A Critique of ‘A Sorrow Named Joy’ by Sarah Chorn

Goodreads

Now, caveat empator, I have a professional relationship with the author of this book. Sarah is a freelance editor, and I employed her to edit my novel. As you read this review, bare that in mind. THAT SAID, I really enjoyed this and give it 4.5 stars, when I usually default to giving books 3 stars. This is a story written with heart and conviction.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?

  • Adult. This book is about a failing marriage. There is an unfaithful marriage plotline, but it’s on the side and doesn’t involve the main marriage.
  • Violence free, combat free.
  • Journey of Self-Discovery. The protagonist has to discover who she is in the midst of her failing marriage.
  • Speculative Fiction.
  • I had Gothic Horror vibes at moments, but this isn’t Gothic Horror.
    • Stepford Wife-y at moments
    • But I need to emphasize that this IS NOT horror. If you don’t like horror, you can read this.

IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?

Yes


MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

Like I said, 5 stars. The first half of this story is REALLY tense. Above I mentioned this book had Gothic Horror vibes- by that I mean this book had a lurking tension and unspoken dread to it. This tension was poised against a lovely, everyday life of a homebody housewife. The conflict of these two facets worked REALLY well. The author successfully invoked anxiety within me, wondering what the mystery was about.

When the mystery was revealed at the midway point, it paid off on that tension REALLY well. The tone of the story changed quite a bit, transforming like a blooming flower, becoming Joyful, and let’s say Hopeful. The loveliness of the second half works because of the change of tone from the high tension of the first half transforming into the low tension of the second half. It is the transformation of suffering into relief.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (5/5 Stars)

Note: I default to giving good books 3 stars.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

Again, I employed the author of this to be my editor.


SIMILAR BOOKS

  • Sunshine by Robin McKinley (in terms of being a vaguely horror-ish story set against the boring everyday life of a homebody lady)
  • Patricia McKillip (has a similar vibe of cozy, comfortable, poetic prose)
  • Margaret Atwood (In terms of having a speculative fiction concept)
  • Legends and Lattes (low stakes)

CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

SPOILERS! This is a book I suggest you read without spoilers. If you have not yet read it, and want to, skip the rest of this review.

The story’s concept is ‘A perfectly obedient homebody housewife named Joy lives to serve her husband and make him happy. One day, she discovers a photograph of her and her husband on a beach- but she has no memory of ever going to the beach. When she confronts him about this photo, they have a falling out. It is eventually revealed that Joy is a construct, a robot created by her husband to replace his dead wife. He decides to give her more freedom (so Joy is no longer a Stepford Wife). And with that freedom she learns to truly live. Eventually, Joy and her husband part amicably.’

Execution: I thought this story was executed upon very well. For the first half of the story, the lingering sense of dread which hung over the story made me jump at the shadows of the narrative. I questioned everything: who is Joy, and why is she so obedient? Why does Joy seem to not reflect on the past, or the future? Why is she so devoted to her husband? Why doesn’t she remember the photo of the beach? When she learns the secret and gains more mental freedom, I truly enjoyed how she slowly learned to blossom into her true self as an artist. She breaks free of the suffocating dread of her failing marriage, and becomes an artist. Depression becomes meaning.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

Joy’s character arc is the main plot in the book. As I said above, I enjoyed it a great deal, from the initial moments when the story was filled with depression and unease, to the fruiting of her freedom. I particularly liked the fact that for the first half of the story I was repeatedly wondering why Joy doesn’t think about her life before Mike… only to have the reveal that Joy was made by Mike, so of course she doesn’t remember her life before Mike.

I enjoyed her husband Mike as well. He is portrayed sympathetically, if not outright pitiably. His love for Joy is genuine, as is his hurt from the loss of his first wife- the woman in the photo. He could have easily have come off as being antagonististic, if not an outright villain, due to Joy basically being a Stepford wife, but that’s not the case here. After his first wife died, he desperately needed her back to not lose himself. He created Joy as a proxy. But over the course of this story he too begins to heal and lets Joy go free.

Marlene, the final character in this novella, was well done. She’s a woman who hides her depression in gossip and chatting with friends, while she soothes her worries with a sweet tooth in private. Her marriage mirrors Joy’s, in that Marlene is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband. More on Marlene later.


