This is the backstory to The Bird Catcher. The lead character Margaret falls in love with a fellow birder, a man named Charles who is actually one of her professors. They spend their early courtship exploring birds in Manhatten. In her real life, she's a window dresser for Saks, and she assists her friend Emily in acquiring unique pieces for an art gallery. These three form the backbone of the book, and each of them are well-developed characters. The story doesn't fall into any expected formula, and the characters are actually very interesting. Jacobs manages to display each characters unique personality by showing what they say and do. While the main characters are female, I wouldn't dream of calling this "chick lit"; it has more depth and more complexity by far.
Conceptually, this is a great book. However, I had numerous issues with the story itself. First, we learn early that Charles has passed away, but we aren't told how or when, which builds a curiousity as you read. Margaret seems to be explaining her relationship with him in flashbacks, but it's never entirely clear what is past and what is present. Even through the end, when you discover what happened to Charles, the explanation feels too brief to understand her resulting grief. Their relationship appears perfect, and the cynic in me can't imagine everything that wonderful. In addition, for a talented woman, she spends a terribly large amount of time worrying over her parents approval (she didn't finish college). She also seems strangely reserved around other people, which is odd because she describes herself as an extrovert.
A few other things struck me as off: while the descriptions of the art of window dressing for sales is fascinating, her description of her gay coworkers plays to stereotypes and is insulting in its own way. All of them appear flighty, silly, babyish, and primadonna queens. She seems to want to describe this professional career but ends up mocking the workers who put it together with such art. Additionally, she and her friend Emily are very fluent in the high-brow culture scene in New York: art, opera, and fashion. I consider myself having a good basic knowledge of popular art, but I understood maybe a tenth of the references to current artists. All of this almost feels like she's telling the reader "if you don't understand, you're an imbecile", since so much of the story is dependent on understanding the art references or the works of a particular obscure designer. It's never a good idea to make your reader feel stupid! Sure, I could have looked them up, but there were so many, I really didn't feel like doing the homework. It felt a tiny bit pretentious.
On a positive note, her explanations of the actual window dressing is interesting, and her friend's art gallery holds interest as she explains how the provenance of different objects can be manipulated for profit. The biggest bit of unexpected knowledge is Margaret's interest and decision to learn taxidermy, and the details of this further hobby are more interesting that I'd expected. This isn't a bad novel, and the quick pace makes it very readable...at times I did get overwhelmed by names and brands, but I finished it with a sense of contemplation.
Special thanks to Picador for the Review Copy.