04 December 2012

Book Review: Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank

This is a review I've been debating whether to post or not.  I do not usually spend my time writing reviews for books I do not care for, but since most of the reviews I've seen online have been quite favorable (check out the one from my friends at Three Guys One Book if you'd like a drastically different opinion from mine), I decided in the end to post this one as a matter of balance.

I picked this book up because, though I was unfamiliar with the author, it seemed to have everything going for it.  First of all, it's published by Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, a literary house who publishes some of my favorite authors, among them Madeline L'Engle and Jamaica Kincaid. Secondly, the author is the publisher of Razorbill, a terrific YA imprint from Penguin. Thirdly, check out that cover: it's inconceivable that a book with such a terrible retro cover could contain anything except ironic magnificence--but perhaps that word doesn't mean what I think it means.

The summary provided by the publisher on the advance reading copy is the same one posted at GoodReads, so I took the lazy efficient way out and copied and pasted from there:

"Peter Herman is something of a folk hero. Marriage Is a Canoe, his decades-old book on love and relationships, has won the hearts of hopeful romantics and desperate cynics alike. Peter and his wife lived a peaceful life, but now it’s 2010, and his wife has just died. He passes time with a woman he admires but doesn’t love—and he begins to question the advice he’s famously doled out for decades.

Then he receives a call from Stella Petrovic, an ambitious young editor who wants to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Marriage Is a Canoe with a contest for struggling couples. The prize? An afternoon with Peter and a chance to save their relationship.
The contest ensnares Stella in the opaque politics of her publishing house, while it introduces the reader to couples in varied states of distress: [Emily] a shy thirtysomething Brooklynite whose husband [Eli] may be just a bit too charismatic for his own good; a middle-aged publisher whose imposing manner has imposed loneliness on her for longer than she cares to admit. Then there’s Peter, who must discover what he meant when he wrote Marriage Is a Canoe if he is going to help the contest’s winners and find a way to love again."

Sounds interesting enough, no?  Who doesn't love the whole book-within-a-book hook?  Unfortunately, this was one of those novels that I only finished because I kept believing it was always on the cusp of getting better. It was readable enough and the prose never got in the way of itself, but that is about the faintest praise with which I can damn it. The characters remained both two-dimensional and unlikeable throughout the book; if they had been just one or the other, it would have been more bearable. Beyond that, most of the dialogue felt utterly stilted, and not one of the couples was remotely believable, either as a happy couple or an unhappy one. There is one point in the book when Emily & Eli arrive at Peter's house for couples counseling where she says to Peter, "Please forgive how awkward we are." The author should be asking the same forgiveness of the reader.

NB: I read an Advance Reading Copy of this book provided by my lovely sales rep. This book will pub in about one month from Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of FSG.  


  1. I'm grateful you did post your review -- it's nice to see an opposing opinion. I had been curious but wary about this one and I think I'm going to pass (gratefully!) as I suspect it would make me bonkers!

  2. I came to check out your blog because Love is a Canoe is such a compelling title. Bummer that the book doesn't live up to its tres cool cover and that title! Thanks Emily.

  3. I felt the same way about this book! Jason raved about it at NEIBA which convinced me to read it. There was something awkward about the whole book.

  4. I felt the same way about this book! Jason encouraged me to read it at NEIBA but I just found it all awkward. Glad I wasn't the only one.

    1. Alas! 3G1B and I are frequently at odds in our opinions but I love reading their collective reviews.


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