Little Fires Everywhere

Unknown-2   Rather than putting out small fires to keep ahead, Celeste Ng proposes letting them roar and flame to cleanse and start anew in her novel Little Fires Everywhere.  The story begins with a fire destroying a house, but with the reassurance of lives saved, and possibly renewed.  As Ng backtracks to lead the reader to the moment of flameout, her characters expose how differences can be threatening as well as as freeing.

Mia, a talented artist who settles into a small town outside of Cleveland, is the heart of the story.  Leading a vagabond life with her teen-age daughter, Pearl, Mia works as a waitress to sustain her real vocation in art. Although the mother and daughter usually stay only a short time in a town, leaving after Mia completes her latest art work and ships it to New York for sale, this time they plan to stay longer – maybe settling.

Their landlord is Elena Richardson with family roots dating back generations, connecting  to political and social wealth.  Having opted for small town prestige rather than dangerous adventure in the outside world, she returned to the town after graduation, worked as a journalist for the small town newspaper, married her college sweetheart who became the town attorney, had four children in five years, and comfortably settled into a predictable life.  Three of her children follow the same formula: Tripp, the eldest handsome seventeen year old with dimples and success in sports – the high school ladies man; Lexie, the popular and pretty sixteen year old girl; Moody, intelligent and quieter than his siblings.  They are all elegant foils for the artsy freedom and open-mindedness of Mia and Pearl.

Only the youngest, Izzy, seems to fall out of pattern, stretching the limits and often getting into trouble – but for all the right reasons.   The author tells us Izzy has set the fire, but it takes reading to the end of the novel to discover her motivation.

As the author slowly unravels each character’s background, she offers reasons for their inclinations and actions.  Several unlikely connections begin to proliferate the tension and drama: Pearl and Moody become friends, Elena hires Mia to clean her house and cook her meals in exchange for rent, and Elena’s childhood friend who cannot have children tries to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby.

With astute observations of how this WASP community operates, Ng cleverly exposes their underlying prejudice.  Of course, none of the townspeople would see their zoning or country club style of living as restrictive.  After all, Lexie has a Black boyfriend whose parents are compared to the Cosby television series parents – lawyer and doctor with upper middle class mores.  And the few Asians who go to school with Elena’s children fit the stereotype of bright and polite.  The courtroom scene may be the highlight of Ng’s final thrust at ignorance when the Asian attorney questions Elena’s friend about her intentions for raising a Chinese baby; her claims of instilling culture by eating at a Chinese restaurant and reading the children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers should make the reader cringe.

Elena Richardson’s relentless pursuit to uncover Mia’s past reminded me of a comment I heard directed at a group of women.  This disingenuously polite discussion leader noted her dislike for anyone not willing to share personal secrets because, after all, she claimed, friendships are only formed when persons of interest are willing to open up and expose their vulnerable sides.  The notion scared me; why would I want anyone, everyone, to know all about me, especially someone like Elena, who proved her willingness to use information to destroy.  We all let pieces of ourselves seep out, as needed, and only a few trusted friends know more about us than others who stay on the periphery of relationships.  For Elena, knowledge was power, but only within the parochial confines of her small world.  For Mia, small-mindedness had no place in her world.

Mia’s relationships with Pearl and Izzy create a safe haven, as she doggedly pursues her art.  As Mia’s past life is slowly revealed, her character becomes more and more in contrast to Elena.  Ng uses Mia as a sympathetic voice for women who do what they must to survive and thrive – outside society’s norms.  By the end, I had respect for Mia, despite some of her decisions, and pity for Elena.

If you read Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, you know she thrives on mystery.  I’ve added her to my short list of authors like Patchett and Shreve who always deliver a good story; I can’t wait for her next book.

 

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Ask a Librarian

Nancy Pearl, noted National Public Radio (NPR) commentator and former librarian, mentioned her search for plot heavy books and fast-moving stories to read over the summer.  Summer is over where Nancy lives, but it never goes away here, and my need for plot driven books just surfaced.

