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The Pink Hotel: Liska Jacobs

In The Pink Hotel, from Liska Jacobs, newlyweds Kit and Keith Collins arrive for their honeymoon at a prestigious Beverly Hills resort. Keith is the general manager for a mediocre “quaint roadside hotel” in Boonville, a small Northern California town, and Kit is a waitress at the hotel’s restaurant. As a couple, they’ve been together for 5 years, and Kit, fully absorbed into her husband’s career and ambitions is about to embark on a sommelier course. It’s through the hotel restaurant that Keith met the Beaumonts. Mr Beaumont ascertains that Keith intends to take his honeymoon in Napa, and degrading that suggestion, instead proposes they come to the hotel he manages in Beverley Hills. And so the Kit and Keith are at the Pink Hotel; Kit, awed by the ostentatiousness and outrageous prices, thinks this is their honeymoon, and the start of their new life together, but Keith has another agenda; he’s hoping for a job under Beaumont’s tutelage.

It doesn’t take long to see that Kit and Keith are out of their depth, but they don’t seem to realise it. Mr Beaumont has an arrangement with an employee, Coco, and Mrs. Beaumont seems to think she will have a similar arrangement with Keith. As Kit and Keith sink into the opulent lifestyle and let their decadent, new friends pick up the tab, the process of corruption takes place. The idea of a honeymoon recedes farther into the background with morality somewhere in the rear view mirror. Meanwhile, fires are breaking out all over the region and smoke fills the air. The guests sport fancy masks “fashionable with beading or sequins” and the staff have flimsy blue paper masks but some of the guests object to this. Apparently they spoil the ambience. As the fires rage, social unrest builds outside of the hotel grounds.

The novel is at its strongest depicting the almost-desperate desire to belong–to hang onto the ephemeral, temperamental whimsies of the rich. Kit’s caution over the menu prices and Keith’s insistence that the prices don’t matter (while he swallows hard) feel all too real. It’s a once in a lifetime getaway that they will be paying for for years. The desire of the have-nots to mingle with the Mega-Haves is painful. However, the social unrest outside of the hotel and the egregious petty, callous behaviour of the rich, placed the novel into an allegory zone–think Bunuel but updated to modern Beverly Hills. So we have the rich, served by the poor in a lavish enclave. Wildfires rage outside these walls, so the poor and disenfranchised suffer first, but ultimately Climate Change impacts everyone. These parts didn’t work so well for me, and seemed overdone. Even the name Boonville seems trite. I’m not overly fond of allegory (The Pilgrim’s Progress is an exception), and the novel is painfully slow at some points.

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Funny Girl: Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl follows the life of Barbara Parker, a young woman from Blackpool who idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of becoming a comedienne. It’s 1964 when Barbara enters the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant, and even though she gains the title, she knows it’s not what she wants. Society favours looks over talent all too often and Barbara decides she can’t trade on her looks. So off to London where she gets a job at Derry and Toms on the cosmetic counter. Many of the young female employees, would-be actresses, read The Stage. Barbara is “anxious for news of anyone who had found some sort of secret show-business tunnel out of the store.”

Living in a grimy bedsit with a flat mate and working a boring job only leads to more acting dead-ends until she meets agent, Brian Debenham on a night out at Talk of the Town. Brian signs Barbara for her stunning blonde good looks and voluptuous figure, and while many consider these assets, Barbara runs the risk of being type cast. At first Brian doesn’t understand that Barbara really wants to act. He tells her to “smile. Walk up and down. Stick your chest and bottom out.” Brian sees Barbara as cheesecake:

Sweetheart, you only have to stand there and people will throw money at me. Some of which I’ll pass onto you. Honestly, it’s the easiest game in the world.

Barbara’s faith in herself leads her to a casting call for Comedy Playhouse where she meets writers, Bill and Tony, Dennis the junior comedy producer and actor Clive. It’s meeting that marks the turning point of her life.

