Archive for the ‘family secrets’ Tag

An Allende Misstep   Leave a comment

Isabel Allende is among my favorite authors. I am reminded of how I feel about my kids: I love them even though they sometimes do things I don’t always like. Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, is like that.

The story involves too many secrets, predictable plot lines and cardboard characters. Alma Belasco, a woman of means in her 80s, moves into Lark House, an unconventional nursing home. There she meets 23-year-old care-giver, Irina Bazili. The two bond, and soon Irina is helping Alma’s grandson, Seth, work on a book about Alma and the Belasco family history.

Of course, Irina has a past about which little is revealed, but Alma has secrets, too. As Seth and Irina learn more about Alma, it’s apparent there’s a lost love. Yawn. The younger couple believes the romance is still going strong, although this is all based on speculation.

There was, in fact, a lover. He started out as the youngest son of the Belasco family’s Japanese gardener and Alma’s childhood best friend. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is when Ichimei and his family are uprooted from their San Francisco home and relocated, with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to an internment camp.

Given his role as title character, Ichimei is one-dimensional. Even Alma could have been so much more – especially in Allende’s hands. Alas, this is one of those books I didn’t like much; nonetheless, I look forward to the author’s next work.

The Japanese Lover
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2015
322 pages

The Silent Treatment   Leave a comment

 

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Florence Gordon is a crotchety old woman. Actually, she’s not that old (75), and bitchy is a better description. Yet, this title character of Brian Morton’s novel is certainly likeable – not lovable, but fascinating. Hers is a forceful, no-nonsense personality. Although she’s a writer and considered an icon among feminists, she’s a poor communicator.

Sure, she’s written numerous essays, has plans to write her memoir and speaks her mind. The trouble is she doesn’t share what’s in her heart. Neither does anyone else in her family: her son, Daniel; his wife, Janine who adores Florence; nor their daughter, college-age daughter, Emily. This is a family of secrets. They hold tight to the things that should be shared with kin. Sadly, they spend a lot of time interpreting, often erroneously, one another’s actions.

Florence is put off by Janine’s adoration and seemingly disappointed by Daniel’s career choice: a cop. Still, Florence and Emily slowly start to build a relationship beyond something perfunctory. Emily helps her grandmother with some research. The latter is surprised to discover that her granddaughter is intelligent and perceptive.

The writing is terse, yet the characters and New York City setting are well-portrayed. Morton does a fine job, especially with the females, of inviting the reader to see what’s inside the characters’ heads. An absent character, Janine and Daniel’s son, is alluded to as a talker. Perhaps he could have gotten Florence to open up. That would have made for a completely different, but not necessarily better, story.

Florence Gordon
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
306 pages

More Than A Day on the Beach   Leave a comment

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub is as bright as a day on the beach and also as gritty. Full of poignant, laugh-out-loud descriptions, Straub masterfully portrays a family in crisis.

Jim and Franny Post, with their teenage-daughter, thirty-something son, his girlfriend, and Franny’s best friend Charles and his partner are slated to spend two weeks together in a large rented house on Mallorca. Each chapter represents one day of the vacation and every day includes various perspectives provided by the connected tourists. These are separate views more than distinct voices. Each character hopes to project, or better yet protect, a certain image, because everyone has a secret – some known to a few, others hidden.

The Posts, married 35 years, are financially well-off, privileged. Their daughter, Sylvia, is set to start at Brown in the fall, and the trip was planned as a family celebration. However, in the interim from when the trip was conceived and actually occurs, Jim has had an affair and lost his job. Some know this; others don’t.

As the emotional baggage is shuffled around, the Posts direct their own disappointments to Carmen, the girlfriend. She’s perhaps the most honest among the group, but she is also subjected to the family’s rude behavior. Only Sylvia demonstrates fleeting moments of kindness and understanding.

Yet, the novel isn’t about being mean to others. It’s focused on what people do to live with themselves, even when they’re basking in the sun and have been out too long without sunscreen.

The Vacationers
Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2014
292 pages

Cold Crime   Leave a comment

 

The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Series #1)

Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is my recent discovery in Scandinavian crime genre. She’s touted as Sweden’s version of Agatha Christie. While I might not go that far, I did enjoy the mystery set in Fjallbacka, a Swedish fishing village turned tourist community north of Goteborg.

It’s no surprise that within the first few pages a body, an apparent suicide, is discovered. The twists come in the form of small town connections. Erica, the second (living) person on the scene is a childhood friend of the victim, Alex. The two had lost touch with one another long ago, but Erica has fond memories of their friendship.

Erica, an author of biographies, is asked by Alex’s parents to write what amounts to an expanded obituary. They are convinced Alex did not kill herself. The more Erica learns of her estranged friend, the less likely it seems that Alex would have taken her own life.

