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Archive for the ‘mothers and daughters’ Tag

Maternal Ties   Leave a comment

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a statement and not only the title of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. It’s an affirmation as Lucy reflects on the relationship with her mother, which is like a faulty wire: occasionally there’s no connection.

Lucy is from a rural Illinois town where growing up her family lived so far below the poverty line as to make it seem something to attain. Lucy’s life is revealed as she lies in a hospital bed with a view of the Chrysler Building in New York City talking with her mother whom she hasn’t seen or spoken with in years. Strout is methodical as she merges Lucy’s past with the present.

The rich, stark pacing and imagery serve to expose family dynamics in the narrative. That is, Strout’s writing provides enough detail to shape a situation or character, but not so much that there is little left to the imagination. In fact, this is what makes some aspects harrowing: imagining what life was like for young Lucy. She lived with her older siblings and parents in a garage until age 11.

Her mother’s brief presence provides the vehicle to see Lucy’s past; the extended hospitalization gives Lucy time to consider her adult life as a mother, wife and writer.

Lucy should despise her parents and her past, yet she doesn’t. Her family was shunned and her parents were apparently abusive in their neglect. Lucy is grateful for her mother’s presence. The mother-daughter bond, at least from Lucy’s perspective, overrides past sins.

My Name is Lucy Barton
Four and a half Bookmarks
Random House, 2016
191 pages

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Vanishing Acts   2 comments

bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is engaging, funny, poignant, and even a bit silly. Set primarily in Seattle, the story also includes a few situations in Los Angeles and the Antarctic as Bernadette Fox tries to ward off a nervous breakdown in an environment seemingly designed to push her over the edge.

Bernadette is a semi-misanthrope; she dislikes nearly everyone except her husband, Elgie, and their daughter, Bee. Bernadette doesn’t make it easy to like her. She refuses to get involved with the parent groups at Bee’s school, and she avoids interaction – no matter how casual – with others to such an extreme that she relies on a virtual personal assistant who lives in India.

Semple has created an appealing dysfunctional family that has trouble meshing with an often-dysfunctional world. Bernadette, a one-time architect, is, in fact, a genius; she’s a past recipient of a McArthur Foundation Genius Grant. But she responds to stressful situations through radical reactions, including disappearing. Bernadette’s story is told through emails, letters and mostly Bee’s eyes. Bee is no intellectual slouch herself. She’s convinced there’s a logical explanation for her mother’s absence. And here’s where the real adventure begins as Bee sets off to find Bernadette.

Russian spies, potential identity thieves, private school students, and parents blind to their children’s excesses and foibles are just a few of the extras populating Semple’s novel. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud situations as well as a few shoulder-shrugging moments as Bee, who has a very good understanding of her mother, refuses to stop looking.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2012
326 pages

Family Fairy Tales   1 comment

wintergarden

Often, stories within stories are enchanting, muddled, lopsided or boring. Fortunately, Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah is captivating without any confusion. One narrative is not more interesting than the other; both have equal appeal.

Much of what makes Hannah’s novel so successful is the clever way in which her characters evolve. Sisters Meredith and Nina are grown women who have always basked in the light of their father’s love. Meredith is the older sister, pragmatic and harried; Nina lives the adventurous life of a freelance photographer. Theirs is not a close a relationship. If not for Evan, their father, there would be little for anyone in the family to hold dear.

Unlike Evan, their mother is a cold, distant woman incapable of showing or articulating affection. This could be a black and white story, but Hannah has enough sense, and talent, to show the nuances. A secret past, painful memories and the harsh reality of war culminate in a fairy tale the sisters’ mother is ultimately compelled to tell. The story moves from the idyllic, contemporary life on the family’s apple orchard to cold, war-torn Russia. Like any good fairy tale, this one begins with a handsome prince, an evil overseer, and a young girl who falls in love.

As the fairy tale evolves, it’s clear this the only way the mother can explain herself and for her daughters to recognize their own strengths, weaknesses and connections. There’s nothing jumbled in either side of Hannah’s engaging account.

Winter Garden
Four Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010
391 pages

Two Mothers, One Daughter   1 comment


Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s first novel, Secret Daughter, is about families – especially mother-daughter relationships. Two women, one unable to have a child and the other unable to keep hers, are the primary focus – along with Asha, the daughter given up by one and adopted by the other.

Somer, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay area is married to Kris, a surgeon originally from Mumbai. Across the world in an Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a daughter she knows her husband does not want, and will not let her keep. Although the women never meet their lives are unwittingly bound when Kavita leaves her child at an orphanage. Through a series of coincidences that often only occur in fiction, the girl, Asha, is adopted by Somer and Kris.

Gowda’s narrative moves from the Bay Area to Mumbai, as it shifts from one woman’s perspective to the other, before, thankfully, settling on Asha. Somer‘s character is whiney and distant; Kavita is mostly sad and compliant. Despite environment and genetics working against her, Asha grows up to be an intelligent, inquisitive young woman. That’s not to say, she is flawless. At her worse, as a teenager, she is rude and insensitive; at her best, as a college student interning at a Mumbai newspaper, she is empathetic and appreciative. Of course, it takes time for the latter qualities to evolve.

Gowda’s writing is strongest describing the contrasts between India’s wealthy and the destitute. The colors, sights, and smells are vivid – even when the reader might prefer otherwise.

Secret Daughter
Three Bookmarks
William Morrow, 2010
339 pages

Listening to I Forget What   4 comments

The title alone, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is sufficient to lure the imagination, and Alexandra Fuller’s colorful, poignant memoir of her mother is enough to keep it willingly ensnared. This is a sequel to Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, which I did not read. But then I didn’t read Cocktail Hour either. Instead, I listened to it.

Conditions have to be just right for me to turn to an audiobook. Usually, it means a road trip, but in this case I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, I was stuck painting the downstairs bathroom.

Fuller’s mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa,” is a character full of flaws, passion and imagination. The author makes it clear it was not easy being her daughter. Nicola is exuberant to the point of embarrassment of all around her. While Fuller  does not hold back in detailing her mother’s domineering persona, neither does she waffle in showing the occasional moments Nicola allowed an approachable, sensitive side to appear. This is not a daughter-as-victim tell all memoir. It is a daughter recognizing who she is thanks to, and in spite of, her mother.

One of the joys of listening to this, rather than having read the book is that Nicola loves to sing. Like Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, the narrator breaks into song. Sure, I can imagine a tune in my head as I read, but here it was treat hearing this aspect of Nicola’s personality.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Four Stars
Alexandra Fuller
Recorded Books, LLC, 2011