Olmec Obituary by L.J.M. Owen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Review copy supplied by publisher in exchange for a fair review.
When I was first contacted about possibly reviewing this book, I was excited by the prospect of the central character. Not only is she an archaeologist and expert in paeleogenetics, but she is a librarian too! As a librarian myself, this book was high on my TBR pile. What a shame it didn’t live up to my expectations.
Dr Elizabeth Pimms is called back from a dream dig in Egypt to attend the funeral of her beloved father in Canberra, her home town. She leaves her boyfriend, Luke, behind and ends up having to stay in Australia to help support her quirky family so they can afford to pay for her brother Matty’s surgery. She completes a post graduate library qualification and starts work at the National Library to work on old maps. Along the way, she makes friends with Nathan (my favourite character in the book) and an enemy of a woman named Mai – who takes an instant dislike to her.
Elizabeth is asked by an old archaeology classmate to do some work on identifying and classifying some bones from a dig in Mexico – from an Olmec cemetery.
Throw in underlying guilt and blame from the car crash that killed their mother (and left Matty unable to walk) years earlier, a boiling conflict with a bratty sister and a family home that sounds like a cross between Hogwarts and the Brady Bunch and you would think I would find this an enjoyable read.
I did not. I really wanted to like Elizabeth, but I found her incredibly annoying. She is quick to pass judgement, remarkably naive and pretty conceited. Her family treats her like a princess, and not in a good way. I found myself yelling at this book several times as I read it – saying “Just take CONTROL of your life, you wimp!” For someone so accomplished, her character is infuriatingly skittish and lacks confidence. It drove me crazy. Her friends, Nathan, and philologist Henry are far more appealing and just as quirky, but somehow they both have their lives sorted out. I just got so impatient with Lizzie. She is only 26 years old in the book, so she is still quite young, but everyone around her, including her younger brother, just seems to have a better handle on life.
The reason for my frustration might stem from the fact that Owen really locks in some librarian/academic woman stereotypes with Lizzie. She lives at home with her parents, she has 4 cats, she is a librarian, she’s a bit of a loner, she likes correcting everyone. L.J.M. even makes her a literary snob. When Elizabeth works on the customer service desk in the Library, a teenage girl asks for a copy of the latest vampire novel (we are led to believe it is Twilight or something similar). Elizabeth actually asks herself:
“…was it right to be complicit in people reading nonsense when better books were so readily available?”
How dare she? How dare L.J.M. Owen diss “popular” fiction like that? I mean, I don’t like Twilight myself, but if someone wants to read it, more power to them! Especially a teenage girl! Things like this constantly frustrated me about this character. By far the worst thing, though, is Elizabeth and her phrenic library. I assumed this was a device used by Elizabeth to aid her eidetic memory, but there was not explanation of what it was or how it worked until the very end of the novel. There was not even a reference at the end of the book (with all the recipes and other paraphenalia) with a working definition! For someone who is a librarian, the author dropped the ball here.
Leaving Elizabeth aside, there are other things I find appealing about this book. Firstly, the flashbacks to the Olmec period are great – loved the painting of the story behind the bones. Secondly, the mystery of the bones and why some evidence doesn’t add up (the mystery) is also great- I really enjoyed the progress of that part of the story. Nathan, Elizabeth’s colleague at the Library, is a sweetheart – a bit of a fantasy librarian in many ways. He’s funny, smart, sensitive, loves cats and I think is a little bit in love with Elizabeth – though nothing happens between them except friendship in this novel.
I am now reading Mayan Mendacity to see if Elizabeth can win me over. The rest of her family, and the support cast have – now she has to step up and show me she is more than the stereotype, that she can break away from it. I really want her and Nathan to become flatmates. Fingers crossed…review to follow soon.
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