Book Review: Drifts by Kate Zambreno

Drifts – Kate Zambreno (Riverhead Books, 2020)

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. Drifts is on sale now.

Drifts obviously wasn’t written in 2020 but as I started reading it, it felt like it could have been about someone during our current global state of quarantine. There is a claustrophobic, repetitive feeling to the narrator’s days that reminded me of the life many of us are living right now. She doesn’t go out very much except to walk her dog around the neighbourhood where her interactions with the neighbours occur at a distance. Her interactions with friends also take place from a distance, through texts and letters and emails. Her partner goes to work and she enjoys her solitude but also misses him and is at loose ends on her own. Later we see her teach at a university but even there her interactions with others seem awkward and limited.

And yet the book is actually set in 2015 and 2016 (it ends at the very end of 2016). It is the story of a writer named Kate who works as a sessional instructor at a college in New York. She’s written a few books and lives with her partner John and their dog Genet. She is writing, or trying to write, a book called Drifts. It’s all very meta. And while I enjoyed it for a while – the quiet echo of the world I see around me right now as we all stay home and feel a little depressed – the book drags on and on. I wanted to quit but by then I was 200 pages in and didn’t want to feel like I’d wasted my time.

Kate spends some time thinking about whether or not she should have a baby. She wants to write and live a monastic life and thinks (probably correctly) motherhood would interrupt her regular routine. Frequent mention is made of her heavy periods, her difficulties with her body. She believes she has passed out of the fertile stage of her life. (Perhaps this is a metaphor for her struggle to finish her book.) Then, unexpectedly, she finds herself pregnant. This is something that seems to happen to her without her knowing how it happened (despite the fact that she is in a committed relationship and is close to forty years old). She is unsure whether or not she wants the baby. She is unsure of how they will manage, where they will live, how she can keep doing her job. The storytelling becomes increasingly focused on the physical – how her body feels, what she does with it. Obviously this is a large part of pregnancy, especially, I assume, an unexpected pregnancy. She has a strangely physical relationship with her dog and is obsessed with the cats in her neighbourhood.

I can admit that I’m bringing a lot of my own emotions to this novel. I’m not unsympathetic to unplanned pregnancies and I’m not unsympathetic to how difficult pregnancy and all that surrounds it can be for women. I felt very unsympathetic to Kate in this novel. She doesn’t really do anything. She spends a lot of time moping and reading abstract things and watching foreign movies and thinking about Rilke and looking at the same pictures over and over again. She’s unhappy with her life and her circumstances but at no point does she do anything to affect any change. Not a single one. And I know, I know, it’s not always that easy but, as far as we see in the novel, she is a privileged, educated, middle class white woman.

I can also admit that I found the book kind of pretentious. It’s filled with references to artists and movies and books that I’m not familiar with. And even the ones I’ve read and seen and know of are not ones I’m particularly drawn to or passionate about. The narrator seems to exist in a level of academia that is real, I know it is, but is off-putting to the rest of the world. I feel annoyed because I’m not clever enough to get all of her references but also annoyed because I too am a privileged, educated, middle class white woman who spent a good chunk of 2016 being pregnant and yet very little in this book spoke to me.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Drifts by Kate Zambreno”

  1. I’m so tired of this type of book. I have a theory that it exists simply because there are too many people going through writing programs without having any real life experience. So, what do they write about? Their own lives as writers, which is so boring. The book you describe also describes so many others — Shelia Heti is the most famous case — in which a well-to-do white lady who can’t do anything with herself wants us to feel bad about her “unique” life that clearly needs to be shared with the world, like we don’t already know who these people are.

    1. Definitely! I’d say this is the sort of book only someone in a writing program would enjoy but I’ve done a writing program and I did not enjoy this. What’s the point of a book like this? It’s not saying anything new about the writing process. It actually reminded me of Sheila Heti’s writing, particularly the Will I? Won’t I of the character deciding whether or not she should have a baby. If you’re questioning it that much, you probably shouldn’t.

    2. It’s the kind of book that is propped up by other writers who write this kind of book, which means they’re all validating each other’s experiences. I think they recognize each other’s experiences and feel seen. Overall, none of their books get loads of reviews, so it all feels like literary incest.

    3. I kind of get that…it’s probably nice for a certain kind of writer to feel like their experience is seen and valid. But that seems like a pretty small audience. I would say I’m someone interested in writers and the writing process but these books bore me.

    4. You’re absolutely right. I’ve read writing memoirs that I’ve enjoyed; it’s the constant indecisiveness that gets to me in books.

    5. I think this convo thread captured what I wanted to say in response to your review! I read an earlier book about writers and writing this year, King’s Writers & Lovers, and while the main character wasn’t privileged she was a white woman who was particularly indecisive about her love life. It was so tiring to read. The pretentious references here also won’t endear it to me. Maybe I’ll pass on this one.

    6. I think you’re safe to pass! I’m not the most decisive person but it’s a pet peeve when book characters spend the whole book waffling like this!

  2. Great review! Digging into Kate’s feelings on the unplanned pregnancy sounds intriguing, but it is frustrating that the book doesn’t seem to do much beyond hint at ideas. I have so little patience for characters who think but don’t act, especially when they’re going to complain about being unhappy with the way things are. Sorry to see this one didn’t live up to its potential!

    1. Getting into her feelings around pregnancy would have been interesting but there isn’t even much of that. She wonders if she should have a baby, she thinks she can’t get pregnant, she gets pregnant, she complains about being pregnant. For such an introspective book, we don’t actually get into her head much about whether or not she wants the baby once she becomes pregnant.

    2. Oh wow, that is disappointing. I assumed the complaining (especially after thinking she couldn’t get pregnant!) would’ve gone a bit deeper into her grappling with the pregnancy, but I shouldn’t have assumed! How frustrating that the author didn’t manage to evoke some meaningful commentary or emotion from the situation.

    3. I was disappointed. One of the reasons I kept reading was because I thought there would be new thoughts and experiences shared during her pregnancy. But it just wasn’t there.

  3. Sounds horribly pretentious. It’s always hard when you’ve invested a lot of time in a book to decide to give up on it, but I’m trying to stop myself from struggling on when a book begins to bore me. Too many other books out there which might be wonderful…!

    1. Yes, I should have just given up but I was holding out hope that the end would reveal something new. It didn’t.

  4. Yeesh this sounds like a drag. I’d probably be rolling my eyes while reading it, but I’d go through it all like you, because the idea of stopping after 200 pages would frustrate me, I wouldn’t want to waste all that time! Melanie from GTL’s comparison to Sheila Heti sounds right on the nose!

    1. Melanie totally nailed it – I was thinking of Sheila Heti as I read! I’m glad you understand my perseverance! I can abandon a book at around 50 pages but by 200, I’ve invested too much time.

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