Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Review #152: "Upside-Down Cake" by Paul Theroux

My review of Paul Theroux's "Upside-Down Cake," from the June 27th, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

I really like Paul Theroux but this story was a bit of a let-down.

"Upside-Down Cake" is a pretty boring story about the birthday party of a 90-year old grandmother and a "surprise visitor" who comes late and gets a less-than-enthusiastic reception. Throughout most of the story, we get a lot of the catty, back-biting that goes on between the now middle-aged (or older) children of said 90-year old grandmother, which is pretty stomach-curdling stuff with not a likable character among the lot. Which, I suppose, was the point. But it didn't make for very entertaining material.

What I didn't like about this story was that, up until the final reveal, it had the flavor of one of those too-cute, "my dysfunctional family" stories, in the vein of Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." and the tension was so un-compelling that I actually flipped back to the cover page of the story and see if my eyes had deceived me and this story was by a "David" Theroux or something. I barely recognized Paul Theroux's hand here until the end.

The "reveal" at the end -- very Theroux-ish but a little late and un-earned, IMHO -- saved this story from complete oblivion, as did the following memorable opening line:

"Every visit to an aged parent is in the nature of a farewell."

So it wasn't a complete let-down. Sometimes, even just one great line can save a story.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Holiday Q&A, Volume 1

These questions come to us from Grace. Thanks for sending your questions!! Answers below:
What is the most thrilling mystery you have read and/or watched?
The Eiger Sanction (book and film) by Trevanian is what's coming to mind. International espionage. Mountain-climbing assassins. Evil albino masterminds. Sex. Not a bad combination. Warning, this is completely a "guy" movie, and the film (feat. Clint Eastwood) is priceless 70s action movie cheese. But in case that's your thing...
What's the deal with Narcos?
Narcos is a Netflix show about the rise and fall (but mostly the fall) of Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thus far there are two seasons of 10 episodes each. RIYL: The film Blow, starring Johnny Depp; the book Zombie City, by Thomas Katz; the movie Goodfellas; true crime; anything involving the drug trade. My brief review: Season 1 started out a bit slow and I know a bunch of people who never made it past the first few episodes. Some of the acting is a…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…