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The Coast of Akron
By Adrienne Miller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 382 pgs. US$25
ISBN: 0-3741-2512-0

Characters fail debut novelist

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 27, 2005

The Coast of AkronJust as every rock critic dreams of being a popular musician, so to does every editor dream of penning a well-received novel. Adrienne Miller, who has served as Esquire's literary editor since 1997 despite being all of 33-years of age, has crossed lines to join the ranks of novelists with her debut effort The Coast of Akron. Drawn from the school of dysfunctional families filled with odd characters, Miller's novel unfortunately isn't a successful inaugural but it does make the case that she has a future away from the editor's desk.

The family at the center of The Coast of Akron is the Havens. Renowned painter Lowell serves as the colorful patriarch with enough stories -- most of which seem to be invented -- about his past for a novel of its own. His ex-wife Jenny is an emotionally shattered artist and their daughter Merit passes time with a tedious sales job, a kind enough but boring husband and occasional affairs. Their lives are intertwined with that of Fergus, a wealthy former friend of Jenny's who lives with Lowell as lovers in his enormous fake-Tudor mansion named On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul (French for "One Cannot Live Alone") in Akron.

Every dysfunctional family needs a good secret and The Coast of Akron boasts its own. Lowell, known for a series of sometimes bizarre self-portraits which feature him in historical and literary vignettes, mysteriously stopped painting several years ago. Strangely, Miller reveals the nature of the secret very early in the novel's narrative, leaving the story to rely almost entirely on the characters themselves -- not as sturdy a hook as it might seem. As for the rest, conflict is the key characteristic of their relationships and all are tied to each other in a web of anger, sadness and desperation.

Miller uses these characters to explore a number of issues including celebrity, gender roles, the media and our need for attention. Unfortunately none of them are explored in any great depth, leaving the reader to wonder exactly what Miller's ultimate aim was since the satire falls short of making definitive points. The plot itself, which often seems to be a string of episodes tied together into a longer story, is interesting to a point but wears out its welcome about halfway through, the point where the reader will likely begin to tire of its disjointed nature.

Given the unique cast of characters which populates The Coast of Akron, it was curious that Miller decided against fully exploring another potentially interesting character and its impact on the others: the city of Akron itself. Those born and raised in formerly one-note industrial cities struggling to reinvent themselves know that those cities can have an impact so powerful that they are essentially characters in their lives. Cities, whether great or modest, have personalities and it's a pity that Miller didn't weave that thread into her story.

The Coast of Akron's greater failing, however, is Miller's characters themselves. Granted, the novel is meant to be at least partly satirical but satire works best when those involved aren't simply gross caricatures. Outside of Merit, who is at least somewhat sympathetic, the cast of characters are either one-dimensional or so over the top that one could barely believe they could exist outside of the pages of a novel. They exist simply to exist and it's hard to believe that most of them have an inner life. Ultimately, we simply don't care about any of them.

One, however, shouldn't be too hard on Miller because her novel does clearly reveal a young writer with a tremendous gift. The Coast of Akron does fail as a novel for numerous reasons -- whether it's the disjointed nature of the story or its disappointingly abrupt and confusing end, one where Lowell's secret is publicly unmasked at a costume party held by Fergus -- but it also argues that Miller's future as a novelist should be a bright one. There are many times in the novel when Miller's voice strikes exactly the right tone, often times with conversations, descriptions or penetrating insights. Though she was unable to effectively employ her tools consistently in the service of her first novel, The Coast of Akron proves she has them and that promises better future efforts.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy The Coast of Akron at Amazon.com for only $16.50 (34% off)


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