Penelope Fitzgerald and others

The ubiquitous Gone Girl never seems to go away.  Gillian Flynn and Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) are paired in an article about books made into movies in this Sunday’s New York Times.  I have yet to read Wild, and may wait for Reese Witherspoon’s version, but I share Bob Odenkirk’s view from his New York Times interview in “By the Book” –

I thought “Gone Girl” pushed the unreliable-narrator gambit past the breaking point. Please don’t hit me with your copy of “Gone Girl.”

Nevertheless, I read the article and admired the two self-posessed American forty-somethings.

Still searching for inspiration, I found Stacy Schiff’s review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography – a new book by Hermione Lee.  Schiff, the biographer of Cleopatra (see my review here ), notes the rediscovery of an older woman who had marinated through most of her life, before producing her first novel at age 60 and winning the Man Booker Prize in 1979 when she was 63 (proving it’s never too late).   The Blue Flower, published when Fitzgerald was 78, is called her masterpiece.

9780395859971_p0_v1_s260x420Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, describes The Blue Flower as a “novel about youth, hope, idealism, and the imagination…

The Blue Flower imagines the families, history and ideas of late 18th-century provincial Germany, the period in which the philosopher Novalis (Fritz von Hardenberg) was a young man, just when Romanticism was emerging…a mysterious short book… Fritz’s family life, his work as a tax collector for the salt mines, his philosophical education, the story of the woman who silently loves him, his romantic passion for the naive Sophie, who dies a cruel death, and the landscape of his everyday life…his visionary dream of a blue flower that can never be found haunts the book like a half-remembered tune…

Music is very important to the novel, and it is constructed, boldly, in short scenes, like moments in a dream or songs. The blue flower keeps shifting its meaning. What is its name, Sophie asks him. “He knew it once,” Fritz replies. “He was told the name, but he has forgotten it. He would give his life to remember it”.

Fitzgerald said once that the blue flower is what you want of life. “Even if there’s no possibility of reaching it, you must never give up”.

I am on my way to pick up a copy from the library.  It sounds familiar but I don’t remember reading it.

Have you read it?

 

 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

9780385741262_p0_v3_s260x420E. Lockhart’s young adult novel We Were Liars has been designated by some as the Gone Girl of the teen set. Similarities include an unreliable narrator who leads the reader astray, the unexpected twists that change the plot, and of course, the shocking revelation at the end.  Do not skip to the last section titled “truth” if you like to savor the mystery and try to figure it out yourself.

  • The setting:  a rich family summering at their Martha’s Vineyard compound
  • The characters: the wealthy family patriach, with three divorced daughters bickering over trust funds and inheritance, and assorted grandchildren
  • The Liars:  the three teenage cousins, including the narrator, Cadence, and a handsome outsider, Gat, a love interest for Cadence

Summers in New England are intense, as Lockhart methodically peels away the facade of the perfect rich family, revealing petty jealousies and hidden prejudice. An accident during the summer of her 15th year leaves Cadence with crippling migraines and total amnesia. She cannot remember what actually happened, and Lockhart cleverly sustains the mystery, with clues that don’t seem obvious until the end.  When Cadence returns to the beach, two years later, all is revealed in a stunning plot twist.

Throughout the story, Lockhart inserts shortened versions of fairy tales, linking the cousins, their mothers, and the grandfather – an eerie Grimm perspective.  Like a Grimm fairy tale, the story has a moral and a high price for redemption.  The ending left me wondering if Cadence ever would recover – although she does finally remember.  Lockhart may have offered a strong lesson for younger readers about greed and keeping up appearances, but I will remember her observations of the fairy-tale family who actually lived in a nightmare.

The Dinner

9780770437855_p0_v4_s260x420What is it about horrible characters that can capture and hold my attention, and then leave a sour taste afterwards, with a depressed feeling of having wasted a day in reading about them?  Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl, and now the Dutch writer Herman Koch has repeated that hypnotic guile in The Dinner.

