Discussing Susan Minot’s novel Evening did not change my view. Minot’s language is beautiful and her stream of consciousness narrative promotes attention to the underlying current of a dying memory, however faulty, but her plot has the unrealistic dramatic tone better suited to the movie it later became.
Ann is dying at sixty-five from cancer, and as she slowly falls through to the last stages, with her daughters and son at her bedside, and the trusty nurse who administers regular doses of pain killers, she remembers a weekend when she was twenty-five. As Ann relives the steamy love affair with Harris, a Don Juan secretly engaged to his pregnant fiancee, Ann mourns the loss of her one true love. Minot would have the reader engage in the fantasy that the brief affair with a near stranger matters more than anything else that has happened in her life since then. All of the realistic complications of her life as she goes on to marry (three times) and have children, seem to disappear in the morass of passion. D.H. Lawrence would be proud of Minot’s evocative descriptions, but other authors (George Eliot, Edith Wharton) might question the power of a youthful passion to separate feeling over reason over a lifetime.
As Ann’s past slowly is revealed, her children and others around her speak of her as they know her now. Minot has her main character slip away in the end, secure in her secrets. No one knows her as well as she knows herself.
Have you read the book or seen the movie?
Throughout Wyl Menmuir’s short novel – The Many – Gothic undertones play on scenes full of dark and murky possibilities. A sense of foreboding permeates the narrative, and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall with an abandoned house on the coast helps to set the scene.
The narrative alternates between the two main characters: Ethan, a local fisherman, and Timothy, an outsider who is renovating the old house left empty by the death of Ethan’s friend Perran for ten years. Each character is battling personal demons, and as it progresses the story evolves into a fable with strange symbolism.
Death and grief figure prominently – the death of Perran, leaving a hole in the fishing community so large the inhabitants fight to preserve his memory yet refuse to talk about him to Timothy – even resenting Timothy’s attempts to restore his old house. When Timothy’s struggle with the death of his infant son surfaces later, with obscure dream sequences and haunting memories, the story falls away and changes – just like the flooding sea overtakes the village in the end. Suddenly, the reader must rethink the meaning of everything – the dead fish killed by chemicals, the blockade of large ships circling and imprisoning the cove, the mysterious woman in the gray suit who patiently watches from afar. Are they more than they seem? What do they represent in Timothy’s mind? What is their connection to his solitude and his haunted existence?
Timothy struggles with the question the villagers do not want to hear or answer – “Who is Perran?” And, the unspoken question – Why did he die? When the name of his dead son is revealed, the reader cannot help but wonder if the village and the broken house were all a reason for trying to explain the unexplainable.
The Many is a gripping story, but the questions it raises and leaves unanswered could provoke a lively discussion, and the reader may need to reread this short book several times before getting close to understanding all of its complexity.
Where would you go if you wanted to disappear from the world? If you are Maggie O’Farrell, of course you would go to Ireland. In her new book – This Must Be the Place – O’Farrell creates a complicated saga of lives constantly being reinvented, and the turmoil of relationships.
Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor, drives the action, across different wives, countries, children, and time zones. As the story opens, Daniel is trying to recover from a bitter divorce which has kept him from seeing his two young children, Niall and Phoebe. On a trip to Ireland to scatter his grandfather’s ashes, he serendipitously meets Claudette, a famous movie star in hiding with her young son, Ari. Eventually, they marry and happily stay in hiding together in a remote area of Ireland for ten years – until, the next crisis in Daniel’s life.
If the plot seems formulaic, do not be deceived. O’Farrell expertly weaves characters and motivations together, while keeping the reader off balance with the jumping of time zones and the introductions of new characters. She cleverly draws the reader into what would seem to be an ordinary existence, then clobbers all expectations with revelations of the past in each character’s life.
The story is complicated but rewarding. In This Must Be the Place, O’Farrell offers the possibilities of love offering understanding and relief from our own worst selves.
I need to read the book again, but knowing what happens will not spoil the anticipation of watching the interaction of all the characters, and, this time, I plan to revel in O’Farrell’s vivid descriptions of place and time.
I haven’t been looking for death themes, but I seem surrounded by books and movies this summer with messages for those left behind.
Unfinished Song: a five hanky movie with Vanessa Redgrave regally managing her last stages of a fatal illness, with Terence Stamp as the despairing husband.
Have You Seen Marie: Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, creates a picture book for adults, as her heroine searches for her lost cat – a touching simile for her mother’s death.
Beautiful Day: Although the focus is a wedding in Nantucket, Elin Hilderbrand’s summer romance novel uses the catalyst of the bride’s dead mother orchestrating the big day through a posthumous instruction book.
A book can always do something for a psyche – calm it down, cheer it up, instill some missing romance, provide an adventure, travel to an unknown destination – most of the time. The secret to getting lost in a book may be the story, the writing, or the topic, but more likely it’s the reader’s inclination and willingness to give up the present and fall into another world – for better or worse.
When the real world becomes unbearable, and reading a book becomes preferable to doing anything else, no one worries; it’s acceptable to go off in a quiet corner to read and block out the surrounding world.
Nina Sankowitch looked to books to help her cope with the death of her sister. Jan Hoffman of the New York Times describes Sankovitch’s plan to read a book a day as grief therapy, chronicled in Sankovitch’s book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure.”
She read Toni Morrison, Leo Tolstoy, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, and more. Some books she found:
Stacks of books beckon – sometimes reading can just make you feel better.