Review: You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 3

Maybe it’s wrong to buy a book for such superficial reasons, but Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet was too well-titled to ignore. People have recommended Lethem’s books for years and I put them off until this one literally begged for a chance. I’ve read (and enjoyed) Gun, with Occasional Music since purchasing this one, but I still don’t love Lethem.

The overall plot is delightfully absurd—a call center for people to complain about anything, an up-and-coming rock band whose first gig is to play quietly, and a stolen kangaroo kept as a housepet—but moments of falseness keep it from being as much fun as it might be. The main character, Lucinda, is in a rock band with her ex. Her time in the call center leads to a fling with one of her clients which becomes a large part of the plot and left me skimming. Their relationship took me out of the story.

It’s not impossible for a woman to write convincing male characters or a man to write convincing female characters…but female characters are most likely to have instantaneous orgasms in books written by men. This type of writing is present in Gun, with Occasional Music too, but Gun spoofs classic noir thrillers with their hard-boiled PIs. In that world, instantly-orgasming women are a feature, not a bug. You Don’t Love Me Yet doesn’t operate in that space, though, so it doesn’t get the same pass or earn the same laughs. It’s hard to enumerate the ways in which Lethem has written a poorly-realized woman, because writing a good character isn’t a matter of ticking boxes. My best guess is that Lethem was overly aware of when his character might seem stereotypically feminine so he went the other way each time. Unfortunately, the moments when Lucinda avoids possible stereotypes land her in not-like-other-girls territory, which is its own minefield.

So maybe Lethem can’t write women, but he can write. The plot follows the band’s surge of inspiration and riffs on performance art. Scenes with the band’s creativity—finding a groove, improvising lyrics, and bickering over a name—are lively; you can almost hear the beat. My favorite passage is the moment the band finds their first big song in front of a live audience:

The song is “Monster Eyes,” and it comes set to make an impression. For band and audience alike, the evening finds its watershed dividing Before from After. In the audience’s case, the watershed divides the perfectly agreeable songs they can no longer quite remember from the one they’ll go out humming, the one that causes everyone, during its third chorus or through the howl of cheers that erupt in its wake, to lean into someone’s ear and bark through cupped hands, “These guys are good!” or “I love this song!” The rest of the band’s set will unfold as confirmation: the audience has seen and celebrated something, and is entitled to feel special for having done so. […] You weren’t sure what anything had to do with anything else, but cool people were certainly involved. You weren’t wrong to come out tonight. You’d found yourself right in the thick of something. You had to be there, the night they first played “Monster Eyes,” and you were. (108)

It’s a nice paragraph, but it’s not enough to redeem the book as a whole. It’s tough to come away with an overall positive impression of a book when the impression of the main character and her relationships isn’t favorable. Though the title of this book called out to me, I should probably have stuck to Fortress of Solitude which is still on my list and is the book that people have most pushed me to read by Lethem.

Overall: 3.0 (out of 5.0) There are some fun moments, but it left me cold overall. It also seems strangely dated.

Previously On:

  1. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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