I had high hopes for The Earthquake Machine. The author has led what seemed an unconventionally interesting life, and the premise of a young girl adventure, a girl learning independence and resourcefulness – in a book for young adults not shying away from topics of violence, sexuality, and spirituality – sounded incredibly promising.
Unfortunately, this novel fell dreadfully short of such expectations. The story was disjointed, confusing, and contrived to the point of unbelievability – and wholly inappropriate for the young adult age category of 12 and up. Well, I will say that with a grain of salt. It’s slightly more explicit than what I remember of VC Andrews novels, and I may have read those when I was 13 or 14. But you don’t find those on YA shelves at the bookstores. (For the record, Flowers in the Attic is a very deceptive title. I think I thought I was reading Flowers for Algernon or something classic. I was not.)
I am obligated to warn that this review will be replete with spoilers, as it is the only way I can offer the problems I had with story and the subject matter’s presentation. Since I definitely do not recommend reading this book, I do recommend reading this synopsis, if you would like to know exactly why you shouldn’t read it. This is going to be long. But I must share my pain.
- To start, the book treats bipolarism as if it should not be treated with drugs. The first chapter sets us up: Rhonda’s home life is boring and torturous – her pharmacist dad is drugging up her “crazy” mother – who it is implied is bipolar – without a proper doctor’s prescription, which, yes, is bad, but we are offered no explanation as to why she wouldn’t just see an actual psychiatrist. The drugs “flatten” her mother; Rhonda is convinced her mother would be much better without them, in her natural crazy state, it is assumed. This theme of not treating bipolarism is alluded to throughout the book.
- Within the first 5 pages, Rhonda is masturbating in the bath, with her head underwater, assumedly having discovered autoerotic asphyxiation at the ripe old age of 14 (“the dizziness from not breathing made the colors brighter”). This is Rhonda who still maintains a boyish figure, and has not developed at all yet, nor started her period. But apparently she has been compelled to figure out the complicated female orgasm before her hormones have even kicked in, along with breath play. Oh, and her mother walks in on her and thinks she’s drowning and flips out. Enter: shame, and self-blame for what follows. Really?
- Rhonda has one real friend named Jesús, the family’s gardener, who is an undocumented worker from Mexico. She has learned fluent Spanish – so fluent that she sounds “just like a Mexican” – simply by listening to him. After Rhonda’s mom goes off the deep end, spurred by Rhonda’s sexually precocious autoerotic asphyxiation episode, Jesús paints the bottoms of all the trees white. (These events are unrelated.) The neighbors get upset and retaliate by having him deported. And he is sent back to Mexico. Immediately. Because it’s that fast and easy. He goes back to living with his mom. Being deported is that inconsequential.
- Rhonda overhears her quietly evil father get a gun out of the closet, load it, and lay it on the desk, telling her mother to “do the right thing.” Her mother then blows her head off. Rhonda gives us a lovely (read: unnecessarily graphic) description of the inside of her mother’s head, as well as the brain matter on the wall. (We are still in the first chapter.) Neither she nor her father have much of an emotional reaction to this incident.
- Next Rhonda is set to go on a father/daughter float trip in Big Bend National Park with two of her girlfriends from school. Her father predictably bails at the last second to hang out with his pharmacist mistress. Rhonda goes along anyway. While everyone is asleep, Rhonda approaches the guide with silver in his hair, motions for him to open his knees, and cuddles in between his legs with her back to him. Because that’s completely natural. (No, seriously. This is presented as totally normal, acceptable behavior on 14-year-old Rhonda’s part, Rhonda who has been described as quiet, thoughtful and bookish.) Then, of course, the dude can’t help but feel her… down her pants, and she immediately has “the Feeling.” She runs back to her tent. There is much inner talk of her wanting to stab him in the eye with her knife, or hoping he will have sex with her.
- Now, I was lucky enough to have not been molested as a child, so I cannot speak to the normalcy of these feelings and do not pretend that I can. However, the book seems completely uncommitted to whether this was molestation or just a normal, totally okay sexual encounter for a 14-year-old to have with some dude that’s three times her age. Maybe mid 30s and prematurely greying. But still. Wholly inappropriate, though not made to be so in the book.
- The next day she decides she is suicidal and so falls off the raft to try to drown herself in the Rio Grande. (In Texas. In Big Bend. Is it ever deep enough for that to happen there? I didn’t think so, but I’m no expert.) Mansk the molester morphs into savior, jumps in the water and rescues her. That night at camp Rhonda waits for everyone to go to sleep, and approaches the molester to solicit him for sex (” ‘I want you to do it to me.’ “). He laughs at her and says no way, that she’s nuts. Rhonda is crushed and violently enraged by this rejection. More talk of stabbing him in the eye and other violence. Instead, she decides to run away to Mexico in the middle of the night to find Jesús, her only friend, who lives in Oaxaca (that’s way south in Mexico, btw – and pronounced Wahackah – just fyi).
