Archive for the ‘relationships’ Tag

Bound by Generations   Leave a comment

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

In Plain View   Leave a comment

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The lies we tell ourselves, and others, to create new lives is the theme of The Vanishing HalfBrit Bennett’s novel addresses several timely issues including racism, sexism, privilege and gender identity. These are daunting points to undertake, but Bennett, without diminishing their importance, imbues the narrative with compassion and wonder.

At its heart, this is about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who, as teenagers, ran away from home: a small, rural community of fair-skinned Blacks. The story tracks their lives as they eventually take separate paths, both figuratively and literally. Desiree returns home with Jude, her  young, very dark daughter in tow;  Stella passes herself as white, marries, moves to an exclusive area in Los Angeles and constantly worries she’ll be exposed.

The emphasis on Jude’s blackness drives the uncommon, perhaps unpopular, notion racism is only something whites project to nonwhites. Within her own, albeit pale, Black town, Jude’s been shunned since the day she arrived. Despite this, she doesn’t see herself as a victim and hers is the most engaging subplot within the novel thanks to those she interacts with most.

Although some stereotypes exist, most of Bennett’s characters are well-defined.  This goes beyond physical descriptions, but includes their joys, heartbreaks and deep emotions.

The settings change but the most important action occurs in the rural south and Los Angeles. Incorporating different locales makes it easy to see problems aren’t restricted to geographic regions. And, lies travel easily from one place to another.

The Vanishing Half

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

343 pages

Expectations and Perceptions   Leave a comment

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In Trust Exercise Susan Choi raises the question of perspective; everyone has their own version of a situation. Here it isn’t immediately clear whose is who’s.

David and Sarah are students at an elite performing arts high school; they have a summer romance between their freshman and sophomore years. They, their peers and Mr. Kingsley, the theatre instructor, do little to acknowledge the relationship once school resumes in the fall.

The novel’s three sections are all entitled “Trust Exercise.” This is clever since it not only relates to the classroom experiences designed by Mr. Kingsley to teach the students to depend on each other; it also admonishes the reader to have faith in the narrative.

The first section focuses on David and Sarah’s relationship with supporting roles provided by their classmates, teacher, parents and exchange students from England.

The second “Trust Exercise” re-introduces Karen, a character previously, albeit briefly, mentioned. The switch takes some adjustment since the storyline is now more hers than Sarah or David’s. It’s as if the roles have been switched from supporting player to star. Additionally, a switch from the omniscient narrator to Karen’s voice regularly occurs.

Asides to the reader create a theatrical ambiance, as if to remind of the ties to the performing arts. Drama, in all its forms –onstage and beyond the proscenium arch – is ever present. 

Choi has crafted believable characters in credible settings with the challenge of considering different points of view regarding relationships, commitment and loyalty.

Trust Exercise

Four bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2019

257 pages

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

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The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

More Than a Uniform   Leave a comment

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If you suspect The Women in Black is about nuns, you’re wrong. No worries, although the title would work for such a subject. Instead, these are saleswomen at Goode’s Department Store in Sydney, Australia, who wear black frocks.

Madeline St. John follows four, including Lisa a teenage temporary employee, who work in Ladies Cocktail and Model Gowns. Patty is in a childless, unhappy marriage; Fay is single and weary of the dating scene; Magda is a sophisticated Slovenian emigrant.

The writing is sparse, yet captivating. Each main character is vividly portrayed, as is Goode’s. With the holidays rapidly approaching, the store prepares for an onslaught of last minute shoppers.

Young Lisa has finished school and awaits the results of her final exams. She’s intelligent with dreams of being a poet and going to university – something her father adamantly opposes. Magda, who interacts little with Patty or Fay, takes Lisa under her wing.

When not at the store, St. John provides glimpses of each character’s home life. Only Magda is truly happy, which may be attributed to her appreciation and acknowledgment of what life in Australia offers her compared to what she left behind in her home country.

On the heels of the Christmas rush is the popular annual sale. Preparations for it, plans for how the women will spend New Year’s Eve and wondering about the results of Lisa’s exams, contribute to the anticipation the author creates. The result makes this a rapid-page-turner of a novel.

The Women in Black

Four Bookmarks

Scribner 1993

209 pages