In A Nutshell
The Book of Why is one of those rare books that is exactly what it claims to be: It’s a book of questions… But with very few answers.
The Whole Enchilada
“This is a self-help book. Didn’t think it was, but it is. It’s also a revision, a question, a confession, an apology, a love letter.”
This is how The Book of Why by Nicholas Montemarano begins. But don’t let that beginning fool you; this is a book that asks more questions than it answers. Our narrator and main character Eric Newborn is a successful author and “your thoughts create your own reality” self-help guru who, after the death of his wife, has gone off his own philosophy. At least this is what he claims on the outside. On the inside, Eric is still afraid to think negative thoughts for fear that they might manifest, still afraid that his wife killed herself with her own lack of belief, or worse yet, that Eric himself killed her because he wasn’t strong enough (or didn’t want enough) to will her back to health with the power of his positive thinking.
When the book begins Eric Newborn has sequestered himself—alone except for the dog—his doubts and his memories, in his house in Martha’s Vineyard. When a young fan stumbles “accidentally” upon his house in the middle of winter, Eric (reluctantly at first) begins to open up to her. The two become each other’s teachers and confidants, and embark on a journey (both real and metaphorical) that forces each of them to look at their pasts, face their futures, and ask the question Are there really any accidents?
The Book of Why tells a compelling story, but it is not always an easy book to read. The narrative is split into three separate time periods: Eric’s childhood, his time with his wife, and his present. The book jumps back and forth between these three storylines, with the effect that just when you’ve become invested in one storyline you’re yanked out of it and thrown into another. It was an interesting way of expressing that the things that happen in our past can follow us, and have a direct influence on events in our future, but the narrative technique could be very frustrating at times.
Montemarano also makes periodic use in his story of what I call “aside sections.” These are sections at the beginning of certain chapters which are supposed transcripts of motivational speeches given by Eric Newborn, or portions of his self-help books. This first “aside section” at the beginning of the book served the purpose of giving the reader an inside look into the world of self-help conferences and motivational speaking tours. It was a perfect way to set the stage to be abruptly torn down a few pages later by the present Eric’s sadness and cynicism. The contrast was delightful, and catapults the reader very effectively into the story. This is not the only “aside section” however, and this catapult-by-contrast technique isn’t something that can be utilized effectively more than once. I’m sure that all the subsequent “aside sections” were relevant to those sections of the books they preceded, but all too often I found them to be distracting, pulling me out of the story just when I was beginning to feel enraptured.
These are minor complaints, however, and in spite of these, The Book of Why is a very compelling read; not only because the reader can’t help wanting to know how Eric’s story ends, but because the questions Montemarano raises are the questions that are always lurking at the very edges of our conscious minds. Do things happen for a reason? How much control do we have over the course of our lives? Can miracles truly happen, or is the self-help-positive-thinking culture nothing but modern-day charlatanry? The Book of Why does not answer any of these questions, but the context in which it asks them is interesting, insightful, and brutally honest.
(I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley.)