94. Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders, Goldie Goldbloom
One of the assignments in my creative writing class this semester (besides, you know, writing words of deathless prose) was to choose a work in your genre (novel for me, others were writing poetry, short fiction and creative nonfiction) that has won the AWP in the last ten years, read the work and write a short paper on it. No novelist received the award for three years during the last decade (were there really no great novels written in 2001, 2002, or 2003? Inquiring minds want to know.) so my selection pool wasn’t all that big—compound that with the difficulty in getting some of the books that won (clearly winning an award of this nature doesn’t indicate lasting popularity) and I could get this one on Amazon, so Toads’ won.
It was well written. It had an intriguing plot and really original characters… but I kinda hated it.
Two years ago I was assigned Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres for a class, and I loved it. I read it for class, then turned back to the beginning to read it again. Then I picked it for my final paper (I talked about ecofeminism. Very ineptly. Like, hello 1970. I hadn’t quite figured out how to do literary research at that point, but that’s why I’m in school.) Anyway, I loved it. And I was babbling to one of my best friends about it who had read it before and she hated it. I mean vehement, I think she didn’t even finish it for whatever class she had to read it for hate. Hate. (When you’re an English major and kind of live for the next book you get to finish, it takes a lot of negative emotion to stop reading a book. I mean, I didn’t like The Portrait of an Artist. The sermon in the second chapter, all that ‘ sinners in the hands of an angry god, swinging over hell by a thread’, wigged me out. Seriously, flashbacks. Awful. But I finished the book and ended up writing my final paper on it. I didn’t love it, but I finished it. The only book that I’ve felt that vehemently about in the past three years was something by Elizabeth Bowen—just really failed to connect with her narrative style.)
Boy, have I digressed. My point was that my friend didn’t like A Thousand Acres because of all the miscarriage stuff—too much blood and guts. Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders kind of struck a similar chord with me, which in retrospect seems odd because there isn’t really any blood and guts—but just that consciously unflinching view of the maternal impulse gone amok, it’s disturbing to me. And not really in a way that I find interesting. Just, kinda ugh.
Anyway, plot intro: Gin Toad is the albino wife of a vertically-challenged sheep farmer in 1940’s Australia. Mr. Toad collects corsetry, Mrs. Toad was a classically trained pianist. Lately she just stares out the window at the prisoner of war Italians who have been sent to the farm as help. Antonio is big and quiet and polite, with several children and a wife back in Italy. As their affair progresses, Gin dreams of leaving Toad, leaving her children, and following Antonio back to Italy when he goes, or starting a new life with him in the outback. Mr. Toad isn’t getting lonely as Gin and Antonio spend increasing amounts of time together: the other POW is a special friend and seems to be filling a previously unfilled role in Mr. Toad’s life.
The Toads’ two (living) children are habitually neglected: the more Gin fantasizes about being a mother to Antonio’s children, and dreaming about her dead Joan (the only of her children who shared her pigmentation), the more she ignores her living ragamuffins. And then she runs off to Italy to try and track down Antonio’s family, and figures out that her life really isn’t that bad–at least she’s not living around live fire.
Ok, it doesn’t sound that bad. And the writing wasn’t bad. And the characters were truly like none that I’ve read before. I just… didn’t like it. I didn’t like Gin Toad, and everything I saw, no matter how well-drawn the scene, was through her eyes. She irritated me. And by extension, the entire book irritated me.
And that’s all I have to say about that.