The Woman of My Dreams by Glenn Fain has a very literal title: it is a story about a broken man who falls in love with a woman in his dreams. She teaches him to live and love again until he starts losing his ability to tell his dreams from reality. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be about according to the book summaries on Goodreads and Amazon.
In all honesty this book was such a mess that it’s hard to say if it’s really about anything at all. At best it’s about a cast of narcissistic characters who are either hell bent on self-destruction or sadistically manipulating the people that they supposedly love. At worst it is a story about a man who goes through life doing absolutely nothing, enabling bad mental health, facing no real consequences or responsibilities, and experiencing no meaningful character development by the end of the book.
The main character’s name is Arnold, something you don’t learn until Chapter 8 for no apparent reason. Arnold starts out as a cigarette-smoking literary major at Washington State University who reads large Russian novels and philosophical literature. It feels like Arnold was written as someone who is ‘different from everyone else’ but he comes off as a pretentious student who thinks he’s special because he can read large books and thinks about death a lot.
In addition to lacklustre characters, the writing itself feels unpolished and bland. One of the first rules that any writer learns is ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s much more interesting to hear how something happened than to be told “it happened”. Unfortunately this novel prefers to tell, not show.
Arnold and Janie, another student, essentially fall in love at first sight and then date for six months, but in that entire time they have barely any dialogue, let alone meaningful interactions besides ‘looking deeply into each other’s eyes’. The reader is just told that they fall in love and have a relationship and forced to take the narrator’s word for it. It’s so bad that at first I wondered if Arnold was actually making up a connection that wasn’t there. Especially given that the relationship begins after he sees her once in an elevator and pursues her in a way that feels stalkerish.
Overall the writing style breezes past important moments that would do wonders for character and plot development while focusing on minor details that stop any plot momentum in its tracks. Arnold describes the appearance of almost every character in extreme detail, sometimes taking an entire paragraph describing the banal minutia. And if it’s a woman chances are he’s going to describe their breasts too. It’s like being read a Sears catalogue by a sexually frustrated middle schooler.
One of the worst issues with the book is how terribly race is handled. Arnold starts dating a Japanese girl named Janie, and he makes sure to be super clear that she’s Japanese. He can somehow tell she’s Japanese just by looking at her (was she wearing the flag?) and then he points out that she has the “the long, thin eyes of the Japanese”.
Janie was born and raised in America and hates that she’s Japanese along with Japanese culture in general. While it’s interesting to see a character with internalized racism, instead of discussing the topic, the novel constantly fetishizes her heritage. Arnold thinks that her background is exotic and that she has “deep Asian culture running through her blood and spirit no matter how much she [fights] it”.
As someone who occasionally gets attention from men for being ‘exotic’ despite being born and raised North America I can tell you that this kind of stuff is creepy and demeaning. I grew up in the same culture as all of them; the only ‘deep culture running through my blood’ is lactose intolerance.
Janie’s internalized racism comes to a head in an improbable and ludicrous series of events. Without giving away too much plot she permanently changes her name and appearance from Janisu (Jainie) the petite Japanese girl to Anastasia the Russian model with large breasts. The phrase “blond bombshell” is used to describe her 4 times, and “goddess” no less than 15. But don’t worry, Arnold still finds plenty of time to sexualize Japanese women when he’s not describing Janie/Anastasia’s breasts. Here he is describing Janie’s younger sister, Ellen:
“She was nice to look at too. She had straight dark hair falling halfway down her back, a long sharply chiseled face, and a body much more womanly than Janie’s, with larger breasts and more curves. She reminded me of a geisha girl I had seen in some movie long ago”.
Seeing as geisha are rarely found working as waitresses in Chinese restaurants I find that hard to believe.
Despite Arnold having about as much personality as an unsalted potato, everyone seems to immediately like him. People he’s just met are quick to welcome him into their families, his co-workers are fascinated by the minutiae of his life, and one of the major conflicts of the book is the two sisters fighting over who gets to date him. They eventually agree to date him at the same time, subjecting the reader to graphic descriptions of the horrible sex he has with both of them.
That’s not an exaggeration. Here are some of the worst offenders:
“Licking her stomach, my tongue inside her belly button, my hands on her breasts.”
“I’m feeding on her breasts helplessly like a baby”
As a woman, I can say that this is not sexy times. If this happened to me I’d be telling horror stories about it for years.
There is so much else to say about this book: its narrative is saturated with sexism, it romanticizes severe depression and suicidal ideation, and its dialogue is so clunky it sounds alien. However, I feel that I’ve made my point. This is one of the handful of books in my life that I would not recommend to anyone. I read it so you don’t have to.
by Glenn Fain
Sleepwalking through a decade of soulless jobs, Arnold Brinckman is still reeling from his girlfriend’s suicide. When he is convinced all hope is lost, the beautiful and exotic Anastasia appears in his dreams, teaching him to live and love again. But this lesson may come at a price Arnold isn’t willing to pay. Suddenly, reality and dream bein to blur as Arnold loses his way. Is the woman of his dreams really a nightmare Arnold can’t survive?