PACING AND STRUCTURE

I felt this book had great pacing. This is a short novella- I read it in only about two hours- and I was dragged through the book from the moment I started to the moment I finished. For the first half, the sense of high tension dragged me through, because I wanted to discover the secret of the mystery. For the second half, the release of that tension with the reveal of the mystery and the relief of Joy’s depression drew me to the end. I was easily invested in this story; that is good suspension of disbelief.

I felt that this story used the 4 Act Format.

  • Act 1 began at the start of the book, continued through her discovering the photograph, and then finally the fight between Mike and Joy.
    • Before the discovery of the photo, this is an almost light and airy act. Joy is cooking, cleaning, gardening… going about her everyday life as a housewife. She loves her husband simply, and she’s happy to love him.
    • After the discovery of the photo, the story gains a note of dread, with her wondering how Mike will react to her invading his privacy and discovering his phot. At the same time, Joy wonders why she doesn’t remember this trip on the beach. I enjoyed the anxiety after that point; it felt authentic.
  • Act 2 was the story after the fight with Mike, up until the moment he tells her the truth that she is a construct and she goes under the knife again to be reprogrammed and upgraded to full personhood.
    • The inciting incident between Act 1/Act 2 was their fight. The heavy sense of dread of act 1 was blown away by that fight, leaving Joy feeling lost and confused, depressed and questioning everything.
  • Act 3 was the story from the moment she wakes up after the upgrade, until the moment of the time-break between spring/summer and autumn.
    • Joy explores her new self. She paints. She learns poetry. She still cooks and washes the dishes, but she is not limited by it.
    • Additionally, Joy feels a new distance between herself and Mike. Before, she was slavishly fettered to him. Her sole purpose was programmed to love him and serve him. Now, she lost the ability to know what he wants before he wants it. She and her husband have started growing apart.
  • Act 4 happens after a time-break of several months. Neither Joy nor Mike is happy any longer.
    • She isn’t the Joy Mike fell in love with, and Joy desperately wants to spread her wings and fly. They part amicably.
    • Many years later, Mike and Joy meet again. He’s gotten married again and is happy, while Joy has successfully gotten her sea legs under herself and started living.

PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I’ve gone pretty deep into this book’s plot and tension so far, so I won’t touch on it here.

If I were to fault the book somewhat, I’d fault the stakes a little. I felt that maybe the book could have explained the stakes in act 1. Stakes are important to describe the scope of the story, but I didn’t get a good handle on the scope of the story in act 1.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

This book had an ‘ordinary life’ tone, with the weight of depression hanging on behind it. The burden of tension becomes heavier and darkness until the fight between the characters, and then that fight serves as a moment of catharsis. The dark, depressed tone levels out, until the protagonist’s upgrade. When that happens, the story becomes light and hopeful, as Joy gradually comes out of her shell and becomes her own person.

I enjoyed the prose, it reminded me of McKillip. Now caveat empator, the prose here is not as numinous or ethereal as McKillip’s; instead they’re similar in the sense of evoking emotions. Chorn can evoke the emotions with the best of them.

This book had a theme of attachment and estrangement. It’s repeated twice: first, with the relationship between Joy and her husband, and again with Marlene and her husband. I liked how the narrative used Marlene and her divorce as foreshadowing for the relationship collapse between Joy and Mike. One thing which drives me up the wall is when authors fail to sufficiently foreshadow their theme/plot. This book used that foreshadowing very well. A+ work here.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

The setting was set in the modern day. There are televisions and cell phones, and robot constructs which are lifelike. The protagonist goes to a university hospital. It’s not very intense sci-fi- the only super science fictional concept is the presence of human robots. I’d call this Speculative Fiction instead.


LESSONS LEARNED

As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:

  • TENSION! Between this and ‘Legends and Lattes,’ I am now convinced that low stakes books can be high tension.
    • One way this book stimulated reader tension was creating a mildly unnerving world which was just slightly out of key.
    • And then the author dangled a secret in front of the reader, and held off on paying off that dangling plot thread for so long that the tension just kept ramping up and ramping up and ramping up…
    • And then it paid off the tension! Right when the ramping tension was getting unbearably high, the author hit the landing by causing an argument between the characters. When the protagonist spiraled into depression after the argument, that paid off the high tension, and let the story transition into it’s next act naturally.
    • The lesson is that tension is cyclical. If you raise the tension, you need to lower it afterwards.

Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.


SUMMARY

This is a good book. If it sounded interesting, check it out.


Goodreads


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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