Back in April, I found a copy of James Siegel’s Derailed at the Big Fish Thrift Store over in Foley, Alabama. I had never heard of the book (or the Jennifer Aniston movie based on the book) but it looked promising enough to justify investing a few pennies. After reading, I am glad that I did – but it’s a very-different sort of book.
Derailed is based on a standard plot – it’s another version of B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan – you make one bad decision and then keep piling on. The book concerns a Manhattan ad guy (Charles Schine) who has an affair with a mysterious woman (Lucinda) he meets while commuting to work on the Long Island Railroad.
Later, they are in a NYC hotel room when a man breaks in and violently rapes Lucinda. Siegel describes the rape in graphic detail – to the point that it made me uncomfortable. The rapist then threatens to expose the affair if the man won’t do as the rapist says.
Derailed is a page turner, but unsettling. It took me only about 3 days to read its 340 pages. One problem that I struggled with for the first 200 pages was that Schine was too much of victim, a pathetic sad sack. Years ago, I read a book (I believe it was Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith) that said that the protagonist in a book must act; the focus of the story cannot be on a mere spectator. But Charles is paralyzed at key moments. In fact, his inability to act is a key aspect of the plot. This is unsatisfying to the reader.
More seriously, in places, the plot simply isn’t plausible. Siegel never explains why Charles Schine falls into such desperate straits. The reader doesn’t believe that he or she would act as Schine is acting.
As I noted, Derailed is an odd book. Around page 270, Siegel abruptly shifts the plot with a you’ll-never-see-this-coming twist. It didn’t work well for me – I didn’t find it to be believable or satisfying. I thought that the story – the central drama – was built around one set of issues, but it was actually about another. I had “literary whiplash.”
I guess I give Derailed a 7.5 out of 10, but it’s a hard book to rate. The first two-thirds is taken up with the protagonist getting kicked around by the baddies. It’s pretty tough sledding, getting through that material. Still, Derailed is a page turner – and page turners are always worth a look.