In the opening chapter of THE BIOGRAPHIES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE: Volume 2: 2004–2016, the protagonist, Meredith Gruber, asks a professor why there are no biographies of ordinary people. The rest of the book proves that the answer is as simple as it seems: people aren’t inherently interested in ordinary people. Based on the structure of this book, Dieker means “biography” as a report of a person’s life, touching on all their important moments without creating an overall theme or narrative. Celebrity biographies can get away with this because the reader has an interest in the person: they already admire their work or legacy and want to know the life behind it. But ordinary people, like the Gruber family, need to earn the reader’s sympathies through a narrative. It’s the narrative that makes us feel Meredith’s struggles, love her family, and have a stake in her success—without that, we have no reason to care.
That isn’t to say that the book needs to be a plot-heavy page turner, but it does need to have the basic tenets of storytelling: it needs conflict and consequences and some sort of motivation. Meredith begins the book with a clear goal: she wants to write and put on her own musical. That plan is quickly thwarted, and there is nothing to replace it—she just survives. There is nothing for us to root for or care about.
We rarely, if ever, see characters work through their problems. A problem will be presented, but each chapter takes place months apart, sometimes an entire year encapsulated in the single chapter “Meredith Makes Plans with James.” So after a problem arises, it’s a full year until we see the character again and by then the problem is resolved. Rather than a decision leading to some sort of consequence, the entire book is a series of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” We don’t see anyone struggle. And because none of the events are happening to a person we inherently care about, after a few hundred pages it’s hard to avoid the question: what’s the point?
There are beautiful and relatable moments throughout the book, but a book is not carried by a string of nice moments. The prose is solid. The characters are believable, and the premise of following a midwestern family as they grow up is interesting. But it’s not enough to just report their activities—you have to turn their activities into a story.
THE BIOGRAPHIES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE attempts a new style of writing and uses solid prose and believable characters to create beautiful little moments throughout.
~Jess Costello for IndieReader