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The Effect of Living Backwards Hardcover – June 23, 2003


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult; First Printing edition (June 23, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399150498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399150494
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,560,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The Effect of Living Backwards, Heidi Julavits's second novel, is a mess--but a good mess, an ambitious mess. The title is taken from Through the Looking-Glass, and Julavits's narrator--named Alice--certainly wanders into a perplexing wonderland. She and her sister Edith are flying to Morocco, where Edith is to be married. The plane is hijacked by a charismatic, chubby blind man named Bruno. After a time, the hijacking appears to be an extended moral case study: Bruno forces his hostages to consider whether they would give their own life to save another. The hijacking, it turns out, may or may not be real; Bruno may or may not be blind; Alice may or may not be falling in love with Pitcairn, the hostage negotiator who's supposed to save them all. As she unspools her black comedy, Julavits displays a wildly discursive style; the book can seem overwritten. But as her plot gains momentum, so too does Julavits's writing, and her tortuous sentences begin to make sense: they reflect the awkward situation of the heroine. After a supper of candy and punch, Alice tells us she and her fellow hostages "suffered extreme intestinal discomfort, which made the lavatories more unspeakably filth-ridden, and tempers, whose foulness is always proportional to the decrepitude of a WC, began to fester." On one level, this is an unhappy sentence; on another, its very contortions are funny. So it is with The Effect of Living Backwards, which, in its patience-trying elegance, recalls the underrated novelist Nancy Lemann. This is a brave novel, aggressively intelligent and aggressively silly all at once. --Claire Dederer

From Publishers Weekly

When contentious half-sisters Alice and Edith board a jetliner en route to Morocco, where Edith is to be married, they step unknowingly into a vortex of international intrigue when the jet is hijacked-or is it? As events unfold, the motives for this act of "terrorism," apparently a high-stakes stunt being pulled by one of two factions from the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, become ever more murky. In the futuristic and fantastical world of Julavits's second novel (after The Mineral Palace), which takes its title and epigram from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the political and familial machinations we recognize from our own contemporary lives scramble into a kaleidoscopic puzzle. Julavits's rambling surrealism is overlaid and intensified by a strong dose of paranoia … la Pynchon, and the political and the familial merge in the form of a game from Alice and Edith's childhood called "shame stories," in which others are convinced to tell their darkest secrets. These tales, told by the sisters' fellow travelers, are fascinating excursions, a blend of the bizarre and the everyday. But as Alice's wastrel father tells her, "People don't want to be surprised. They want to hear the same story. Tell them the same story and they'll listen," and Julavits follows this advice herself. Beneath its absurdist trappings, her larger tale is surprisingly conventional, its real focus the sibling rivalry between Edith and Alice, shadowed by the terrorism subplots and the veiled references to September 11, or the "Big Terrible." Neither the novel's imaginative framework nor Julavits's cool, unerring eye for detail can quite compensate for its curiously mechanical emotional trajectory.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

Because much of Heidi Julavitis's novel is too ridiculous to be simply a witty story, I eventually plunked with satire.
Jack Pratt
This book is incredibly difficult to follow and does not flow in a way that makes the reader want to try to follow along with where this story is going.
Peajay
It fails to meet two fundamental criteria that a novel should satisfy: a coherent, credible plot and plausible, well-drawn characters.
David M. Giltinan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By David M. Giltinan on January 7, 2008
Format: Paperback
clever, readable, but ultimately a sterile exercise in cleverness with nothing at its core. The reason I found the book so irritating is that, having read through the 350 or so pages, it led to nothing at all. There is no there there in this over-clever, emotionally empty, confusing dog's breakfast of a book. As a story, it doesn't work - the plot defies credibility in so many ways it's an embarrassment. If it's meant as some kind of parable or allegory, it can't be said to work either, as one has no idea at the end what bizarre point the author might be trying to make.
Characters are implausible ciphers, or mouthpieces for specific ideological points of view, and exposition is so murky at times that the reader cannot even figure out what has or hasn't happened.

