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Book Review / American Doll

"He said if you were in hell, would you not jump?"

Danny Faraday is a social worker, who spends his days working with prisoners, and his nights bedding random women. Laura Calane is an American student in Dublin, and searching for her roots in Ireland. Danny intends to make her another notch on his bedpost, but Laura presents as more of a challenge than Danny was expecting. Still, he makes serious attempts to woo her, until he finds himself drawn into her complex life, and finds her indirectly invading his thoughts and life. And even more concerning is the relationship Laura has with her Uncle Thady, who saved her father during 9/11, and isn't on the path to allowing her to forget it.

​I don't usually choose contemporary novels to read, just as a matter of preference, but I really enjoyed American Doll and the gradual addition of story arcs as the history of each character unfolded. Danny's gradual change of intent in regards to Laura, due to what he regarded as frigidity, was dealt with realistically, and his journey into valuing her other than a conquest was an excellent journey for his character.

Laura's predicament with her Uncle Thady was believable and far more unsettling than if it had been written too intensely and her conflicting sweet naivety and cognitive dissonance gave her an interesting edge. Thady was a brilliantly realised character, and even though his actual arc was harsh and fairly disturbing, the outcome of his part of the tale was hugely emotive and I thought one of the saddest scenes in the story. I also enjoyed the visit to New York and the scenes with Laura's father, which added some heavier tension and interest, and the unravelling of Laura's mother's fate.

The whole book in fact was dealt with in an initially gentle incline of disturbing events, but never turning ridiculous or unbelievable. I found all the characters had conflicting traits that worked well within themselves and also with the other characters. Some of my favourite scenes were in the prison, where Danny is working with the prisoners (some of whom were accused of sexual crimes) to write a play whilst trying to avoid any lewdness, and Lawless does an excellent job of leading you to feel a certain way about them, then turning it on its head, which meant for a satisfying end to the story.

​The 9/11 connection, which is the backbone of the tale as much as the Irish connection, gave the story its historical narrative. As cited on the cover it is the catalyst event, the immovable point in history that prevents so many of the characters moving on, and creates a cyclone of reliance, guilt and pain, and also a barrier of emotional entry for Danny into Laura's family.​

Overall, I found it a complex tale with interesting characters and situations, and a haunting climax that was satisfying but also left room for extra pondering after the book was done. I wasn't entirely swept away with the main characters, Danny and Laura. Not even really at the end did I feel urgently worried for them or desperate to know what happened next, except for the last few chapters where the pace erupts. I was interested but, unfortunately, not enthralled.​ James Lawless knows his way around his complex worlds and characters, and I wouldn't sideline any of his books in the future should they be contemporary or not.


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