When we were in Ann Arbor a couple weeks ago, we went over to Nicola’s books. (Literati, we’ll catch you next time.) One of the things I like to do is go over to the Staff Picks section and see what’s there. Buying and reading one of those books will tend to keep you out of ruts.
I don’t have a system. I try to find some literary but not genre-y. Which led me to The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash. The book isn’t about the winter in South Dakota. It is about a family named Winters who live in The Dakota, and by that I mean THE DAKOTA, as in the place where super-rich people live and John Lennon was killed.
As readers of this blog know, reading about rich people is a guilty pleasure. In this case, the head of the family is a Johnny Carson-like talk show host who had a nervous breakdown on the air and his family, including the main character, who has come home after catching malaria in the Peace Corps.
The book is set in the late 70’s in New York, so sort of before it got all cleaned up, and we all know what’s happening in the early 80’s at the Dakota. And, our character gets to know John Lennon, going so far as to teach the great man how to sail.
A lot of the reviews of the book discuss this as a book that is a story of its time and place and I would definitely agree. I found myself absorbed into the world of the book–much like Gentleman from Moscow. It takes you to Hollywood, the 1980 Olympics, and, of course, The Dakota.
It is extremely readable. The characters are strong, you root for them, and the whole thing unfolds elegantly and effortlessly in a way you have to admire. The book is funny and not overwrought. There’s emotion, but we’re not overdoing it or turning it into Anne Tyler.
The main thing that bothered me–and this was next to nothing, but not nothing–was some of the Lennon dialogue. He’d be having discussions with a group of people and he’d say something, sort of out of the side of his mouth, like “just like Paul, on a power trip,” and it was jarring to me. It happened three or four times, and it took me out of the moment for a second.
It just felt forced and artificial. It’s entirely possible that you could never write fictional dialogue for John Lennon that would please me–I had a serious John Lennon phase in the 80’s–but I do feel like you could have gotten the same thing done with the story with Lennon never talking about the Beatles.
My feeling on this receded a little bit when I read the acknowledgments and saw the amount of research that Barbash did on Lennon to make the writing realistic. He truly did his homework. (In fact, if you should read the book, the sailing trip to Bermuda is real.) Still, jarring is jarring.
Yoko is mentioned but never appears, FYI.
But that’s like four sentences. The book is really enjoyable and smart. There are good riffs (get it?) on stardom, mental health, family, redemption, etc. And you get a free ride along with celebrities. It’s a well-earned four stars from me.