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A Review of "The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska"

File this one under "mixed bag."

In a lot of my reviews, I break out my thoughts under subheadings.  Partly this is because it helps to break up the monotony of a webpage and partly this is because it helps me to organize what I want to say.  Today I almost have to do that simply because I'm so torn on The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska.  There's so much to praise, yet so much that didn't work for me.

So, the short version is: it's okay.  Maybe a 3 / 5.  Details below.

The Plot Summary, Briefly

It's a slice-of-life comedy and character piece about Becky, a technician who works at a fertility clinic in a small town in Nebraska.  Becky is a single mom with a bit of an attitude problem and more than her share of quirks.  She runs into an assortment of subplots and tries to manage difficult relationships with a ton of people, including her wayward boss, Dr. Thad (who has been shirking his duties lately and running his business into the ground), her ex-lover Kevin (a libertarian billionaire who is working at her son's school as a substitute teacher and exploiting the kids as part of his new standardized testing business), and local ruffian Hayes Bandercook (a handsome, but rough-around-the-edges goon from the wrong side of the tracks).

There isn't a central plot so much as there is a stack of frustrations that eventually become too much to bear.  Throughout, she tries to remain a good role model for her son, Mitchell, and show him the right way to interact with people.

The Stuff I Liked

Eileen Curtright, the author, does a great job of establishing her characters.  Quite a few of them are archetypes, sure, but they're funny archetypes and they work in the world she's creating.

Consider Kevin Holts, the uber-libertarian who takes over as Becky's son's teacher and exercises an unexpectedly strong influence him.  Kevin is an asshole.  He convinces the PTA to completely abandon their annual food drive because he doesn't want to teach the kids about "the nanny state" and he finds a way to insert Randian philoso-babble into everything, even fourth-grade math lessons.  He's almost a cartoon character - yet he's written so familiarly.  You already know somebody like Kevin.  And even if you agree with his politics, you almost certainly hate your Kevin because his empathy sensor is completely broken.

Curtright effortlessly weaves him into and out of scenes.  He shows up and he's instantly believable, and you're totally on Becky's side when she wants to thwart Kevin's efforts.  Those parts of the story are simultaneously the funniest (because of how ridiculous he is) and the most frustrating (because of how real he is).

I also liked how well the book works in a motif of arrogance.  Virtually all of the adult characters are arrogant to some degree or another, including Becky herself, and the effects are disastrous.  Everybody's so eager to make their choices and so assured that they're right that nobody ever actually has a real conversation.  (Consider this a warning as much as it is meant to be praise - I thought it was kind of funny and a neat little deconstruction of bad communication, but I can easily see a lot of readers being frustrated by the barrage of idiots.)

Having recognized how badly my own self-righteousness has shot me in the foot in my 20s, I've been spending the last couple of years trying to get better at working past that.  (Insert your joke about not noticing it here.  I know, I know... my blog's not the best place to put a spotlight on humility.)  Seeing arrogance blow up en masse like this is heartbreaking and funny at the same time.  I laugh, but I also want to point it out to other young'uns and say, "See?  See?  This is why you shouldn't get so far up your own ass."

The book is generally well-written.  I love the prose, I love the pacing, I love the style.  It's breezy and light and all-around accessible.

The Stuff I Didn't Like

Although Curtright can get some funny situations and observations on the page, her dialogue needs a bit of work.  Too often all the characters sounded identical - worse, they often sound like Becky herself.  Becky is supposed to be a bit over-educated and stuffy, so when she's overly verbose or stilted, it sounds about right.  But why does Hayes sound like that?  Hayes is supposed to be a blue collar dropout with no prospects.  It's not a constant problem throughout - only here and there - but it shows up enough to be distracting.

The bigger problem, though, is that it's just not as funny as it should be.

A lot of this stems from Becky.  She's overconfident, which is supposed to be her flaw.  You get that at the beginning and it becomes more and more clear in the second act when she starts meddling with things.  Her boss seems to be distracted from work?  She tries to manipulate him into taking ADHD medication - or she even goes so far as to administer it when he's not looking.  Her principal hired a teacher she doesn't like?  She insults him, then sleeps with him and tries to play with his emotions.

These moments are great premises for some comedy gold later on.  Unfortunately, they never quite pay off the way they should because Becky rarely has to face immediate negative consequences.  Where are the Larry David moments where gets caught dead-to-rights in awkward social situations?  Where are the parts where she gets arrested or sued or punched in the face?  The book has the phrase "burned bridges" in its title - that means things need to blow up on her when she tries to meddle, but it hardly gets that bad.  It's more liked "singed bridges."

It's not that she gets away without any consequence - there is some fallout here and there, particularly in the end - but it never escalates in a satisfying way.  People get annoyed with her when they should be getting furious.

It makes me think of some advice I heard once about writing a screenplay.  I can't be bothered to Google who said it, but it basically goes like this: "I want to hear about the worst day in your hero's life - not the second worst."  In other words, don't tell me about all these times that Becky kind of annoyed her neighbors.  Tell me about the times she totally pissed them off.  I want the gooey bits of desperation and havoc - not the crumbs of disagreement.

The book gets close to that level when it eventually builds up to its climax, but even then it feels like a missed opportunity.  Things don't totally work out... but at the same time, everything totally works out.  It ultimately feels disappointing.

It's a shame - I liked so much of it and the characters were all well constructed.  They just never got put into play the way I wanted.