Success comes to Barbara when she is cast in Barbara (and Jim) as a Northern girl from working class roots who meets and marries a posh London tory. The series smashes norms of the times by cashing in on class, education, and political differences through its two main characters. The novel draws in many cultural icons of the times, Till Death Us Do Part, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and that perennial favorite, Radio Times. Hornby recreates the shifting social scene of 60s Britain with the BBC facing ITV as a competitor, and formerly taboo subjects making their way onto the TV screen.

It’s all very well done and it’s a great trip down memory lane. The novel is expository so we don’t get into Barbara’s head as much as follow her life, her career, and her personal choices. It’s a fun light read but will have more appeal to British readers for its cultural references. All I could think of was Barbara Windsor….

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Reputation: Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan’s Reputation takes a look at the life of British MP, Emma Webster, a divorced woman in her 40s who makes a number of bad decisions. When the book opens, we know that something very bad has taken place, and then Emma goes back through her recent past to the moment when things started to go wrong in her world. Emma pinpoints the first bad decision, the one “that started everything,” as the magazine photo shoot in which she is swayed by flattery and the presence of a male photographer to assume an aggressive, sexy posture.

Was I subliminally so desperate for male admiration? At forty-four, so conscious of becoming sexually invisible that, despite everything I stood for, I let myself be flattered by and play up to his uncompromisingly male gaze?

This scene sets the stage for all that is about to go wrong in Emma’s life, plus it reveals her Achilles’ heel. Politicians seem to fall on their own petards–most commonly a sex scandal petard. Politicians are not unique in their embroilment in sex scandals, but since there are journos watching, participants who may sell their stories, and enemies lurking in the shadows, there’s a good chance that the secrets of politicians will be exposed. Political sex scandals are highly leakable and who doesn’t like to read about a good, meaty sex scandal?

Since Emma’s divorce, the family home was sold and Emma now lives with two other female MPs. Emma shares custody of her daughter, Flora, with her ex. Meanwhile Emma’s ex, David, seems to be flourishing with his second wife Caroline, who was Flora’s piano teacher, no less.

Caroline, who had encouraged me to stand as a politician, then moved with alacrity to fill my space once I got into office.

A veritable viper in the bosom. David, with his new wife, has had a make-over, he’s fitter, lost weight, and sports a beard while Emma. … well she’s marching on and ploughing herself into her political work. The fact that David’s appearance has improved may partly explain why Emma is flattered into presenting the ‘sexy’ side of herself to the public through the magazine spread. Not, as it turns out, a good decision.

I liked the way we see Emma’s reaction to the new David–it must be a bit of a ego blow to see one’s former spouse dusted off, spruced up and flourishing in another relationship. Emma is not a particularly appealing character–this may possibly be because Emma really has no idea who she is, and while she is passionate about one political cause, Revenge Porn, she is a rather typical politician when it comes to issues that don’t fit her agenda (veteran’s mental health). Now there is no law against stupidity and Emma makes some really stupid decisions. Emma’s stupid decisions work plot-wise as the author laid the groundwork to make those decisions plausible, but still, I found it hard to care one way or another what happened to Emma–the loose cannon on the political payroll. The story unfolds through Emma’s eyes and is punctuated with vicious, reductive social media comments. How pathetic that worlds begin and end with the largely unaccountable actions of social media gladiators.

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Complicit: Winnie M Li

“What latest studio head or screen icon will find his past circling back on him? In horror films, there is the silent horde of the undead, dragging the villain down to a well-deserved fate.”

Winnie M Li’s second novel, Complicit is a post MeToo# tale mostly told from the point of view of Sarah Lai, a 39 year-old Chinese-American woman who teaches film at a NY community college. Once upon a time, Sarah bucked her Chinese restaurant owning parents’ ambitions for their daughter and launched herself into the film industry. But now, 10 years post that experience, Sarah has no ties to that period, except some memories and a tiny mention on IMDB. What went wrong?

Sarah loved film, and we wince while she teaches her mostly untalented students as they try to create screenplays. It’s clear that this job, although secure, is not what Sarah wanted. Sarah is contacted by New York Times journalist Thom Gallagher who wishes to interview her about her experiences with film mogul British billionaire Hugo North and actress Holly Randolph. Sarah admits to herself; “In some way, I knew it was coming.”

