Thursday, September 29, 2011

Domestic Violets: A Heartbreaking Tale of Staggering

When you endeavor to review a novel you enjoyed as much as I enjoyed Matt Norman's Domestic Violets, it's easy to slip into platitudes and/or hyperbole: "I loved this novel more than fat kids love cake" or "This novel reminded me why I love reading...and why I hate work" or "This is a deeply affecting family drama. Matt is a modern-day Tolstoy." But I won't. I promise. Hopefully I can cover all those (maybe slightly exaggerated sentiments) with just this: Domestic Violets is one of my favorite novels of the year. It's very, very good.

Here's the deal: Tom Violet is 35. He's married to a smart, modern woman named Anna, and they have a precocious seven-year-old daughter named Allie. The family lives in Washington, D.C and for the last seven years, Tom has written copy for a soulless management consulting company, and therefore, is woefully unfulfilled professionally. His only joy at work is a hot 23-year-old copywriter named Katie, who may or may not have a crush on him (a crush which he may or may not reciprocate).

But let's back up a second: In the very first scene in the novel, we find out Anna is as unfulfilled in the bedroom as Tom is at work. To put it bluntly (or softly, as it were), Tom can't get it up (which is hilariously ironic; Tom's mother tells us later that the Greeks believed violets symbolized potency and fertility). That same night, after they've tried and once again given up hope of carnal delights, Tom's father Curtis Violet, a celebrated novelist and serial philanderer, swoops drunkenly into the house, announcing that he has finally won his first Pulitzer, completing a grand slam of literary prizes. The sadly funny juxtaposition of the marital "failure" with his father's literary success sets the tone for the rest of this story.

Domestic Violets is Tom's first-person account of his collisions with the trials life. It's part workplace comedy, part brutally honest meditation on the difficulty of marriage (Tom's mostly-happy-but-hitting-a-rough patch marriage is often contrasted with Curtis' several unhappy ones), and part about what it means to have a famous father (especially in a field in which Tom is interested in joining himself — he's been secretly writing a novel for the last five years).

Because Tom is a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, smart ass, it'd be easy to pigeonhole this novel as your run-of-the-mill dude lit. But similar to other novels — like those by Jonathan Tropper and The Financial Lives of the Poets (by Jess Walter) — to which Domestic Violets will reside adjacently on my  categorized shelves, the mix of low-brow comedy with wit, honesty and empathy is what raises this novel from beach read to brilliant.

There are scenes is this book that I don't possess the writerly chops to describe (well, without again resorting to platitudes, like "I laughed, I cried...oh, the emotional ride"). Suffice it to say, a couple times, I literally had to put my hand over the page and reveal a line at a time so I wouldn't accidentally glance ahead and ruin the drama.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll readily admit that part of the reason (maybe most) I connected so well with this novel is that, as a near-35-year-old, self-deprecating dude myself, I felt often like Matt (I'm calling him Matt, not Matthew; he won't mind, I hope) Norman had crawled into my brain, thieved my thoughts, and spilled them onto his pages. Would that I were as clever, honest and funny as Tom (and Matt) are. I can't recommend Domestic Violets more highly.

(A big thanks to Rachel at A Home Between Pages, whose own glowing review first put Domestic Violets on my radar.)


  1. I have this on my shelf, but haven't gotten to it, yet. I hope I enjoy it as much as you did!

  2. I have been thinking of this book as the next installment of the Tropper/Walter brilliance, so I am happy to see you make that comparison. I loved those two books. There is something really exciting about this new class of books about men and their crises. I swear I've not laughed as hard as I did with those books. So obviously this is going to be my next step. Excellent, witty review yet again.

  3. I am so happy I read this review. For some reason I had the impression that this novel was about something completely different. Some combination of the cover and the title made me think it was about nannies. Clearly, I was not right.

  4. This has been waiting on my kindle since I managed to procure a copy after reading Rachel's review myself - yours might just make it the next choice! It sounds like a quick & delightful read - tell me if I'm wrong! I could use a little insightful levity.

  5. Sounds like a great read. I loved your line about covering the lines ahead with your hand because in your eagerness you may jump ahead. It is a while since I have lapped up a book that much, but I know what you mean.

  6. I love your review! I completely agree with those comparisons as well!

  7. @Julie - I do too, but I'm not worried that you will. It's great!

    @Sandy - Couldn't agree more about the new "dude lit with heart" trend - it IS exciting. When done right, as Walter/Tropper/Norman have, these are really, really fun.

    @LBC - Ha! Not about nannies, quite. Try it - it's great!

    @zeteticat - Glad to hear you've begun, and you're enjoying it. "Quick and delightful" with "insightful levity" is a great way to describe it. Also, it's really funny.

    @Mel - Yeah, if I don't do that, I just can't help myself. My eyes have minds of their own!

    @Jenny - Thanks! All three of these guys (Tropper/Norman/Walter) are fantastic!

  8. I'll be adding this to my TBR - thanks!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  9. Awesome review, I really can't wait to read this. In fact, I may need to make a special trip over to Amazon and tempt myself with ordering it...

  10. I'm glad you enjoyed this novel, and may give it a try, despite it containing 2 of the warning signs for me that I will hate a novel. 1) a pun in the title based on the main character's improbable name. 2) novels about writers, successful, failure, or otherwise (and this has 2 of them).

  11. A great review as always, Greg. My list is already full of your recommendations and they just keep coming ...

  12. I totally agree with you! I just finished the book last week and I loved it. He has such a fantastic sense of humor.

  13. @bookdout - Enjoy - it's awesome!

    @Sarah - Thanks - it's definitely worth a purchase. $10 for several hours of entertainment? Such a bargain! ;)

    @Mike - Uh oh - yeah, you may want to skip this, then. I guess I understand #2, though I actually like novels about writers. But #1 is confusing to me - why?

    @Patrick - This is one I think you, especially, would like!

    @Emily - He really does - like I said, I wish I was half that witty, ironic, sarcastic, etc!

  14. Oh, I seriously loved this. What a wonderful review. Definitely does the book justice.