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Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem (1998)

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Pella Marsh is the 13-year-old daughter of a New York politician on a future Earth so environmentally damaged that a trip to Coney Island requires radiation suits. Desperate for a fresh start after her father’s failed re-election bid, her family ships out to the Planet of the Archbuilders, a hospitable world with a small population of friendly native aliens living in the ruins of a once-great civilisation. Shortly before the family is due to leave, her mother dies of a brain tumour, and the family pushes on despite being torn apart by tragedy.

Girl in Landscape sounds like it’s going to be a big sci-fi story, but it takes place almost entirely in a tiny human settlement with a population of about a dozen people, with half a dozen Archbuilders passing in and out – friendly creatures described as a mix of fronds, scales and tentacles, with a love of the human language that conveniently lets Lethem write some irritatingly quirky dialogue. (“I’m in a state of anticipation, anticipating statehood,” one says.) Similarly, the planet itself is a mostly featureless landscape, dotted with edible potato-like plants guaranteeing an endless supply of flavourless food. Ancient alien ruins are mentioned in passing, but add little life or colour to proceedings. The story spools out lifelessly, awkwardly detailing friction between Pella’s father and the local big man, ending in an unlikely confrontation between characters I didn’t much care about.

I’m buggered if I can figure out what this book is supposed to be about. I suspect it’s some kind of complex allegory, but the narrative was nowhere near interesting enough for me to care what that was. Some of the characters are drawn well – Pella’s father, viewed entirely through her own resentment at his former political career, is interesting – but they sit aimlessly about in the alien landscape with very little to do. The novel is also in some ways meant to be a Western, I suppose, but I’m not exactly sure what Lethem was trying to accomplish in that sense.

This is probably the weakest of Lethem’s novels so far. Fortunately, the next up is Motherless Brooklyn, which was his breakout novel, and I expect it to be quite a bit better. ( )
  edgeworth | Aug 16, 2013 |
After her mother dies of a brain tumor, 13-year-old Pella and her family emigrate from a nearly uninhabitable future Earth to a colony on the planet of the Arch-Builders in this coming-of-age story.

As is typical of many of his literary science fiction novels, Jonathan Lethem is most interested in placing his characters, and his readers, in a bizarre environment and watching how they adapt. In this case, the environment is an alien planet, once the home of an advanced civilization that has now been abandoned and left in ruins by all but a few of its original inhabitants. The aliens are called the Arch-builders because they left immense, now crumbling arches of unknown purpose all over the desert-like landscape. While most of the human colonists take pills to prevent contracting the alien viruses, Pella and her brothers do not, and this leads to her becoming strangely integrated with the planet and its alien life, just as she enters adolescence. She finds that she is able to mentally inhabit the bodies of the household deer -- small, unsatisfactorily described creatures that go everywhere and, apparently, observe everything that happens within the small human community. In this way, she witnesses the animosity and violence displayed toward the aliens, particularly by larger-than-life Efram Nugent, the informal leader of the colony.

This novel quietly grew on me. As Pella becomes more integrated with the life of the Arch-builders' planet, she adapts herself to living there in a way that the adults in her community cannot. She and many of the other children become something new. Lethem depicts this transformation slowly, gradually and subtly. At the same time, he unravels a sinister plot of conflict between Nugent, his fellow colonists and the Arch-builders that shares tropes with an old-fashioned Western. There is a lot going on under the surface of this novel, and I think it would benefit from rereading. Like pretty much any other Lethem novel I have read, it takes the genres we are all so familiar with, and contorts them in exciting new ways.

Read because I like the author (2013). ( )
  sturlington | Apr 19, 2013 |
Worldbuilding, careful word choice, not over-expository
- Ending a little rushed

This is the third novel I’ve read by Lethem, and I may have to read them all. In this genre (he writes in several), Lethem creates what I’d call literary science fiction. Here (and in [b:Amnesia Moon|32078|Amnesia Moon|Jonathan Lethem|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1168324923s/32078.jpg|2209]) the reader is immediately in medias res with little preliminary exposition and even less later clarification. This works only because Lethem is so skillful at evoking environments and social circumstances through spare, nuanced prose. Though their styles and concerns are not particularly similar, Ursula K. Le Guin’s most recent novels utilize similar techniques. The characters know where they are and why it is the way it is; the reader enters almost as an accidental observer, able to see only a small segment of a broader but obscured world.

