Archive for the ‘relationships’ Tag

AIDS, Friendship and Acceptance   Leave a comment

45304101. sy475

The Great Believers begins in 1985 Chicago when a group of friends, who’ve been excluded from a funeral, gather to celebrate Nico’s life. He died of AIDS. It’s early days of the epidemic and their friend’s death foretells of what lies ahead for many.

Yale Tishman is among the group, as is Fiona, younger sister of the deceased. Nico’s parents kicked him out of the family home years ago, but Fiona stayed in contact providing him food, money and support as best she could. Consequently, she grew up around Nico’s circle of friends, including Yale.

Time is an element of Rebecca Makkai’s novel which alternates between Chicago 1985/86 and Paris 2015. The earlier period focuses on Yale. He’s a development director for an art gallery, is in a monogamous relationship and comes across as an intelligent, sensitive young man. Through Fiona he’s put in touch with her aunt with an art collection from the 1920s Yale tries to secure for his gallery.

The latter time frame follows Fiona to Paris in her attempt to locate her estranged daughter and granddaughter. The younger Fiona is more interesting than the older version. She took care of Nico, and many of his friends, as they contracted AIDS. She apparently exhausted her caretaking abilities when it came to her immediate family.

Still, the beauty of the novel lies in the power of friendship and acceptance. Yale, and others, faced threats and, initially, medical care for AIDS patients was scattered, at best.

The Great Believers

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2018

421 pages

A Celebration and Lament   Leave a comment

Punctuation in Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, is important to note. There’s no comma after Oh and the exclamation mark is, indeed, a point of emphasis. Those who’ve read Strout’s previous works will be familiar with William’s ex-wife, Lucy Barton. If introduced here to Lucy for the first time, there’s enough about her past and how it factors into her relationship with William.

To say they’re cordial to one another is an understatement; though long divorced, they are friends, even confidantes, but certainly not lovers. They have two grown daughters, share holidays and are, simply, part of each other’s lives.

Each remarried years ago, although Lucy’s second husband is deceased and William’s third wife has recently left him.

Strout’s writing is terse, efficient and occasionally melancholy. Told from Lucy’s perspective, the narrative focuses on William and, significantly, his late mother. When William discovers a family secret he’s compelled to learn more. A road trip ensues and he asks Lucy to join him. She agrees.

Lucy notes early in the novel that William has always exuded confidence something that manifested itself in his position as a scientist and NYU professor. As a writer, Lucy is observant, attune to those around her.  Through her eyes, the reader witnesses William’s certainty begin to diminish, while her own grows stronger.

The title can be read as both a lament (even sans comma) and celebration; both are fitting. Oh William! is a testament to the power of friendship, especially as one ages. Hurray Lucy!

Oh William!

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

241 pages

Ageless Friendship   Leave a comment

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot: A Novel: Cronin, Marianne:  9780063017504: Amazon.com: Books

The 100 Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is about the sustaining and enduring power of friendship. Lenni is the 17-year-old narrator hospitalized with “life-limiting” cancer –  usually referred to as terminal. She meets 83-year-old Margot and an immediate bond is formed. Between them is a 100-year-old life.

Lenni’s acerbic, insightful humor is beyond her age. This isn’t a criticism; it makes sense given her situation. She’s a no-nonsense teen who doesn’t get to live the life of a healthy teenager. She still manages to sling attitude, though. Yet, she makes the most of her situation: she’s curious, so she meets with the hospital chaplain; she creative, so she has the idea to collaborate with Margot to share their life stories through art. Each painting is associated with a particular and significant situation, which they reveal to each other. The result, besides bringing them closer, is a compelling narrative rich with life’s joys and sorrows.

Lenni’s parents never visit, which is eventually explained. Whether intentional or not, Lenni creates her own family within the hospital. Father Arthur, New Nurse , Paul the Porter, the Temp and Pippa the art teacher are those with whom she has meaningful relationships.

Cronin’s characters are vividly portrayed. The novel is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. After all, the word terminal is stated on page one. The friendship with Margot transcends age. Although Lenni will never have Margot’s experiences, she’s able to appreciate what life does offer, and everyone is enriched by knowing Lenni.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot                                                                                Four+ Bookmarks                                                          HarperCollins, 2021                                                                            326 pages, plus Reading Group Guide and Author Interview                                                                         

A Different Perspective   Leave a comment

55711688. sy475

Nella Rogers is proud of herself for getting her foot in the door of a New York City publishing company. She assumes her presence alone should cause people to think about race. Yet, in the two years since her hiring, she’s made little effort in changing the office culture. She is the only woman of color until Hazel arrives; suddenly Hazel is seen and heard where Nella never was before.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl addresses several topics and formats in one swift effort. First is the issue of race, but it is from the Black perspective. What initially appears to be a narrative about the lives of two Black women with different life experiences evolves into espionage; it becomes a mystery of sorts.

