BOOK REVIEW: The worst thing I read in 2020
I trust that my neighborhood bookstore has only the best selections on display, books that its employees have personally vetted and chosen, and because of this, I’ve never been let down by any of my purchases there. Until last week. Before absconding to the Catskills to sit in a hot tub for several days, I stopped by Greenlight to buy some books, which I planned to devour sitting in said hot tub or while wearing an alpaca sweater in front of a roaring fire at an Airbnb. I picked up a stack of books, and then I saw Cecily von Ziegesar’s Cobble Hill, and as I am always in the middle of a Gossip Girl rewatch I thought, oh good, this will be great to mindlessly read, like literary cotton candy, and I bought it. Reader, I hated this book so much I couldn’t stop talking about it to anyone I spoke to between December 30 and January 6. It’s possible it’s the worst book I’ve ever read, though I’m loath to even give it that superlative distinction. I’ve never actively disliked a book enough to write about it — I’m not like, a book critic, so who knows how this is going to turn out — but the unreadability of the book plus the feeling of betrayal I felt at my nice local bookstore for selling such a piece of garbage has led me down a road that ends with me typing away furiously in a Google Doc.
I want to be fair to von Ziegesar here. Having written a grand total of zero books, I can only imagine that the book-writing process is not easy. I’m sure that when you have famously not written a number of the books that catapulted you to acclaimed YA fame in the 2000s, actually writing a novel for adults can’t be a walk in the park either. My qualms with Cobble Hill have nothing to do with the fact that it’s intended to be a light-hearted romp, an easy-reading, fun autumnal read — that was exactly what I wanted when I plunked down my credit card to buy it. It’s that her book is literally unreadable, seemingly unedited, devoid of anything resembling a plot, seemingly centered around von Ziegesar’s personal experiences in white, liberal, unaffordable enclaves in west Brooklyn, and for a book that’s intended to be character-driven, every character is somehow simultaneously flat to the point of being completely mundane, too unbelievably quirky for their own good, and also horribly unlikeable. It’s a bad book. Unfortunately, I’m now going to explain exactly why it’s bad. Buckle up!
Cobble Hill is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that definitely exists but I couldn’t tell you what’s Cobble Hill and what’s, like, Boerum Hill, or Brooklyn Heights. Is the Court Street Trader Joe’s in Cobble Hill? Is The Long Island Bar? I guess so because I just Googled them and Google said they’re both in Cobble Hill. I guess that also means Sahadi’s is in Cobble Hill. I suppose Books Are Magic is also in Cobble Hill due to von Ziegesar creating a fictitious version of it in the book where the first and last scenes take place. Luckily I never have to guess whether the characters of Cobble Hill are in Cobble Hill because it seems that the biggest effort von Ziegesar put into this book is researching the streets geographically defined as being in Cobble Hill and then writing a lot about those streets and referencing them often to the point of the street names being distracting. I live like a mile away from the area that I presume to be “Cobble Hill” so I should ostensibly be familiar with this area and still, the repetition of the street names weren’t like, illusory or helpful in explaining anything about the book.
The first of Cobble Hill’s problems begins with the timeframe. When you start reading, it is “ONE YEAR AGO.” Then a few pages later, we’re taken to “PART 1: SEPTEMBER.” Was the “One year ago” a year before September? Like one September ago? We’re just left to guess for ourselves, but I suppose that has to be it because otherwise it doesn’t make sense that Liam, a gawky, pimply teenager has been quietly infatuated with Shy Clarke, the (shy!) daughter of the acclaimed British novelist Roy Clarke for a year, even though she hasn’t been in his private school in Brooklyn for nearly that long. Like everything else in this book, Liam and Shy’s relationship makes no sense. Liam seems like kind of a dweeb, and so does Shy, but instead of approaching her directly at any point Liam eavesdrops on a meeting Shy’s mom Wendy has with Shy’s teachers about how the only class Shy is excelling in is Latin, where her weird predatory teacher is clearly too interested in her (she’s 15). Liam then asks if he can tutor Shy and then they end up dating. It’s all so sanguine!
Sure, this book is striving to basically be grown-up Gossip Girl. It’s the same voyeuristic perspective von Ziegesar applied to teens on the Upper East Side, but there’s something sort of sad about it when the characters are all sort of unhappy-in-their-marriages adults looking for babysitters and trying to buy weed from a guy named “Dr. Mellow.” I couldn’t make myself care about any of the characters. Maybe it’s because they’re all too…I don’t know. Eccentric? Stranger than fiction? How am I supposed to care about Stuart Little (that’s really his name), the former musician and frontman of the band Blind Mice, who has mouse knuckle tattoos and writes verses like this throughout the book:
Eat pot cookies now my brain’s all sweaty
Staring at the nurse like she’s Apple Brown Betty!
The rest of the characters are similarly unbelievable. The aforementioned curvy, hot nurse in Stuart Little’s son’s school, who everyone thinks is 27 but is actually 38, is Nurse Peaches, who at every available instance repeats her character background in conversation so von Ziegesar doesn’t have to “show, don’t tell” it in writing: “I try to maintain a professional veneer around parents, but I’m really just a former English major, college dropout mom. I have no idea how I became a school nurse!” Peaches was also a huge Blind Mice fan, and of course their song “Fuck College” is what inspired her to drop out. Stuart Little’s pyromaniac 9-year-old Ted happens to attend school where Peaches works. I guess there are no administrators in this public school because Nurse Peaches also takes on all of the administrative tasks: When some high schoolers from a nearby private school pour vodka on a slide, light it on fire, and then slide down to see what happens, catching the entire playground on fire, Nurse Peaches is somehow tasked with disciplining the boys. One is her son, Liam, who, again, is in love with Shy Clarke, who is shy. Another is Liam’s friend “Black Ryan,” who is Black, which is the only mention of race this book ever makes, which is certainly a choice for a book that appears to have been written during the BLM protests of mid-2020.