As co-editor of 'The Believer', Julavits is on record as decrying the 'snarkiness' of many reviewers' response to modern fiction. She makes a plea for a kinder, more understanding, reception to work that takes risks, that is more experimental in nature. While I have some sympathy for her point of view, it does nothing to alter the unfortunate fact that this particular book is a confusing, disorganized mess. It fails to meet two fundamental criteria that a novel should satisfy: a coherent, credible plot and plausible, well-drawn characters. No amount of skill with language can make up for these deficiencies.

A disappointing failure.
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful By OhSayCanYouSee1 on April 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This novel is very different. The story premise is unusual, timely and interesting. It is a black comedy describing a pair of sisters involved in an airline hijacking experience. You never know if the hijacking is real, staged or something in between.
I really wanted to love this book. There is so much promise in this writer. Her prose is amazing; she seems to understand and utilize words that sound almost musical in her sentences. I found myself looking to the dictionary on multiple occasions, fascinated with the vocabulary and syntax. Unfortunately, the plot and story development, do not demonstrate the same level of maturity.
Author Heidi Julavits' shows she has extraordinary potential, having a remarkable ability to piece together interesting phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the plot of this novel was more substantial, or the two sister's characters were better developed, this would be a very good work. Instead, we are left with an interesting book, that leaves you puzzled about what you read when you reach the finish.
I generously rate this book at 2.75 out of 5.00 stars, rounded up to 3.00, for beautiful use of language, creativity in subject matter and a nice job in approaching the story. However, it rambles on in its linguistic beauty instead of really delivering a strong plot or climax. If this writer learns to finish as well as she starts, I believe we will see many other interesting works to come.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
An ambitious book that ultimately bites off more then it can chew. Could the author be too much of a brainiac? There are lovely moments of texture and real insight, and then long insufferable passages where the author's strain is evident. A series of vignettes meant to expose the shameful secrets of the main characters fail because the secrets aren't, well, that shameful. The rivalry between the two sisters ends up repeating the same note over and over, squabbling leading to more squabbling. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of the novel somehow does manage to land. The author does seem to have caught a side ways glace of much of what ails us, and the feeling you are left with at the end (an uneasy and ephemeral melancholy) may or may not be worth the read - it depends on your patience.
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover
regularly, exquisitely, i relished the sentences and searing insights in this novel. they're of the sort that mr. nabokov himself would linger, titter, tear up over. it's impossible not to be jolted by the originality and bruising intelligence of this novel's prose. and yet i felt terrible disappointment set in and remain as i comprehended the novel's larger enterprise. everyone of the characters feels like a masked version of the protagonist/writer. they all speak and think in the same withering, arctic, arch tone. these characters and the situations through which the author runs them are at times fantastically surreal, but just as often they smack of the humidity/falseness/look-at-me-ness of a hothouse imagination. this may work well in a short story, but over the course of a 320 page novel? yes, at times the novel is funny as hell and piercingly smart, regardless very very rarely did i believe--outside of the protagonist's rarefied slant on the world--what was unfolding. somehow writers as various as borges, hrabal, delillo are able to suggest the density of reality in and around their pyrotechnics. at the most basic level they allow us to see and participate; here i felt simultaneously embroiled and detached. one can only imagine what julavits might produce were she to level her formidible sights on matters closer to real. it may be intimidating to take on, and yet aren't we complex enough to warrant such attention?
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Peajay on June 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
While the author shows outstanding writing potential, style, and use of language, this book failed to showcase that in a way that will propel her to future fame. This book is incredibly difficult to follow and does not flow in a way that makes the reader want to try to follow along with where this story is going. I am not one to give up easily on a book, especially from a writer with such potential, but this book was too much even for me; after only 70 pages, I was ready to throw the book in trash. This seems to be an example of a great writer forcing a story about NOTHING. I hope to see her produce some notable pieces of literature in the future.
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More About the Author

Heidi Julavits was born and raised in Portland, Maine. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's, Esquire, the Best American Short Stories, McSweeney's, among other places. Her nonfiction has appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, Elle, Bookforum, and the Best American Travel Essays. She is a founding co-editor of The Believer magazine, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and winner of the PEN/New England Fiction Award. She currently teaches at Columbia University. She lives in Manhattan and Maine with her husband, Ben Marcus, and their two children.

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