Nella grew up in a suburb among few Blacks; Hazel’s background is much different: she grew up in Harlem.  Hazel immediately ingratiates herself among the office staff, including Nella’s boss. A book under consideration for publication is troublesome to Nella because she views it as racist, but is reluctant to say so. When Hazel encourages her to speak up, things begin to change, but not as expected.

The novel includes two time periods: 1983 and 2018. The connection between the two isn’t fully addressed until the end. This, along with several threatening notes left at Nella’s desk, creates tension and intrigue. Inconsistencies in some of Hazel’s story cause Nella to suspect her colleague and make the reader wonder which one is the other black girl?

The Other Black Girl

Four Bookmarks

Atria Books, 2021

357 pages

Bound by Generations   Leave a comment

53138197

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia is a novel I wanted to fall in love with. Unfortunately, despite it having so many elements I’m drawn to, that didn’t happen.

With the exception of a Mexican immigrant and her young daughter, Garcia’s debut work focuses on the women in a Cuban family, several generations removed. Immigration, abuse, mother/daughter relationships, addiction, miscommunication and loss are brought together through glimpses into each woman’s life. The result is a disjointed narrative.

Loss is the most dominant thread, beginning with Maria Isabel in a cigar-rolling company in rural Cuba in 1866. As the only female roller, hers was the most compelling story. To keep the workers engage, a man read either from a novel or newspaper until war made it impossible to continue.

The next chapter is a leap to Miami 2014, where Jeanette, Maria Isabel’s great-great granddaughter is a grown woman and substance abuser. She’s a much less engaging character; yes she makes poor choices, but more is needed than illustrations of her bad decisions. Although she briefly helps the young daughter of the Mexican neighbor who’s apprehended by ICE, there’s little else appealing about her.

The characters need to be fully developed. It’s as if they’re faded photos without any nuance.  While this is a work of fiction, the experiences the women endure are important because, unfortunately, they’re not unique.  The impact would be greater if, instead of multiple situations, more details were limited to only a few.

Of Women and Salt

Two-and-a-half bookmarks

Flatiron Books, 2021

207 pages

Testing Maternal Instincts   3 comments

52476830. sy475

As disturbing as The Push is by Ashley Audrain, it’s nearly impossible to put down. It’s not exactly like watching a disaster unfold before your eyes, but it’s close.

Blythe Connor’s mother was not an exemplary maternal role model; although they never met, neither was Blythe’s grandmother. Audrain offers some background about these women, which helps explains the younger woman’s anxiety about becoming a mother herself. The pressure is magnified by her husband, Fox, who’s certain she’ll be a Mother of the Year candidate.

After their daughter, Violet, is born, Fox is the parent of choice;  Mother and daughter never bond. Initially, Blythe is certain it’s her fault; however, as Violet gets older, Blythe becomes convinced she’s not entirely to blame. Something isn’t right with Violet, and Fox refuses to acknowledge it.

Blythe and Fox’s marriage falls apart, something revealed early in the novel.  Audrain uses a direct address approach to Fox for Blythe to explain her side of the story. She recounts falling in love with him in college, the early days of their marriage, and Violet’s birth which marks the beginning of problems.  She tries to rationalize the issues with Violet are only in her imagination. When the couple has a second child, Blythe is surprised by her deep feelings for him.

Audrain has crafted a profound, often dark, family portrait. Blythe is a sympathetic character, but the haunting question is whether or not she’s a reliable narrator. The result is compelling.

The Push

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Pamela Dorman Books, 2021

307 pages

Checking Out Life’s Choices   Leave a comment

52578297

The Midnight Library is a point between life and death rather than a repository for books. The premise of Matt Haig’s novel is based on life choices with all of its regrets and often overlooked joys. Some decisions are major and others less so, but all have an impact. This is not a duh discovery, though. Instead, Haig offers, through Nora Seed, the opportunity to experience parts of her unchosen lives until she finds the one she’s actually meant to live.

Depressed, alone and uninspired, Nora decides she’s better off dead.  Immediately following her suicide attempt, she finds herself at the Midnight Library which her high school librarian oversees. There are no other patrons and all of the shelves contain books about the different paths Nora might have taken based on her actual family, interests and relationships.