I will spare you much discussion of Roy Clarke, the author, and his miserable, untalented editor wife Wendy, “whose fingers are her thinnest feature.” Throughout the book, Wendy gets demoted from her role at the World Trade Center-based Fleurt magazine (Vogue) to Enjoy! Magazine (Bon Appetit, if you can believe it), which also isn’t realistic because I’ve never known a mediocre editor at a legacy publication to lose their job for being too mediocre at it. Their daughter, Shy, is described on page 4 of the book as such: “She sat very still in the front row, her pale bare knees pressed tightly together” at a reading her father has been goaded into doing at the book’s Books Are Magic stand-in. Von Ziegesar and her editors seem to forget they’ve already introduced us to Shy because two pages later we get this description: “At one end of the first row, next to her mother, sat his daughter Shy, her knees squeezed together.” We get it. Shy is SHY. Did anyone edit this book? Much of Cobble Hill is devoted to Roy miserably walking around Brooklyn or perched in an illegal bar called Monte (Montero’s?) writing his new book. All his books are named after colors, you see. His book Orange was adapted into an HBO series starring Frances McDormand, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Stewart, Kevin Dillon, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Hugh Grant. The book he writes throughout Cobble Hill is set in outer space and seems to feature his two oldest daughters, who he doesn’t seem to like very much. They work in a lab. That’s all we know about them!
Then there are Tupper and Elizabeth. Tupper designed an award-winning home surveillance device called the Macaw. He is mostly described as thin and ghost-like. In one scene he and Roy, who he asks to catsit his cat, go to Monte, and Roy drinks a Guinness and Tupper drinks a glass of gin, which is an objectively insane choice of beverage. Then Roy is like “Why don’t you drink a Guinness?” and Tupper is like “What’s a Guinness?” What’s a Guinness??????? Tupper’s wife Elizabeth is a “performance artist” and honestly I tuned out most of her scenes because I found her continued presumption that she was owed by the universe a MacArthur Genius Grant kind of annoying. Tupper ends up getting a MacArthur Genius Grant, somehow. Elizabeth goes to Rikers for a couple days because she got in trouble for running Monte without a liquor license. She wears the prison jumpsuit even after she gets out.
Stuart Little’s wife, Mandy, is the only person in the book who I like. She does not SEEM likeable, because she’s been faking having MS, which is objectively shitty, but you feel bad for her because only someone who really hates their stupid little Brooklyn life must fake having a chronic illness. She has always been second fiddle (no pun intended, I guess) to Stuart. He got her pregnant with their son Ted after they went surfing in Montauk and a wave knocked out her IUD. Does von Ziegesar know how IUDs work? You cannot Heimlich Maneuver them out of your uterus, even with a wave in the Hamptons. Now Mandy runs Stuart’s fan page and spends all day in her bed, until she starts stealing the Blue Apron-like meals being dropped off at Tupper and Elizabeth’s carriage house and cooking those. I’m defensive of Mandy because von Ziegesar goes to great lengths to try to make Mandy’s supposed fatness (I’m unconvinced that she’s actually fat and not like, a size 6 who used to be a size 2) into villainy. von Ziegesar talks about Mandy’s “massive boobs,” her huge legs (?), and eventually at the end of the book decides that Mandy should be a plus-size model, because we need to know that Mandy is normatively beautiful in spite of her fatness. It all reminds me very much of Natalie, the woman in the Christmas movie Love Actually who is the object of the prime minister’s affections, who everyone keeps referring to as a fat cow even though she’s completely normal-sized.
None of these characters do anything, as far as I can tell. There is no plot in this book. Everyone wants to smooch Nurse Peaches. I asked my friend Abby, who also read this book, for her opinion, and here is what she said: “I would say the experience of reading cobble hill sober, curled with a cup of coffee, is (I imagine) the same experience one has while reading the Bible while on LSD. Sentences lose structure. Words lose meaning. Tiny details are repeated until they become intrusive thoughts and then they are immediately abandoned. Every single character feels like a ghost. There were multiple times I thought that everyone in cobble hill was already dead, because no living, breathing humans would have any of these thoughts or motivations. I laughed a lot!!” In Gossip Girl people are constantly doing things, but nobody ever seems to do anything in Cobble Hill. At the end of the book there is a bonfire. Even though Roy has threatened Shy’s creepy Latin teacher and warned him to stay away from his daughter, who reads his Twitter every day in search of his shirtless selfies with his cat, he shows up at the bonfire at the Clarke house and everything is fine. Mandy comes clean when Stuart confronts her about the fake MS and Stuart realizes that even though his wife is fat, Peaches is kind of fat too but Mandy is prettier so he still loves her, and everything is ultimately fine. Peaches realizes that even though she’s obsessed with Stuart Little, she also loves her husband Greg, who has tinnitus and wears noise-canceling headphones everywhere, and everything is fine. Liam and Shy are dating and everything’s fine. I honestly don’t remember what happened to Tupper and Elizabeth because I cared so little about them but I’ll go ahead and presume that Tupper is still thin and Elizabeth is still a tortured, brilliant artist and everything is fine. I could live with a trashy, indulgent, light read, but not one that’s so poorly written and conceived that it makes no sense. All the inexplicably wealthy white people in Cobble Hill, who are the only people who live in that neighborhood, are fine. Don’t read this terrible book.