The novel takes the form of Sarah’s narrative and interview notes between Gallagher and various sources. When Thom interviews Sarah, she goes back in time to her early days in the film industry and her first ‘break’ when she worked initially as an unpaid intern for Sylvia Zimmerman, the owner of Firefly Films. While working at Firefly Films, Sarah met director Xander, a not untalented man whose loose script for the film A Hard Cold Blue, is carved into shape by Sarah. Sarah’s work load expands over the course of a few years moving from the title of PA and then AP. Xander’s film makes it to Cannes where it garners the attention of Hugo North. North is looking to invest and expand to the film industry, and so he buys into Firefly Films and instantly changes the name to Conquest Films.

But it’s not just the name of the company that changes. Domineering Hugo North loves to party and loves to break down inhibitions: so it’s cocaine and girls all the way. Xander is happy to be on board and Sarah, always the quiet one on the fringes, finds herself bowing to pressure, and joining in. In one memorable scene, Hugo and Xander flick through piles of photos of actresses for Xander’s next film. The moment, complete with crude comments, seems more about screening potential sex partners than actresses:

If you told two-hundred plus actresses that they would be summarily judged just like that, declared en masse to be inappropriate for a lead role, their hearts would be crushed. But aspiring actors never suspect the cold reality of the business, they’re too bewitched by the illusion that the industry peddles about itself: that if you’re talented enough and passionate enough, you’ll get your big break one day.

When production moves to LA, it’s fairly obvious where Sarah is headed, but the attraction of watching this slow train wreck does not lessen for that knowledge. A sticky web surrounds Sarah, but she thinks she has choices… well she does, but those choices will have unpleasant consequences which ever way she moves.

The tale, with its bitter, unsavory truths, unwinds through the memory of Sarah’s experiences. Hugo North is a vile man who gets what he wants, but then wants new toys. People like Hugo North do not exist in a vacuum. He throws money and coke at people and gets what he wants–if someone has moral scruples, no matter, there are plenty of people who don’t or who are willing to park their morals at the door and turn a blind eye. The title Complicit says it all, and I loved the way the author shows that no one comes out of this story without a stain.

There are those who turn a blind eye to events and others who known damn well what is going on but pretend otherwise. Some things we cannot bury, no matter how much we obscure them with gift bags and PR statements and smiling photographs. The truths live on, even though their traces can only be found if we’re looking: in the comments that were edited out, the glances in unpublished photos, the meetings that took place behind closed doors but were followed by strange silences. Or one-way messages, never returned,

So we are all seeing it now. I saw it then, too.

But I pretended I didn’t.

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First Born: Will Dean

Will Dean’s crime novel First Born revolves around the murder of one of two identical twins. The novel begins with Molly preparing to leave the UK to fly to New York. She is to join her parents who are already in New York on holiday to visit Molly’s twin, Katie. Katie was attending an American university on a generous sponsorship/scholarship depending on who you talk to. The holiday, however, turned into something else with the news that Katie has been murdered. Molly, a highly neurotic character, packs her bags, leaves London and flies, with great trepidation to New York.

Molly and Katie, may have been “identical,” but they were polar opposites in temperament: molly is risk-aversive and, yes, paranoid whereas Katie embraced life with zest, took chances and accepted change. Molly knows very little about Katie’s life in New York and she proceeds (with self-created monkey fist at the ready) to do her own investigation.

There’s no shortage of suspects: Scott, the good-looking boyfriend who isn’t so grief stricken to cancel his regular rowing practice and then there’s Shawn, the creepy son of the Katie’s landlady. And what about that slimy professor Groot, and Katie’s best friend Violet Roseberry who was in a “Nuthouse in the Catskills.” Molly even sniffs that her father is hiding something.

