Category Archives: Fiction

The Fake: Zoe Whittall

Hypochondriac Shelby is frozen in mourning and depression following the sudden death of her wife, Kate. Friends and family don’t seem to understand her inertia, but then she meets the energetic Cammie at her grief therapy group, and there’s something about Cammie’s zest for life that snaps Shelby’s out of her depression.

Gibson, freshly divorced, has moved into a new apartment. Even though he initiated the divorce, it’s hard to break the cord. He’s not sure that he made the right choice, and even asked his ex, to consider rekindling the relationship. She wisely refused. Gibson’s ‘new’ life isn’t going well. He’s so depressed he can’t even muster the energy to unpack. Then one night, out at a bar with friends, he meets bar employee Cammie. She’s charismatic, gorgeous, and soon Gibson is having incredible, eye-popping sex.

Both Gibson and Shelby can’t believe Cammie’s courage in the face of her horrible life history. Yes, Shelby lost her wife, and Gibson is divorced, but those details pale in the light of Cammie’s horrible life history. Cammie has survived being kidnapped as a child, kidney cancer, the suicide of her dad, her death of her sister, the suicide of her best friend, and abusive ex boyfriends. And let’s throw in accusations of theft from her employer. Cammie also attends a grief support group. It’s her “home base.” When it comes to loss, Cammie can trump everyone, and yet she handles it so well. Almost nonchalantly. ..

Set in Toronto, Zoe Whittall’s novel The Fake explores grief, loss, vulnerability, and loyalty. Given the title, I’m not giving anything away when I say that Cammie’s various stories don’t add up. Her ‘bravery’ (and bragging) in the face of multiple tragedies is suspect to Gibson’s friends, but since his sex life is like something out of a porn film, he defends Cammie even when faced with evidence that she is a pathological liar.

Shelby too begins to question Cammie’s past, but then it’s hard to grasp what sort of person would make up a cancer diagnosis. Both Gibson and Shelby have never met anyone quite like Cammie, and soon they wish they hadn’t.

We shouldn’t be mad at ourselves for assuming the best about someone. You know, in all the articles experts say that liars pick people who seem sensitive and empathic because we’re easier to manipulate. I’m not going to be ashamed or being sensitive and caring about people.

The novel has a lot of energy and is a fun read. Gibson and Shelby would not normally cross paths. Gibson is in his business world with male buds and Shelby is a recluse living alone with her dog Coach Taylor Swift. This could have been a very dark novel, but instead the author uses a light touch and some gentle humour while exploring how Cammie fills a need for these two lonely people. Gibson and Shelby find themselves wondering about Cammie’s conscience; they have had no experience with psychopaths, and like many people who are plucked clean in various scams, they don’t want to believe that Cammie is bad news, beyond ‘help’ or that they were gullible. Finally, IMO, I’ve seen this many many times, belonging in a group, a grief group, a bird group, a whatever group, creates a false sense of safety. Somehow people have this impression that membership in that group, no matter how low the bar for entry, anoints fellow members with a badge of safety. As though they’ve been vetted. This makes an easy approach for scammers.

“I think that’s common, with psychopaths. They figure out what you want to hear and they say it.”

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, posts, Whittall Zoe

The Bogeyman: Margaret Forster

“Another twenty years and with luck we’ll be dead. We’ve got through twenty already, what’s another twenty?”

Margaret Forster’s The Bogeyman is a look at the ghastly life of a London family. It’s the 60s. Father Jack is a much-feared and loathed schoolmaster, while wife Edith stays at home in their disastrous home which is appropriately placed next to an asylum. They have three children: teenagers Justin, Natalie and new baby Sebastian. The book opens with the arrival of 18-year-old German au-pair Christina, who is supposed to be the answer to all the family’s problems. Edith hasn’t been coping since the birth of Sebastian, but the problems are far deeper-rooted than just postpartum depression. Jack is a unhappy man who feels trapped by his family; he hates his job and his students, and his hatred for his family is on the point of exploding. Natalie and Justin loathe their parents in different ways, and although they sense their father’s violence right under the surface, nonetheless they both live to goad him.

Christina, in her pictures, looked plain but wholesome. In reality, she is striking, and so for a while, The Bogeyman seemed destined to take us to some familiar territory, but while Christina does act as a catalyst for the events that take place, the problems within the family leave Christina as a silent spectator more than an active participant.

