Book chat: ‘We’re All Damaged’ by Matthew Norman

We're All DamagedIt’s been a year since Andy Carter’s safe suburban life collapsed. His marriage explodes when his wife leaves him for a neighbor; his ultra-conservative mother has changed completely in her quest to take her talk-radio show to the next level, casting his father in the background. Andy loses his job, then acts a fool at his best friend — and former brother-in-law’s — wedding.

Skipping town seems wise — until the need to see his dying grandfather brings him back to Nebraska. It’s there that he meets Daisy, a young “friend” of his grandfather’s. Daisy has her own complicated background, but she takes a shine to Andy as she took a shine to his granddad. In the midst of this, the Carter family is targeted after his mother makes outlandish and homophobic remarks . . . just before marriage equality is achieved in the U.S. Some unseemly family information is released in the process, leading to further scrutiny.

Is that a light at the far end of the tunnel . . . or just a train?

Having loved Norman’s debut novel in 2011, I went into We’re All Damaged looking for that same sensational spark. The story started out promisingly, what with Andy getting dumped at an Applebee’s (!) and all. Our narrator was obviously going to be down on his luck, maybe a bit of a ne’er-do-well, but hopefully one with a heart?

Something about We’re All Damaged failed to click with me. It felt extremely current, tackling issues like gay rights, the conservative/liberal media, internet ethics . . . and I could appreciate the intent. But it just felt a bit full to me. Full of too many issues, too many characters, too much chaos for me to really lose myself in the story. If we’d had fewer hot-button topics to address, I might have enjoyed focusing more on Andy’s evolution. As it stood, I never broke past the surface.

Andy’s brokenness was endearing at first, but quickly became frustrating — especially as Daisy enters the scene. Daisy is totally a manic pixie dream girl — one I could never figure out, given we knew next-to-nothing about her (aside from her many tattoos, which are addressed constantly). She seems to be a nymph designed solely to help shove Andy out of his post-divorce funk. And that was boring.

Matthew Norman’s sly, biting humor peeks out occasionally, but isn’t used to best effect. I did like the nod to Curtis Violet, famed author/father in his first book, as well as the hilarious passages about Andy’s dad’s paintball assault on the squirrels smuggling goods from his bird feeders. His obsession and description of that battle felt just a little heartbreakingly human to me.

We needed more of that.

Though We’re All Damaged wasn’t memorable for me, I do look forward to meeting up with Norman — a perceptive, skillful writer — again someday.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration

Book review: ‘Domestic Violets’ by Matthew Norman

Tom Violet is having a rough go of it. His first novel — a pet project spanning years — has just been finished, leaving nothing to distract him from his soul-sucking job in Corporate America. His wife Anna is as beautiful as ever, but their efforts to conceive a second child have been unsuccessful . . . and Tom can only blame himself.

And then there’s his father, Curtis Violet — a literary rock star with 16 books and a bevy of ex-wives under his belt. After his latest romance with a too-young starlet goes awry, Curtis reappears on Tom and Anna’s proverbial doorstep in Georgetown — “proverbial” because, you know, Curtis actually owns the place. When news drops that Curtis has finally won the Pulitzer Prize after decades of literary acclaim, Tom worries his tattered world is about to get a whole lot more insufferable. And fate just might prove him right.

Matthew Norman’s Domestic Violets is the sort of sensationally smart, witty and poignant novel you only discover every once in a while . . . because they don’t make ’em like this too often. With whip-smart prose and laugh-out-loud conundrums, Norman creates unique, flawed and hilarious characters as Tom Violet grapples with family, marriage and fulfillment.

Tom is my new character crush. In his thirties and working for a D.C. business that helps other businesses do business better (yeah, Tom doesn’t know what that means, either), his days are spent writing ridiculous press releases and battling Gregory, his arch nemesis. Only Katie, a 23-year-old copywriter, seems to make the afternoons worth living for; and as their friendship progresses, he finds himself questioning his life and marriage and ideals.

That makes the book sound twisty — or maybe torrid. But I can promise you, hand to heart, that it’s not. When I think about Domestic Violets in the future, I’ll think of the hilarious one-liners Tom crafts and Norman’s ability to make you care about people who are such lovable, bumbling fools.

And fools they are. Curtis is the picture of a pretentious, old-school writer — and I absolutely adored him. He’s an emotional wreck and often a poor father, but you know that he means well at the end of the day. I pictured him like a mature Paul Newman — old enough to know better, but still young enough not to care. The literary references to his career were fascinating and I loved all the Pulitzer talk. It made me want to work a little harder on my own masterpiece.

It’s hard to describe just what makes this novel so good, but let me tell you: it is good. I was sucked right into the story from page one, laughing with a covered mouth as Tom details his difficulties performing, er, marital relations with Anna. Every character is faceted and fascinating; the plot is fast-paced, engaging and funny. Like really, really funny. My favorite bits were probably when Tom mentions that his family and friends are going to complain to “HR” about his behavior, much in the way that Gregory does:

Dear HR:
Tom Violet insists on smiling and saying hello to me every time he sees me, even in the men’s room. However, I know these sentiments are not sincere, and only succeed in undermining me in front of my team and fellow employees.

Anyone working in an office will relate all too well to Tom’s descriptions of life at his impossible-to-describe business — the way office dwellers bask in the 10- or 15-minute breaks they can steal to get a cup of coffee from 7-Eleven or sneak out for a cigarette. Anything to break up the monotony — even if it means playing pranks on “Darth Gregory,” a la Dwight and Jim on “The Office.”

But it’s not all fun and games. What elevated this book to a 5-star level for me was the emotional depth, sincerity and love simmering beneath Norman’s words. At his core, Tom Violet is a son and husband and father. He’s deeper than he wants to appear. And he wants to be more than just Curtis Violet’s boy.

Here, after a chat with his mother:

When I was little, I read books because I thought that’s what people were supposed to do, because that’s what my mom did and what my dad did. While I stumbled and squinted my way through math and science and everything else useful in the world, I was always confident in words and stories and the things lurking in the brains of the characters who wandered in and out of my life. Sometimes I wish I’d been born to normal people — people to whom a book was just a book and people could be fixed like Fords.

It’s the little moments like that which created an incredible read. It’s not too often you finish an emotionally poignant book and think, “Wow, that was fun.” But Matthew Norman, new literary rock star? You’ve done it, my friend. And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll meet Tom Violet again someday.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416995560 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review