There was a lot about this novel that seemed off to me. So on one level, there’s bizarre stuff going on: Molly’s parents have to move from their decent hotel to a stinky run down vomit-fest of a hostel. Molly, an extremely annoying character, btw, is running around on the loose in New York, armed, doing her own investigation. Speaking of investigation: the names of the detectives are Martinez and Ramirez and then there’s PI Bogart de Luca….To this reader the names seemed … well… derivative or else there’s something weird going on here with the whole story. …

This seemed like a fairly standard who dunnit-it in terms of development until the half way point, but then the book turned into something else. There’s a unreliable narrator that’s clear and acceptable and then one that isn’t. For me, the plot became completely implausible.

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Permission: Jo Bloom

“I just like the idea of a little sexual adventure. You can understand that, can’t you?”

In Jo Bloom’s novel, Permission, a happily married couple decide to grant each other permission to step out of the confines of monogamy. With clear rules laid out, what could possibly go wrong???

The novel begins explosively with married couple Steve and Fay involved in a fight between friends Mike and Katie In an evening spent between the two married couples, Mike discovers that Katie has been cheating on him; things quickly escalate and Steve and Fay must intervene. The incident leads to a discussion between Fay and Steve regarding monogamy. They’ve been married for over 20 years, finally have a nice home, have 2 kids together, and while sex is good, somehow Fay thinks she is missing out on life. She brings up the idea of giving each other ‘permission’ for extra-marital sex. Steve is reluctant but agrees mainly to keep Fay happy. Big mistake. We all have certain morality boundaries, and those boundaries are sometimes invisible and untested until a situation arises. It’s clear that Steve has no interest in Fay’s suggestion, and it’s an ego blow. Fay meanwhile has her eye on the first extra-marital lover. …

British author Jo Bloom shows how a couple who actually have a decent life together screw it all up when Fay, feeling bored and a bit short-changed by a lack of sexual experience, decides she wants to branch out. Reading Permission is like watching a train wreck. You can see collision ahead and know it won’t be pretty, but your eyes are drawn to it nonetheless.

I don’t think Permission is meant to be funny, but there were sections I found savagely, grubbily funny. Other parts were just sad. There’s Steve gloomily scrolling through Tinder and then actually writing and printing out ‘the rules’ of the arrangement for extra-marital relationships for both he and Fay to sign. Probably not a good analogy here, but imagine writing out rules for animals at the zoo and then letting them out of their cages. That analogy probably says a lot about my opinions of marriage and human nature–two things which are inexorably intertwined. When a monogamous couple decides to step out of the boundaries of marriage or some other exclusive relationship, you can write as many rules as you want. It simply doesn’t matter because whatever rules you dream up, you cannot predict the consequences going forward and the rules are not going to fix things once those boundaries are crossed. Neither Steve nor Fay conceive of the issues they will face post monogamy. So in that sense, this is a cautionary tale.

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The Wycherly Woman: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer #9)

“I glanced up at her small tense face. She looked like a bunny after a hard Easter.”

In The Wycherly Woman, PI Lew Archer becomes embroiled in the ashes of an acrimonious divorce in pursuit of a missing daughter. Archer is summoned to the home of the obnoxious bombastic Homer Wycherly, a wealthy man who has just returned from a cruise only to find that his only child, Phoebe, has been missing since the day he sailed. Homer Wycherly hires Archer to find Phoebe with the odd admonition that Archer not, under any circumstances, contact his ex-wife Catherine, a woman with, according to Homer, a “vile tongue.”

Just a little digging and Archer discovers that Phoebe was last seen in the company of her mother. Phoebe came aboard her father’s cruise ship to say “Bon Voyage,” but the moment was ruined by Catherine Wycherly who came aboard the ship before it sailed and created a scene with Homer. She demanded money. Two months have passed and during that time, Phoebe has not been seen at Boulder Beach College, at her rooming house, or by her momma’s boy boyfriend, Bobby. Bobby’s acidic mother is, or was, also Phoebe’s landlady. Archer is sure that Bobby knows more than he’s saying, and it’s clear that there’s no love lost between Bobby’s mother and Phoebe.

