Superficiality and Avoidance in Texas

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Friendswood, by Rene Steinke

There are several things that make a book an absorbing read. First there must be a story, compelling, if you please. The characters must be vivid, representing real, imperfect people. The writer’s diction must have impact – strong in word selection, poetic at times without seeming high-flown. Dialogue must be concise, the characters’ voices clear. Narrative must flow well and supplement dialogue. Steinke’s book, Friendswood, has most of this in spades, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.
The story takes place in and around a Texas town, Friendswood. The ground for miles around has been polluted by oil businesses, then the land turned over to developers and subdivisions built. But as homeowners begin to find themselves sick from ground toxicity, a divorcee, Lee, takes on the task of exposing these conditions, but her efforts fail to bear fruit – no one in local political authority, it seems, cares, and federal bureaucrats are less than helpful. Then daughter Jess joins the legions of the sick, and it spoils nothing to tell you that she dies.
Meanwhile, young teen Willa shows up at a party, is given a roofie, and is raped. She remembers nothing of it, but a boy, Dex, is there and seems to want to expose the rape.

There. That sets up Steinke’s braided story, and for the most part she carries it off well.

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But I found my mind wandering where I would’ve expected to be compulsively turning pages. After all, it gives the reader both sides of a modern moral fable. Occasionally Steinke creates a scene or narrative passage so damned good as to keep me faithfully turning pages. What, then, was wrong? Was my attention drawn elsewhere? Not really. As above, the author pulled off many fine aspects of literary writing. But there were points in which the dialogue was bland as white bread; in others, her characters carried on (or not) in scenic ways that I often found boring or disengaging, and the narrative arc ground to a stop.

I’m wanting something near-perfect in such a story. Steinke is a fine writer with many writerly tools at her disposal, but this book didn’t live up to my expectations.

15 of 20 stars

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