Tag Archives: secrets

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?

 

 

 

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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”

The Last Secret

Not an uplifting story but certainly suspenseful, Morris stays true to her dissection of ordinary people struggling through life (reference her Oprah pick, later a TV movie – Songs in Ordinary Time). In  The Last Secret, Morris showcases mistakes made in youth that follow into adult lives with an unintentioned ripple effect, unescapably touching others’  lives.

Mary McGarry Morris creates an absorbing story about the superficial lives people create to hide not only their feelings and real selves but also to compensate for their own inadequacies.   Nora, as the main character with a perfect life and family, unravels as her husband’s infidelity with the best friend predictably changes relationships and the children’s equilibrium.

The family-run newspaper business is the folcrum of all family negotiations. The horror of news seeps in, as 9/11 happens, then the war, even news of young friends being killed.   Morris implies that the personal horror and wars within the characters supercede all this. Their concern is false; their attention is for themselves.

As the villain, Eddie gains power and access through Nora’s insecurities. He becomes the foil for the incipient best friend/lover Robin, and finally morphs into an obsessed lunatic. Yet, without Nora’s self-doubt and guilt, the villain would have no hold.

Morris ends her story with a sardonic observation – the truth may be what you believe it to be, and,of course, secrets never stay secret.