As he marches his characters through a family dinner at an elite restaurant, the innocuous descriptions of fussy waiters and overpriced food lull the reader into wondering why the tale had been listed as a thriller.  Slowly, the inadequacies and quirks of Paul, the history teacher whose psychiatric disorder has forced him to take a leave of absence, and Serge, his brother, the aspiring prime minister with a penchant for control and overeating, escalate from petulant commentary to sinister foreboding.

The parents have met for “the dinner” to discuss their children – teenagers whose recent horrendous criminal action (no spoiler here), recorded by a security camera, has gone viral on the internet – with the faces of the boys unrecognizable to all, except their parents.  The pressure increases when one of the boys uses his phone video posting on YouTube, with more specific identification of the perpetrators,  to blackmail the others.  The parents are meeting at “the dinner” to decide what to do.

As the courses are served, Koch uses the narrator, Paul, as an observer of the inadequacies of the world in general; his thoughts seem benign and a little caustic, but soon the inferences become prejudicial and sarcastic. No one is innocent, moral, or with any semblance of conscience, and parenting is an exercise in avoidance, bad example, and promoting bad behavior in the interest of protecting one’s child.

Like Gone Girl, this tale is told by an unreliable narrator, who is at once unlikable yet compelling, and with twists in the story that are disorienting.  If you like to get your thrills through skeptical illustrations of the dark side of the mind, you might appreciate Koch’s manipulations – and wonder if those around you, who are seemingly normal, are just one close step from becoming dangerously asocial.

 


Gillian Flynn Responds – Gone Girl Ending

In one of the few times an author has responded to my query, Gillian Flynn wrote back about my dislike of her ending in Gone Girl

I’m sorry to hear that! I can only say I wrote the ending that was the most unsettling to me. I am a big fan of the ending of unease. To me it feels real and it feels unnerving. Because you may not know exactly what is going to happen next in Gone Girl World, but you know it’s not good. I love hearing different people’s theories about the ending—to me that’s the fun of reading a book, when you find yourself imagining the characters even after the book is over, and you find yourselves in debates with friends about it, as if the characters were two people who lived down the street (in the case of Nick and Amy, you’d probably want to relocate…).  Gillian Flynn

She’s right about my not wanting to live near or know Nick and Amy.

What did you think of the ending?

Read my review of Gone Girl – here

Looking For a Book to Discuss?

When book clubs decide to create a slate for the whole year, the order can be soothing to those who like to plan ahead.  Each year around this time, one of my book clubs starts gearing up for the next calendar year and some cannot wait to add to the list.  But for those who cringe at the thought of trying to find a book that everyone will like (will never happen), and a way to start the discussion (website questions being the norm),  the following list has books –  with assorted possibilities for stirring the pot – questions  the readers could have before starting to read.

I’ve read and reviewed them all (click on the title).

Gone Girl  – mystery/thriller – Did anyone like the ending?  When did you figure it out? How would you write the sequel?  change the ending?

That Woman  – nonfiction – How does Wallis Simpson compare to Princess Diana?  Did the Duke of Windsor really give it all up for her – or was he ready to live outside the responsibility of being King anyway?  How would World War II been different with the Duke in charge?

The Buddha in the Attic  – very short book (144 pages) – How does this story of Japanese Picture Brides differ from any other similar tales you’ve read of brides who were “bought”?  If the brides had switched photographs of their prospective husbands, would it have made a difference?  How are their experiences as wives similar? different?

The Glass Room  – historical fiction – How did the house change with the owners’ lives, with changes in history – World War II?  Imagine yourself in one of the rooms; what would you be doing?  Although the house still actually exists as a World Heritage Site, would the fictional owners have approved?

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – 11 short stories – Pick one to retell.  Do you prefer reading novels rather than short stories – why? Do you have a favorite short story from another author? (bring it along so someone can read it aloud to the group)

Last year I listed More Ideas for Books to Discuss – no one picked any of the books on the list.

What book would you add to the list?