Like rats in a trap, the family members gnaw on each other mercilessly, with poor Edith at the bottom of the totem pole. Christina’s presence means that the house is tidy, the baby fed and the meals cooked, and that leaves Edith free. But free to do what?

When, after several weeks of bone idleness, the time began to drag just a little, she decided to do something about it. At ten thirty, she picked up the Daily Telegraph and a pencil in a determined fashion. She was going to write down all the important topics she didn’t know anything about and after asking Jack to give her a background, she would follow them through each day. She wrote down AFRICA. Africa was very important, she didn’t need telling.

But Edith’s plans don’t work out.

Without potatoes to peel and beds to make she was nothing. She wasn’t discovering a new self, smothered all these years. She was laying bare what was merely a scaffolding.

One of the consequences of Christina’s presence is that Jack decides to take Edith to the pictures. He immediately regrets his decision. Edith is delighted about this rare night out, and he is “appalled” at her “transparent naivete” and excitement. This of course gives him ample opportunities for casual cruelty.

While the marriage is toxic, Jack’s relationships with his children are vile. Jack hopes Natalie commits a crime so she’ll be “packed[ed] off to Borstal.” Natalie and Justin despise their parents. Justin thinks his mother is “practically illiterate,” and takes his hatred of his father to the classroom. Natalie leaves large bottles of aspirin around the house, hoping that her parents commit suicide. Every single interaction is an opportunity for abuse. Verbal, emotional and physical. The book was published in 1965, and society’s attitude towards child abuse has changed.

“Where did you get that watch?” asked Edith suddenly.

As Natalie had stretched out her dirty hand for a cake, the thin gold chain and small, diamond shaped clock face stood out. “Use your brains, if you’ve got any,” said Natalie nonchalantly.

You didn’t buy it?” asked Edith.

“Don’t be funny. How could I buy anything on what scrooge here doles out.”

“Who gave it to you and why?” said Jack sharply.

Natalie ate her cake, eyeing them both with pleasure. They were leaning forward, tense and waiting. She toyed with answers. “I got it from a sailor,” she said, “for services rendered.”

This is an odd book. Parts of it are brilliant. I especially loved how Edith morphs into Mrs Jellyby, but apart from that it’s not easy to read at times due to the sheer hatred that is lobbed back and forth between the family members. We never know what poor Christina thinks. She is not a developed character–she’s a blank–and it’s hard to understand why she stays in a house where Natalie shouts orders to her mother to “shove your tit” in the baby’s mouth, and subsequently calls the new au pair a “foreign slut” echoing her father’s sentiment against hiring her in the first place. Jack is the toxic villain here, a frustrated, unhappy man who takes out his misery on his family. Marriages can rot to the extent that the greatest joy resides in making each other miserable, but in this case, Edith is the sponge and the children are active participants manufacturing mayhem and misery. There are times when the teens realise that their mother is a buffer, and a victim too, but she can’t protect them; she’s made her own escape. In this toxic environment, everyone is damaged. It’s profoundly sad and the ending is problematic.


Filed under Forster Margaret, posts

All that is Mine I Carry With Me: William Landay

“I think all married men are a little unhappy, secretly, at least the ones who marry young.”

William Landay’s All That is Mine I Carry With Me begins with author Phil Solomon stymied when it comes to the subject of his next book until childhood friend, Jeff contacts him and suggests a topic: in 1975, Jeff’s mother, Jane Larkin vanished without a trace. Her husband Dan, a prominent attorney, was the prime suspect, but he was never charged with the crime. Phil decides to write the book and interviews many of those involved in the case including: Jane’s three children, Alex, Miranda and Jeff, the lead detective on the case, Glover, who is convinced that Dan is guilty, and Jane’s sister, Kate.

The novel is divided into 4 sections “books,” and the story unfolds over decades through various points of view. The main gist of the book is the permanent impact the crime/disappearance left on the children who are raised by the man who may or may not be their mother’s killer. The Larkins seemed like a storybook family, but under the shiny, wholesome surface, there are hints of trouble.

