging into the Into the Wilderness series one of these days.
Something I meant to say before: if I had known I’d have to drop Lydia’s subplot from PJ, I wouldn’t have kept her in the beginning of TTTT. Hindsight and all that jazz.
Pajama Jones looks like it’s going to be retitled: A Bird and a Fish—and that comes from the saying “A bird and a fish may love each other, but where will they make a home together?”
It’s about a claustrophobic guy and an agoraphobic woman (primary plot) and a divorced single African American mother with aspirations and a very tall, very blond Swedish industrialist (secondary plot). Set in South Carolina.
I also was concerned about the goddaughter concept and asked some black friends about it. Their answer was that it would have been impossible in the South a generation ago, but this was entirely plausible.
I appreciated John and Angie’s romance because it was low key and very realistic, not the continuing misunderstandings and purposeful miscommunications prevalent in so many romances. The romance was only a part of the whole story.
Patty-Cake is a lovely arch villain of the passive agressive Southern magnolia style, bless her mean-spirited heart.
Lippi doesn’t do jokes often, and so the sheet joke is a hoot.
So all in all? A lovely modern-day romance novel that really doesn’t fit the romance novel formula.
i couldnt bring myself to read this. i absolutely LOVE rosina lippi’s books under the name Sara Donati (as well as her blog as herself), and i eagerly await the next one, but for some reason the plot of this one didnt have any appeal for me. i do believe my mom read it though, and if i recall correctly her judgement on it was “weird”. hm. i dunno.
I too am a huge fan of the Into the Wilderness series, but as long as I kept in mind that it was a different kind of book, I didn’t have any problems reading this book at all. I really did enjoy it. One of these days I will be able to get hold of her first book, Homestead.
Did Ms. Lippi’s book have the same cover artist as Julia Ross’ books? My, my they look mighty similar.
(scroll down for a view of the covers.)
Abalina—I have no idea who the cover artist was, to be truthful. Neither did I have any control over the cover. I was hoping for something more edgy, but publishers very seldom give authors any real input into the process of developing the cover.
My God. You finally reviewed it. Now the wait begins for the other two books 🙂
I did enjoy John and Angie’s romance, but I must admit that I was also really intrigued by Rivera and Caroline. I’d love any kind of follow-up which dealt with their story, and revealed how they overcame all the obstacles in their way.
I did enjoy John and Angieâ€™s romance, but I must admit that I was also really intrigued by Rivera and Caroline.
Yup. The hot lesbians win. Rivera and Caroline were so fascinating and charismatic in their own right. Not that John and Angie weren’t adorable, but Rivera and Caroline made me go “Hmmmmm” and oh man, I was rooting for them so hard.
I interpreted it as an extended exercise in showing us how compassionate and awesome John is because oh, look, heâ€™s kind to the fat, awkward kid, and to let us see the sort of person Patty-Cake is
Definitely. But you know it’s interesting to me, because John seemed more sharp with Patty-Cake in that scene than he did later, IMO.
What was up with Rob’s choice, though, to be an “executive assistant” in that academic department? That didn’t sit right with me, and I kept wondering whether I missed some backstory there as I was reading.
As for John’s sensitivity to Lydia in that scene, it was interesting how Lippi turns that around in all those moments where he can’t understand Angie very well, which, by the way, were some of my favorite in terms of showing their relationship. I liked first that it was Angie and not John who had those inital cold feet (because women other than Stephanie Plum DO have commitment phobia—trust me, I know), and then I appreciated that John was really feeling his way with Angie, that he wasn’t the perfect reader with her. It allowed for a lot of tender moments (in both senses of the word) between them. That tenderness felt fresh to me, even when the relationship didn’t precisely. Like when John struggles with Caroline’s true reasons for her cold feet—and he can’t really come to terms with what Angie knows full well, and how that becomes part of John and Angie’s process, as well. Like I said: tender. During many of the scenes between John and Angie, I kept thinking about the title of Ruth Reichl’s excellent memoir, Tender At The Bone.
For example: race and class relations in Ogilvie. While Lippi did allude glancingly to tensions in the community, didnâ€™t you wish thereâ€™d been more to it? The fact that Miss Zula was Carolineâ€™s godmother nagged at me through the whole book. Carolineâ€™s family is Southern aristocracy, and Miss Zulaâ€™s generation was only two, two and a half generations away from the Civil War.
Oh, yes; I felt the absense of a lot of this keenly (and hearing about how publishers think books are too long is simply feeding my animosity toward those behemoths). I also really wanted more on the Rivera/Caroline dynamics, because that seemed a powerful and potentially complicated intersection of at least four of those identity categories right there. The easy resolution felt, well, too easy. I don’t know if this makes sense, but I felt that much of the effort Lippi expended in portraying the town was focused more on craft than on character/plot development. At points I felt like I could literally feel her shaping and crafting the novel, working on a very detailed level to *write* the book. So the social politics just came off as less subtle for me than I would have liked (or more unfinished—or both).
I rarely read Contemporaries…more of an sf fan myself but your review has intrigued me! I shall put TTTT on my TBR list. Thanks for the tip! 🙂
I just liked Angie. She was not your usual heroine, a bit prickly and and quirky which is such a relief to come across.
I just read TttT based on these reviews. I agree. Good characters, good plot, good writing… but distant.
Robin, good point about being conditioned to the genre’s detailed excavations of the human heart. (I just put down an old Nora Roberts because it sacrificed plot movement for wallowing.) But I don’t think that’s the issue here.
John was passive: not that he didn’t feel, but he didn’t act. Maybe it’s hard to sell a quiet college prof hero, but I felt the same about Angie. And Caroline. And Miss Zula. Only Patty did anything; the others drifted helplessly in her wake, barely resisting. I think it’s show-don’t-tell: we’re told they have drives and passions, but they rarely show it. Angie didn’t even show passion for the film: she just went through the motions, so I didn’t buy her anger over artistic integrity. Rivera was the most interesting personality.
The tension rang false too. There wasn’t much of a Big Mystery, which is fine, but a lot of space was taken up with pretending there were Big Mysteries instead of realizing characters.
TttT was tantalizing. I like the subtlety, the writing, the setting. It just didn’t engage me enough to be a keeper.
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