My general guideline for awarding 5 stars is that the book is either an outstanding read, with very few irritants, or a very good read with inimitable content. In this case, I think the latter is the criterion. At times, this book is brilliant.
The backdrop is the American Dream going sour for a working
class man, as a boy neglected and impoverished, now locked
into a routine of unremitting toil. The escalators, his dreams and the metaphor of his life, lead downwards. Social mobility in contemporary America is seen for what it is, almost an impossibility for those children who slip through the social net.
And yet the novel raises the question of personal choice. Jason suffers from the inertia of having a job that allows him to subsist but not to live. Love is a series of opportunities to be uncovered and acted on, or ignored or lost. Here, the author's characterisation of Jason comes into its own, the angry but morally upright, the occasionally vociferous but considerate, sweatshop cook. He is dominated by his upbringing and circumstances, yet tries to avoid visiting his limitations on others, sometimes succeeding and dramatically failing.
Depression is another theme of the story, with the drift towards suicide. Jason's untidy flat is not mere sloppiness. The escalators continue downwards.
The author chooses to write in the voice of the American working class, making it easier to immerse the reader into the language of her characters. There is strong language but this is not overdone. There are times when the author's writing style works against her. At some points, she over-writes, especially during the visits to Lydia's and Jason's families; succinct exchanges are generally more effective. Also, almost against the principle of presenting novels, the first chapter seems particularly weedy. The book
can be difficult to read, but the effort is well worth it.
The characterisation, interweaving of social themes and the book's general ability to provoke thought, is something close to literary fiction. I suppose the language that offers verisimilitude and the occasional weaknesses in style detract from this, but as a dark romance with profound meaning, as well as intriguing twists and turns,
this book offers a lot.