Louisiana’s Way Home

9780763694630  The openng lines of Kate DiCamillo’s new book for middle schoolers – Louisiana’s Way Home – reminded me of a resolution I have yet to complete:

“I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatver happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? They will have an answer. They will know.”

I usually avoid reading memoirs, assuming the writer’s memory will have been embellished and cleaned up. But writing my own story for posterity is appealing, especially because I could embellish and clean it up. What has been stopping me? Probably the suspicion of my story being only interesting to me.

Louisiana’s story begins with the curse her grandfather set in motion; mine would mirror it with my grandmother’s power of bestowing a curse, passed through generations.  Be assured, I have not tried wielding her power – not consciously, anyway – and not yet.

Louisiana’s story is “discovering who you are – and deciding who you want to be.”  For fans of DiCamillo, Louisiana may bring back thoughts of Raymie Nightingale, and Raymie is mentioned, but Louisiana has a more compelling story, leaving her friend behind in Florida and starting over in Georgia with a new friend, Burke, who can climb trees and outsmart the vending machine to get free peanuts.

After Granny and Louisiana drive off for a new life, so much happens: Granny loses all her teeth, tells about finding a baby on a pile of rubbish, and deserts the twelve year old. Nevertheless, Louisiana’s steady and optimistic outlook leads her to a new family, a new life, and a happy ending.  The story is at once a sad lesson in hope and a caution to not wallow in fate.  Destiny is what you make it.   Louisiana is abandoned by someone she trusts, tries to work things out on her own, consults with a minister, and finally chooses forgiveness with a new family.   Burke’s grandfather sums up the point of the story when he tells her to  “Take what is offered to you.”

The curse?  Turns out Louisiana never really had one –    only Granny has to contend with that problem.

And DiCamillo delivers another poignant tale of a brave little girl who gets the support of friends from unlikely places and in unexpected ways.  We all need that now and then.

Related ReviewRaymie Nightingale

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…

The After Party

9781594633164_p0_v2_s192x300  At first, I thought I was on the posh set of the old television series Dallas with its rich spoiled young matrons prancing about the country club and gossiping, but Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party is set in Houston and the lives of two friends reveals more than garden party chitchat.

The story is set in the nineteen fifties, neatly using the stereotype of the woman’s role at home and in society to underline the structured lives of the two wealthy main characters – both named Joan.  Friends since their first day of school, Joan Fortier and Joan Cecelia (Cece) Buchanan grow up together in Houston’s debutante society.   Cece willingly gives up her first name and her independence to follow in the shadow of the more beautiful and daring Joan.

Just as she did in her first book, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, DiSclafani simmers her tale for many pages before bringing the plot to a boil with the big reveal of a devastating secret.  The girls’ lives seem shallow and insulated as they meander through parties and bars, more concerned about the latest fashion than the news.  Chapters alternated between the lives of the young girls as they grow into teenagers and their lives as twenty-five year women in Houston society.  Some secrets are revealed – the cause of Cece’s mother’s death; others are tantalizingly dangled until the end.

Throughout the story, Cece, the narrator, assumes the role of protector and savior for her best friend Joan, obsessed with wanting to be with her, even after Cece is married and has her own child.  Cece becomes consumed with wanting to know everything Joan is about, yet she never really succeeds.   After a while, you will want to shake her and tell her to get her own life.  Joan, on the other hand, is the mystery – publicly the most popular girl, attracting the gossip columnists by her prominent place in society and also by her antics, and privately unhappy with her superficial life.  Her periodic disappearances may give a clue to her attitude, but the big reveal affecting her life is not until the end of the book.

Somewhere around the middle of the book, I got caught up in the characters’ lives and realized the substance of the plot was deeper than an historical commentary on big-haired Texans over sixty years ago.  The relationships were the key to understanding the times, not only from the ladies who met weekly over cocktails to the husbands who worked or inherited money in the oil industry, but also to the trusted servants – chauffeurs who saw everything but kept silent and housekeepers who raised the children.  

Family relationships are strained through the generations, especially mother and child.  Joan’s mother fits neatly into the controlling authority who tries to manage her daughter’s life – her public persona anyway – and magnanimously takes in Cece to live in the Fortier mansion after her mother dies.  Cece never has a close relationship to her mother, who dies when Cece is fifteen,  but inherits millions from her and spends it all on fashionable clothes.  But the most curious is Cece’s mothering of her preschool son, Tommy, who does not speak nor look anyone in the eye.  His tendency to autism is ignored by both parents as they concentrate on Joan instead.

After Joan reveals her secret, the books drags on for a few more chapters to tie up lose ends and neatly assign the women’s lives to their proper place in the universe – Joan finally free of the shackles of society, Cece firmly planted in it.  I wondered if the story would have had more impact if it had ended pages earlier, but, overall, the focus on friendship was an excellent vehicle to a time and place in history when money and superficiality reigned for some. And Ray’s summation may have targeted DeSclafani’s view of real intimacy – ” You can’t know someone who doesn’t want to be known.”

Related Review:   The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

Tapestry of Fortunes

After finishing Claire Messud’s stark story of loneliness and betrayal, I needed a 9780812993141_p0_v1_s260x420reaffirmation of the human spirit, and who better than Elizabeth Berg – one of my guilty pleasures – with her latest tale of friendship and happy endings in Tapestry of Fortunes.

The framework resembles Kris Radish’s Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral, but this time the road trip of four friends seeks to bury old lives rather than a body.  Cece Ross has come to a midlife crisis after her best friend Penny dies; unsatisfied with her life as a motivational speaker and writer of self-help books, Cece decides to sell her house, move in with three strangers, and rekindle the true love of her youth. As part of her renewal, she volunteers at a hospice and befriends a dying young man and his fiancee.

The road trip forces all the women (Cece’s new roommates) to face their fears, and make changes in their lives – with the help of fortune telling cards.  All ends well, of course, with Cece reunited with her love, and the others resolving their own issues.

If you are a fan of Berg, you will know the story before it begins, and connect with her thoughtful notes:

“…someone who drives past a house she used to live in and finds it changed feels it in the gut.”

“…I hate this yin-yang life that is always pulling the rug out from beneath your feet…{but} when you lose something…there is room for the next thing.”

” It only needs a small quantity of hope to beget love.” Stendhal

And her reminders of authors to reread:

More Elizabeth Berg books:

  1. Once Upon A Time There Was You
  2. The Last Time I Saw You