Once Upon a Time…a few books with happy endings

No matter the journey – from Moriarty’s clever twists and heart-stopping foils to Elizabeth Berg’s magical realism, Diane Setterfield’s Gothic mystery, and Tara Westover’s shocking revelations – when the ending neatly slays the dragons, and the good guys win – all is well with the story.

51-+rlhp5gl._ac_us218_Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty knows how to spin a tale and she does not disappoint in her latest page turner Nine Perfect Strangers.  Nine strangers at an upscale spa connect in her tale of self discovery, with humor, mystery, and a few heart stopping thrills.  Each has a different motive for signing up for the ten day rejuvenation plan, from the young couple who need marriage counseling after winning the lottery to the overwrought romance writer who has been taken in by an internet scam.  Others include the thirty something woman with four girls whose husband left her for a twenty something, a handsome gay divorce attorney, an over-the-hill sports hero, and a grieving family of three. Throw in a Russian overachiever with diabolical intent, and Moriarty once again has produced a fun and thrilling fast ride.

513lhruwtul._ac_us218_Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield creates a Gothic mystery around a “dark and stormy night” during the winter solstice over one hundred years ago with a mute child brought back from the dead after drowning in the river.  Three separate families claim the girl as their own – Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe she’s their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think she’s their illegitimate grandchild ; and Lily White hopes she’s her lost sister.  As the plot meanders through the town and the river, I sometimes got lost in the flashbacks. The complicated mystery is solved quickly at the end, but the rapid decompression may give you the bends.  Like Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale, Once Upon a River has scenes shifting through time with strong characters at the helm.

th  Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg knows how to dish out comfort, and in Night of Miracles the food helps.  You’ll be salivating at the midnight chocolate cake, the butterscotch dreams, and the cream cheese lemon bars   Lucille Howard from The Story of Arthur Trulove returns in the familiar town of Mason, Missouri, where she is now at eighty-eight years old teaching classes on baking.  Arthur’s adopted daughter, Maddy, and his granddaughter, continue to be a part of her life.  A few new characters add flavor:  Iris Winters, looking for a fresh start in a new town; Monica, the waitress; Tiny, a local man and frequent customer pining for Monica; the young couple next door to Lucille facing a health crisis, and their son Lincoln. When Lucille receives an ethereal night visitor in her dreams, the angel of death in jeans and a flannel shirt,  you will wonder if no more sequels are forthcoming.  Nonetheless, the story is full of good people doing good things for each other – oblivious of the rancor in the outside world – a tonic and a lesson of hope.

41qzuq2h2wl._ac_us218_Educated by Tara Westover

If happy endings make you smile, this coming of age memoir will make you gasp.  With a fundamentalist upbringing on a Morman Idaho homestead, Tara Westover embellishes her hard journey to success and graduate degrees in Education.  Although she admits she might have gotten some of the facts mixed up, memory being what it is (especially when you’ve suffered a number of head injuries from car crashes and beatings), Westover’s harrowing account of survival is sometimes difficult to digest.  Her tale is her catharsis, but not everyone will want to know all those details. Hopefully, she’ll move on to using her Cambridge Ph.D. to write about other topics.

Last Sunday in November Roundup

Short comments on a few books:

  • Love and Other Consolations by Jamie Ford

Another immigrant story – this one centers on a Chinese boy sold at the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair, as he looks back on his life fifty years later at Seattle’s second World’s Fair.

  • The Breakdown by B. A. Paris

Finally finished listening to this thriller! I had it on Audible, and found myself increasing the speed when the diary- like texts revealed the collusion. Think “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman being systemstically driven mad by a greedy husband. The surprise is whodunit – not Charles Boyer this time.

  • The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg connects three sad souls who find redemption in each other. Arthur has lunch everyday at his wife’s grave, and while imagining the lives under the other headstones, he meets pregnant teenage Maddie whose mother died soon after she was born. After Maddie moves into Arthur’s big house, his 83 year old next door neighbor Lucille loses an old love (after finding him again after 60 years), and moves in with Arthur too.  Full of life lessons and philosophical bon mots, the book is in good company with others having unique names in the title – Penumbra, Fikry, Pettigrew…

  • Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Although I pre-ordered this highly touted coming of age tale of a recent college grad (lit major) who tries to make it in the big city by working as a backwaiter at a high-end restaurant, I could never get into it.  Since it was still on my iPhone, I tried again.  The book is divided into the four seasons, beginning with Summer.  I made it through Autumn and most of Winter before skipping to the end of Spring, following 22-year-old Tess’ initiation into the world of fine dining and hedonism. As she learns the ropes of restaurant work, she falls for bad-boy bartender Jake, and makes her first forays into wine, drugs, lust, betrayal and adulthood.  I still think the book is overrated, but I might appreciate it more when Brad Pitt produces the Starz series drama for television.

