The Most Fun We Ever Had

Claire Lombardo’s family saga – The Most Fun We Ever Had –  has all the drama of a television series (“This Is Us” comes to mind), as she follows the Sorensons through their lives.  Although Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson anchor the family with their seemingly perfect married life, and their unlikely unending passion, their dysfunctional daughters command most of the action. Lombardo uses the catalyst of a long lost teenager’s sudden appearance after having been secretly given up at birth for adoption, to explain the family dynamics.

The title is misleading; the story is not the most fun you will ever have, as you follow each character in turmoil, yet it is compelling – and long – over five hundred pages. Marilyn is the stereotypical matriarch who married young and supported her husband through medical school, while having babies and burying her own ambitions, which reappear later. Wendy, the eldest daughter, never quite recovers from having competition in her bright younger sister Violet, born in the same calendar year, followed soon after by Liza.  The youngest, Grace, born later and referred to as the “epilogue” feels left out, despite her parents hovering.  As adults, they morph into a widow; a stay-at-home mom with a law degree; a tenured professor facing parenting alone; and a recent college graduate caught up in an embarrassing lie

Lombardo follows the family through major events but not in order.  She begins the story with the wedding of the eldest, Wendy, and proceeds to explain the cryptic clues she initially drops through flashbacks involving births and deaths, sibling rivalries and secrets, and lots of lies. Sometimes it’s not clear at first who is speaking.

A few surprises kept me reading, wondering if another would appear – it did – and the rivalry between the older daughters could probably have been a book by itself.  The story is absorbing but also exhausting – and maybe just a little too long.

The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

The Other Side of the Bridge

9780385340373_p0_v1_s192x300  Steadily and quietly, Mary Lawson affirms the continuity of life in the remote Northern Canadian town of Struan in The Other Side of the Bridge.  Despite the hardships of severe weather, the war, farm life, and the love/hate relationship of two brothers, the strength and forthrightness of its people forge a universal tale, with suspense and romance, guaranteed to keep you riveted to the page.

Across two generations, Lawson examines the relationship of two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn, growing up on a farm in the 1930s before the war.  Ian Christopherson, a smart high school student and the son of the small town doctor, connects to the brothers twenty years later when he gets a summer job plowing the Dunn farm.  By alternating across time zones between Ian’s story with Arthur as a grown man with three children in the present and Arthur’s life as a boy in the past, Lawson cleverly manages to maintain suspense – despite the reader knowing some of how the story will turn out.

The three main characters each follow a predictable type:  Arthur is the good but slow, plodding older brother who prefers plowing behind the horses to doing schoolwork; Jacob is the diabolical  younger, smart, handsome rake who can charm anyone; Ian is the love-struck adolescent, scarred by the desertion of his mother, who chafes at the town’s expectations to follow his father’s footsteps as the town’s next doctor.  After establishing the stereotype, however, Lawson breaks the mold for each of them.

The best part of reading one of Lawson’s stories is getting to know her characters.  After awhile, they become so real, you will be engulfed in their lives and feel their insecurities as your own.  Although the outcome of Ian’s struggle to grow up is predictable, how he gets there is still satisfying.  The constant sibling rivalry between Art and Jake fuels the plot, providing some moments of humor, but more often an anxious recognition of their competition for their parents’ love and their understanding of each other.

Lawson punctuates her storytelling with shocking incidents –  tragedy, resentment and betrayal, but in the end decency and goodwill win out – with humanity pulling all the story threads together.

The Other Side of the Bridge had the well-deserved honor of being long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Vanessa and Her Sister

9780804176378_p0_v3_s260x420-1If you ever wondered just how miserable Virginia Woolf had to be to drown herself in  the River Ouse by walking into the water after filling her overcoat pockets with stones, Priya Parmar reveals the quirky personality behind the disturbed genius as she examines the lives of sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Vanessa and Her Sister The timeline covers their young adult lives at Bloomsbury – before either had achieved fame through literature or art, and ends as Virginia Stephen marries Leonard Woolf.

NPR neatly summarizes the book:

“In the winter of 1905, in the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury, a group of friends began meeting for drinks and conversation that lasted late into the night. The friends – writers like Lytton Strachey, artists like Roger Fry and thinkers like economist John Maynard Keynes — continued to meet almost weekly for many years. Eventually, they came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.

In the beginning, their clubhouse was the home of the Stephen siblings — two brothers and two sisters. Today, the women are better remembered than their brothers: They were the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf.

Priya Parmar has written a novel about the group, and especially about the Stephen women. It’s called Vanessa and Her Sister and it’s written in the form of Bell’s journal. Parmar tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that she chose to put Bell at the center of her novel because, compared to her sister, her voice has been largely unheard.”

 

The sisters live with their brothers after the death of their parents, and through the weekly salon, the reader meets their friends, future husbands and a circle of recognizable literary luminaries – E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Walter Lamb, and others.  Famous artists – Monet, Manet, Picasso, and others float through the periphery of the story, as Vanessa Stephen, an artist in her own right, marries Clive Bell, the art critic and author, who organized the landmark second Post-Impressionist exhibition that was held in London in 1912. Through a series of letters, and diary notes, Parma weaves a tale of sisterly love and sibling rivalry, telling the background story of the famous sisters and creating a fictional conversation based on historical fact.

If you are a fan of embellished historical fiction in the tone of “The Girl with a Pearl Earring,” you might enjoy the book, but beware – Parmar’s unique writing style might be a distraction.  Not quite an epistolary, the story uses Vanessa’s diary posts (Vanessa never actually kept a diary), letters between the authors and friends, as well as letters between Vanessa and her sister Virginia.  At times, the jumps from intimate thoughts from the journal to letters from assorted characters can be disarming.  You will need to concentrate on who is talking.

Although I have read Woolf’s writing and knew of her background, Parmar’s creation through the eyes of Woolf’s sister was enlightening.  Despite Virginia’s overbearing proclamations of the value of writing over art, Vanessa rallied on with her painting and eventually became renowned in the art world.  Although some of her paintings were destroyed in a fire, many remain on display.  Her son, Julian Bell, has carried on the tradition of writing and painting.  Parmar touches on the birth of Julian and the sham of Vanessa’s marriage, but her affair with Roger Fry and his influence on her work will have to wait for another novel.

Leonard Woolf appears as Virginia’s suitor through letters to a mutual acquaintance, Lytton Strachey. Their married life together, his subsequent influence and care of her delicate nature, as well as their founding of the Hogarth Press – which published most of Virginia’s novels – is well documented in Victoria Glendenning’s 2006 biography – Leonard Woolf – a book I now have on my list to read.  Parmar only briefly mentions Leonard, and left me wanting more.  As Virginia’s erratic behavior leads to her brief institutionalization, I wondered how he could continue to pursue her…but there is more to that story.

The sibling rivalry and forbearance of Vanessa toward her talented sister form the crux of this novel, and Parmar does highlight the “unheard” sister by speaking through the voice of Vanessa Stephen Bell.  By using primary sources and then fictionalizing Vanessa’s life, Parmar may have filled the gap for more information with a psuedo biography on the Vanessa with the famous sister.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Wishes

9780061856914_p0_v1_s260x420After enjoying Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret and What Alice Forgot, I looked for some oldies by her.  Three Wishes is the story of triplets as they navigate their lives through growing up (the Catholic school references are hilarious), marital drama, and sibling rivalry.  Like her other books, Moriarty inserts humor into the mundane, and offers a dose of moral dilemmas.  Quick read – fun and satisfying.

If you haven’t yet read Moriarty’s other books, try: