Tag Archives: family relationships

The Miniaturist

37-Petronella-Oortmans-dolls-house-Rijksmuseum-Amsterdam_grande

Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse on display at the Rijksmuseum

Using a cabinet currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam built in the late 17th century to replicate Petronella Oortman’s luxurious townhouse in the center of the city, Jesse Burton creates a tale around a poor eighteen year old girl in an arranged marriage to a wealthy Dutch merchant in The Miniaturist.

As Nella struggles to find a place in her new opulent home, her husband, Johannes, leaves her alone, disappearing for days, never consummating the marriage, while her new unmarried sister-in-law bristles at the competition for control of the household.  To appease her loneliness, Johannes buys Nella a replica of their house – a large doll house – and instructs her to find a craftsman, a miniaturist,  to fill it with miniature furniture.

9780062306845_p0_v2_s192x300Suddenly, the Miniaturist takes control of the plot.  With eerie foreshadowing and obscure messages the Miniaturist predicts Nella’s life, sending her new pieces for her dollhouse before she requests them.  A sudden shocking revelation changes the momentum and story evolves into a cross between an Alfred Hitchcock mystery and Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

I enjoyed every bit, anticipating the next surprise – a betrayal, secret lovers, a baby – with a warehouse of sugar both sweetening and decaying the characters. To be immersed in the drama, you must suspend belief.  Burton paints an authentic picture of the old Dutchmen: the burgermeisters with their forbidding rules of the city, the power and wealth of merchants, and the strict Calvinist Minister dictates – all adding to the intrigue.

Review: The Night Circus

 

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

9781101906750_p0_v2_s192x300Although Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir begins with lovely letters and seemingly benign characters, her story quickly escalates to a baby kidnapping and a testament to the power of women.  With the men of the town off to war, the women of the little town in England form their own women’s choir, their catalyst to independence and determination.

Letters and journal entries move the action, a nod to Britain’s Mass Observation project referenced in Ryan’s Acknowledgments; the social research organization encouraged keeping diaries and journals to document ordinary citizen’s coping with the war.  Members of the choir reveal their thoughts as well as the action of the story through the journal of a precocious twelve year old, Kitty; letters from her older and beautiful sister, Venetia to her friend in London; the menacing letters of Edwina Paltry, the conniving town midwife; the journal of Mrs. Tilling, widow, nurse, town conscience and the short entries of Sylvie, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret.

The men are heroes and villains – a brutish husband bribing a midwife to switch babies, a handsome dilettante with a mysterious mission, a gruff widowed Colonel with a lot to offer, and assorted swains – some rich, some connected, some just handsome.  Ryan highlights the strength of the women on the home front as each struggles with her own destiny, grows stronger through adversity, and, in the end, lives happily ever after – with the choir as the bonding agent throughout.

With the same charming flavor as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir includes romance, adventure, and mystery with a touch of the horrors of war.

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

9780544808249_p0_v2_s192x300  Elinor Lipman uses her witty banter to deliver a frothy and pleasurable read in her latest novel On Turpentine Lane.  The story revolves around an old house, recently purchased by Faith Frankel, a thirty-something whose boyfriend is walking across the country like Forest Gump.  Lipman’s strength lies in her characters as they meander through ridiculous situations, now and then offering zingers of truth about how people deal with life – through grudges, betrayals, romance – even murder.

An easy read, On Turpentine Lane has all the qualities of a romantic comedy, with a murder mystery mingled into the plot of a small town drama.  After Faith discovers a strange Polaroid in the attic, the local police inform her the former owner – a ninety year old not-dead-yet maven, who may have pushed two husbands down the steep cellar stairs, is living nearby in a nursing home.  As the investigation simmers, Faith’s father, an insurance salesman, has an epiphany and becomes a painter of Chagall imitations, with images of paying customers in replicas of the artist’s surreal work.  In the meantime, Faith decides to stop financing Stuart (Forest Gump) and connect with her handsome colleague, Nick Franconi,  who shares her work space in the development office of a private children’s school.  Nick moves into the Turpentine Lane house, and when Stuart runs out of money and returns, Faith conveniently connects him to Nick’s former girlfriend.

Although the comedic force follows a sitcom formula,  Lipman’s undercurrent grounds the story with perfectly aimed asides, driving the action fast and tight.  All pieces and characters neatly connect and the murder mystery is solved.  Life may be hilarious in a Lipman drama, but it always has an element of truth connecting the reader to something relatable and real.

I’ve enjoyed many of Lipman’s stories.  My favorite may always be her essay “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.”

Related Reviews:

Eleanor Lipman: Fiction and Nonfiction

The Family Man

This Was a Man – The Final Volume of the Clifton Chronicles

9781250061638_p0_v6_s192x300  With the same fast-paced intensity as the six books leading up to this final entry in The Clifton Chronicles,  Jeffrey Archer’s This Was a Man leads the reader back to the family saga of the Barringtons and the Cliftons.  Although the last two books included my name ( a result of winning a contest), this final volume has no Ph.D. with good advice.  The main characters do return, and Archer successfully reminds the reader of past adventures but it would be easier to binge read all the books together – if you could.

Cunard has bought out the Barrington ocean liners, Harry has been knighted, and Margaret Thatcher is in office, with Emma newly appointed to championing a health care bill. Villains return too, with Lady Virginia artfully and greedily worming her evil through the scenes.

Archer skillfully addresses each family member in the line, providing successful outcomes as their lives continue to develop and interact.  Despite the novel’s length and the complications of following a number of characters across dissecting story lines, Archer has the unique ability to maintain clarity, helping the reader follow with anticipation and sometimes with empathy, as he weaves his storytelling drama across generations.

The character Harry Clifton offers an undeniable clue to the ending of Archer’s last volume – it really is the end –  and Archer uses his last pages to revisit highlights of his previous six novels.   The family saga is over.  But maybe it will reappear someday as a modern Forsythe Saga in a BBC special drama series.  I would welcome it to my Sunday nights.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…