Category Archives: Fiction

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

After meeting this author at a literary conference, I bought her book.  I liked the author’s witty presentation and decided her book would be a good companion for my next long flight.  As I usually do with authors new to me, I wondered if my library had any of her books, and found three.

Unknown-1  If you remember the Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors” or the book by Peter Howitt, you will recognize the theme – the consequences of choices.   Reid uses a turning point decision to outline two possibilities for her heroine, Hannah Martin, a displaced Angeleno returning home, confronting her old life and loves.  Chapters alternate between the decision, and the suspense carries both life possibilities into thoughtful dilemmas.

When Hannah meets her old boyfriend after years apart, she recognizes her feelings still offer possibilities with him, but their communication is not as fine-tuned as it once was.  In one scenario, Hannah goes home with him and restarts their love affair; in the other, she goes home with her friends and gets into an almost fatal car accident.  Reid addresses each concurrent storyline with strengths and weaknesses, and keeps the suspense alive, as the reader wonders if the resolution will be the same.  Do small choices have drastic effects on the future? Do decisions matter or are we all fated to come to the same destiny, no matter how we get there?

Reid’s story is a light romance with an appealing twist – a good summer beach read.  The theme of her new book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorites) about a famous author revealing her secrets as she uses a young woman to write her memoir.  In Reid’s book the woman is a fading movie star – another possibility for a long plane ride.

Summer Reinventions

The summer in Hawaii is not very different from the rest of the year, just hotter, more humid, and more tourists.  Most residents are content to live in a place where others can only visit, but can sometimes feel trapped on the farthest rock in the middle of the ocean  Reading may offer an escape on days when the trade winds do not blow and the yearning for a civilized alternate life lingers in the air.  Women in books often reinvent themselves, from Bernadette to Alice, offering a cool escape through their stories.

Unknown Jodi Picoult’s feud with best-selling author Jonathan Franzen kept me from her books.   After her Small Great Things was recommended by two friends, I finally took on the author.  Whether or not her work fits into the category of literary fiction, her book tackles an ugly reality and forces the reader into introspection.  Her expected ending has a surprise twist, somehow forcing her message.  Ruth, her main character, stays true to herself, and it’s the villain who reinvents himself.

Unknown Nina George’s The Little French Bistro weaves romance into a desperate struggle to escape.  With the charm and beauty of a coastal village in Brittany as the setting, sixty year old Marianne casts aside her miserable forty years of marriage and begins again with a new attitude and a better connection.   I missed reading George’s “The Little Paris Bookshop” – another book about new beginnings; reinvention seems to be her theme –  what better place to reinvent yourself than Paris.

Unknown Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk has a sophisticated Dorothy Parker literary aura, as the eighty-five year old New Yorker who lives in Murray Hill reminisces about milestones in her life on New Year’s Eve, 1984. The book is a series of vignettes as she revisits old haunts and recalls important moments in her life represented in restaurants, bars, parks, Penn Station, and Macy’s, where she worked for years as as advertising executive.  The book was inspired by the real life of Margaret Fishback, poet and Macy’s ad-writing wonder of the 1930s.   The neighborhoods have changed over the years as have the people, but Lillian remains curious and loyal, making new friends as she walks – the cop on the beat, the pregnant woman waiting outside the hospital, the store clerk who sells her an amaryllis bulb.  In true New York style, she has also an encounter with three muggers.  Anyone familiar with New York will recognize her – someone who needs no reinvention.  Sprinkled within her reminiscences are lines from Margaret Fishback’s books of poetry.

When life seems gray

And short of fizz

It seems that way

Because it is.

 

 

 

 

 

Elena Ferrante

After resisting Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books for so long, I finally read the first – My Brilliant Friend – for an upcoming book club discussion. As with the Hunger Games series, after reading the first book, I skipped to the last, interested more in how the characters lives were resolved than how they got there.