Although Archer is told by Wycherly to steer of Catherine, after he learns that Phoebe left the ship with her mother, he has little choice but to talk to Catherine. One missing person case quickly becomes a case of two missing persons. Catherine, a full-bodied, loud-mouthed blonde long past her sell-by-date, has also disappeared. Her residence, bought with money from the divorce, is up for sale, and when Archer starts asking questions regarding the real estate agent involved, the body count rises.

Archer encounters a lot of lonely, lost women on his way to solving the mystery:

You’re a hard man, aren’t you? But I like you, I really do. Are you married?

No.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know where to go.

She leaned towards me with a lost expression, hoping to be found.

For most of the book, I thought The Wycherly Woman could end up being at the top of my Archer list. I liked the book’s structure, and the elusive glimpses Macdonald gives the reader of Phoebe, a troubled girl who never recovered from her parent’s nasty divorce. I didn’t come close to unraveling the mystery, and the toxic stench from Homer and his relatives kept me guessing. On the down side, the plot twist was hard to swallow. Can’t say more than that without giving too much away.

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Aurora: David Koepp

Since COVID, I have developed a taste for The-End-of-Civilization-as-We-Know-It books, and that brings me to David Koepp’s novel, Aurora. The novel is set post-COVID, and it’s a world in which some people are solidly prepared for the next disaster (or so they think), but the majority are focused on surviving day-to-day. The novel opens with almost breath-taking speed when scientists discover that a CME (coronal mass ejection) will take out most of the world’s power grids within hours. This leaves the world, and for the purposes of this story, North America, without electricity. Ok, so we have all ridden out a power outage, but how would we survive if that power outage extended to 6 months? A year? It wouldn’t be pretty.

The novel follows two storylines: billionaire Thom Banning is totally prepared for the next apocalypse–so much so that when he gets the news of the impending Black Sky Event, he’s excited. He’s an obsessive control freak, and the prospect of a societal meltdown kicks his plan into gear. He hustles his pissed-off wife, 2 children and a carefully selected number of staff to his compound in Utah. The compound is a renovated government nuclear missile underground silo. Thom bought this for a pittance and then ploughed millions into his prepper project. Some of those millions are locked in the underground bunker. It’s a entire compound with armed guards and a guard house. There’s a:

six thousand-square-foot modernist chateau nestled into the artificial hillside beside the gatehouse. It was designed to shelter a single family, Thom’s family, for as long as things stayed somewhat docile out in the world at large. But the real masterpiece, for when the shit really hit the fan, was all underground, inside the converted silo, which was now fourteen floors of scrupulously conceived subterranean living space.

The second storyline follows Thom’s sister Aubrey who lives in Illinois with her teenage stepson, Scott, the remnant of an ugly marriage to Rusty–a low-life whose addictions took over his life, and his marriage. Thom’s prepper plans included whipping Aubrey into readiness, but when the lights go out, Aubrey has a total of 11 cans of beans in the basement. …

We see the wealthy hit the road on the way to their mountain hideouts while those in the suburbs scramble for food, find strength in numbers and show great ingenuity. Meanwhile, the slums get slummier, and crime spills from the have-nots with alarming alacrity.

David Koepp is a screenwriter and it shows here in this remarkably visual page-turner. I was not surprised to read that there’s a film version in the works. For the first 9/10 of the book, I thought this would be one of my reads of the year, but in spite of a fantastic start and some highly dramatic scenes right towards the end, for this reader, the book finished with a fizzle. That said, it’s a perfect cinematic ending. We hear about social unrest across America, but the action stays focused on Thom and Aubrey. Thom, in his “Fuhrerbunker” discovers the hard way that you can plan for every scenario, but the vagaries of human nature are impossible to control. I had to laugh at the ways his meticulously devised plan melted down almost immediately. Hilarious.

