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.

 

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A House Among the Trees

9781101870372_p0_v1_s192x300 If you are a fan of children’s literature, you will recognize author’s names and references in Julia Glass’s A House Among the Trees. After I was only a few chapters into the story, I started to connect the children’s book author and illustrator in the novel to Maurice Sendak. Maybe it was his story of a mischievous boy who transforms a bland world into a colorful jungle in his prize winning book.

When I mentioned my notion to a good friend who had read the book and its reviews, she assured me I was not alone in my connection. Sendak died in 2012 at 83 years old, had reinvented himself in television and in set design for ballet and opera, and had capitalized on shirts and toys based on his books, just as Glass’s author had.  Glass’s author, however,  accidentally falls out of a tree to his death in his fifties.

In an interview, Glass admitted her inspiration for the book came from a “New York Times article about the estate of children’s book icon Maurice Sendak, which he had left in the hands of his longtime caretaker, leaving a stunned Philadelphia museum out of the loop…{but}It is not a novel about Maurice Sendak…It would be insulting to Sendak to say that. Really, that story about the assistant, that’s the only thing. . . . I worry a little bit that people will think that I’m writing about Maurice Sendak, but I’m not.”

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover Nevertheless, other commonalities revealed themselves as I continued, and I stopped reading long enough to find my old signed copy of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and remember when I had met him.

The struggle over the collected works, drawings, manuscripts, and memorabilia of famous children’s author Mort Lear, drives the action in A House Among the Trees. The author’s work has been housed in a small New York museum, with the museum’s expectation it would remain there as the centerpiece for a new building.  When he dies suddenly, his will surprisingly reveals he has changed his bequest and named Tomasina, his faithful amanuensis and caretaker, as his heir, directing her to sell everything to establish a home for runaway boys. In addition, he has been corresponding with a young Oscar winning actor who will play him in a planned biopic.

Mort’s strange relationship with Tomasina is the central focus of the story.   Tomasina first met the children’s book author in a Manhattan playground when she was twelve, as he was observing and sketching her younger brother’s antics – sketches for the book that would make him a success.  After she graduates from college, she meets him again, and he offers her the job as his assistant. For thirty years, she lives in his Connecticut house, acting as his confidante and manager of his daily life.   As she tries to honor Mort’s last wishes, she is caught in the lives of Meredith, the lonely museum curator, and Nicholas Greene, the handsome British actor cast to play Mort in a movie. When Nicholas arrives for a visit, new revelations about Mort’s past change Tomasina’s perception and threaten to undermine how he will be remembered.

At first, the suspense of wondering if Mort’s secret life and childhood trauma would be revealed in the film, or whether his precious belongings would be scattered or preserved, kept me reading, but the anticipation soon dissipated as I realized it did not matter.  The reader expects the three main characters will all come together to resolve the issue of Mort’s legacy, as they do – eventually.

Although Mort dies in the first few pages, the novel explores his life through those affected by his untimely death – his lonely childhood and his escape into fantasy to avoid his grim surroundings,  the loss of his partner to AIDS, his yearning for, yet fear of being alone.   Each supporting character has a backstory of loneliness and insecurity – all with some commonality with Mort in how they struggle through their lives to gain success.

Unlike many books I’ve read, Glass’s story was more about the characters than the plot, as she examines childhood traumas, deprivations, even opportunities, influencing the adults they became.  It was easy, sometimes helpful,  to stop reading and pick it up again later, hoping Nicholas, Meredith, and Tomasina will finally find happiness.  Thankfully, they do, but Glass is careful to keep her resolutions realistic; I had hoped for a more romantic ending for each – in keeping with the fantasy of most children’s stories happily-ever-after – but life is not like that, after all.  And despite Mort’s attempt to continue to control his life story after he is dead, the decisions fall to those still alive to manage as they see best – isn’t that always the way?

 

 

 

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

9780399588563_p0_v2_s192x300Where did you grow up?  Is your childhood home still there with all its memories?  What if it were gone forever?  With the sixties as her timeframe and a small farming town two hours outside of Philadelphia as the setting, Anna Quindlen creates an unforgettable family in Miller’s Valley with a story of lives connected to both time and place.

The story follows the journey of the narrator, Mimi Miller, as she grows from a bright eleven year old who sells corn at a small stand outside her family farm to scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually, a medical doctor who returns to her hometown.  Her mother, a nurse, stabilizes the family with her income and her wisdom; her father, whose family has held the farm for two hundred years, is a stoic man who can fix anything from broken radios to the old sump pump in the basement; her older brothers split into Tommy, the appealing black sheep who goes off to fight in the Vietnam war and returns broken, and Eddie, the steady and boring  brother who grows up to capitalize on the destruction of the land.  Peripheral to the family core but just as important to the theme are others: Aunt Ruth, an agoraphobic with a secret, who never leaves the small house next door, and Steve, Mimi’s boyfriend. 

Quindlen’s main characters are ripe and deep, and you will remember them and wonder about them long after the story is over.

The villain is the government, personified by a slick developer, who is pressuring farmers and town folk to leave to make way for a government sponsored dam and reservoir, surrounded by new patchwork housing.  Clearly, some are happy to sell – including Mimi’s mother – while others, including Mimi’s father, dig in to preserve their heritage.  Mimi is scared of what the future holds but it seems there is no stopping progress – or the government.    