The story is somewhat uneven. The section concerning Miranda, Jane’s daughter, the youngest child, the first one home from school to find her mother absent, is particularly strong and moving. This is a little girl who grows up without her mother and in a sense without her father too–since she suspects he is responsible for her mother’s disappearance. Her life is tainted not just by the absence and disappearance of her mother, plus the question whether or not her mum is even alive, but also her life is also stained by the fact that her father is a suspect. Miranda, Glover, Jeff and Kate may live their lives but they will always partly be “stuck in time, looking for [Jane] while the rest of the world moved on.” Dan certainly moves forward with his life in spite of the BIG QUESTION about his missing wife hanging over his head. He isn’t a nice man. At all. Here he is on the subject of marriage:

“I’m just being honest here. The men I know–Okay, think of it like this: a young man is like a rising stock, like IBM or Coke. And the stock gets sold too soon, while it’s still going up. So what happens? The guy looks around, eight, ten, fifteen years later, and what does he say? He says, ‘I sold too low. I should have held out. I’m worth more than I got’ ”

Kate: “the woman, in your little metaphor, she’s a sinking stock. She’s worth less, eight or ten years in.”

“No, well–what she’s worth–well, yes. But look, this isn’t just me talking, this is society, this is what we’re taught. And let’s be honest, if we’re looking at men and women as a marketplace, as assets, in pure economic terms, then yes, our society assigns a higher value to a young sexy woman than to a middle-aged woman. […] A woman is sold closer to her peak value than a man. Before she begins to depreciate.

For this reader, the characters are the book’s strongest point. Jane, Kate, Dan, Miranda, Glover were well developed, incredibly believable characters–so much so that this reads like a true-crime book. The weakness for me is in the novel’s structure. The beginning half of the book was very strong, and I couldn’t stop reading. But then the plot lost momentum. I notice other reviewers feel the opposite–many preferred the second half of the book. In spite of my quibble regarding the book’s structure, I am still thinking about it. …

I just finished watching the TV series Defending Jacob based on the book by this author, and I have a feeling that we will see this book on the screen too.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Landay William, posts

The Underground Man: Ross Macdonald (1971)

“Isn’t there always a blond girl?”

Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, is set against a wildfire, but the book begins with a deceptive sense of peace. It’s supposed to be Archer’s day off; he is minding his own business, feeding peanuts to Jays outside of his apartment. A sweet little boy named Ronny Broadhurst peaks his head outside from a neighbouring apartment and starts chatting to Archer. A few minutes later, Ronny’s very uptight, ill-tempered father, Stan shows up and words are exchanged between Stan and his wife Jean who is staying, temporarily, in an apartment near Archer’s. It’s obvious from the ugly scene between Stan and Jean that they are separated and on the brink of a divorce. Stan, on the verge of violence, accuses Archer of being his wife’s new “playmate,” and leaves with his son. Jean later tells Archer that Stan is on his way to visit his wealthy mother in Santa Theresa and according to the news, due to a wildfire, there’s an evacuation order in place for that region. Archer establishes that Stan’s mother hasn’t seen her son, so he is on the case to locate the boy.

It’s a peculiar situation. Jean explains that Stan is obsessed with finding his father, a Saint Theresa lothario who disappeared with another woman years ago. Stanley’s mother was left high and dry and since her husband’s disappearance, there has been no word. Stanley’s obsession with finding his father has, according to Jean, ruined their marriage. The night before Jean left the family home with Ronny, Stan brought home a young blonde girl, a “hysteric” in Jean’s opinion, but the girl had a “wild story” that seemed to “fascinate[d]” Stanley.

The Underground Man starts with a toxic marriage and a boy who’s disappeared but soon Archer realises he’s in the middle of a very complex case. Under threat of a hungry wildfire, Archer searches the region for Ronny, but he must wade through years of secrets and several toxic relationships first: a few rocky marriages and a very unhealthy mother-son dynamic. The wildfire makes an unusual and interesting backdrop to murder and blackmail, and the descriptions tell me that Ross Macdonald lived through a California wildfire. The Forest service fire crews are out in the more remote areas protecting the houses of the wealthy while the lower end residential areas are “almost depopulated” with “a few men [were] up on their roofs with running hoses and defiant expressions.”

I got up and looked around me. Under the stratum of smoke which lay over the city, the air was harshly clear. The low sun was like a spinning yellow frisbee which I could almost reach out and catch.

This is the 16th book in the Lew Archer series.


Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross, posts

Journey into the Past: Stefan Zweig

“How much time, how much lost time, and yet in the space of a second a single thought took him back to the very beginning.”

Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past is a poignant story that shows how time and distance erodes memory and love. The story begins with Ludwig who has an assignation with an older widow, the wife of his former, now deceased employer. They embark on a train in Frankfurt and travel to Heidelberg. The story then goes back in time.

Ludwig suffered a “childhood of humiliating poverty,” and he scrapes by his student years with great sacrifice, working as a private tutor, supporting an “old mother and two sisters in a remote provincial town” on his meagre income. After he finishes his studies, he’s employed, marginally at first, by Privy Councillor G, an industrialist. Later the Councillor, who is in poor health, asks Ludwig if he will come and live with the family in his villa. At first Ludwig refuses:

Coming to adulthood as a private tutor in the distasteful ostentatious houses of the nouveaux riches, feeling that he was a nameless hybrid being somewhere between a servant and a companion, part and yet not part of the household, an ornamental item like the magnolias on the table, placed there and then cleared away again as required, he found himself brimming over with hatred for his employers and the sphere in which they lived, the heavy, ponderous furniture, the lavishly decorated rooms, the over-rich meals, all the wealth that he shared only on sufferance.

Ludwig dreads actually living in a house with his employer. He is familiar with the “ironic, mocking looks of the maid,” and the “hurtful remarks of impertinent children [and] the even more hurtful pity of the lady of the house when she handed him a few banknotes at the end of the month.” Moving into his employer’s home means that Ludwig will have to give up the one thing he prides himself on, his independence, and while his lodgings may be shabby, at least it’s far away from the hurtful looks of the servants. His “title of Doctor [is] cheap but impenetrable armour.

In time Councillor G’s health becomes so poor that he is bedridden and with this change in circumstance, Ludwig agrees to move into his employer’s home. Imagine his surprise when he is treated with insight and compassion by his employer’s wife. They grow close and fall in love. Fate intervenes when the Councillor decides to send Ludwig to Mexico to set up a branch of his business there. It will be just two ‘short’ years and it’s a wonderful opportunity for Ludwig. Ludwig and the Councillor’s wife don’t know how they will bear the separation. They are in love. They have not had sex but they have come close to it. The wife promises that they will have sex one day ..

So there’s Ludwig stuck in Mexico when WWI breaks out and an “iron curtain descends between the two continents, cutting them off from each other for an incalculable length of time:” But life goes on for Ludwig, and the memory of the Councillor’s wife dims. Fate once more intervenes and Ludwig returns to Germany 9 years after his departure. It’s a frightening new Germany with swastikas,” banner of the Reich” flying in the breeze. But there’s unfinished business between Ludwig and the Councillor’s wife, now a widow.

Journey into the Past reminds me of Age of Innocence. Both books involve couples who are in love but who cannot be together. Circumstances divide and separate them, but the passage of time offers a second chance. Will that second chance be taken? Spoiler alert: I found Ludwig’s insistence rather ugly and definitely immature. Is this a unrequited love story or a story of sexual passion in the guise of love? And if it is love, time and distance have a corrosive effect.


Filed under Fiction, posts, Zweig Stefan

Device Free Weekend: Sean Doolittle

Here’s a piece of free advice: your old college roommate, now a billionaire in his 50s, invites you and a handful of other college pals, for a device -free weekend at his remote island.


Will, Perry, Beau, Lainie, Stephen and Emma all accept their invitations which are cryptically number 1-6. They are transported to Link Village, billionaire Ryan Cloverhill’s “waterfront office complex,” in Washington state, and from there they take a ferry to Sham Rock, Cloverhill’s island. Apart from the numbered invitations, everything starts out as you would expect. No alarm bells yet.

Will and Perry are a married couple. Perry had a terrible bout of COVID which has left him with permanent scar tissue in his lungs, and Will is an insulin dependent diabetic. Lainie and Beau are a “luxury couple” self-made celebrity Linkstreamers.” They have built an “online brand” and are extremely successful. Emma, a single parent, has history with Ryan, and Stephen is the dark horse of the group.