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Mr Wortle’s School: Anthony Trollope (1880)

Anthony Trollope likes to present his readers with moral dilemmas, and Mr.Wortle’s School is no exception. A case of bigamy raises moral questions for the characters, but interestingly, the two people who are in the bigamous marriage, have settled all moral questions to their satisfaction. Their decisions, however, send shock waves through the small, quiet village community in which they live. Here’s the plot: Dr Wortle, who is a Reverend, runs an extremely successful school for boys. Wortle, the Rector of Bowick, is a strong-willed man who knows his own mind and has quarreled with many people in the past. Some people think he shouldn’t be running a school at all, and others think that the 200 pounds a year he charges for each of the 30 boys under his care, is not enough:

It may be said of him that he knew his own [mind] so well as to justify him in repudiating counsel from others. There are very different ideas of what “a fortune” may be supposed to consist. It will not be necessary to give Dr. Wortle’s exact idea. No doubt it changed with him, increasing as his money increased. But he was supposed to be a comfortable man. He paid ready money and high prices. He liked that people under him should thrive,—and he liked them to know that they throve by his means. He liked to be master, and always was. He was just, and liked his justice to be recognised. He was generous also, and liked that, too, to be known. He kept a carriage for his wife, who had been the daughter of a poor clergyman at Windsor, and was proud to see her as well dressed as the wife of any county squire. But he was a domineering husband. As his wife worshipped him, and regarded him as a Jupiter on earth from whose nod there could be and should be no appeal, but little harm came from this. If a tyrant, he was an affectionate tyrant. His wife felt him to be so. His servants, his parish, and his school all felt him to be so. They obeyed him, loved him, and believed in him.

Dr Wortle’s life can be seen as a series of battles: his employment at Eton, his Bishop, the parents of his pupils; he could “bear censure from no human being.” The latest battle involves the Honourable Mrs. Stantiloup, an unpleasant woman, whose son became ill with influenza while attending Wortle’s school. Mrs Staniloup, who already expected a discount from the school, is outraged by the bills for her son’s care. Following this incident, she withdrew her son from the school and became Dr Wortle’s mortal enemy.

In his exhaustive efforts to run the school, Wortle decides to employ a married man as a resident assistant-master and his wife as matron. In this small, gossipy community, many discuss Dr. Wortle’s search for the perfect employees and think he has set himself an impossible quest: what gentleman employed as an assistant head-master would want his wife to work??? But things always seem to go Wortle’s way and he employs The Peacockes who recently returned from America. Mr Peacocke already carries a slight taint– After all, he left a brilliant career at Oxford to seek his fortune in America. That decision alone makes the man slightly suspect. Further, Mr. Peacocke stresses that he will perform no clerical duties for Wortle, but after a short passage of time, he backs off from that decision and “preached a sermon.”

There’s a bit of a mystery about the Peacockes. They refuse to socialise, and the truth is that they harbour a dark secret. Mrs Peacocke’s first marriage was to Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy, a man from an affluent family, ruined by the civil war, who then, along with his brother, turned to a life of crime. He abandoned his wife in poverty, and she later heard he was dead. Peacocke confirmed the fact; they were married and then her first husband showed up very much alive. Then he disappeared again and so the Peacockes fled to England. Peacocke reasoned that he could not abandon his wife and so they chose to stay in a bigamous marriage.

Should they part? There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted. Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin. There would be absolute misery for both in parting;—but there is no law from God or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin. Though their hearts might have burst in the doing of it, they should have parted. Though she would have been friendless, alone, and utterly despicable in the eyes of the world, abandoning the name which she cherished, as not her own, and going back to that which she utterly abhorred, still she should have done it. And he, resolving, as no doubt he would have done under any circumstances, that he must quit the city of his adoption,—he should have left her with such material sustenance as her spirit would have enabled her to accept, should have gone his widowed way, and endured as best he might the idea that he had left the woman whom he loved behind, in the desert, all alone! That he had not done so the reader is aware. That he had lived a life of sin,—that he and she had continued in one great falsehood,—is manifest enough. 

Peacocke has just decided to tell Dr Wortle the whole story when Robert Lefroy, the ne-er-do well brother- in-law to Mrs. Peacocke, turns up, claiming to bring “tidings” and demanding money.

