A Certain Age

9780062404978_p0_v3_s192x300    Although set in the nineteen twenties with smatterings of The Great Gatsy, Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age reminded me more of an Oliver Goldsmith comedy of manners (She Stoops to Conquer) or an Oscar Wilde farce.

Married to a wealthy philandering husband,  middle-aged socialite Theresa Marshall has her own love interest – a handsome young aviator, Captain Octavian Rofrano.  All is well until she sends her Rofrano,  as her brother’s emissary – his “cavalier” (think Miles Standish) to propose to young Sophie Fortescue on her brother Ox’s behalf.  Rofrano promptly falls in love with Sophie.

The story follows the plot of Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier, using the love triangle with the same character names, and capitalizing on the frivolous diversions of the rich.  Williams uses New York City after World War I as her setting and substitutes a murder mystery for the scheming servants in Strauss’s plot to sustain the action.

Although the action begins slowly, the plot thickens with clever insertions from the New York Times Herald gossip columnist, Patty Cake, who neatly summarizes in two or three pages what has taken chapters to reveal.  The romantic liaisons are sometimes more humorous than titillating – the lover hiding under the bed – but Williams succeeds in maintaining the sensuous aura of her woman of a certain age, the older Theresa, seducing her much younger lover.

Just as in the opera, all ends happily – well, in this case except for a few dead bodies.

 

The Diviners – ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2013)

9780316126113_p0_v1_s260x420When the American Library Association names a book on its best fiction list, the story is usually guaranteed a page turner, and Libba Bray’s The Diviners would have my vote too.

Although this young adult fiction does follow a formula with stereotyped characters and a predictable plot, Bray uses the setting to give a history lesson on Manhattan in the Jazz Age from a teen perspective.  The main character, Evie, a rebellious yet charming seventeen year old, who is banished from a small town in Ohio to the big city to live with her bachelor professor uncle, encounters the joys of the Ziegfeld Follies with Eddie Cantor, secret clubs with forbidden booze,  music at the Hotsy Totsy club, and Clara Bow haircuts.  Bray weaves the seamy side of numbers runners, the Eugenics movement, and the Chinese Exclusion Act into the horrors of a monster returning from the dead and a spooky house on the hill.

Evie’s supporting cast includes two love interests, one a steady hunk with a strange past and the other a rakish thief with the power to disappear; the others – her supportive unpopular friend, a gay piano player, a black numbers runner who writes poetry – follow the star seventeen year old flapper into solving the case of a serial murderer who plans to eat his way to redemption and a new world order – think “Silence of the Lambs” crossed with “Seven.”  Although some of the scenes are gory, Bray keeps the action moving quickly to the inevitable satisfying ending, when the world is saved – for a while anyway.

The last few chapters are strained as they establish the premise for the sequel, but to her credit, Bray does tie up the loose ends of the initial plot in this first book.  Teens who follow vampires and zombies may find another set to track in these superheroes (Diviners) with Mentalist powers.  One was enough for me, but I had fun with this quick diversionary read.

Other YA Books Recommended by the Librarian:

Young adult books are fun and quick reads – some better than others.  My friendly librarian recommends these debut novels:

A Girl Named Digit by Annabel Monaghan

With current events focusing on a computer nerd who can crack codes, this timely teen novel’s heroine, Farrah  “Digit” Higgins is a high school genius bound for MIT. After this daughter of a UCLA math professor unknowingly cracks a terrorist group’s number sequence,  she is recruited by the FBI, running from terrorists, faking her own kidnapping, and romancing a handsome agent.

Poison by Bridget Zinn

When medieval sixteen year old potion maker, Kyra, tries to protect her kingdom, the plan backfires and she becomes a fugitive in this fantasy adventure.  Although the premise has the possibilities for sequels, this young author died before her book was published.

Between the Lines

Samantha Van Leer collaborated with her famous mother and author, Jodi Picoult, to write this fairy tale that has a character from a book come alive and yearn to escape his story prison – a teen reader and her Prince.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

9781250028655_p0_v4_s260x420Say the name Zelda and clearly, the reference is to the legendary wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Theresa Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda tells the story in her own voice – at times, reading like an illicit look into her private diary.

The highs and lows of this Jazz Age marriage have been chronicled in fiction, movies, biographies – some accusing Zelda of destroying her husband’s career, others pointing to Scott as the alcoholic womanizer who drove her insane. Fowler is on Zelda’s side.

Her fictionalized version of this dysfunctional yet brilliant pair includes relationships with a star cast of writers and artists of that era – Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and, of course, Hemingway. Fowler uses the strange love/hate friendship of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald as a turning point in her novel, and creates an explanation for Hemingway’s intense dislike of Zelda with Zelda’s sexual rejection of Hemingway – plausible but only fictional.

The first half of the book seemed to last forever and I found it hard to concentrate on the Southern Belle drivel, as Zelda grows from a 17-year-old Scarlett to a bobbed flapper, partying in Europe. After Hemingway enters, the pace improves, racing to the inevitable ending. To be fair, my lackadaisical attention may have been due to my dizzying ear infection, the small print on my iPhone – or maybe the disappointing use of language.

The Jazz Age with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda continues to be romanticized – a new movie version of Gatsby with Leo DiCaprio is being released, and the New Yorker recently published a Fitzgerald short story rejected over 75 years ago. Fowler’s rendition highlights Zelda’s accomplishments as a painter, would-be ballerina, and as a writer, who was actually plagiarized by her husband. Although fiction, the story certainly justifies the PBS conclusion that

“As an icon of the Jazz Age, she struggled against her traditional southern upbringing and its societal constraints to create a new, independent identity…”

If you don’t know the story of this famous pair, Z is an easy entry into their lives and worth the read, but lower your expectations if you are expecting Fitzgerald’s prose. Although Fitzgerald never wrote a roman à clef, characters from some of his work – The Beautiful and the Damned; Tender is the Night – reflect his life with Zelda. The New York Times reviewer Penelope Green calls his language “precise and a delight.” Maybe that’s what was missing in Fowler’s interpretation.