Plenty of characters populate Lackborg’s novel, and surprisingly few are extraneous. Besides Erica, a major player is Patrik, a local police officer. They, too, had known each other as kids. As a boy, Patrik was enthralled by Erica. Alex’s death brings them together in more ways than one.

Lackberg doesn’t rely on the mystery; she includes romance, domestic violence and long-held secrets. The result is an engaging story that moves at a comfortable pace. It’s not necessarily a rapid-page turner, but is likely to keep you reading later at night than you might like.

The Ice Princess
Four Bookmarks
Pegasus Books, 2010
393 pages

Opposites Do Attract   Leave a comment

Rainbow Rowell’s story of young love overshadowed by harsh realities is humorous, haunting, and hopeful. Alliteration aside, Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is a study in contrasts and seems to prove that opposites do attract.

The omniscient narrator alternates between the couple. Although this approach doesn’t establish distinct voices, the characters are well-defined. Bits and pieces of Eleanor’s unhappy home life are slowly revealed while suggesting impending misfortune. Park, on the other hand, has two loving parents and lives next door to his grandparents. Eleanor is the new girl in school. She’s overweight, has bright red, unruly hair and dresses in a way that only the addition of neon could attract more attention. Park isn’t Mr. Popularity, but he does straddle the line between acceptance and rebuff. He’s part Asian, dresses all in black, but has known the kids in his high school all his life. When Eleanor sits next to him on the bus, he’s embarrassed, but friendship, then romance slowly, oh so slowly, begins to emerge.

Among Rowell’s themes are bullying and abuse; these create tension in the novel. The sense of something going awry is palpable. Yet, so are the more positive aspects of emerging love and parental concern. References to Shakespearean tragedy add a sense of foreboding; nonetheless, this is a tale dependent on hope. The title characters are different, likeable, and prove that appearances aren’t everything. It’s unfortunate they live in world where extreme differences aren’t always appreciated and where it’s easy to hide dangerous secrets.

Eleanor & Park
Four Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
325 pages

Food Filled With TMI   3 comments

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Aimee Bender’s second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is quirky but glum. The premise follows Rose, the young narrator, and her ability to discern people’s emotions through the food they prepare. This is in stark contrast to the concept that cooking and eating meals are meant to be enjoyed and shared. Poor Rose must develop a strategy to avoid knowing more than she cares or wants, but, of course, she also has to eat.

It doesn’t help that Rose’s family is on the eccentric side to begin with. Lane, her mother, is flighty. And, as Rose deduces from her mother’s cooking, Lane is also very unhappy. Rose’s father is distant and professional. Her brother, Joe, is a genius void of social skills, with an enigma of his own. Despite the food affliction, Rose is pretty much the clan’s anchor with Joe’s friend, George.

Bender deftly portrays the efforts young Rose endures to, at first, keep her disorder a secret and, eventually, live with it. Rose is wise and perceptive; she is smart enough not to reveal too much. Although there are a few light moments, it’s more than a slice of cake that’s particularly sad. Rose and most everyone around her are all woefully unhappy.

The story’s saving grace is Bender’s writing which blends melancholy with the bizarre, while throwing sensitivity and a bit of wry humor into the mix. She’s also excellent at describing a Los Angeles neighborhood that doesn’t rely on tired landmarks.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Three-and-and-half Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2010
292 pages

My Favorite Book of 2013 — So Far   2 comments

I took last week off; I read, I hiked, I ate too much, I slept some, I wrote a bit, but mostly I decided to take a break from the Blue Page Special. In the process, I discovered that I missed it.

TellWolves

I just finished reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and can’t stop thinking about it. Although the writing doesn’t fall into the take-your-breath-away category, the story certainly does. I still want to spend time with the characters: June, a 14-year-old misfit; Greta, her super-achieving sister; Finn, their deceased uncle; and Toby, Finn’s lover.

June is devastated when Finn, her best friend, dies of AIDS. She struggles, then Toby enters her life, and she continues to flounder. Except now she has someone to help her keep Finn’s memory alive. Toby and Finn lived together and, even though she spent a lot of time in their apartment, June never knew about Toby. This aspect has the potential to be implausible; instead, it enhances June’s character as a naïve teenager. Another potentially hard-to-believe feature is the bond that develops between the young girl and the thirty-something Toby.  Remarkably, there is never anything creepy or uncomfortable about it. This is largely due to their love for Finn, and the tentative manner in which their friendship evolves. Equally important is the sisters’ relationship.

Brunt masterfully creates relationships that are rich, painful, and grow before our very eyes. The novel is about friendship, first loves, misplaced jealousy and sibling relationships. Set in the mid 1980s, AIDS has just begun to make itself felt in American culture. Yet, that is simply a background element. This is a coming-of-age story that considers the way people change based on age, interests, opportunities, and circumstances.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

The Dial Press, 2012

355 pages