Girl in Landscape is a bildungsroman in which the main character, the 13-year old Pella Marsh, comes of age on an alien planet, and in doing so, perhaps also signals a greater coming of age for humanity. Lethem deftly captures both adolescent angst and interpersonal complexity and shows the relationship between the qualities of the characters’ psychology and expectations and their ways of seeing and understanding the world they inhabit. The landscape of the title is interior and exterior, physical and social, real and metaphorical. Overtly a tale of misplaced hopes and xenophobia, this is also a narrative of self-discovery and acknowledgement. I only wish the concluding sections had been about 20 pages longer and slightly more archetypal. Still, a terrific read. ( )
1 vote OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Girl in Landscape has been compared to Nabokov's Lolita which I have never read. As a result of my ignorance I was able to read Girl in Landscape without preconceived notions of what it was about. I'm glad I did. This was great in an extremely strange way. When you first meet old-for-her-age thirteen year old Pella Marsh and her family they are getting ready to go to the beach in what you or I would consider ordinary Brooklyn Heights, New York. Only planet Earth has become a post-apoplectic wasteland where exposure to the sun has become too dangerous without complicated protective gear. It has been decided the Marsh family will leave Earth for the Planet of the Arch-builders. Before they can leave Pella's mother is stricken with a brain tumor and quickly dies. Pella, her father and two brothers must travel to the Planet of the Arch-builders without her. This is where things go from odd to downright bizarre. The Planet of the Arch-builders is sparsely populated with a few earthlings, a smattering of Arch-builder aliens and an overabundance of a creature called household deer. Pella's father, a failed politician, has hopes of creating a lawful society on the Planet of the Arch-builders but soon discovers there is an ominous rift between the humans and the aliens. The plot gets darker and darker the deeper into the story you go. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Feb 10, 2013 |
One of the things that surprised me so much about Girl in Landscape was how well-written the characters were. As someone who was once a 13 year old girl, I thought Jonathan Lethem did a great job with Pella’s voice; she was a convincing, easy to relate to young girl. She was also a shrewd observer of human nature and her family dynamic. Some of my favorite parts of the book were scenes of her interaction with Efram; they were tense and sharp and menacing. I do wish the book had gone into some more detail with the Archbuilders, because they sounded so interesting, but what descriptions there were I found wonderful. This book felt different from other Letham books I’ve read, with more of a western feel (which normally I don’t much care for), but when I think about it, all pioneer stories, whether they’re early American or astral, are bound to have similarities. In all, I really enjoyed reading about Pella and her family, the growing new town, and the Archbuilders. ( )
  pinprick | Aug 9, 2012 |
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The sight of the montains far away was sometimes so comprehensible to Natalie, that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it ... or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and the mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal ...
--Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman
Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don't trust ambiguity.

--John Wayne
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TO PAMELA
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Mother and daughter worked together, dressing the two young boys, tucking them into their outfits.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375703918, Paperback)

Science-fiction writers attempting coming-of-age stories have seldom risked showing the stew of loneliness, anger, and angst that really characterizes adolescence. Jonathan Lethem, on the other hand, avoids the plucky sidekick syndrome and instead gives us breathtakingly realistic Pella Marsh, a girl at that awful and wonderful crux in her life just before people start calling her "woman." Her broken family has just moved to a newly settled planet, with strange and passive natives and the decaying remnants of a great civilization. Something in the alien environment soon enables Pella to telepathically travel, hidden in the bodies of inconspicuous "household deer," into the homes of her fellow settlers. She inevitably discovers the seamy side of humanity--loss of innocence eloquently portrayed. Don't read this book on a dark day, as there's not very much sunshine in here. The entire planet is covered with ruins: ruined towns, ruined hopes and dreams, ruined families. For a rare dose of SF realism, this is a fantastic read, full of raw (but not explicit) sexuality and the unhappy hierarchies of childhood. Forget about cheerful settlers moving in next door to helpful indigenous life forms. This is what the planetary frontiers will be. No matter how far away from Earth we may travel, we'll still be the same dirty, disappointing, beautiful monsters.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:16 -0400)

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A novel on a planet whose inhabitants are part human, part animal and part vegetable. The planet is described through the eyes of a family of immigrants from a post-apocalyptic Earth. By the author of As She Climbed Across the Table.

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