Ryan’s house, which he designed, is 6500 sq feet, “constructed of smooth concrete, with entire walls made of windows that capture the stunning 360 degree views.” When the guests arrive, Ryan “a middle-aged megabillionaire social media CEO” insists everyone turn over their devices. It very quickly becomes apparent that Ryan has an itinerary which begins to morph into an agenda. Ryan is the founder and the CEO of the world’s most popular social media platform, and then when he tells his guests to hand over your devices… well you know something is up. Is this about quality time or control? It’s not as though I have a love affair with my phone, but I would be done right there. …

After a first boozy night, the guests wake up to find Ryan gone, and the only way to communicate with him is via a tablet. The catch is that first they have to crack the code to access the tablet. At first it seems like a game (annoying, but still a game) but then Ryan’s agenda becomes clear. All I can say is that if this is how Ryan treats his friends … you don’t want to be on his enemy list.

Sean Doolittle’s Device Free Weekend is a techno-thriller. At first I thought the set-up was classic Agatha Christie but the subtext here is not murder but responsibility: the responsibility we have to ourselves, our friends and yes… the wider social responsibility. The characters never develop, and that is unfortunate as I am a character-driven reader. Also Ryan is annoying, out of touch with reality, and a dickhead. I didn’t buy his late-in-the-day concerns. Still this would make a good film in the right hands.

Review copy.


Filed under Doolittle Sean, Fiction, posts

The Toys of Princes: Ghislain de Diesbach

England is the country of melancholy.

The Toys of Princes from Ghislain de Diesbach is a short story collection. Here are the contents:

The Toys of Princes

The Magravine’s Page

The Force of Destiny

The Devil at Stillbad

The Chevalier d’Armel’s Wedding

Iphigenia in Thuringia

On the Thunersee

The Apparitions of Kirmünster

Die Fledermaus

The Canoness Vanishes

The Divine Baroness

Of Love and Money.

Through the stories, all set in the 19th Century, we repeatedly see the excesses of the nobility. And what excesses they are!

The lead story, The Toys of Princes concerns a Prince whose father was deposed:

Imitating the bad example set by the subjects of the King of France, those of the Prince Elector of Bramberg had overturned the monarchy in order to proclaim the republic.

The Elector dreams of regaining his throne and reads the papers “hoping to learn that the cursed Corsican had been murdered.” A few days before the marriage of his son Clément, to a Countess he loves, the Emperor sends a letter which states he wishes to arrange a match between one of his nieces and Prince Clément. The Emperor promises that if Clément marries Valérie he will put Clément on the throne of Bramberg. The niece, Valérie, is in love with a hussar. but both love matches are swept aside in favour of ambition. Valérie and Clément marry, and as King and Queen they spend years in “mutual sacrifice” with esteem for one other, but the memory of their past great loves never leaves their minds. Eventually those long-lost loves die, under nasty circumstances. The thought of all they had lost weighs on the royal couple’s mind. The Queen suffers from melancholy and “indeed as time passed, regret for her broken dream spread and flourished within her like an incurable sickness.” And then the King meets a “maker of automatons” who is commissioned to make two automatons in the images of the lost loves of the king and queen. But their faces, disappointingly, don’t look real. The queen has an epiphany:

I have heard that during the great revolution in France, some people had the books of their libraries bound with the skins of guillotined aristocrats. It is reputed to be extremely durable.

In The Margravine’s Page, an aging margravine (had to look that up–it’s the wife of a military governor) basically holds a beauty contest which involves culling 30 of the best looking men from the university. The “handsomest, and most well made” wins a prize of 10,000 thalers, and it’s a surefire way to jumpstart a career.

The Force of Destiny concerns a man who is forced to take shelter at an inn during a terrific storm. He meets a stranger there who has a tragic story to tell. For this reader, the story had a feel of Hoffmann.

The Chevalier d’Armel’s Wedding is probably the strangest of the bunch. Again this is another story of misrule and decadence. This time a young handsome man marries a woman, but after the wedding, she begins acting rather strangely.

There’s a gothic feel to the tales but that is wrapped with a dash of fairytale, fantasy quality. There are some horrors here but there’s a light touch too.The stories feel as though they were written in the 19th century, but as far as I can tell the original French version was written in the 60s.


Filed under de Diesbach Ghislain, Fiction

Eastbound: Maylis de Kerangel

Siberia–fuck! […] a territory of banishment, giant oubliette of the Tsarist empire before it turns Gulag country.”

