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.