Reviews > Published on May 12th, 2014

Bookshots: 'The Transcriptionist' by Amy Rowland

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Transcriptionist

Who wrote it?

'The Transcriptionist' is a lovely novel to read for fun for those who are "serious" about books.

Amy Rowland, who works at the New York Times, currently with Book Review, but previously as a transcriptionist. She's worked for numerous publications, but this is her debut novel.

Plot in a box:

Lena, who works at New York daily paper The Record as a transcriptionist, begins to question life, from journalism to her own meaning, after she reads a news story about a blind woman who committed suicide by breaking into the lions' cage at the zoo. Realizing she had met this woman in a chance encounter that same week, Lena is struck by this woman's complete and nearly unnoticed disappearance. Afraid of her own insignificance, she is drawn to find out all she can about who this woman was.

Invent a new title for this book:

In the Lion's Mouth, or Patience and Fortitude

Read this if you liked:

The book is chock full of literary references and quotes—and lions! Everything from Ezra Pound to Italo Calvino to Chaucer, and there's a lot of "New York-y" things about the book, touches that may make a non-New Yorker (like myself) smile, but may charm those that love the city as well.

Meet the book’s lead:

After dropping out of a Masters program in Literature year ago, Lena found her way to the transcription room of The Record and never left. Once the other transcriptionist retired, she was left alone to transcribe the interviews and stories of reporters. Surrounded by other people's words, alone in her transcription room, Lena leads a solitary—and nearly obsolete—professional existence. Her personal life is similarly structured. She is single and lives in a room within a building generally occupied by younger, more connected and outgoing women. As she begins to doubt the words that compose her daily life, Lena is forced to rethink her past and present, but more than anything else her future and her identity.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Rachel McAdams would be ideal. She is slight, the right age (mid-30s), and could easily dye her hair the tired shade of auburn that is necessary. But more than anything else, I think Rachel McAdams has the look and the ability to make herself be forgotten, which is paramount to the novel's central conflict. The primary essence that this actress would need to capture is to create a convincing air that she might, in fact, be entirely forgettable.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

I am the odd man out here, but as much as I love visiting New York, I've never had a desire to live there. 

What was your favorite sentence?

Unfortunately, I managed somehow to lose my favorite sentence, and even re-read a good portion of the book trying to find it. Alas, I present my second favorite:

The room is the color of old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink.

The Verdict:

I found reading this novel to be an absolute treat. I found Lena's character to be quite identifiable, as she experiences a shift from complacency to an identity crisis, a malaise which in my own experience is fairly widespread. I found myself identifying with not only her curiosity about the woman who had committed suicide, but also her self-doubt and her re-evaluation of her life and status.

Words are central to Lena's life, and as a relic from her incomplete time at graduate school, she is constantly quoting various literary sources. As an avid reader, I found this exercise enjoyable: do I know the quote? Do I know the author? Do I enjoy the author?

Beyond Lena's realization that she is neither happy nor fulfilled by her professional life, I also found myself relating to her personal life. After a conflict arises, she finds herself face-to-face with a romantic prospect, and they are, "able to look at each other with frankness now, recognizing that they do not balance each other, that their passions run counter to each other's, as do their principles." Rowland seems to have a great knack for putting words on feelings and experiences that are quite difficult to unravel, and this ability to put her finger on things really carries the book.

As I mentioned above, I managed to lose my favorite sentence in the book. I read it through a Kindle, and "highlighted" it digitally, then apparently went back to re-read it so many times that my own user-error managed to remove the highlighting. In an effort to re-discover this sentence, I re-read a sizable portion of the novel. Although I was unable to find "my" sentence (a search of all the words I thought I remembered being in the quote was similarly unsuccessful), I was struck by the thoroughness and depth with which the main themes of the novel were interwoven from the earliest pages. Although a simple story, I was really struck by the attention to these themes throughout the novel.

As much as I enjoyed — and nearly loved — this novel, it is not perfect. It occasionally gets bogged down in its own meaning; for me this took place when Lena reminisced about her childhood and a rogue mountain lion that roamed her neighborhood. To me, these ideas never fully connected with the greater perspective, narrative, and meaning of the story. Yet, despite this, on the whole I found Rowland's story to be a treat, full of goodness and just the right balance of indulgence for the literary reader. I think The Transcriptionist is a lovely novel to read for fun for those who are "serious" about books, if that makes sense. It's enjoyable and insightful and occasionally funny. I don't think it will engage those who adored recent novels like Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, as it is quiet and dryly funny, focused more on how we feel about our own significance, but I found it to be entirely engaging. I look forward to Rowland's future works. 

About the author

Teeney Hood is an avid reader living in Los Angeles. She works with at-risk high school girls and is an associate programmer with the American Film Institute Film Festival.

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