The Trans-Siberian railway evokes a romantic feel, but that feeling is absent in Maylis de Kerangel’s Eastbound. Set on the train heading for Vladivostok, the novel explores themes of loneliness and escape through two characters: conscript  20-year-old Aliocha, and Hélène, an older French woman who is fleeing from a relationship. Aliocha, in his third class compartment with other soldiers, is desperate. He had no desire to join the army but did not have the necessary connections, money, or waivers to escape conscription.

Right up until the last, Aliocha had believed he wouldn’t have to go. Right up until April 1st., the traditional day of the Spring Draft, he thought he would manage to avoid military service, to fake out the system, and be exempted–and to tell the truth, there’s not a single guy in Moscow between eighteen and twenty-seven years old who hasn’t tried to do the same. It’s the young men of means who tend to be favoured at this game; the others do what they can, meanwhile their mothers scream in Pushkin Square, in ever-increasing numbers since the soldier Sytchev* was martyred, and gather around Valentina Melnikova, President of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers–they’re fearsome, boiling mad, determined, and if the cameras turn up they rush to fit their eager faces in the frame: I don’t want my son to go, and he’s not even a drinker! When reprieves run out, the next option is the false medical certificate, bought for an arm and a leg from doctors who slip the cash directly into their breast pockets, and the families who’ve been bled dry go home and get smashed in relief. If this doesn’t work, and when anxiety has bitten down night after night to the quick, then come the direct attempts at bribery. These can be effective but slow to put into action and meanwhile time is galloping past–investigating the networks of influence within administrations, identifying the right person, the one who’ll be able to intervene, all this takes a crazy amount of time. And finally, when there’s nothing left, when it’s looking hopeless, there are women. Find one before winter and get her knocked up–this is all that’s left to do because at six months, a pregnancy will grant an exemption.

After being beaten by other soldiers, and knowing this is the beginning of the hell that awaits, Aliocha takes his fate in his hands and decides to escape.

It’s the end of the afternoon and the sky is turning to ash. The back window is free again and Aliocha leaps to it, magnetized to this unique focal point on the world–like an eye in the back of your head–captivated by the sight of the tracks that hurtle backwards into the landscape.

After his first attempt to escape fails, Aliocha meets Hélène, a French woman on the train; they share a cigarette, and even though their communications are limited, she understands, through Aliocha’s gestures, that he does not want to be a soldier, and so she hides him. Of course, she doesn’t realise the extent of the danger or grasp the commitment that she has not yet made. This is an incredibly tense novella, quite cinematic in its execution. Naturally claustrophobic due to its setting, the speeding train rushing towards Siberia accelerates the notion of freedom, taking a chance.

Thinking over the use of travel in fiction. Regular readers know I have a thing for books that involve holidays. Holiday travel in books is seen as stressful, exciting, the gateway to possibilities of new experiences, romance. But travel in books set in wartime is an entirely different animal: it’s desperation, fear, anxiety, escape, danger.

Here’s Joe’s review at Rough Ghosts.

*Dedovshchina is the practice of hazing/abusing conscripts. In 2006, Andrei Sytchev was an 18-year-old conscript who was tied to a chair and beaten. He was so badly beaten, his legs and his genitals had to be amputated.

Translated by Jessica Moore. Review copy.


Filed under de Kerangel Maylis, Fiction

Stoner: John Williams (1965)

These days the word Stoner has a certain connotation, but William Stoner, the protagonist in John Williams’ novel is a staid, dare I say it … plodder. Playing my alternate title game with this book, it would be Downer.

William Stoner, the only child of a dirt-poor, hard-working Missouri farming couple, does not think of his life beyond the daily drudgery of the farm, but one day, a County agent approaches his father regarding sending William to the state university to study agriculture. This will be a hardship for the family, but Stoner’s father makes the decision that his son should attend. There’s no sense of ambition behind the decision, but more the sense that it might ‘be a good thing.’ In 1910, Stoner, equipped with the bare minimum is taken via mule-wagon by his parents to the nearest town, and then he walks to the university. He is given a ride in a wagon for part of the way and finds himself in a whole new world. He boards at the farm of his mother’s cousin, another dirt poor couple, and he pays for his room and board by working on the farm.