I wondered about the historical accuracy of the story; is there a town and a farm under water in Pennsylvania because of a dam realized through government intervention and industry?  The closest I could get is Codorus State Park and Lake Marburg in York County – both the timeframe and the location fit:

The creation Codorus State Park is tied to a cooperative effort between private enterprise and state and local government. The borough of Spring Grove and the P.H. Glatfelter Company worked together to dam Codorus Creek. The purpose of the dam was to provide drinking water for Spring Grove and to meet the industrial needs of the paper plant owned by the P.H. Glatfelter Company in the borough…a park was created on the shores of the newly made Lake Marburg.[1]

Lake Marburg gets its name from the small community of Marburg, home of a handful of buildings – including a farmstead – that was flooded in December 1966, when Codorus Creek was dammed. The land for the park was acquired as part of the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act, with the governor approving the acquisition on December 10, 1964.  Underwater Ghost Town 

 

 

Quindlen is one of my favorite authors; I have a few of her books on my shelf – just cannot part with them.  I’ve quoted from her memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – but I was happy to see another of her novels and anxiously pre-ordered it.  Although the historical aspects are informative, the message of hearth and home – and where it is – left me with a disturbing as well as comforting feeling.  As someone who is displaced, and still misses the place I called home – although it is not underwater and remains the same as when my children skated on the nearby pond –  I can relate to the last paragraph of the novel:

“I never go over that way…But every couple of years I have a dream.  I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences…But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air.  I still need to breath.”

Life goes on, wherever you are, as long as you can keep breathing…

My Reviews of Quindlen Books:  

The Madwoman Upstairs

9781501124211_p0_v2_s192x300With the mystery of Jane Eyre and the force of a modern romance, Catherine Lowell creates a satisfying plot in The Madwoman Upstairs.

Samantha Whipple, new student at Oxford University, is the last living descendant of the Brontë sisters.  Home-schooled by her father, Tristan Whipple, a scholar who “spent his entire life trying to deconstruct” the writings of his famous relatives, Samantha, at twenty, is well-versed in the famous novels.  Lowell generously sprinkles excerpts from the well-known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the less famous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

At her father’s request, Samantha’s residence at Oxford is an isolated tower, often the site of campus tours.    When her father’s copies of the Brontë  books mysteriously arrive on her doorstep, encrypted with her father’s obscure notes referring to her inheritance, a collection of writings and paintings, including the “Warnings of Experience –  that may have been left to her by her father, she enlists the help of her tall, dark, handsome Oxford tutor to help her decipher the clues.

If you are a fan of the the Brontë  sisters, the references to the famous novels, and Lowell’s dissection of some of the plot lines may prompt you to reread the original texts.  References to the Brontë  treasure may have been inspired by the recent uncovering of a lost book containing poems and snippets from the Brontë  children –

“The Brontë Society has recovered the treasure for £170,000 from a seller in America where it has been for more than a century…it was originally sold following the death of their father Patrick Brontë  in 1861″…the Telegraph, 2015

If you are a student of literature, you will enjoy Lowell’s notes on literary criticism and intellectual pursuits:

  • “The great reward given to intelligent people is that they can invent all the rules and equate any dissent with stupidity.”
  • “…what everyone wants: meaning. Happiness in some sense, is irrelevant.”
  • “…the interpretation of a novel depends on the reader far more than it does on the text or the author’s intent…”
  • “Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you something fake is real…”

If you have never read a Brontë book – or only seen one of the many movies – and are looking for a romantic interlude with the trappings of an intellectual discussion, The Madwoman Upstairs has a story to keep you reading, while you sigh through the passion and try to decipher the mystery.

 

The Husband’s Secret

9780399159343_p0_v4_s260x420What if – you found a letter with instructions to open after the writer died, but that person was still alive – would you open it?  I would not be able to resist, and when Liane Moriarty teased with that cliffhanger through several chapters – about 200 pages – of The Husband’s Secret, keeping the contents hidden, the speculation of what is in that letter is as much fun as learning the actual content.  If you remember Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, you know she can take an improbable storyline and drench it with humor, pathos, and even a few life lessons.

Three lives intersect in this drama: Cecilia finds her husband’s sealed “do-not-open-until-after-death” letter in a stack of old tax forms, while he is on a business trip; Tess flees from Melbourne to Sydney with her young son when she discovers her husband and best friend have fallen in love – and asked that they all live together as one big family; Rachel’s beloved two-year-old grandson is about to relocate with his family to New York City, as she continues to search for the murderer of her teen-age daughter, killed twenty years ago.  Yes, there is a murder, but the mystery of whodunit is solved early in the tale, with consequences and suspicions connecting these three women’s disparate lives.

The story premise is captivating – I read it quickly to know the outcome, and Moriarty does produce an unexpected surprise at the end.  After the shocking climax, the denouement offers more likely “what if” scenarios that have a nostalgic effect, but the clear message to be responsible for yourself, not everyone else, can connect to all of us who get tired of being good all the time.

Hard to categorize Moriarty’s style – more than chick lit, mystery thriller, romance, beach read – and always satisfying.  Now I’m looking for some of her earlier books – seems there are quite a few I’ve missed from her website.

Review of “What Alice Forgot”