Wednesday, April 15

As Hot as it Was You Ought to Thank Me - Nanci Kincaid

For Berry Jackson Pinetta, Florida is the world - it's the only home she's known, a town where the weather moves from hot to really hot, where snakes and quicksand await the unwary, and where the Methodists and the Baptists compete every Sunday for the most cars in the parking lot and the loudest hymn singing.
Nothing much ever happens in Pinetta, at least as far as Berry can see. Even after a shock revelation about Jewell Longmont (wife of the wealthiest man in town) and the Methodist preacher, Berry's thirteenth summer is fairly uneventful. That is until the tornado that blows half the town away, and - one way or another - takes Berry's daddy away as well.
Kincaid's ability to convey truths to the reader without revealing them to Berry is masterful, and she beautifully conveys a sense of time and place. A great book to read in winter, I imagine the descriptions of the unrelenting heat would make summer reading of As Hot as it Was close to unbearable. The title, incidentally, is her mother Ruth's response when Berry asks her how she could allow Berry to wander around topless as a toddler and small child.
Yet somehow I didn't connect with the book or its characters. While I felt a certain mild interest in discovering what happened to femme fatale Rennie, and to Ford (Berry's school principal father), and was interested in the revelation that all was not as it seemed reguading the affair, it never rose above mild interest.
The novel comes with an annotated list of books Kincaid has found life changing, the reading of which contributed to her ability to write the novel, along with readers' group guidelines. When I discovered these I realised that that was part of what had been bothering me - As Hot as it Was has a foundation of would-be literary classic woven through it. The emphasis on religion and tolerance, acceptance and disapproval, the contrast between Berry and her wider community, the neighbour boy who dresses in his sisters' clothes... it's all there not for the purposes of the story itself but for textual dissection and literarty merit.
I'm not a particularly astute reader, and literary elements often pass over my head. I believe, on reflection, that what bothered me about As Hot as it Was were these additions. Kincaid has tried to create another To Kill a Mockingbird, with a small town female pre-teen protagonist observing events that she doesn't fully understand but sees more clearly than many of the adults around her. I disagree with the jacket reviewer that Harper Lee would claim this novel as her own, but can see where they were coming from. A week after I read it I'm still not sure how I feel about As Hot as it Was You Ought to Thank Me (though I'm happy I won't ever have to type the title again). I was invested and interested enough to finish it, but I had no sense of satisfaction on doing so. - Alex

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