- So she steals some money from one of the dads, who is also less than a stellar human being, surprise surprise, packs some food and clothes in her bag, walks down the river a little way, decides she should strip naked and pack her clothes in her bag too, to prevent them from getting wet, the Rio Grande being so very deep, floats down the deep river with a current, (is my dubiousness coming through loud and clear?) (in)conveniently has to let go of her pack with the clothes because she doesn’t have enough energy to swim to the other side after floating for so long downstream (don’t worry; she’s conveniently tucked the money into her hair) and has to emerge from the river stark naked (REBIRTH!!), with just her sandals (those she left on, it being so easy to swim with shoes) , IN THE MEXICAN DESERT. She then… survives! She doesn’t even get thirsty, she survives so fast. Conveniently, she finds some guy sleeping with a pack of burrows, hops on one, and within half an hour she’s found a border town! How lucky! And no one molests or kills or even looks with unsavory eyes at the naked gringa. Totally believable, right?
So I think I’m just through chapter 2 by now. You can read the rest, after all, if you stop here! But I wouldn’t recommend it. It doesn’t get any better, and just gets more contrived and farfetched after that. Since you’re probably not going to read, the highlights: After dressing as a boy, renaming herself Angel, tripping on peyote, taking a bus in the wrong direction than getting out in the middle of the night in the middle of a jungle, starving herself to keep her boyish figure, escaping a bandit-boy circle jerk in the jungle, tricking a smarmy artist dude and his carpenter wife (how offensive, the Mexicans think, a woman wants to be a carpenter?) into driving her to Mexico city, getting abducted by female banditas dressed as men (they weren’t taken seriously as bandits dressed as women), having the smarmy dude’s pin word come to her from the Virgin Mary (SLIT), bailing one of the banditas out of jail, and taking a taxi to the town where Jesús lives, she finds Jesús and starts living with him and his mom.
But he won’t teach her how to carve alibrijes, as he’d promised, on the other side (of the river/border): men carve; women paint. That’s only, it turns out, because his mom is old and not so good with the painting anymore. So Rhonda learns to cook and paint, befriends an elderly American woman in the neighborhood, reads a book about an old fashioned vibrator – great for curing hysteria, finds an old-fashioned vibrator (“the earthquake machine” – yup, this young adult novel is named after a vibrator), has “the Feeling” and feels less hysterical (because, you know, nothing cures an overly depressed or emotional woman/girl like a good lay… or orgasm… and this is definitely a message we want to give to young, impressionable girls), shares it with the neighbor elderly lady and watches her use it (um, what?), then travels with Jesús and his mama to Mexico City to sell their alibrijes. There, Jesús and the mom are crushed in the hotel after a massive earthquake, forcing Rhonda to return to Texas. Rhonda is devastated and angry and wants to grind away her pain. No really. With her hips. Because she’s still totally and completely obsessed with sex and The Feeling.
On the way back home, she easily finds Mansk the molester, determined to stab him, or something vicious, but instead they have some violent, bloody but totally consensual sex (she’s 15 now, so, very mature and in control), and then part ways. She bribes her dad into supporting her and her education while going to live with her fun-loving godmother. The end.
I’ve spent way too much time summarizing, but I didn’t know how to explain my criticism otherwise, and I haven’t even begun to explain how put off I was by this book. The feminist message is so weird and skewed and misguided and unabashedly in your face that it’s completely lost in the preposterous ridiculousness of the story. I can see what the author was trying to accomplish; but the novel utterly fails on that point, especially with the violence with which sex is presented. I strongly believe girls can have non-harlequin, non-crazy-violent adventures that actually explore maturing and independence in a healthy way. This is just not that story.
I am not the last word – most reviews I found out there were gushing and raving about how fantastic this book is, or at worst lukewarm on the subject. Goodreads, normally a good like-ability barometer for me, averages the ratings at a 3.8. I am the sole 1 star, and I rarely rate books 1 star. Lowry herself seems like a really interesting and lovely lady; I just did not enjoy her book, nor do I think it’s remotely appropriate for younger audiences. She kindly provided the book to me in exchange for my honest review. I hope I wasn’t too harsh.
Some disclaimers about myself to help you decide whether or not my opinion or where I’m coming from might jive with your own tastes:
- I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic school from kindergarden to 8th grade.
- I am no longer Catholic; have not been since I was a teenager.
- I do volunteer work with victims of sexual violence on a regular basis.
These factors may come into play more for myself than others when judging the violent nature of sexuality’s portrayal in the book.