One of the great things about being in a book club is it pushes you (okay, me) to read things you (okay, I) wouldn't normally read.
The Submission is one book I might not have even heard of (much less read) if it hadn't been selected as my book club's book for April. (Interestingly, no one in our group had read it prior, but it was on the library's list of book club books, which meant we could check out 20 copies at one time--definitely appealing--plus the plot sounded intriguing and looked like it would lead to a good discussion--which it did.)
The story picks up two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A jury has been selected to choose a fitting memorial from among anonymous designs submitted from all over the country. After narrowing the submissions down to two finalists, the jury finally votes and selects The Garden. Minutes after the selection is made, the winning designer's identity is revealed: an American Muslim named Mohammad Khan.
A name on a piece of paper shouldn't make any difference. It shouldn't matter, right? The design should still be as loved now knowing who the designer is as it was then when the designer was still anonymous. But turns out, human beings have crazy and impractical reactions to fear and heartache, and the jury instantly wavers and divides on whether or not to keep The Garden as the winning memorial. Before long, the story leaks out, and then it is not only a handful of jury members but an entire country choosing sides and trying to separate their minds from their hearts.
This story is fictional, but something about it resonates with truth. Part of this, I'm sure, is that the events leading up to this story are, indeed, very real and impacted every single American in some way, be it large or small. Also, the characters themselves give off the aura of actual people, so much so that you want to go look them up on Wikipedia, only to find out that they don't actually exist.
But even more than those two things, I think the reason why this breathes heavily of nonfiction is because in 2010, proposals were made for an Islamic community center (now known as Park51) just a few blocks from Ground Zero. The controversy surrounding the building of this center is eerily similar to the controversy played out in this book.
The fascinating coincidence is that Amy Waldman had actually already written a full draft of this novel before anything came out about the Islamic community center. In fact, I read an interview with her, and she said that real life was playing out so closely to what she'd already written that she actually changed some small parts of the story to differentiate between truth and fiction. I just wonder how many people read this book and think that Amy Waldman used the mosque controversy as inspiration when in fact her work was being plagiarized by real life.
Although written in third person, the story travels between several characters so the reader understands the plot from many different angles and viewpoints: there's Paul Rubin, the head of the jury with the motives of a politician, trying (unsuccessfully) to please all sides; there's also Claire Burwell, who is a member of the jury and represents the victims' families since she lost her husband in the attacks; then there's Sean Gallagher, who lost his brother and is leading more of a grassroots campaign against The Garden; there's Asma Anwar, a Muslim, illegal immigrant, and a widow of the attacks; there's Alyssa Spier, an unscrupulous reporter who will do just about anything for a good story; and finally, there's Mohammad Kahn, or "Mo," who finds himself in the middle of the heated debate even though he has lived in America his whole life and hardly even identifies himself as a Muslim.
Out of those six characters, I identified most with Claire. I half-wondered if she was meant to sort of embody the reader: she had to take information from all sides and decide where she stood in the midst of it all, and that's what I felt like I had to do as well. And it was hard! When I started the book, I sided with letting Mo build the memorial. Of course I did! This is America after all, the great melting pot, where everyone has a fair chance and an equal opportunity and we don't hold prejudices. But Waldman did a very thorough job of exploring all angles, and sometimes I felt my resolve wavering, much like Claire's.
For example, I thought the hearing (where many family members got up to speak and explain why they were for or against Mo's memorial) was exceptionally well done. There was such an array of contrasting voices and ideas. Each time a new person spoke, my loyalty seemed to flip sides. One of the family members was a father who said, "I don't find the prospect of a Muslim designing this memorial, or even
that it has Islamic elements, insulting. I find it insensitive, which
is different. We who have carried the weight of loss, are now being
asked to carry the weight of proving America's tolerance, and it...well,
it's a lot to ask." Oh, I had never thought about it that way before, and I could totally see his point!
In the end, I still held fast to my original opinion, but I found the exploration of so many ideas very thought-provoking (especially since I then got to go to book club and have an actual discussion with actual people instead of doing it all in my head).
Amy Waldman's writing is beautiful. I read some reviews that said the plot was too slow and repetitive, but that was never my impression. I thought the writing style fit the pacing of the book so perfectly that it all seemed to unfold easily and seamlessly. Here's one line I liked, just to give you a taste: "Tears filled Claire's eyes, but, as if they knew their place, didn't leave."
I listened to the audio version of the book, which was read by Bernadette Dunn. Her voice sounded instantly familiar, and I realized that I'd also heard her read Garlic and Sapphires. I've mentioned before that sometimes I have a difficult time listening to the same narrator read different books because hearing their voice combines the two stories in a weird way (Jim Dale's voice is especially bad for this), but I love Bernadette Dunn's voice because. while it is distinguishable, it is not overpowering. I thought she was perfect.
While I thought the book explored some really important ideas, I was disappointed with the amount of profanity (many uses of the f-word) and sexual scenes (one of which I just skipped over entirely). I know this is an adult novel. I know that's the way people talk, and those are the things people do, but I don't like reading it.
The ending was a little sad but also appropriate. I felt like, given what happened in the rest of the story, it couldn't have ended any other way. And there was a little twist I wasn't expecting.
Even though I still vividly remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the morning of September 11, 2001, for the most part, I have been far removed from the events of that terrible day. Reading this book helped me remember and also understand in a completely new way the grief, the passion, and, ultimately, the hope.