Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Red at the Bone and The Most Fun We Ever Had

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I’m not really sure what to say about Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson’s second novel for adults. Its prose is competent and I enjoyed the warmth that Woodson brings to her characters, but I have rarely read anything that felt so pointless. This pocket-sized family saga ostensibly centres on sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony at her affluent African-American grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone in 2001, but is really focused on the previous generations, flicking between point-of-view chapters from Melody’s immediate relatives. Melody’s mother, Iris, became pregnant with her when she was only fifteen, and in a satisfying reversal of the usual teen pregnancy plot (I’ll give Woodson points for this), found it difficult to deal with her unwanted responsibilities, leaving her ex-boyfriend, Aubrey, to step up to fatherhood. While Iris escapes to college at Oberlin, Aubrey and Melody form a deep and loving bond. We also hear from the two different sides of the family, discovering that Sabe’s mother and grandparents fled from the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and that Aubrey’s own mother died shortly after Melody’s birth. And that’s pretty much it, except for the introduction of an unexpected external event at the end of the novel which felt not only melodramatic but downright peculiar; as if it had accidentally escaped from a different kind of book altogether. If you ignore its final few pages, there’s nothing terribly wrong with Red at the Bone, but as a number of other reviewers have commented, it’s infinitely forgettable.

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The Most Fun We Ever Had, Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, is also a family saga that features teenage pregnancy, but it’s almost three times as long as Red At The Bone and nearly as pointless. Set in Chicago, this novel follows Marilyn and David Sorenson and their four adult daughters through a turbulent year as their second oldest daughter reveals that she once had a baby, Jonah, that she gave up for adoption, and that he’s now a homeless teenager who’s been unceremoniously dumped back into their lives. I’d been told that Fleishman Is In Trouble was about a group of unlikeable people, but the Sorensons easily win that contest; none of them appear to have any redeeming features whatsoever except perhaps the two youngest daughters, Lisa and Grace, and even then, I had problems with both characters. The parents project an image of a close, romantic couple who care deeply for their children, but their family is blinkered by privilege, horrible to anybody who doesn’t fit their precise standards of what is acceptable, and almost as nasty to each other. A cleverer novelist like Lionel Shriver would have torn this apart, but Lombardo’s writing just bobs along. I believe she’s aware of how unpleasant her characters are – indeed, Jonah’s presence in the novel seems to have been engineered to give us an outside perspective on these people – but she never does anything with it. I actually found this quite a fun, trashy read (I enjoyed reading it much more than Red At The Bone) so I guess in that sense, it does have a point, but it’s not a novel that should be anywhere near prize lists.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers fourteen and fifteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; Weather; and Fleishman Is In Trouble.

20 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Red at the Bone and The Most Fun We Ever Had

  1. I’m with you on both of these. The ‘twist’ in Red at the Bone felt so bizarre and unearned, and it’s a shame Lombardo didn’t capitalise more of the great thematic potential she set up in The Most Fun We Ever Had, even if it was an enjoyable enough read.

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    • I liked the idea of giving the ‘grandparents’ more of a life of their own in The Most Fun We Ever Had, but it didn’t really stand out from a lot of other family sagas I’ve read.

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  2. The overwhelming consensus on Red at the Bone is that it’s so forgettable. I enjoyed it and gave it 4 stars, but I am already so detached from it and the more time I spend away from it, the less I care 🤷🏻‍♀️ So I completely agree with you on that one!

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    • Oh dear! I wasn’t surprised to read that she’s written a number of YA novels. I don’t think all YA fiction is forgettable by any means, but I wondered if a spare style that may have worked well in YA didn’t translate as convincingly for this adult novel.

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  3. Did the sexuality elements add anything to Red at the Bone for you? I’ve come to expect ‘that twist’ from any books set in 2001!

    I think I’ll still give the Lombardo a go — trashy fun sounds like a relief after some heavier reads.

    Once again, it seems like the Prize is doubling up on some themes and styles, and letting some more commercial stuff through…

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    • No, sadly not – I didn’t understand why it was included, it didn’t seem to add anything.

      The Most Fun We Ever Had is a nice easy read, though I wish it had been a bit shorter!

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  4. Great reviews, I completely agree with your assessments! I’m finding both of these very forgettable as well, though Most Fun was, like you said, was at least trashy fun to read. I was so disappointed Lombardo didn’t engage any more deeply with her content, there was so much possibility there. Alas. I am hoping not to see these on the shortlist!

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    • Callum also commented about the thematic potential of The Most Fun We Ever Had, but I guess I’m not getting it? It didn’t seem to me to be trying to do anything very different from other family sagas, but maybe I’ve missed something.

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      • Ah, I just meant that it has such thorough setup that there’s plenty of room for commentary, though I agree there really isn’t anything there. I just thought it was such a missed opportunity that Lombardo didn’t use any of the characters’ situations or personalities to make any bigger statements about wealth or relationships or adoption or any of the issues it vaguely hints at.

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  5. Pingback: Predictions for the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2020 | Laura Tisdall

  6. I initially really liked Red at the Bone, as it was my first read from the longlist, but as time goes by it’s definitely feeling more forgettable… it’s dropped to be my least-favorite four-star read. Regarding The Most Fun, I agree that its prose just ‘bobs along’ and that nothing justifies it being about 200 pages too long. I actually just marked it as contemporary rather than literary, because there was nothing standout about it. Great review!

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  7. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Final Thoughts | Laura Tisdall

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