The novel’s structure is interesting. The bigamous couple are not torn with moral quandary; they made their peace with their moral decisions long ago, but soon the entire community is buzzing with the salacious news of the Peacockes. Everyone expects Dr. Wortle to kick the Peacockes to the curb, but he advises Peacocke to go to America and ascertain whether or not Ferdinand Lefroy is really dead. And in the meantime, Wortle insists that Mrs. Peacocke should remain at the residence under his protection.

Dr Wortle’s decision whether or not to support the Peacockes becomes a moral battleground, so Wortle is the hero here. Wortle faces his own ruin in the face of the Peacocke debacle. One subplot is a growing romance involving Wortle’s daughter, a romance that may very well be ruined by the Peacocke scandal. Another subplot follows Peacocke into the wilds of America. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the scandal involving the Peacockes has become ammunition for Wortle’s enemies, and Mrs Stantiloup wastes no time as she tries to engineer the collapse of the school. Throughout the story, Wortle listens to (does not necessarily take) the advice of one man–another clergyman, Mr. Puddicombe. Dr Wortle’s School examines the idea of personal morality superseding religious doctrine and law. There are a few America bashing sections (“Perhaps they don’t care about those things over there as we do here,”) which are quite funny. Dr Wortle’s School is one of Trollope’s Dramatic Novels.

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Grown Ups: Marie Aubert

The Holiday with the Extended Family … yes for some people it’s a thing, and for the really masochistic family, they may actually own a holiday home and (insanely) plan time together. That’s the scenario in Norwegian author, Marie Aubert’s novel, Grown Ups.

It’s the family matriarch’s 65th birthday, and daughters Ida and Marie plan a celebration at the family owned country cabin. Ida is a 40 year old, single architect. Marie is married to Kristoffer; it’s a second marriage, and Olea, his daughter with his first wife (the marriage that didn’t work out), is somewhat resentfully in tow. Ida, who has had a string of bad relationships (and I’m using the word ‘relationships’ here loosely) has decided that life is passing her by. She made the decision to have her eggs frozen, and she plans to deliver the big news sometime during the holiday. But her sister Marie, who has had innumerable miscarriages, has big news of her own.

Grown Ups, a bitter tale of sibling rivalry, is touted as funny. If it was funny, then the humour was lost on me. Over the course of this short novel, moments in Ida’s life are illuminated with bitterness as Marie, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, seem to always manage to upstage Ida’s big moments. In Ida’s mind, Marie has everything–the better life, a stepchild, a man, and the lion’s share of her mother’s concern. All the things that somehow pass Ida by seem easy for Marie to achieve, and the holiday, in this small enclosed space, brings out the worst in Ida. To Ida, everyone’s else’s life seems dynamic and better than hers, other lives are in a state of flux while her life stays the same: empty.

I can’t think about myself as ending up one way or another, as if everything’s over and done with, nothing is over and done with, you have to tell yourself that the best if yet to come, but at times I think that’s how Stein and Martha and Kristoffer see me. They don’t know anything, I think to myself, I’ve got a plan, I’ve got a secret. I make up my mind to tell Martha now, not to wait until this evening, I can tell her now, I’m going to freeze my eggs in Sweden, she’ll look at me wide-eyed and say wow.

Of course, it’s easy to see that Marie has struggles of her own: serious health issues, a stepdaughter who resents her, and a husband who is not a happy camper.

One of the most interesting characters here is Stein, the mother’s boyfriend. As an outsider, he pays attention to behaviours that the others are so used to, they mostly ignore. The fact that even the mother has a boyfriend, seems to add to Ida’s feelings of inadequacy, so when Ida sees the chinks in Marie’s seemingly picture perfect life, she goes for the jugular. Ida and Marie are locked in childhood rivalry, and it’s rather sad to think that perhaps we never get beyond our childhood selves. I liked Grown Ups in spite of the fact that for this reader, the book is a bit of a downer. Ida has a lot to be proud of, but she’s mired in comparisons to her workmates, and even worse, her sister.

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Translated by Rosie Hedger

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