Coming of age can be a mystery, and Karen Brown has combined the two genres in The Longings of Wayward Girls.
The story begins with a 1974 news clipping about the abduction of a young girl, Laura Loomis, and moves back and forth between 1979 and the early 2000s. Laura remains a mystery throughout, while other secrets surface its place. The narrative instead focuses on Sadie Watkins as a creative, energetic young teenager and later as a married mother of two. It hardly seems possible that the two characters are the same; the adult Sadie lacks imagination. That is, until Ray Filey returns to town.
Set in a rural New England community, Brown’s descriptions of the landscape and close-knit neighborhood are intriguing and easy to visualize. The novel is also evocative of a time when parents thought nothing of letting their children roam nearby woods and streets. Or, when parents (in this case, mostly mothers) chain-smoked and drank their way through summer afternoons and evenings.
Sadie teeters on the edge of being a mean girl with childhood friend, Betty, following her lead. Ray is a few years older than Sadie. As a girl she was aware of his presence, although he was never part of her circle of friends. His interest in her as a woman is intriguing, but Sadie’s response to his appearance doesn’t entirely make sense, nor do her actions. However, Brown’s merging of the two themes does offersenough interest to see the novel to its conclusion.
The Longings of Wayward Girls
Washington Square Press, 2013
It takes Erik Larson about 100 pages to finally let the Lusitania set sail from New York City in May 1915. Dead Wake, his account of the doomed luxury liner, is exhaustive in detail and detached in its descriptions of the events leading to its historic sinking. No need for a spoiler alert here; many consider the German sinking of the Lusitania is what ultimately led the United States to join the British and French allies in World War I.
Larson’s research on the subject is thorough (there are more than 50 pages of notes). He addresses everything from the backgrounds of the ships’ captains involved, to the weather leading up to the point the ship left sight of land, to how the dining room was decorated for first class passengers. There’s more: brief bios about passengers, history of submarines, how Cunard came to name its fleet, and even Wilson’s love life as he strove to maintain neutrality for the U.S. even as events continued to escalate in Europe.
While it is heartbreaking to know that a record number of families with children were on board, the concise elements Larson provides about the passengers makes it difficult to have a true sense of their characters. This does not mean the event was less tragic, just that the book offers little except a historic narrative.
As with any tragedy, fingers pointing blame are plentiful; Larson offers numerous what ifs, which, of course, do nothing to change the course of history.
Crown Publishers, 2015
430 pages (including notes and index)
In The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, the never-setting sun has such a significant role that it’s practically a character alongside almost-18-year-old Yasha and 21-year-old Frances. These are not star-crossed lovers; in fact, they’re quite lucky. Their story begins with the two in New York City. They don’t meet until circumstances put them on a small island in the Norwegian Sea near the Arctic Circle.
Initially, the chapters alternate between Frances and Yasha’s voices. Eventually, they merge into one. Dinerstein evokes a strong sense of place in the isolated far north as the two find each other. As with any love story, there are obstacles including dysfunctional families, complicated backstories and quirky sub-characters.
Frances leaves Manhattan for a Norwegian artist’s community. Yasha arrives soon after to fulfill his father’s dream. Perhaps the most engaging part of the narrative is the life Yasha and his father have running their bakery in Brighton Beach. This is something they’ve done since immigrating from Russia 10 years earlier. Yasha’s mother, Olyana, was to join them; years pass and the family is never reunited.
Still, Olyana is among those in the quirky classification (it’s actually a long list). She’s an important part of the story, not only because she’s the mother of a protagonist but because of her lengthy absence as such. Meanwhile, Frances has family issues of her own. Among other things, her eccentric parents are separating.
Dinerstein injects humor with captivating prose to create something more than a tale of young love.
The Sunlit Night
Although it’s only been in the hands of the general public for little more than a month, the reviews for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman have been mixed. Now I see why, it’s difficult to know whether this is because long-standing images have been shattered, if the story is less engaging or if the writing simply isn’t as strong as To Kill a Mockingbird: an integral part of American culture since its publication 55 years ago. The 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning novel is still taught in classrooms, and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in the movie adaptation remains iconic.
Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, returns to Maycomb, Ala., from New York City. Atticus is ailing and many of the familiar characters from Mockingbird reappear to remind Scout, and readers, how some things change and some never do.
Scout’s memories are mixed with her current day events as she begins to see her hometown and, especially, her father in a new, unflattering light.
My take is that the story, albeit worth reading, is less engrossing due to lackluster prose. In fact, I found it easy to put down and had to remind myself of its imminent library due date.
Racism and human imperfection are looming themes. Given what’s happening across the country, the former continues needing to be more openly addressed. Perhaps it takes seeing Atticus Finch as a racist, despite his efforts at justification, for us to see the deep-rooted problem. As for the latter, that’s something we just have to accept.
Go Set a Watchman
Our youngest son recently graduated from Knox College; I’d been vaguely aware of it years before because of Sixteen Pleasures, a book I enjoyed for its setting (Florence, Italy) and strong female narrator. This same son gave me an autographed copy of Hellenga’s most recent work, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, which had been languishing on my nightstand far too long.
The setting is mostly Galesburg, Ill., with Knox figuring prominently; other locales include Milwaukee, Rome and Verona. With Frances, Hellenga introduces another female narrator. I admit I’m intrigued by his ability to create such true female voices.
It’s 2006 and Frances has retired from a career as a high school Latin teacher. At first, the novel appears to be a vehicle for her to reflect on her past because she soon recounts how she met her husband, Paul, a Shakespeare scholar from whom she took classes (at Knox). She tells of their affair, their eventual marriage and life together in Galesburg. They have a daughter, Stella, who as a grown woman appears to make a series of bad choices when it comes to men.
The story is occasionally heavy handed. Consider, Frances’ name: Godwin. Several times, she converses with God, who, among other things, entreats her to go to confession. By this point it’s clear that she does have more than a few things to own up to.
Love and guilt are not unusual companions; for Frances, they’re a large part of who she is.
The Confessions of Frances Godwin
We learned about TIGHT in Copenhagen the last night of our vacation and we wanted the momentum of our fun travels to continue. We were initially told to expect a 45-minute wait – maybe longer. We considered going elsewhere. Instead, our fatigue from a full day of sightseeing compelled us to relax on a nearby bench.
It wasn’t long before Willie, our host and server, had a table ready. Although the place was hopping, he gave us his full attention throughout the evening. Unlike other places we’d dined while in Scandinavia, TIGHT was the first where English was the dominate language. The menu reflected a more international range: from foie gras to barbecue ribs.
We started with potato croquettes. These thick cakes of mashed spuds seasoned with green onions, dill and other spices were served with a tangy remoulade. The plating on slabs of black slate was stunning.
Still in the mood for Danish flavors, I chose salmon with new potatoes, asparagus and a green “mojo” sauce drizzled with a balsamic glaze. The fish was cooked to flakey perfection. I cleaned my plate; even Willie commented on this. My husband selected the half-slab of ribs, which were tangy and smoky.
We should have stopped there, but were so intrigued by the Nanaimo Bar that we couldn’t resist the chocolate-coconut-crumb base layered with rich vanilla cream and topped with a layer of crispy chocolate. House-made pecan-maple ice cream further upped the decadence level.
Our last dinner in Copenhagen did not disappoint.
Hyskenstræde 10, 1207 København K