Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – The Dinner List

9781250295187   What five people, dead or alive, would you invite for dinner and conversation? Often asked of authors interviewed for the New York Times Book Review, I agree with Kate Atkinson – no writers. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand…and she shows up as one of the guests at a birthday dinner in Rebecca Serle’s The Dinner List.  

Although I expected a fluffy and perhaps happy piece of fiction (maybe it was the bright yellow cover), Sabrina’s love story is bittersweet and introspective.   Chapters alternate between Sabrina’s first person narrative of her relationship with Tobias and the dinner party with her wish list attendees.  Her father, Robert, is among them, as is her best friend Jessica, who periodically excuses herself to pump her leaking breasts.  Sabrina’s college philosophy professor, Conrad, offers literary allusions to the conversation.  Of course, Tobias, the boyfriend, is there, but the star of the evening is Audrey Hepburn.  Sabrina’s name is no accident; her parents were engaged after watching the movie, and Roman Holiday is Sabrina’s favorite film.

I usually prefer to create my own images of characters in a book, and the movie versions usually disappoint me with their choices of actors playing the roles, but the presence of Audrey Hepburn (coincidentally one of my favorites too) lent an exotic note to the narrative.  It was easy to hear her whispery notes when she sang Moon River to the group, and her graceful lithe movements as she lit a cigarette or motioned for more wine were easy to imagine. Serle is careful to include background notes of Hepburn’s childhood during the war and her post-acting humanitarian work with UNESCO, humanizing Hepburn as more than the actress who played Eliza Doolittle.  She becomes the voice of reason and a much needed maternal force for the overwrought Sabby.

The chapters describing the messy relationship between Sabby and Tobias, the conscientious girl with the wild artistic boy, seem to follow a formula, but as the dinner party conversation escalates into the reasons behind why the guests have been chosen, the story shifts and offers some surprises, including who is alive or dead.  Serle offers unlikely hope at times for a change in the universe, but the reader cannot suspend belief that far, and Audrey pulls us back to reality.  In the end, peace and love prevail, and the dinner ends with the guests leaving and Sabrina facing her life as it is.

The story reminded me of a movie spun out of romance and denial, but the premise of the dinner party gave it just the right twist to keep me wanting to find out how it would end at midnight.   I was sorry when it was over.

Who would I invite to a dinner party?  I have no idea, but I like Sabrina’s idea of going to a fancy restaurant instead of cooking, and like Sabrina, maybe I’d learn something more about those who attended.  How about you?

Something in the Water

Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick – Something in the Water – has me wondering when she will produce it for viewing. Catherine Steadman’s book has all the elements of a great series – exotic settings, unreliable characters, and plot twists favoring the female leads.

I listened to Steadman’s British tones reading the book for Audible and it was hard to not keep going into the night. The “something in the water” was not what I had expected and the hints of espionage and financial fraud added to the suspense.

Erin, a documentary producer, and Mark, an out of work hedge fund expert, go off on their honeymoon to Bora Bora. Mark, an expert diver, convinces Erin to overcome her fears to experience the beautiful underwater world. His cavalier comments about the sharks in the water had me suspicious, but what they find leads the adventure into murky waters as each plot twist combines danger and a new life for both.

Great fun to listen to.

Summer Books – Not All Are Beach Reads

With the help of my friends, I found a list of easy books to capture my attention.

9780062562647  Carol Goodman, one of my favorite Gothic mystery writers, always adds a literary flavor to her stories as she maintains the suspense.  Her latest book – The Other Mother – had me reading through the night.  Daphne Marist and Laurel Hobbes, new mothers suffering from post-partum depression, meet in a support group and become best friends.  As Goodman develops the tale, I wasn’t sure which one had been murdered, if one had assumed the other’s identity, or even if there were really two women.  It’s a gripping page-turner and so much fun to read.

518SwKZGkdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Joanna Trollope’s modern version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is easier to follow if you know the original story, and Janeites may know Austen’s novels well enough to predict exactly what will happen next.  Whether or not you are familiar with the plot (from Austen’s book or the movie with Emma Thomspon), this updated story  will make you want to read to the happy ending of Trollope’s version.

contentAfter avoiding her books for so long, I finally read the first in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels – Still Life.  I enjoyed it more than I had expected. In Still Life, Penny establishes the setting in Three Pines. Her description of this fictional town near Montreal made me want to book a flight to find it.  Gamache is introduced as the brilliant investigator who speaks fluent French as well as Cambridge educated English, and he starts each investigation with a croissant and a coffee – a civilized approach to murder.

Next on my agenda are two easy reads: a paperback I found buried in my stash – To Capture What We Cannot Keep – a nineteenth century romance by Scottish writer Beatrice Colin – set in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower construction; and Mary Alice Munroe’s beach read – appropriately titled Beach House Reunion.

Waiting in the wings:

  1. William Trevor’s Last Stories
  2. Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunight
  3. Madeleine Miller’s Circe

A great start to the summer…

You Think It, I’ll Say It

41DEW3Ka+yL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_A few good short stories in my old New Yorkers by Allegra Goodman (“FAQs”) in a September, 2017 issue and one by Curtis Sittenfeld  (“Show Don’t Tell”  in a June, 2017 issue, reminded me to download Sittenfeld’s new book of short stories – You Think It, I’ll Say it – a collection of short stories, to Audible.  So far the stories are racier than expected, but with quiet deadpan endings that don’t always register with this listener.  I have been halfway through the next story before realizing I missed the ending of the former.  I could use a gong or a bell to signal the next story starting, but each has a unique and identifiable perspective on the character’s condition – confusion, betrayal, rage, disappointment, regret…

Characters are judgmental, while believing others are secretly judging them.  “Gender Studies” is the  story of a newly single professor having the “anthropological experience” of a one-night stand with a Trump-supporting working-class bus driver.  In “A Regular Couple,”  two women meet again years after high school – one the ugly duckling growing into a successful beauty and the other the popular pretty girl turning into a drudge.  Both are on their honeymoon.  Resentments flair and the final, petty act of revenge horribly satisfying. Sittenfeld’s characters are not very nice but very real.

Susan Dominus in her review for the New York Times says

“In the lives of Sittenfeld’s characters, the lusts and disappointments of youth loom large well into middle age, as insistent as a gang of loud, showy teenagers taking up all the oxygen in the room…The women of “You Think It, I’ll Say It” are, as a group, a demanding breed. They often assume the worst in their imagined adversaries. Sometimes they are wrong, but they are right about just enough (and funny enough) that we forgive them. And, because they know they need absolution for their own worst motives, we forgive those, too.”

Reese Witherspoon has optioned the book for the screen, and Sittenfeld is busy finalizing her next novel, due out in 2019 – she will be imagining how Hillary Clinton’s life might have played out if she had turned down Bill’s marriage proposal and never married him.  I can’t wait.

 

Review of Sisterland

 

 

 

Little Fires Everywhere

Unknown-2   Rather than putting out small fires to keep ahead, Celeste Ng proposes letting them roar and flame to cleanse and start anew in her novel Little Fires Everywhere.  The story begins with a fire destroying a house, but with the reassurance of lives saved, and possibly renewed.  As Ng backtracks to lead the reader to the moment of flameout, her characters expose how differences can be threatening as well as as freeing.

Mia, a talented artist who settles into a small town outside of Cleveland, is the heart of the story.  Leading a vagabond life with her teen-age daughter, Pearl, Mia works as a waitress to sustain her real vocation in art. Although the mother and daughter usually stay only a short time in a town, leaving after Mia completes her latest art work and ships it to New York for sale, this time they plan to stay longer – maybe settling.

Their landlord is Elena Richardson with family roots dating back generations, connecting  to political and social wealth.  Having opted for small town prestige rather than dangerous adventure in the outside world, she returned to the town after graduation, worked as a journalist for the small town newspaper, married her college sweetheart who became the town attorney, had four children in five years, and comfortably settled into a predictable life.  Three of her children follow the same formula: Tripp, the eldest handsome seventeen year old with dimples and success in sports – the high school ladies man; Lexie, the popular and pretty sixteen year old girl; Moody, intelligent and quieter than his siblings.  They are all elegant foils for the artsy freedom and open-mindedness of Mia and Pearl.

Only the youngest, Izzy, seems to fall out of pattern, stretching the limits and often getting into trouble – but for all the right reasons.   The author tells us Izzy has set the fire, but it takes reading to the end of the novel to discover her motivation.

As the author slowly unravels each character’s background, she offers reasons for their inclinations and actions.  Several unlikely connections begin to proliferate the tension and drama: Pearl and Moody become friends, Elena hires Mia to clean her house and cook her meals in exchange for rent, and Elena’s childhood friend who cannot have children tries to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby.

With astute observations of how this WASP community operates, Ng cleverly exposes their underlying prejudice.  Of course, none of the townspeople would see their zoning or country club style of living as restrictive.  After all, Lexie has a Black boyfriend whose parents are compared to the Cosby television series parents – lawyer and doctor with upper middle class mores.  And the few Asians who go to school with Elena’s children fit the stereotype of bright and polite.  The courtroom scene may be the highlight of Ng’s final thrust at ignorance when the Asian attorney questions Elena’s friend about her intentions for raising a Chinese baby; her claims of instilling culture by eating at a Chinese restaurant and reading the children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers should make the reader cringe.

Elena Richardson’s relentless pursuit to uncover Mia’s past reminded me of a comment I heard directed at a group of women.  This disingenuously polite discussion leader noted her dislike for anyone not willing to share personal secrets because, after all, she claimed, friendships are only formed when persons of interest are willing to open up and expose their vulnerable sides.  The notion scared me; why would I want anyone, everyone, to know all about me, especially someone like Elena, who proved her willingness to use information to destroy.  We all let pieces of ourselves seep out, as needed, and only a few trusted friends know more about us than others who stay on the periphery of relationships.  For Elena, knowledge was power, but only within the parochial confines of her small world.  For Mia, small-mindedness had no place in her world.

Mia’s relationships with Pearl and Izzy create a safe haven, as she doggedly pursues her art.  As Mia’s past life is slowly revealed, her character becomes more and more in contrast to Elena.  Ng uses Mia as a sympathetic voice for women who do what they must to survive and thrive – outside society’s norms.  By the end, I had respect for Mia, despite some of her decisions, and pity for Elena.

If you read Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, you know she thrives on mystery.  I’ve added her to my short list of authors like Patchett and Shreve who always deliver a good story; I can’t wait for her next book.