24 March 2009

Review: The Beans of Egypt, Maine, by Caorlyn Chute

On the surface, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, is a story of two poverty-stricken families trying to get by the best they can. Earlene Pomerleau has been brought up by her father and is heavily influenced by her god-fearing grandmother. Earlene, who is essentially motherless, spends much of her childhood alone.

Across the right of way lives Roberta Bean who, although unmarried, is almost always pregnant. She is constantly surrounded by a gaggle of her "babies" as she works in her garden or tends to her chores. The Bean men, who are known to drink too much and to have bad tempers, work as loggers. Rueben is the meanest of the bunch, and Beal may be the kindest.

These families are what are known as the working poor. They have jobs, but many don't have electricity, indoor plumbing, or access to healthcare. Their houses are falling apart, their cars are rusty, their clothes are dirty, and most can barely read.

Chute introduces us to a life we may not want to face. How can there be people who are forced to live like the Beans in the United States of late twentieth century? But in exposing us to this rural and poor world, Chute also shows us the individuals who live within those run-down shacks, and we see that we actually have much in common with the Beans. We try to help our families, we try to feed our children, and we do what we have to find some love and safety.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine, is written almost as if it were a series of interlinked short stories. We advance through time in spurts rather than in a slow progression. The story is told alternately from Earlene's perspective and from an anonymous observer and focuses on Earlene and Beal. The characters and their world become very real, and I would not be surprised to run into a Bean someday in Maine.

The book does suffer from one bothersome flaw, however. As I understand it, Chute reworked the novel after it had already been published. I read the second, or so-called finished, version. At the end of the novel we find an author's note that explains why she rewrote the book. That would be okay, except she then goes on to tell us the proper interpretation of several scenes. I found this to be somewhat annoying. As a reader, I should be left alone to interpret the story in whatever manner I want to. Furthermore, if Chute was unsure that she was getting her point across, she should have reworked those scenes when the book was republished rather than explain them in the backmatter.

The novel is not action driven, and it reminds the reader of the more unsavory parts of life in America. But if you like a character study and want to learn more about people who may be different from you, then I recommend the novel. I have continued to think about the characters and the setting. You will likely be too curious to skip the author's note, but don't say I didn't warn you. I also advise you to avoid reading the publisher summary of the novel, because it contains several major spoilers.

Carolyn Chute does not have a website. For more insight into that choice, see the Wikipedia article about the author. Chute wrote two other novels that are set in Egypt, Maine. If you have reviewed this book, let me know, and I'll add a link to your blog.

Published by Grove Press
ISBN-13: 9780802143594
Challenges: A-Z Title, Well-Seasoned Reader, New to Me Author, 999, 100+
YTD: 24
Rating: B-


Julie P. 3/24/09, 8:19 AM  

I am not at all familiar with this author or this book. The premise does sound interesting though. It is kind of funny that the reader is told how to interpret the work!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 3/24/09, 8:24 AM  

That would annoy me to no end, being told how to interpret the book. I've read something similar to this in non-fiction.

Sandy Nawrot 3/24/09, 8:49 AM  

First of all, that cover would not have prompted me to pick it up...it does nothing for me! I do like character-driven stories, and I probably would like this one. I do not, however, like to be told how to feel about a book! If I were to try to empathize, I suppose it is important to the author that everyone understand where she is coming from...I can imagine I would feel like that. But you have to let go at some point, right?

Anonymous,  3/24/09, 9:55 AM  

When I started reading your review I was all ready to add it to my list, but when I got to the author's notes I changed my mind. What an odd and ridiculous thing to do.

bermudaonion 3/24/09, 10:55 AM  

I've never seen an author's note like that - how odd. The book does sound interesting. I guess I'll just skip the author's note if I read it.

Nely 3/24/09, 11:23 AM  

I'm intrigued now. I've never heard of an author giving you a heads up on how to feel towards the book - but at the same time, I would like to read it just to come to my own conclusions and then compare them with the authors. I think I might just pick it up based on that.

Cathy 3/24/09, 12:06 PM  

I'm intrigued and narked all at the same time. If I read it, I'll definitely skip the author's notes!

Nise' 3/24/09, 3:08 PM  

I'm thinking along the same lines as stacybuckeye. It will be interesting if I come across the book in my travels, now that I am aware of it.

Anonymous,  3/24/09, 4:12 PM  

Character studies are one of my favorite type of books so I probably will check this one out. I'll just skip the author's and publisher's comments. I've known a few Bean type families in my life and this might be a good insight into what makes them tick, or at least this particular one. Good review. Thanks.

Ladytink_534 3/24/09, 5:59 PM  

Isn't it odd when an author doesn't have a website? Seems like everything and just about everybody does nowadays. We've become so spoiled lol!

Melody 3/24/09, 7:33 PM  

I haven't heard of this author before, though I've to admit I'm somewhat intrigued by the premise. I've never encountered any author's note like that before, and I'd hate to have anyone spoil the story for me. I'm sorry you're disappointed, Beth.

Anonymous,  3/24/09, 9:30 PM  

i agree with the other commentor who mentioned the cover...i'm not a fan of it either. being a visual person, it's sometimes hard for me to get beyond a cover i don't like. sorry, but it's true! not that this book selection has been foolproof--the last few books i read were picked solely on aesthetics...and they were only *meh*. :)

Anonymous,  3/24/09, 9:35 PM  

I read this years ago and remember nothing other than it being a bit odd. And I just read that wikipedia article. Whoa.

Anonymous,  3/24/09, 10:03 PM  

softdrink and I could have identical comments - I read this years ago (must have been the original novel, without the interpretation instructions!), but don't remember much about it.

Now, that Wikipedia article reference to her personal life and lifestyle ... that could be a book!

Becca 3/25/09, 12:20 AM  

Hey, Beth! That is a very bizarre note for the author to write. I agree she should have just reworked it better. Why rework it if you still feel the need to explain it? Hmm...

I also want to tell you that I have given you an award! Be sure to come by and pick it up! http://imlostinbooks.blogspot.com/2009/03/thank-you-for-award.html

Unknown 10/19/14, 10:08 AM  

Though I haven't read the author's note, from what I understand, the popular interpretation of the novel is very far away from the reason she wrote the book, almost as bad as Freud and his cigar. If, as an author, you believe readers are grossly off track from what you intended, then I believe you have a right to let them know what you intended, that interpreting The Aeneid solely as historical fact is wrong.

Unknown 2/9/17, 6:13 AM  

My thesis advisor recommended this novel, since my story is of a neighborhood. I find your thoughts helpful because I need to see what the author is doing, despite the fact that I find the characters to be be pretty, well, yucky.
I do like the poetic, her love of words, her use of sound and smell.Fox eyes is nice. She can be clever, with the father of ten in the bathroom. So, thanks.

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