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Posted November 16, 2003
Success has its downfalls¿in this case, Running in the Family inhales family history, combines stale air with ambition and exhales ¿wanna be¿ meaningfulness that finds a publisher based on the author¿s past success. No matter how hard the author tries to create something for the reader to love about this book¿his toolbox includes clever phrasing, beautiful imagery, funny storytelling and tearjerker misunderstandings¿something else feels, well, forced and used. This memoir reads too much like a book published on the wake of past success¿ ¿He¿s Michael Ondaatje¿fans will buy the book¿a sure bestseller just because he wrote it.¿ Ondaatje¿s success in this memoir is his ability to alter the form of the text by interspersing standard paragraphs with poetry, quotes, songs, journal entries, photos, and examples of the native language. This variety kept me reading, and makes the time invested worthwhile¿I didn¿t want to miss anything new in stylistic method. The book is worth reading just to study its styling. Gertrude Stein came to mind as a gossipy social history of Ceylon introduced the author¿s connection to place while laying the groundwork for his family¿s eccentricity and falling apart. Plenty of struggle and strife are laid out on tablecloth pages for a picnic, but someone forgot the ketchup and mustard. By page 185, I had learned more than I ever wanted to know about grandma¿s false breast and the dog chewing on it¿without getting a clear image of this woman¿s courage. I wanted more. The same can be said for all the major characters, which remain undeveloped without heart, characters that read as reportage rather than real human stories. What happened to Doris? Why did dad take over the story at the end? Names became confused with family titles. Ceylonese words appear like ants across the page, without translation, and therefore, without meaning. A map was provided, but didn¿t show highways, homes or plantations mentioned in the text, making it useless except to prove the teardrop shape of the island. As in character development, the metaphor of a tear-shaped island (along with so many other metaphors) was never fully developed. Not until the last pages was the purpose for going on this picnic understood¿the author left Ceylon, saw his father for the last time at a young age, and felt guilty about not being there as father fell apart¿I think the author wants to know the father he never knew. Is this Ondaatje¿s purpose? As it is, the reader feels more like an intruder than an intimate friend¿there¿s just too much about this family the reader is left caring nothing about. Whatever the purpose of sharing this memoir with a readership, it would have been better kept running in the family. Running in the Family¿does the title imply family tendencies toward alcoholism, extravagant behaviour, false breasts, bad driving, chicken farming and poor decision making run in the family? Or is it just Ceylon that runs in the family and the family members have no more in common with each other than a place they shared in the past? Is that why this memoir felt so empty¿so literally starved after a 203-page meal? This memoir would have made a great book to hand out to family members at a family picnic, but there just isn¿t enough to sate a larger appetite.
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