Stoner is an average student until he walks into a required English Literature class taught by Archer Sloane, and it’s in this class that Stoner finds a deep love for literature. He switches his major, learns Greek and Latin, and eventually, encouraged by Archer Sloane he enrolls in a PhD programme. Somewhere along the way he meets Edith, the only child of a banker. He may fall in love, but there’s a whiff of last chance in Edith’s acceptance. The novel follows Stoner’s life, and what a miserable life he has. On one hand it’s a story of tremendous success–a story of how a man’s life is transformed by education, and yet it’s a story of loneliness, a bitter marriage, university backstabbing politics and moral failure. Stoner is part of the great American tradition of the misunderstood, underappreciated, overworked American male crushed by the often neurotic social climbing women in his life. That’s not a slam, but there is a such a sub-genre. Thinking Dodsworth here.

Set from 1910 until 1956, the book serves as a tableau of American history –we see WWI, Prohibition, The Great Depression, WWII, the Korean war and McCarthyism like a moving picture all taking place outside of the sheltered world of the university.

This is also a campus novel, so we see Stoner’s steady but plodding academic career, and he’s no match for the more politically savvy university employees. Stoner’s contemporary, Gordon Finch is the quintessential political animal, a man whose personality guarantees he will float to the top. Stoner has an arch enemy in Professor Hollis Lomax, and long standing hatred brews in the English Department (as it so often does). Stoner, as a professor is reliable, steady, and has principles–rather expensive principles as Stoner learns. For this reader, the depictions of university life are the best aspects of the novel: the petty squabbles, using students as a battleground, the silent politics of appointments, the tyranny of tenure. Oddly, the descriptions of the campus are the best (non-depressing) descriptions in the book.

His sense of time was displaced. He found himself standing in the long parquet first floor corridor of Jesse Hall. A low hum like the distant thrumming of birds’ wings was in his ears.In the shadowed corridor, a sourceless light seemed to glow and dim, pulsating like the beat of his heart, and his flesh, intimately aware of every move he made, tingled as he stepped forward with deliberate care into the mingled light and dark. He stood at the stairs that led up to the second floor. The steps were marble and in their precise centers were gentle troughs worn smooth by decades of footsteps going up and down. They had been almost new when, how many years ago, he had first stood here and looked up. As he looked now, and wondered where they would lead him, he thought of time and its gentle flowing. He put one foot carefully on the first smooth depression and lifted himself up.

The narrative of Stoner (which is all tell and no show) tends towards depressing descriptions. Here he is thinking about his dead parents:

He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been–a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them. Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

Stoner is well-worth reading and is considered an “American masterpiece.” It is, however, somewhat problematic. As a protagonist, Stoner is passive. He’s not a man of action; he’s worked on and against more than anything else. He accepts whatever is dealt to him–his wife’s antagonism is a great example. She vomits the first time they have sex, but later when she decides she wants a child, she turns into a bedroom nympho which seemed more like a male fantasy than anything else. Eternally discontent, her nomadic neuroticism initially manifests as an ongoing cleaning campaign but later she drifts from one hobby to another. She mostly ignores their only child, Grace, until she can weaponise the child against Stoner. Edith is the mistress of covert, malicious domestic warfare. Stoner comes home from work one day to find that his office is stripped so that Edith can work on her watercolors (a long abandoned hobby). His books desk etc are shoved in the unheated sun room. Later, children are allowed to play in the room, so many of his papers (for a second book) are trashed. Upon another occasion, a window is broken and items ruined, so Stoner, accepting defeat, moves his work, his books, to the college campus. At home, he sleeps on the couch.

There are three female characters in the novel: Edith, Grace and Ann. Edith and Grace both have mental health issues, and Ann seems a male fantasy created to feed Stoner’s unacknowledged ego. We only get Stoner’s version of his depressing long-suffering life with Edith, a woman who has the emotional maturity of 12. I wanted him to pick up a chair and break it or something–anything to end the tyranny of her personality. In every relationship Stoner is passive, but ever stoic, with increasingly stooped shoulders, he bears up like Atlas under the burden of his woes. The only time he drops his timidity is when he’s defending his position at the university, but even that takes years. Stoner is a downer. You really wouldn’t want to follow this with, let’s say, Jude the Obscure.


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My Last Innocent Year: Daisy Alpert Florin

“Here’s what I do when I’ve made a mistake. First, I ask myself if it’s something I can fix. And if it’s not, I ask myself if it’s something I can live with.”

