Book Review: Welcome to Utopia

Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby (Spiegel & Grau, 2010).

The immediate draw of Karen Valby’s book is the title. As it happens, Utopia is the name of the small Texas town that features as the setting of its residents’ narratives as told by Valby. A journalist seeking a story about an ‘untouched’ place, she settles in the town and, after some apparent neutrality and even resentment from many residents skeptical of her New York City sensibilities, she tells her tales. What Valby uncovers is a town that is neither untouched nor particularly different from most of America.

One of Valby’s achievements is her vivid portrayals of characters and settings. She describes details that bring the reader into the scene, like the diner where the reader can almost smell breakfast frying while the overwhelmed waitress maintains a generous smile for patrons. Some pages later we are taken into the hideous pain of this waitress who discovers her son has died in Afghanistan, and sense her anxiety as she stays up through the night vacuuming the house. Similarly, we almost sit within the daily circle of men in their jeans and boots sipping coffee in the backroom of the general store. We get to know each one and their sense of humor and conversational propensities, learning what ticks each of them off (from men’s shorts to evangelical zealotry). Valby seems to immerse just as easily with teenagers as she does grandparents. She succeeds in this, I believe, because of her honesty and forwardness about her role as an author. She never removes herself from her own writing.

Yet her successful telling of normal life in a normal – if very small – American town is in some ways the book’s weakness. For eventually the mundane and daily occurrences become repetitive. The reader understands the portrait so well that sympathy and familiarity verge into boredom. The same handful of characters continue to reappear, and it does not take long before we are ready to bid them farewell and move on to another book.