Just As Good the Second Time I Read It

Sometimes I get tired of being the one who is responsible; it often means I get stuck doing everything myself. My mother told me to ignore little imperfections and let others do some things for me, but it isn’t easy. I’m working on it, and sometimes people surprise me.

In Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, Marie Curie lurks in the background as the model for two responsible girls who aspire to make a difference in the world of science, and would rather do it themselves. Kit Owens doesn’t realize her full potential until she is challenged by the seemingly perfect new girl in class, Diane Fleming. Best friends and competitors, the two rise to a final challenge when they meet again as adults, and then their worlds explode.

Secrets challenge the reader’s expectations, and Megan Abbott writes in the same vein as Ruth Ware, with complicated characters and twisting plot notes. Lots of murders dot the landscape, and the story is scary.

When I started to read this book, I thought I had read it before; pieces seemed familiar Sure enough I found I had reviewed it last year, but I had forgotten the plot and how it ended. Has that happened to you?

Jefferson’s Daughters – fact and fiction

When a book club picked the 2016 Dray and Kamoie’s America’s First Daughter, a fictionalized historical drama about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, I looked for reviews and found the authors’ discussion of their book in Five Lies We Told in America’s First Daughter and  How We Got Away With It.

Curious to know more about the historical facts,  I was redirected to a nonfiction book written in 2018 by historian Catherine Kerrison – Jefferson’s Daughters.  I decided to read the facts first before the fiction.

Although stories about Sally Hemings have resurrected and revised Jeffersonian history in recent years, my only recollection of Jefferson’s first wife Martha was the sweet singing Blythe Danner in the musical 1776, before she had children.  Kerrison reveals how a constant state of childbirth, miscarriages, and infant death took its toll on her.  The accurate depiction of Blythe as Jefferson’s wife evolved into a weary and sickly woman, often left alone to manage a household, or fleeing from the War, who eventually died prematurely at thirty-three.  Patsy, the eldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Martha, was ten years old when her mother died.

The focus of America’s First Daughter is the eldest daughter Martha (Patsy) but she is one of three sisters in Kerrison’s analysis.  Patsy had an eclectic education, first learning to read and write with her mother;  later in Paris with her father, she had five years of rigorous convent education, with forays into French society.   She later stressed the importance of educating her own eleven children, giving her daughters more than lessons in drawing and needlework, as expected from society at the time. She established a school on the grounds of her home, near Monticello, with study in “mathematics, history, literature, and languages.”

Kerrigan connects Sally Hemings to the family by identifying her as the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law and his mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings.  Martha, Jefferson’s wife, had inherited the Hemings slaves from her mother and had brought them to Monticello when her father died.   Later, Sally accompanied Maria (Polly), Patsy’s younger sister when Jefferson brought them to Paris.  As she matured into a beautiful sixteen year old, possibly pregnant with her first child by Jefferson, she considered staying in Paris with her brother, an aspiring chef.  Knowing returning to America would take away the freedom she had in France, she negotiated freedom for herself and all her children, who were by parentage seven-eighths white.  I found an interesting historical note relating to Patsy, making me wonder about that promise.

“In 1834, Patsy dictated an informal addendum to her will, instructing her children that she wished that her half-aunt Sally Hemings would be given her freedom, but that would also mean that, according to state law, the now-elderly mistress of Jefferson would be forced to leave Virginia. It became moot since Sally Hemings died a year before Patsy.”

Although Kerrison spreads her research across all three sisters, Martha, Maria, and Harriet (Sally’s daughter), I focused on Martha, since she is the heroine of the fictional tale in America’s First Daughter.  I wondered if Martha’s determination to become a cloistered nun, thwarted by her father’s spoiling her with luxurious clothes and fancy balls, would be in the fictional tale. I wondered about her marriage at seventeen to Randolph, two months after returning to Virginia from Paris.  I wondered how Martha’s relationship to her father would appear in fiction.  I wondered if Harriet would appear at all in the fictional story of America’s First Daughter.

Martha holds the focus in Kerrigan’s research.  Maria, her younger sister died young giving birth to a child and not much information is available about Harriet as a young slave in the household.

An interesting note, however, has Kerrigan trying desperately to locate Harriet’s descendants, noting in her article for the Washington Post –  “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter?” that Harriet assumed the role of a white woman when she was finally freed from plantation life.  In her book, Kerrigan details Harriet’s education, clothing, and contacts, as well as money from Jefferson for a coach to carry her to Philadelphia and away from slavery when she was twenty-one – all helpful for making the transition into a new secret life.  Like Kerrigan, I could only find conjecture about Harriet’s life and descendents – the secret seems well kept.  But I wonder if a fictional account might be forthcoming someday about Harriet, who she became, and how she thrived in her new world. It would be a book I’d like to read.

I’ve satisfied my curiosity.  Full of Kerrigan’s research, I am ready to read the fictional tale of America’s First Daughter.  Knowing the facts,  I know I will enjoy the story more, despite the authors’ tangent into a murder mystery.  If you are about to read America’s First Daughter, you might consider Kerrison’s book as a companion read.  Kerrigan’s book is full of facts and research but she delivers the information in an easily readable format, despite its length – 450 pages.    (First Daughter has 624 pages.)

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

shopping   If you remember Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, you will recognize the same venue – Baltimore – and a similar woman in crisis manipulating the suspense in her new novel – Lady in the Lake.  Lippman calls this a newspaper novel, using real sources for credibility, while imagining an attractive thirty-something woman’s climb to popular columnist, deftly using the bodies she finds along the way to further her career.