The Dream Lover and Marianne

9780812993158_p0_v1_s260x420Before reading Elizabeth Berg’s historical fiction The Dream Lover, my image of the author George Sand was the cigar-smoking, cross-dressing lover of Chopin, as portrayed by Judy Davis in the 1990’s movie Impromptu.  George Sand, born Aurore Dupin, is more than her movie stereotype, and halfway through reading Berg’s book, I stopped to find one of George Sands’ novels.  I had never read one.

The only book available in my library system was Marianne:

Marilyn French in her essay for the New York Times – More Than the Sum of Her Sex Life – motivated me to read more when she wrote about Sand:

This (Marianne) is one of Sand’s last works, a short pastoral romance, a love story in which the impediments arise not from external events but from the psychologies of the characters themselves. It is charming and utterly believable…One subject frequently found in Sand’s work – the attitudes of propertied men toward marriage and women as appropriate grounds for male exploitation – is only backdrop in this novel, although social pressures are as intricately woven into its fabric as are the joys of nature. The translation is a pleasure to read…

French’s forward in “Marianne” uses almost as many pages as Sands’ story,, but reading her short review of George Sands’ life created a good point of reference. Sands’ “Marianne” is only about 80 pages, and, at first, seems to be a lovely romance between a young woman and her older guardian. But Sands’ auspicious opinions on women and women’s rights quickly seep through the lines, providing a provocative as well as entertaining story. I plan to find more by Sands (she wrote over 100 pieces).

Berg, one of my favorite authors, detours from her usual fare of contemporary issues and follows her research well in delivering a readable and informative story in The Dream Lover about the French writer who has been ranked with Victor Hugo.  The story alternates between George’s childhood and her adult life as a writer.  No one living at that time could understand her passion – for men (and women), for her children, for writing, for living her own life on her own terms.  Perhaps few could understand it today, but more women are willing to try. Because Berg chooses key elements in the author’s life to evoke sympathy rather than criticism of her life decisions, the struggle of wanting it all – a career as a writer, a life as wife and mother, a satisfying romantic relationship – is sad and difficult to follow at times.

But after reading French’s introduction and Sands’ “Maraianne,” I’ve decided to begin again to read Berg’s The Dream Lover – with a better perspective on George Sands and relishing the discovery of how her life influenced her work.

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Epistolaries

After finishing The Divorce Papers, a friend noted that she too liked epistolaries – motivating me to find more.  Now on my to-read list:

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  • The Documents in the Case – (Dorothy Sayers crime novel)
  • Herzog (Saul Bellow)
  • The Pull of the Moon (Elizabeth Berg)
  • The Letters (Luanne Rice and Joe Monninger)
  • The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Do you have a favorite epistolary to recommend?

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The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

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Elizabeth Berg is one of my favorite authors and when I accidentally found her Christmas story, The Handmaid and the Carpenter, it seemed the perfect companion as I listened to Christmas carols and sat before the burning logs on my television screen on Christmas Eve.  Berg’s cadence lends a Biblical tone to the well-known tale, but her modern explanations would probably scandalize Sister Eugene Marie, IHM.

Although the good sisters in my Catholic upbringing urged belief without question, Berg frames the character of Mary as one who questions Joseph, authority, everything – a budding teenager with a zest for life and an affinity for herbs and plants.  Sixteen year old Joseph is not thrilled to learn of her pregnancy, but marries her anyway.  He seems not as convinced of angel intervention as Mary, although Berg supplies a scene with Mary and a stranger that offers an alternative reality. The romance blossoms into a fruitful marriage, with many more children after the auspicious birth of their Son.

Alternating between Mary and Joseph, Berg keeps to the traditional story, offering their inner thoughts and fears, but always carefully and reverently maintaining the Biblical references.  I read the book in a few hours and enjoyed the peaceful feeling it left with me.

Reviews of Other Books By Elizabeth Berg: