Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Floating World in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, Algonquin Books, and C. Morgan Babst for the advance copy.
We don’t have time for the future, doctor. We hardly have time for the past. The only thing to do in the desert is to keep walking. Otherwise you will die of thirst before you make it to higher ground.
Set in the days and months following Hurricane Katrina, The Floating World tells the story of the disintegration of the Boisdoré family—mother, psychiatrist Dr. Tess Eschleman; father, artist Joe Boisdoré; sisters Del and Cora; and grandfather, former master woodworker Vincent Boisdoré. Before the storm, Tess and Joe try to get their daughter Cora to go with them—she refuses and her parents evacuate without her. Del rides out the storm in New York, where she fled many years before. After the storm, Tess and Joe return, first to find Cora physically, then to bring her back from where she’s been locked up mentally. Del returns as well, attempting both to draw Cora back to herself to quell pull of New Orleans in her own bones.
With the focus on this family, the book felt less about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina and more about this family and their dynamics. When the books opens, it’s several weeks after the storm. While Joe and Tess evacuated and returned together, upon reentry they separate. Turns out, the winds were simply the thing that revealed the previously hidden distance between them.
An interesting (arguably frustrating) thing here is that “complicated family drama” isn’t the main way this book is marketed. Even within the publisher’s Amazon summary, the three paragraphs end by emphasizing that Katrina’s damage was “not, in fact, some random act of God, but an avoidable tragedy visited upon New Orleans’ most helpless and forgotten citizens.” With this summary, I went into the book with very different expectations. Katrina set the stage but neither the storm nor, frankly, the unequal impact of the devastation were really the subject here.
This normally wouldn’t be an issue since complicated families are a favorite subject of mine for reading; however, something in The Floating World just fell flat. Much of my problem stemmed from my inability to really connect with any of the characters. Normally, there is something in at least one character that I can connect to—even if only tangentially. That connection makes me care about what happens to that character and, in turn, the characters that person cares for. While Babst attempts to make Cora’s sister, Del; her father, Joe; and her grandfather, Vincent into sympathetic characters, there just wasn’t enough there for me to connect to. Her mother, Tess, was so utterly selfish that I didn’t care to try to find a connection there. In hindsight, she’s probably supposed to be at least a little sympathetic—the psychiatrist on the edge of the nervous breakdown herself—but I found her so unlikeable as to almost a villain—nothing she did was right and her meddling was irritating.
Another White Author Problem?
I don’t want to over simplify and say it was entirely this; however, I do think at least some of the issue here came from a white writer trying to write black characters. Babst mentions things like the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers and the racial divide that placed the people of color in the areas that wound up with the most devastation, but she does it in a way that feels almost like an afterthought—she doesn’t show. She simply tells. A character gets up on their tiny soapbox for a moment, says their pithy background comment about how racism created the situation that Katrina revealed, climbs back down, and the narrative continues, totally disconnected from the point she was making. It was as if Babst herself didn’t realize there was such a racial impact to the storm until she learned about it afterwards, reading the newspapers, and felt compelled to share these nuggets to make her book more accurate. Which—these things are absolutely true—there was a huge racial impact. But Babst’s presentation of them was blunt and served more to make it clear she knew there was an impact so she could then carry on with the story she was otherwise telling.
Babst also attempts to get at some of the racial divide by having Joe be black and Tess be white—so, of course, Cora and Del are mixed race. This also didn’t seem to be done particularly well, especially when compared to a character like Rowan in Dreamland Burning. It felt almost like Babst wrote the story she wanted to tell, decided to make Joe black, and went back and changed some details to correspond to Joe being black. There is so much more here that could have been explored, but it felt half-hearted. I honestly wondered whether Babst had gotten POC beta readers.
The only really redeeming points for me in this book were Cora and Vincent. When the book starts, you don’t hear much from Cora herself—there are a few small vignettes from her but the majority of the impression you get about Cora is from others—her mother and her sister in particular, as Joe is largely consumed with caring for his ailing father. You quickly gather that Cora has survived some unknown trauma that has caused her to curl into herself, sucking her into a depression she has apparently experienced before. She doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t bathe. She wanders in the flooded city full of toxic mud at night. Tess and Del attempt to help her, though it quickly feels obvious that these attempts are as much about Tess and Del as they are about Cora. Cora’s point of view isn’t tangibly presented until almost halfway through the book—which is a shame. She is perhaps a character I could have connected to and identified with; however, by waiting until over a third of the way in to really flesh her out from her own point of view, Babst waited too long. It was too late for me to feel invested in her or the book.
I did feel for Vincent as well—in the throes of Lewy Body Dementia, he bounces around in time, sometimes in the present, oftentimes not. He wasn’t a character I could identify with; however, I did feel sympathetic for him and his inclusion did make the story richer. Babst also probably missed some opportunities here by not having more scenes with Vincent’s past experiences of New Orleans. One of the most poignant scenes with Vincent is when he wanders off through the abandoned cars seeking a pie, seeing instead a New Orleans fifty years prior.
I do think Babst did a respectable job with the treatment of depression in The Floating World—both with Cora and another character. As much as I hated Tess, her overbearing know-better-ness was also spot on for at least a handful of psychiatrists with whom I’ve interacted. Babst treated this particular topic respectfully, if not perfectly. Shoddy treatment of mental illness is a pet peeve of mine but nothing Babst did in this particular area set my nerves jangling.
Overall, The Floating World was technically well written but because I didn’t connect to the characters in any way, it just sort of…fell flat. There were several well-written paragraphs and turns of phrase that made me pause to appreciate the writing. (Tess’s paramour is described as “an aging Debutante’s Delight of middling intelligence”—I might have guffawed out loud at that one.) It was a solid effort and, if she can make me care about her characters, I’d give her sophomore attempt a go. Overall, the book is well above average in writing and there are definitely some reviewers out there that will disagree with my assessment about the characters being too unlikable or half-heartedly presented for connection. It was the writing that pushed me to a three and a half rating, rather than just a three.
One final note—Babst did make a style choice that didn’t bother me but may be disconcerting to some readers. Her sections are long and she switches back and forth between each family member without warning—there are no headers to tell you that you’ve switched characters. I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out that she’d switched points of view within a few second just by topic—the voice of her characters doesn’t vary terribly much between characters—this was perhaps a missed opportunity, though in Babst’s hands this could easily have become gimmicky (or worse).
Published: October 17, 2017 by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: C. Morgan Babst (@cmorganbabst)
Date read: October 16, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ stars