I can think of a number of actresses who might want to play the role of Madeline Schwarz; she’s attractive, smart, feisty, and sexy.  Once she decides to leave her comfortable twenty year marriage with Milton, nothing will stop her from pursuing her dream job of being a journalist.  After she and her friend discover the dead body of Tessie Fine, she finesses her correspondence with the accused murderer in jail to get a low-level position at the Star, Baltimore’s afternoon newspaper.  With this taste of success, she decides to pursue another death of a young girl, Cleo, found in a city park lake fountain and nicknamed the lady in the lake.  These two murders drive the plot, while Maddie’s struggles with herself and the system capture our attention.

Although Maddie is the main voice in the story, Lippman cleverly diverts to others who connect with her, giving short chapters to their voices: Maddie’s lover, the newsman who covers the police beat, a Baltimore Orioles baseball player after a game, the mother of the murder victim, a psychic, and others.  The most persistent voice is Cleo’s ghost, as she reacts to Maddie’s interviews with family and friends, and her message is consistent – stop prying.

Maddie appears needy and coldly ambitious. She manages to ruin a few lives as she uncovers the truth, and she pays for her mistakes in blood.  Lippman ties up the loose strings, answering all questions in the end, but not without a double twist I did not see coming.

Related Review:  Thrillers with Heat

I Needed a Plot

The list of books I’ve started to read is growing.  Each had something to offer but it took a while before I found one with a plot.

shopping I couldn’t explain my quiet laughter to my husband as I read Cathy Guisewite’s Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault.  How could he appreciate trying on a pair of jeans in a department store dressing room?  After all, her funny book is described as  “a look at the challenges of womanhood”; her audience is not men.  If you remember her wry comic strip “Cathy,” you will find yourself back in the world of hilarious insecurity and funny truth telling.  I hadn’t finished all the essays before returning the book to the library, but I’ve bought a copy and plan to open it randomly whenever I need a restorative boost.

UnknownMelinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift simultaneously shamed me into realizing all the good deeds I have not yet done and reassured me of what some women choose to do with their influence – and money. She teased my curiosity about her private life before and after Bill, but most of the chapters focus on the changing of societal goals she supports:  family planning, educating girls, women in the workplace, and women’s equality. Although she sprinkles her insights with anecdotes from their marriage, her main purpose seems to be to highlight their good works in third world countries and how it has improved lives.  Some of her deductions applied to women’s empowerment  in Africa may seem a little over simplified here:

“The process of changing from a male-dominated culture to a culture of gender equality must be supported by a majority of community members, including powerful men who come to understand that sharing power with women allows them to achieve goals they couldn’t achieve if they relied on their power along.  That itself serves as the greatest safeguard agains any overbearing bossiness from outsiders.”

Her note reminded me of a colleague who described her experience as the only woman administrator in a meeting to determine policy.  Although she had some good ideas, none of the men listened to them.  “Too bad,” she told me later, “I could have made them look good.”  The best she thought she might have accomplished was to have her ideas absconded by the men.

I skimmed over the last few chapters to the epilogue with her adage: “Love is what lifts us up.”  And then I remembered the epigraph at the beginning of the book – a quote from Marianne Williamson, guru and current candidate for President of the United States.  Maybe next I’ll look for Mackenzie Bezos’ book, or one by one of Warren Buffet’s wives?

thOcean Vuong has a conversation with his dead Vietnamese mother in a language she doesn’t speak or read, as he reflects on his life.  Stream of consciousness – no plot. Dwight Garner’s review for the New York Times noted “this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song ‘The River’ in its second half.” I stopped before I got there. Have you read it?

UnknownI needed a book with a plot, so I turned to the new Kate Atkinson book on my shelf – Big Sky.  I had not read her Jackson Brodie detective novels, but liked her other books.  Since detective novels are usually full of disparate characters, and the plot inevitably will lead to the solving of a murder or two, I thought reading this would be a mindless effort. But this is Kate Atkinson who requires the reader to pay attention, and who included subplots and tangents in her stories.  Big Sky was entertaining with secrets and lies, a sinister network of corruption, and a few asides to Brodie’s life in his thoughtful meanderings.  It has a complicated plot – not what I expected – but finally, a plot to try to follow.

Related Reviews:

Life After Life by Atkinson

Transcription

Summer of ’69

I missed my chance to meet Elin Hilderbrand in June on the Cape, but my friend sent me her book, with a personalized note from the author.

th    It took longer than I had anticipated to read Hilderbrand’s Summer of ’69, but maybe I really didn’t want to leave the Nantucket beaches, imagining myself eating lobster and ice cream, while walking the storied town. Following Hilderbrand’s New England family while they summered in Nantucket and Edgartown transported me.  The times seemed simpler, yet it was a year with its own excitement – the landing on the moon, Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident, and Woodstock are all featured in the story.

The women are the main features: Kate, her mother, and her three girls control the narrative, with peripheral husbands, one a scientist who is working on the moon landing and another who visits on weekends.  A son who is fighting in the Vietnam War ventures into the story on the sidelines through letters and flashbacks, and assorted boyfriends represent the good and bad of the times, with a nod to MeToo.  But Kate, Blair, Kirby, and Jessica are the stars – each offering perspective from a range of ages – from a blossoming thirteen year old to a rebellious free spirit, along with a soon to be mother of twins, and a distraught mother drinking away each day from worry about her son in the war  The determined grandmother has her moments as she vainly tries to control the lives of her daughter and granddaughters, but each has her own battle with herself, and in the end overcomes self-doubt and outside influences to have a happy ending.

A good beach read – even if you are not at the beach.