While the Monica Lewinsky scandal heats up in Washington, on the campus of Wilder College in New Hampshire, 21-year-old Isabel Rosen, a girl who hails from a modest New York background, completes her senior year. It’s a year that will shape her permanently, but not in ways she expects. One night in December, leaving the library accompanied by Zev, another Jewish student, she agrees to go to his room. Isabel hazily imagines them with a future together–not that that is something she ardently desires; it’s more than she tests out the possibility in her mind. Kissing leads to sex. She asks him to “slow down,” but he says he “can’t.” Zev’s aggressive tactics leave Isabel confused. She feels “as though [she’d] been dropped in the middle of a sexual encounter that had been going on for a while.”

Later that night Debra, Isabel’s roommate, asks Isabel what’s wrong. Isabel is aware that since the encounter “something hurt, deep in some place I couldn’t see or name,” but at the same time she “couldn’t frame what had happened with Zev […] There was a darkness to it, a heaviness.” Debra already deeply dislikes Zev. She is the founder of Bitch SlapWilder’s first and only feminist journal.” Isabel insists that Zev didn’t “force” her but Debra says Zev is a rapist. Debra leads Isabel into taking action.

At this point in the novel, I expected to read a novel about sexual consent or the fallout from the incident. Interestingly, the plot led away from the sexual encounter and continues with Isabel’s academic career. Isabel is completing her thesis on Edith Wharton. Her advisor, Tom Fisher, is married to Joanna Maxwell, the head of the English Department. Tom and Joanna are getting divorced and that disrupts Isabel’s thesis plans. Tom becomes increasingly unreliable, and poet/professor/reporter Connelly takes over one of Joanna’s classes. It’s a creative writing class, and Isabel finds herself drawn to Connelly. They begin an affair. …

The rain picked up. I pictured a hallway lined with doors I couldn’t open, things I needed trapped behind them: means of rescue, survival, escape. My lover put himself inside me and unlocked everything I’d ever had there: shame, fear. [..] I no longer knew what was inside me anymore, only that I never again found a door I couldn’t open. He held the key to my undoing and I let him undo everything.

The sexual encounter between Isabel and Zev opens My Last Innocent Year, and it is certainly topical and serious enough for us to expect this to carry the entire novel. But author Daisy Alpert Florin, and this is, incidentally, her debut novel, moves away from the topic of consent, or at least seems to. As the affair with Connelly continues and becomes increasingly more serious, I was unsure how the Isabel/Zev encounter wove into the tale. I wondered if it was added to the story for topical value, but even as that occured to me, the lack of a conclusion about exactly what took place rape vs consent was oddly absent. The absence of a solution increased the opaque quality of much of what occurs in the novel. Most blurbs contain the non-consensual sex aspect of the book, and yet really that is not what the book is about. Beginning with sex with Zev, Isabel finds herself thrown in a series of morally complex situations; her life and experiences so far have not prepared her for the moral consequences of her actions. Ultimately this is the story of a young woman who has yet to form her opinions about the world. She has yet to learn to read the warning signs. She is vulnerable.

The novel is told by Isabel in retrospect, so some of the story with its themes of inexperience and naivete is told now with the voice of experience. Daisy Alpert Florin follows Isabel into middle age, so we see how the path that she took at Wilder influenced the rest of her life, and at one point, as we see Isabel later in life, she admits that her “need to link sex with secrecy was born that spring.” The denouement, which I shan’t reveal, seemed a little too dramatic and out-of-line with the rest of the novel, but that said, this is a remarkable debut novel. It’s understated emotional content packs a powerful punch.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over its structure. Initially I anticipated that the Zev incident would propel the rest of the plot, but instead it served as a door into the rest of the story. It is a bold move to throw out a topical subject such as this and then maneuver it to the starting line. (And incidentally, Isabel does arrive at a conclusion about sex with Zev by the end of the novel.) Underlying the tale is the implicit idea of the complications of sex. Two people approach sex imagining they are on the same page–but when the final chapter is written on any sexual relationship, it becomes clear that those involved had their own versions, their own stories. Zev is insensitive to Isabel, and without an iota of intimacy, he uses her in the most intimate way. But what of Connelly? This is a relationship of full consent, yet in spite of that, does Isabel have any idea what she is getting into?

Review copy.

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