It’s no spoiler to state one of the two women who drives Ferrante’s first book disappears, nor to note the other is writing about their lives; this begins  My Brilliant Friend – before backtracking to their lives as young girls who become best friends in Naples. With a cast of characters who all live in the neighborhood, the first book curiously ends either as a cliffhanger for the next book or as a despondant resolution for women of that era – depending on whether you see the book as a soap opera tale or a feminist cautionary note.

The last book – The Story of the Lost Child – on the shortlist for the 2016 International Man Booker prize, offers more introspection and additional wry skepticism of how intelligent women fare in the world, but it’s ending and that of the series, reawakened my interest in the author’s identity. Not so much who she is but how she could manage to hide who she is so well.

I had agreed with her statement in an earlier interview about a book being received based on its own merit, regardless of the author’s background, training, or education – an anomoly in today’s literature where the author’s credentials often drive the interest in the book. But I was reminded of a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, who said people would come to see him because of his name but would leave after ten minutes if he did not deliver funny lines. Ferrante delivers with her story of a complicated friendship, with her commentary on the effects of politics, social norms, traditions and expectations, and with the flowing language evident despite the translation from Italian.

But why hide? Suddenly, I remembered the conceit in Stockett’s book “The Help.” An incident (contents of the pie) known to be true could never be acknowledged without revealing the embarrassment of the receiver. If fiction follows truth, would the real Lila who had threatened to erase her friend’s hard drive if she ever dared to reveal their lives, ever acknowledge knowing the author? If the author’s identity was revealed, an immediate pursuit of her background would follow, with speculation on others in the book. Authors often say their characters are fictional amalgams of many – but not always.

On the other hand, the solution could be simpler. The real friend is really dead and cannot speak out – or better yet, the story is entirely fiction – a clever vehicle for the author to make statements about the plight of women. I like the last conjecture the best.

A Book for Your Next Book Club Discussion – Before We Were Yours

Unknown-1The picture of Beulah Georgia Tann, who used her Tennessee Children’s Home Society to sell children, hides all the horror and misery Lisa Wingate uses as the framework for her fictionalized tale of a family of river gypsies caught in the net of children stolen for profit – Before We Were Yours.  Although the corruption was exposed in the media (Sixty Minutes) and nonfiction (Raymond’s 2007 The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgian Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption), the appalling history was new to me.  I remember my grandmother cautioning me about baby stealers, but Tann’s grand scale child trafficking seems more like fiction than the reality it was until the ninety-fifties.  The history is worth discussion.

Briny and Queenie were poor river gypsies with a brood of blond curly-haired children, ranging from a two year old boy to four girls, with twelve year old Rill as the oldest. They live aboard an old boat, the Arcadia, fishing and bartering  with other riverboat people.  When Queenie’ s latest pregnancy ends in the premature birth of twins, the family is suddenly torn apart.  With Queenie in a nearby hospital, the children are stolen from their river barge and sent to one of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society collection sites; it would be a disservice to call it an orphanage.  One by one, each child is bartered out to a new home.

Wingate mixes adventure and romance, cleverly creating mystery and suspense as the story shifts back to the present day investigation of a thirty year old grandchild of one of the stolen children, Judy Stafford.   The Stafford family background remains a secret, and with Judy, the grandmother now suffering from dementia, it might have remained so.  Circumstances trigger Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past, while she struggles with her own future as the possible successor to her father’s political legacy, and her marriage to a longtime friend she is not sure she loves.

As the chapters alternate between 1939 and the present,  the background of the river family and the consequences of Tann’s actions slowly emerge.   The two time frames converge to reveal the children’s fears and hopes.  By using a fictionalized aggregate of the children targeted by the corrupt Tann, Wingate makes the story real.  By teasing the reader with the identity of the grandmother until the end, she creates a page-turner; I read the book in one sitting.

Although Wingate offers her commentary on how lives of privilege may not always be as they seem, the historical context of poor children kidnapped and sold to wealthy families throughout the country from the 1920s to the 1950s carries the importance of the drama.

 

Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland.  One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son.  Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.

The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives.  Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed.  How did Theresa become a nun?  How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years?  Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.

The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box.  I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other.  Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.

For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection.  As the book ended, I wanted more  and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.

Related Review: Maine