Book Review: Overseas

Overseasby Beatriz WilliamsPutnam, 2012That deep, primitive desire, when confronted with a fancy store-bought birthday cake, to pluck off the pure-sugar flowers and eat them straight away, not even bothering with the foamy dough of the cake itself? That's the kind of desire Beatriz Williams is counting on with her debut novel Overseas, piled high on the front table of a Barnes & Noble near you. The glitter on the book's cover - the chintzy stars over a Manhattan skyline lit up like a Stieglitz fairy tale - isn't an artistic embellishment; it's a plot summary.Part of the plot, anyway, the bigger part. In 2007 New York, Kate Wilson is a mousy-but-gorgeous overworked underappreciated analyst at the prominent Wall Street investment firm of Sterling Bates, the type of young woman who puts in endless hours of tedious toil only to have her vicious boss (another woman, as usual) take all the credit. The firm is preparing an important pitch-meeting with eccentric British billionaire Julian Laurence, and at the last minute, poor Kate is excluded from the meeting for which she prepared so diligently, the door literally shut in her face. She goes back to her cubicle to sulk and a bit later somewhat irritatedly finds a man lurking nearby. She's not in the best of moods and respond accordingly - until she gets a look at the lurker, at which point she instantly transforms into a 16-year-old:

"I'm sorry," I snapped. "Can I help you with something?"He straightened and turned to me. "Kate," he whispered.I flinched in shock. The man was beautiful, unutterably beautiful. His face bore the implausible symmetry of a classical sculpture, almost exotic, with wide vivid eyes that absorbed me greedily. A yellow Sterling Bates visitor's badge hung from the right lapel of his suit jacket, or I might have thought I was hallucinating.

It's Julian Laurence, of course, out of his meeting and displaying an inordinate interest in Kate. He wants her ideas on the deal her firm is working out with his company, and as if that weren't unbelievable enough, he also wants to spend every waking moment with her (he showers her with expensive presents, saves her from a street fight, all the standard Cinderella stuff). The attention not only boosts her unwritten standing at work, it also fills her with a new appreciation of everyday pleasures:

Going to Starbucks meant taking about ten steps outdoors, from the revolving-door entrance of Sterling Bates to the storefront next to it. On this particular afternoon, they were easy steps to make: it was beautiful outside, that brief period in Manhattan between the fitful bluster of spring and the sticky breathless head of summer. The warmth of daytime still lingered around us; the sun had only just begun to disappear behind the towers to the west. I drew in the limpid air. The urge to run pulsed through my muscles. Spring fever.

All of which is fairly by-the-numbers, but the twist is the book's second plot, which takes place in 1916 France - where Julian Laurence is an infantry officer at the front and a well-known war poet. Our young couple is not only star-crossed but time-tossed, and the main concern of the book is whether or not the cruel web of fate can be eluded.Readers won't be too many pages into Overseas before they start to notice similarities to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, naturally: mildly evocative one-word title, super-serious young couple fighting against a fate they can't control, clueless, mopey female protagonist, male protagonist who manages to be both young and much, much older than his new girlfriend (because daddy knows best?), and whose physical beauty is harped on so incessantly that you want everybody to just shut up about it for five seconds - and one deeper similarity, far more disturbing than the rest. That similarity is spelled out fairly explicitly in a scene shortly after Kate learns just how it is that her new super-hottie young boyfriend is a veteran of a war fought a century ago:

I had the strangest sensation, then, of the entire world opening up before me. That, far from being terrifying, this shocking revelation of his was a good thing, an illuminating thing. That, sitting here on this sofa with this dazzling man, radiant and powerful as a young prince, I had been entrusted, for no particular virtue of mine, with a precious gift it would take me years to fully unwrap.

Strangest sensation indeed: it's the feeling of 50 years of progress in women's rights being smithereened in the span of 50 words. It's the un-friending of Betty Friedan, and it could scarcely be more like the blighted, lifeless 'romance' between Twilight's Bella and Edward if Julian Laurence glittered in direct sunlight. In both cases, the abject flattening of the female character is not only ruthlessly thorough on the part of the (also female, bewilderingly) author but enthusiastically embraced on the part of the character - Kate is a simpering milksop with no life, no interests, no hobbies, no skills, and no purpose in life until Julian provides it with his handsome puss. People coming here for a free-thinking 21st century woman will be sorely disappointed.What they'll get instead is more schmaltz than a Bayonne bar mitzvah. Overseas is pure confection, a great big stack of sugar-flowers, and the effects of consumption are the same in both cases: a certain light-headedness, the suspicion of rot, and, it should be added, a constant (though sordid and occasionally shameful) buzz of pure sybaritic enjoyment. This thing is already being touted as the go-to 'summer reading' book of the upcoming season, with all that implies regarding compromise, submission, and lobotomy. Readers who regularly make such surrenders - who even look forward to them, as so many of us do - won't find a more inviting place to start than the sugary banquet Williams has served up here. For those wanting weightier (and possibly more nutritious) fare, there will always be new novels by Toni Morrison or Richard Ford to lug to Falmouth.