Thinking about the literal road not taken (yes, Frost’s poem is referenced) is engaging. There’s an element of mystery as Nora opens one book after another while trying to the find the right life. Although she considers many, time is running out. Nora needs to make a decision before her death becomes a point of no return.

Nora’s successes and pitfalls involve the usual: love, friends, family and career choices. With each book she opens, Nora learns more about herself and the world around her. There’s a sense of Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience here. Nora gets a wake-up call regarding her life, which, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad thing for anyone

 The Midnight Library

Four Bookmarks     

Viking, 2020

288 pages                                                                                                                          

Homage to the Maestro of Mysteries   1 comment

54221749

It’s difficult not to marvel at Marie Benedict’s how’d-she-do-it in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie which takes the famous mystery writer’s disappearance as inspiration while adding a twist the title character would surely applaud.

Agatha Christie did, indeed, disappear resulting in an extensive search, massive media coverage and abundant speculation – something that continued long after she was found. When her car was discovered abandoned in early December 1926, the worst was feared. The explanation, when she reappeared 11 days later, was amnesia.

Benedict divides the chapters in her novel into two sections: The Manuscript and Days after the Disappearance – beginning with Dec. 4 to Dec. 14. The former recounts the relationship between Agatha and her husband, Archie, from courtship to his later infidelity and demand for a divorce.  The alternating chapters describe Archie’s reactions, suspicions toward him and efforts to find the renowned writer.

References to Christie’s early works are made and Benedict provides a glimpse as to how mysteries became the genre of choice for the British author. The writing is engaging and the characters are vibrant. Archie, for example, is portrayed as a complete cad. He’s selfish, cold and calculating. However, when it comes to calculating, Agatha Christie, literally, wrote the book – several of them, in fact. Something Archie’s self-centered personality keeps him from recognizing, let alone appreciating.

Admittedly, the initial significance of the manuscript and its tie to the mystery eluded me. I’d likely be a disappointment to Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot; Marie Benedict would not.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Sourcebooks, 2021

264 pages plus Reading Group Guide and “A Conversation with the Author”

Not Always Two of a Kind   Leave a comment

43684727. sx318

How close can two people be while maintaining separate, distinct identities? This question and the power of language are the driving forces in Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians.

Anyone with an affinity for words, whether written or spoken, should find this novel intriguing. Twin sisters, Laurel and Daphne, share a secret language. Not only do they finish each other’s sentences, they do the same with one another’s thoughts. They are best friends. Yet, despite their closeness, perforations in their familiarity do surface.  Initially, this happens only occasionally but eventually evolves into something more significant.

The girls’ love of words is as much a part of their personalities as their twinhood. Thanks to Laurel, Daphne is promoted from her job as a receptionist in a New York City weekly to a copy editor. Laurel eventually becomes a poet, but not until her singular love for her daughter further separates the twins.

Most chapters begin with definitions of obscure words from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Their father brought the dictionary home when the girls were young and it became something they pored over until they left home as young adults.

Identical twins hold a fascination to most. Laurel and Daphne are aware of this, but don’t always relish being the centers of attention. Schine has created two, well-defined characters in Laurel and Daphne. She has also crafted a world which has difficulty distinguishing between them.

The Grammarians

Four Bookmarks

Sarah Crichton Books, 2019

258 pages

Exploring the Familiar and the New   1 comment

52958008. sx318 sy475

I knew a couple who, after becoming empty nesters, announced they now live in “Naked City.” I appreciated this for its literal and figurative meanings. Not only could bodies be bare, so could parental responsibilities (of course, these never fully disappear, only their dominance over daily life).  For many couples the milestone raises the question: what next?

Kim Brown Seely addresses this in Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another. I learned about it from a friend’s podcast, nuWriters. The hosts discussed the book one week and interviewed Seely the next. Both episodes intrigued me. Seely shares the emotions associated with a new phase of life with honesty and humor, she also provides vivid descriptions of the journey she and her husband, Jeff, undertook aboard a 54-foot sailboat through the Salish Sea and Inside Passage to the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Seelys are successful professionals, married for nearly 30 years when their two sons are both soon to be in college; their youngest as a freshman. As if launching him isn’t enough of a new experience, they magnify it by embarking on a sailing expedition, which serves multiple purposes including to reconnect as a couple and to seek the elusive white bear (known as the spirit bear).

Although her husband had some sailing experience, Seely did not. This doesn’t deter them, and the two learn to, literally, navigate together. It’s not always easy, but even as their relationship is stretched, so does it become stronger.

Unchartered: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Net Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another

Four Bookmarks

Sasquatch Books, 2019

275 pages