Although I didn't find this a really bad book, I'm absolutely astonished by the critical attention it has received in venues ranging from People magazine to the New York Times. The book does have well-wrought dialogue which sounds as real, conversational, and cliché-filled as most ordinary conversations really are. The scenarios are easy to imagine, and the brief descriptions succeed in anchoring the action.
As a depiction of rural life, however, the book does not have the abundance of artfully selected details that make Big Stone Gap come alive as a place different from every other town in rural America. As a result, the book lacks the warmth and vibrance of setting that one takes for granted in novels by Lee Smith, Jon Hassler, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka, for example. As a first novel, it also lacks the earnestness and fervor one finds in many other first novels, a sense that the author has revised, revised, and revised again to find just the right word to convey an idea, something one does find in first novels by Kiran Desai, Charles Fraser, and David Guterson.
Many of the characters are stereotypes: the aging Italian playboy with movie star good looks, the handsome miner with a heart of gold, the unkind cheerleader who gets her comeuppance by becoming pregnant by mistake, the poor, fat girl who conquers all and shows everyone in the end, the "town spinster" who finds love, etc. Most frustratingly, the writing style consists almost entirely of simple, short, declarative sentences containing few words of more than two syllables and making the reader long for a sentence of more than twenty words. I wonder if Random House ever did a test for readability level here-the book's "Fog Index" comes out to between 5th and 6th grade.