Reviewing Nancy Pearl’s list for NPR, I found three books.  Only one is in my library system, but I sent away for all three, on my couch potato internet shopping spree (I bought cookies and nuts too).  I hope all meet my expectations.

The books:

shoppingThe first is a murder mystery – Design for Dying by Renee Patrick

In 1937, a young woman named Lillian Frost comes to Hollywood to make her fortune. She’s very beautiful, and like many girls at that time, she wants to be discovered by some famous director who sits next to her at a soda fountain. Then, one of her former roommates is found dead wearing a dress that has been stolen from the Paramount Studios. Lillian recognizes the dress and decides to take on the job of finding out whodunit.

Pearl promises “great fun” as the detectives meet movie stars in their youth – Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck among the classic movie greats.  Although the book was published last year, the second in this series, Dangerous to Know, has already been published

Unknown  The second is Lions by Bonnie Nazdam.

Pearl hooked me with her comment: …”fans of Kent Haruf’s novels will find this novel to their liking…”  Although Robert Redford playing Louis Waters,  Haruf’s character lead in the movie version of one of his best books, Our Souls at Night, may have some merit,  I miss Haruf’s writing, and I missed this book when it was published last year.

Lions is the story of the last 11 people who live in a Colorado town; the story focuses on Gordon, and his longtime girlfriend, Leigh, who have for years planned to go away to school and escape the town.  Sounds deliciously ironic.

shopping-1  And finally, a new novel just published and the one hardback in the group, The Widow Nash by Jamie Harrison

When Dulcy’s father dies in 1904, he takes the secret of where his wealth is stashed with him.  Posing as his widow, she sets off on an adventure in Montana to find his fortune.

Pearl says: “What keeps you reading is not just the quality of the writing…but also to find out: Is she going to do this? Can this be successful? Or is she going to be found out? ”   Jean Zimmerman for the New York Times lists The Widow Nash as one of the new novels “depicting valiant women of old America.”

Nancy Pearl says – “I want the pages to turn…”  so do I…and the time to fly…

Related Review:  Our Souls At Night

The Fall Guy

9780393292329_198   James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  With astute observations of those around him,  Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.

When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first.  Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.

As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail.  This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all.  Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.

When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions.  The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect.  The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.

Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –

…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”

I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent.  The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.

 

 

Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?

 

Cocoa Beach

Unknown   Despite Beatriz Williams’ complicated plots with murder, deceit, and harrowing escapes, she always delivers a happy ending, and Cocoa Beach is no exception.  With American volunteers in London during World War I, wealthy aristocrats in Cornwall, and rumrunners at a posh plantation in Florida during the Prohibition, the varied settings add to the historical context of a fast-paced melodrama of romance and intrigue.

Virginia Fortesque, young American volunteer ambulance driver, meets Simon Fitzwilliam, the tall dashing British doctor, and, of course, they fall in love as she drives him across the battlefields.  Their lives are complicated by their families.  She has a wealthy father who has been imprisoned for murdering her mother; he has a wife and son, with a huge debt attached to the ancestral home.

When the war ends, he divorces his wife, marries Virginia, and leaves to make his fortune at the downtrodden family investment in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while she returns to her family in New York.  When he dies suddenly, she and their two year old daughter travel to Florida to settle the estate.  And so the real story begins.

Williams cleverly changes tacks frequently, as she alternates between the war years and the present in 1922.  No one is who they seem, and the intrigue hardens into murder for greed, with lies about everything.  The reader is never sure who is telling the truth until the end.

Virginia remains the only character who is decent and true, the victim of the villains surrounding her.  If you read Williams’ A Certain Age, you may remember her as a minor character whose father is accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.  Williams fleshes out her story in Cocoa Beach, with her usual successful combination of romance, mystery and murder, adding a dash of prohibition and infidelity, and the compelling formula of distracting foils and dangerous tension.

Fun and compelling – Cocoa Beach is a great beach read.

Review: A Certain Age