Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

Chances Are…

Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, yet when you finally get together, you fall into a comfortable conversation as though you had seen each other just yesterday?  Good friends are like that.

In Richard Russo’s Chances Are... three college friends reunite on Martha’s Vineyard after years apart, and find they connect as they had years earlier, with an easy camaraderie but haunted by the ghost of the woman they all loved.  The old Johnny Mathis song in the book title creates the theme for Richard Russo’s latest story of relationships as Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey struggle through a long weekend of memories and surprising revelations.

I always imagine Paul Newman as one of Russo’s character, reprising his role in the movie adaptation of Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” None of the three main characters in Chances Are seem to have Newman’s charisma but together they present a dazzling composite.  Lincoln is a successful realtor in Las Vegas, who has inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother, and is now considering selling it. Teddy is owner of a small publishing house in upstate New York, who suffers from debilitating episodes.  Mickey, who went to Canada for a few years to avoid the Vietnam War draft, is a musician living on the island.

As their pasts are revealed, fathers figure prominently in their influence, all strangely different for each man, from Lincoln’s strict Calvinist father who tolerated no one, to Teddy’s pseudo intellectual father who had no time for anyone, to Mickey’s father of a large family who expected his youngest child and only son to follow his lead.  But the key character and major influence on the three college boys who bonded over working as hashers in a sorority house on campus was one of those sorority sisters – Jacy.  A seemingly free spirit, Jacy was the mascot to their group – their fourth Musketeer.

The mystery of Jacy’s disappearance years ago provides the suspense as the story evolves around the discovery of what really happened.  Russo delivers a surprising solution in his big reveal at the end of the novel, but the satisfaction of reading how each man developed and maintained a sense of community overwhelms the finale.

Russo, with acerbic wit and irreverence balances stories of his characters coming of age after college with their inevitable struggles as they are entering old age years later when they meet again. Their bond seems to have been the girl but Russo confirms they still have a strong connection beyond their youthful adoration of Jacy. They were there for each other as young men and Russo refreshes their connection years later.  Can their friendship last after all the secrets are revealed? Chances are their chances are awfully good…

The Dutch House

My old friend’s younger face stared at me from the cover of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, as I wandered through the airport bookstore.  I had just left her husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and the moment of her last goodbye as she bent over the coffin, surrounded by the military color guard, was still with me.  Looking back on his life seemed like a fast forward through time, full of moments of joy and sadness – some only he and my friend shared alone.  Ann Patchett captured this colorama of life as she focused on one family’s life journey in her book, based in a place I grew up – the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I read through The Dutch House from Washington D.C. to Honolulu, never turning on the movie screen in front of me, and time flew by as I did.  I noted Bishop McDevitt High School, where my brother and I cheered the basketball team, Abington Memorial Hospital where my father and brother died, the references to Elkins Park, the neighborhood a cut above it all,  and Jenkintown, with its old library, all within the radius of my childhood home.  I followed Danny and Maeve from childhood to funerals, and gladly immersed myself in a world of characters Patchett created.

If you’ve read Patchett’s books, you know she is all about the characters and the place.  In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Patchett gives her reason for setting the house in the story in Elkins Park:

“I was looking for a tony suburb that was near New York, because New York would definitely play into the story. And I have a very close friend, Erica Buchsbaum Schultz, who is originally from Wyncote {the actual site of Bishop McDevitt High School}.. And when I was in college [at Sarah Lawrence], I would always go to her family’s house for weekends, because I lived too far away [in Nashville]…I like to write in a place that I know, but maybe not too well. I would never set a book in Nashville. If I know a place too well, I get overburdened with details.”

But she got her descriptions right.  I know – I grew up there – and it added to the pleasure of reading the book for me.  There was my friend on the cover and in a place where we both grew up.

The story is unlike anything I knew when I was there, however, and maybe a little fantastic. A mother, overcome with guilt over her husband’s new wealth, cannot accommodate living in a glorious mansion with servants and expensive art, and leaves her three year old son and eleven year old daughter, to go to India to help with the poor.  Danny, the son, is the narrator, as we follow his journey from his life in a glass house to his reunion as an adult with his mother. Martha Southgate for the New York Times calls the story a fairy tale, and it does have the wicked stepmother with her two selfish daughters, and a few fairy godmothers.  Danny is not Cinderella, but he and his sister Maeve, do lose the comforts of wealth when their father dies.  Despite all the obstacles they have to overcome and the suffering they endure, Danny and Maeve thrive, and the wicked stepmother gets her due.

Unlike a fairy tale, Patchett weaves a story about characters you can care about, and offers so much for a discussion – great book for a book club, just like her Commonwealth.

Thank you, Ann Patchett, for delivering a book for publication, and as my friend’s husband would say, your timing for me, “was exactly right.”

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.

The Dakota Winters

One generation measures time from the day John F. Kennedy was shot; yet another from the day John Lennon was shot in front of the Upper West Side Dakota apartment building.  If you are familiar with New York City and a fan of the late nineteen seventies, Tom Barbash offers a familiar ride through time and place. Despite the slow moving plot and the expected finale of Lennon’s death, the references to history are entertaining and nostalgic.

Having barely survived his Peace Corps experience in Africa, twenty-three year old Anton Winter returns to New York City to recover from malaria and reincarnate his famous father’s talk show career.  Buddy Winter may be based on a number of famous late night hosts, but Jack Parr seems to be the closest in temperament and panache, and Barbash makes the connection in Buddy Winter’s Phil Donahue interview, referring to Parr’s famous  walk off on the Tonight Show in the nineteen sixties in the middle of a show stating, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.” The fictitious Buddy walks off the set after a nervous breakdown.

John Lennon is a neighbor of the Winters at the Dakota, and Barbash portrays him as a regular guy with Yoko as the entitled and precocious wife who defined the Millennial attitude long before any of them were born. With its famous Gothic facade and its water-powered elevators, the building itself is a main character, having housed many famous people, including Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall, and Boris Karloff, a previous occupant of the Winters’ apartment.

John and Anton bond over a sailing trip to Bermuda, where a triangle storm almost capsizes their boat.  They all survive with John released from his writer’s block and composing again.  The narrative alternates between conversations revealing the real John Lennon through his friendship with Anton, and Anton’s struggle to create his own life free of his father’s dependence on him.  The imagined conversations are easy to believe, as the plot gallops to the inevitable ending.

Barbash imagines a Beatles reunion on Buddy Winter’s new show in January, but John Lennon is shot outside the Dakota in December.  Lennon was only 40 years old when he died but Barbash brought him back to life in The Dakota Winters. 

An Added Note:

48461452-Cover-Dakota-NYC-Most-Exclusive-Building-CNBC.600x400Although the Dakota on 72nd and Central Park West is home today to Yoko Ono and Connie Chung, among others, the co-op remains one of the hardest to get into in Manhattan. Cher, Madonna, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and even Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas have all been rejected by the building’s selective board.