by Susan Payetta
I previously discussed the importance of ensuring your readers come into your story with the right expectations, and the pitfalls associated with a failure to get into the heart of the plot in the synopsis. I wanted to extend the discussion a bit to a related topic: reader expectations that build during the read. I’m reminded of my experience with Brave New World, where I was totally on board with the story, when we suddenly took a sharp turn, got a new protagonist, and kind of left the story I cared about unresolved, obviously leaving me feeling at least a bit unsatisfied. Both of these ideas relate to The Flying Falcones. Lacking a synopsis on the physical copy, I really had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up. Of course, when we started learning about the old Flying Falcone trapeze act from the perspective of an elderly woman reminiscing, I assumed that this would be the focus of the plot, so I adjusted my expectations accordingly and quickly discovered how wrong I was. While I never quite got into the main story, Payetta kept giving hints of things that sounded interesting to me, happening just on the edge of the plot. So, I occasionally got excited when I thought we were about to have a major divergence, but such a thing never came.
So what’s it actually about? Amid a controversy in which a teacher’s assistant cut a child’s hair, Rosemarie Catanzaro is forced to quit her job with Human Resources for the Thunder Bay Board of Education. No longer able to pay her bills, worrying that she’ll lose her fabulous car and fabulous apartment, she takes a job at Falcone, an old Italian grocery store. The Flying Falcones is about Rosemarie’s time working in the store and trying to figure out what she wants out of life.
I’m unsure if my lack of interest in the story has to do with the plot itself so much as the author’s choices for exploring it. Throughout The Flying Falcones, we’re often given general descriptions of situations rather than experiencing full scenes play out. This can take the form of an overview of the history of the trapeze artists in the prologue, rather than bringing readers there and making them see the death of a character and truly feel the emotions that go along with it, for example. Conversations between characters are also frequently given this treatment, where we skim over what was more-or-less said instead of seeing the back-and-forth, along with the subtle non-verbal cues, which could make people feel more alive and better establish who they are and what they want, especially in relation to the plot. As well, Payetta’s book brought to mind Terry Fallis’ One Brother Shy, in that the author focuses on the here and now without working, shaping, and building character traits over the course of the novel. We’re often told about things when they immediately become important to the plot. This creates a sort of choppiness, where separate events seem almost unrelated to those that come before or after, and has the added effect of making things feel less real. (Letting the reader in on a plot point or character trait earlier on in the narrative and holding off to make the importance clear will not only make readers consciously or unconsciously consider why this was revealed––creating even a bit of intrigue or suspense, or at least a reason to continue reading––but will also give the narrative an overall sense of cohesiveness.)
The Flying Falcones also has a problem with the level of detail given to descriptions throughout, and it’s probably not what you’re thinking when I suggest this. Having too little detail can hurt a story, but having too much of the wrong detail is problematic for a very important reason: It makes a story drag. If long, detailed descriptions of all the groceries a character buys or similar treatment of their apartment feel like they aren’t furthering something specific in character or plot––especially if nothing else is happening while we’re being given such descriptions––most readers are going to have a hard time with the passages. Now, I know I was similarly guilty of such passages in my novel, and, while I can’t say the same is necessarily true for Payetta, it had a lot to do with a lack of confidence that came with inexperience in my case. I wanted to be sure that readers were seeing the same thing I saw in my head and it didn’t occur to me at the time that this may not be important, especially if it serves to hurt the overall story. (For reference, an example of an author who had a great understanding of detail only where necessary is Sean Michaels, as showcased with Us Conductors.)
I originally planned to end this review with a suggestion that I’d like to see Payetta’s modern writing in order to see what she learned after publishing The Flying Falcones and having a few years of feedback behind her, but it felt somehow unsatisfying for a conclusion, and I think I hit on why that is. You see, immediately after Lucifer came out, it had a pretty small audience and was met with only a handful of reviews, the majority of which were lukewarm, out of the ones that actually had any substance, at least. (No offence to anyone who took the time to review the book. I’m hugely thankful to everything that was rated and said, honestly.) The thing is, even the longer reviews were vague in their criticism, presumably because I, a starting author, couldn’t take it. As a result, it took me a heck of a long time to actually come to a better understanding of flaws within my book––I, obviously, wrote the best book I knew how to at the time, the flaws of which I was blind to, otherwise I wouldn’t have been comfortable publishing it. Bringing things back to Payetta’s book, in the four years since it’s been out, I can find a total of one previous review posted online, and that one’s vague as all hell, meaning she’s had a lot less helpful criticism than I did. And she gave me a copy in exchange for an honest review, presumably in the hopes that I’d portray it positively, which makes me think that all my criticism here is going to come as a bit of a surprise, that she is likely unaware of most of what I discussed. It’s possible that this could hurt what little working relationship we’ve developed in the local writing community, but I feel a lot better risking that than being unhelpful and insincere in my reviews.
Interestingly, I never suspected that a review for what I thought was such an innocuous book would turn into a discussion of something I’m so opinionated about, but here we are. Long story short, The Flying Falcones was not the book for me, but I hope that the author can get something useful from my review, nonetheless. And, to the other reviewers out there, please try to take this job seriously, because it can be such an important thing to authors, especially those at the beginning of their careers. You’re not doing a service to anyone by being vague, no matter your intentions. And keep in mind, being critical doesn’t have to be mean. Be clear, be honest, be helpful.