The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (St. Martin’s Press, March 30, 2010), 400 pages
Helen Adams is pulled between escaping Vietnam as Saigon falls and staying, to photograph the government transition and hopefully cement her place in photojournalism history. Add to that the fact that Saigon feels like home to her — she’s lived there more than a decade.
Photojournalist! Woman! Vietnam! All of these things screamed at me to read this book. It started a little slow, and I started questioning my choice. That was a relatively short-lived concern, though.
I was worried about what the book cover calls “a drama of devotion and betrayal as she is torn between the love of two men.” I’m not typically appreciative of love triangle stories. This, too, was something I needn’t have worried about, happily. It was handled well, and I didn’t find it distasteful.
I loved the strong sense of place — I really felt like I could see the lush landscape, feel the humidity, the crowded streets.
I found The Lotus Eaters insightful, if mainly in a small area (journalism, drive, ambition). The way Helen is addicted to war, that appetite — all of the news business can be that way.
A few quotes that resonated (these are taken from an advance copy; page numbers and the text itself may have been changed for the final copy):
“The curse of curses was that he was good at war, loved the demands of the job. What was frightening was he had developed an appetite for it. Like a starving man staring at a table of food, refusing to eat on moral grounds; appetite would win, and his shrewd boss counted on that.”
“The first picture, or the fifth, or the twenty-fifth still had an authority, but finally the repetition made the horror palpable. In the last few years, no matter how hard he tried, his pictures weren’t as powerful as before he had known this. Like an addict who had to keep upping the dose to maintain the same high, he found himself risking more and working harder for less return. He would never again be moved the way he was over that first picture of a dead WWII soldier. Was his own work perpetrating the same on those it came into contact with?”
“Sometimes Charlotte entered a room she thought empty only to find Helen there, staring off into space, her face broken apart, her daughter the Picasso woman. Helen sat on the couch, legs curled up, tears rolling down her face, and all the mother could do was take her child in her arms, rock back and forth for hours, pretend her daughter was still a child and could be soothed, merely frightened of the dark.”
“How could she understand? Even through all her hardship, she still saw the world through privilege. How could she know how it felt to be on the outside? Especially in one’s own country?”
One other (very minor!) complaint: At the beginning I had a hard time figuring out when and where I was in the story, as we moved around, mostly in time. I think blame for this falls squarely on the fact that I had only short bits of time to devote to the book early on.
Overall: Although it started a bit slow, I really loved this book. A great read.
About the author
Tatjana Soli (@TatjanaSoli) was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives with her husband in Orange County, California, and teaches through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. This is her debut novel.
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I received this book from the publisher, as part of the TLC book tour.