If You Could Do It Over – The Nobodies Album

If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would that be? Would you right a wrong, or selfishly target something to make yourself feel or look better?

In the beginning of her book, The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst warns you

“…better to keep the focus on yourself and leave the others to sort themselves out…”

Octavia Frost is a well-known author who has decided to create an addendum for each ending of her books. She’s rewritten the end of each story and compiled them into a new book – The Nobodies Album – named after a game she and her son played when he was a child – the stories that only exist in the imagination.

In delivering her manuscript to her publisher, she notices the news ticker across Times Square, announcing that her now rock star son is accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend. She leaves immediately for San Francisco to be near her son, whom she hasn’t talked to in four years.

And so the mystery story begins. Who killed Bettina (the girlfriend)? Did her son really do it? Why haven’t mother and son talked in so long? What did he read in her published book that turned him away from her? How did her husband and daughter die?

Parkhurst cleverly keeps you in suspense, and teases you by injecting the last chapters and rewrites of Octavia Frost’s novels just when cliffhanger clues might help solve the murder. You’ll be tempted to skip back to the action, but then you’d miss those peeks into Octavia’s subconscious. The rewrites offer endings with hope, but the originals speak to her regrets.

Could she rewrite her life along with the endings? Can she be there for her son or will she coldly use him as material for her next book?

Halfway through the book, it hit me– this is Mary Tyler Moore in Judith Guest’s Ordinary People.

Despite all the angst, emotional upheaval and selfish moments, Parkhurst delivers a good detective story. You might guess whodunnit – but by that time it will seem irrelevant.

Not an easy story to read, The Nobodies Album thankfully has an ending that does not need rewriting.

The Lake Shore Limited

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…

But each player can only guess what the other actors are thinking as they say their lines.   In The Lake Shore Limited, Sue Miller lets us in.

Using a play about a train wreck triggered by terrorists, Miller reveals the play within a play – the lives of the actor, playwright, and audience reflected in the script.   The story opens with the play and keeps returning to it as the real lives of the characters unfold.

At the preview performance of  “The Lake Shore Limited” all the key characters are present: Billy, the playwright, faced with her ambivalence after her lover, Gus, died in a 9/11 plane crash; Leslie, Gus’s sister, struggling with her own identity; Rafe, the lead actor in Billy’s play, whose wife is dieing of ALS; and Sam, introduced to Billy by Leslie as a possible love interest.  What seems more than a little Shakespearean, the theme focuses on how hard it is to figure out what really is important in their lives, and the sacrifices  made to get to that realization.  Throughout, Miller has a knack for delivering dialogue and action that are familiar.

Scenes from 9/11 sneak in, with the desperation of the survivors having to live on and remember. But Miller manages to avoid the trite yet miserable storyline that has been retold before, and dives down another level to explore what happens when wishes, no matter how horrible, come true. The lead in the play wonders if the disaster has actually brought him a reprieve – a feeling echoed in the real lives of the characters in the novel.  As he works through his guilt, betrayal, and epiphany in the play- so do Billy, Sam, Rafe, and Leslie in their lives.

Miller’s attention to detail as she sketches out each one’s inner turmoil,  connection to each other, and worry about how actions are received and perceived is sometimes more than you need.  At times, the story seems to go on forever.  But Miller cleanly connects the dots, and maintains interest with the novel’s organization – flipping back and forth among the voices.   It’s like watching a play, with an interview of each actor backstage, explaining  the motivation – Method acting for real life.

“All’s well that ends well;”  the story finally lands in a happy ending, and the dog has a great role.