Tag Archives: american fiction

Take Me Apart: Sara Sligar

In Sara Sligar’s novel Take Me Apart, former journalist Kate Aiken is under some unspecified cloud when she relocates from New York to California. At the town of Callinas, California, Kate has a new job as archivist for famed, controversial deceased painter, Miranda Brand. Miranda’s house, located dramatically on an isolated coastal cliff top is now owned by her son, Theo, a troubled man who has issues, some of which involve his famous mother. But who wouldn’t have issues growing up with Miranda?

As Kate wades through the chaotic stack (think rooms) of Miranda’s papers, Kate’s task to separate that which is important from the trivial, seems overwhelming, but since she’s there to work and forget about whatever happened in New York (events which are vaguely hinted about), she’s happy to dig in and work.

It looked like a dump truck had backed in through the bay window and unloaded an entire town’s worth of recycling.

But there’s an atmosphere in the house. Touchy Theo wants Kate to work but only within certain confines. Plus then there’s the question of Miranda’s death. Was is a suicide or was it murder? Through Miranda’s journals, a portrait of a troubled woman emerges. Since Miranda had a history of mental illness (including some rather bizarre feeling about her new born son) it’s fairly easy to accept that Miranda topped herself. But then there are rumours…..Her “art dealer had killed her in order to limit supply and raise her value,” that her husband Jake or Theo killed her, or that she was the victim of a serial killer. But then Miranda’s work shows self-inflicted violence:

The next sections were on Inside Me, Miranda’s mutilation series. She had slashed different parts of her body and photographed them up close. A hand, sliced open. The inside of a knee, blood pooling from a horizontal slit. An ear with blood pouring out of the canal, over a diamond earring. The gristle and fat and bone of her, torn open into elegant flicks and syrupy drips.

Take Me Apart has a very slow build up. I wanted to know what the hell happened in New York and found the breadcrumb hints rather scanty and frustrating. Plus then there’s Miranda herself who comes across as a horrible human being…

It was late at night and I had looked at the baby and thought about running a blade through his tiny heart and I knew I could not do this anymore.

The sections regarding the archivist job are interesting, and soon, Kate, who sniffs something is rotten at the heart of Miranda’s death, begins asking questions. This is a tight community in which residents gossip and form opinions. Opinions that they are happy to share. Since Kate is on the run from her own issues, she’s intrigued by Miranda and the journals draw her into Miranda’s world.

The premise of the novel was intriguing but for this reader, the gothic overtones combined with the emphasis on Miranda’s journals were too much. Being inside Miranda’s head made me want to head for the exit. Many reviews bring up the term ‘noir’ but I didn’t get the noir vibe at all. I’ll stick with gothic–with an archivist instead of a governess and with a romance (blech) at the end.

Review copy

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The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

They first met Reginald Parker ages ago–in the innocent part of the year 2001– before disaster struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at a time when it was still possible to think ours was a virtuous country, and everyone liked us and terrorists were just a plot complication in the movies. We had no idea then what forms terrorism could take, at home and away, in that innocent time ages ago.

John L’ Heureux’s novel The Beggar’s Pawn gives a whole new meaning to the expression: home invasion. This is the story of a happily married, affluent couple in their 60s whose lives are slowly invaded by a casual acquaintance. While the plot is deceptively simple, various tangled moral dilemmas complicate our characters’ lives: the vagaries of helping those less fortunate, just how involved should we become with the problems of others, transparency in marriage vs keeping the peace, what do parents ‘owe’ to children, what do children ‘owe’ to parents, when does helping one’s children start ruining their characters, at what age (if any) do people stop blaming their parents and start taking responsibility for their own actions? All these dilemmas are faced by the two main characters, and the result is a splendid book–at once very funny and terrifying. The sort of thing that happens in these pages could easily happen to many of us. I loved this book for its approach to one of my pet theories: Don’t tolerate the intolerable.

The book opens in 2001, with 65-year-old Stanford professor David Holliss and his wife Maggie who are empty nesters living in “professorville,” in a large, beautiful home in Palo Alto. The house was bought a long time ago with Maggie’s trust fund money (always a sore spot with David) and they raised three ungrateful, awful, privileged children in that house: Sedge, Will and Claire.

Serial monogamist handsome Sedge “would marry an unsuspecting girl, buy a house, he could always depend on the parents in a pinch, and settle down forever with his new bride. Within the next year or two, Sedge and his wife would decide it had all been a well-intentioned, glittering mistake, though of course they would remain good friends. Divorce, division of the spoils, alimony for a specified time. Never any children so there was no need for child support.

Will, the supposedly perfect son, tends to take the moral high ground with his family. Like his father, he’s a professor, but he lives in England with his British house and his growing family. Since Will lives in England, his parents don’t see him or the grandkids much. Finally there’s arguably the most trouble, and troubled, of the bunch: Claire. Claire and her abrasive “fierce integrity” (rude) drifts from one extreme to another. Unable to find a job, she joined a commune, and had a child she abandoned. (This child eventually attended Princeton paid for, of course by the Hollisses.) After the commune, Claire has a lesbian relationship with a theatre director but moved on to “The Little Sisters of the Poor in Oklahoma. She made a retreat at their convent and after the 8 days were over, she asked to be admitted as a novice. The Mother Superior was an old hand at delayed vocation.” The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic seemed to be of no importance to Claire who answered the Mother Superior’s questions with her typical aggressive hostility. So much for the convent.

Thank god the kids are gone, and now the Hollisses share their home with a puppy, Dickens, a dog that they were supposed to just take care of while their son Sedge went through his 4th divorce. All the trouble starts in David and Maggie’s tranquil enviable life when they have a chance meeting with Reginald Parker while walking the dog. It’s a Spot-The-Looney situation. Maggie thinks Reginald is “nice,” but David has some intuitive feeling that the man is “trouble,” although all he can pinpoint is that Reginald’s hair is too long and he’s “intrusive.” As a long-time married couple, both Maggie and David have well-established roles. She’s friendly and more tolerant and David is the curmudgeon.

The few casual meetings between Reginald and David and Maggie are limited, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the man is a liar, hostile and on drugs. He patently and nastily rubs in what he can and can’t afford. (He rubs it in that he can’t afford a dog which may be what happens when you siphon your wife’s meagre income towards cocaine.) He always leaves the Hollisses with a definite uncomfortable feeling. His words are moored with conventional politeness, and weighted down by guilt over their material situation, the Hollisses tolerate Reginald, who latches on like a blood-sucking parasite when really they should tell him to fuck off. But one day in 2009, Reginald, after scoping out the Hollisses’ home, saves Dickens from being run over. This incident acts as a lever for Parker to insinuate himself into the lives of the Hollisses. Soon he hits Maggie up for a loan, and then invites them to a horrible dinner with his downtrodden wife Helen, who’s employed part-time at Walmart and their poor neglected daughter, Iris. From this point, Reginald Parker becomes obsessed with the Hollisses, and the situation isn’t helped by Claire who has a sexual relationship with Reginald. Claire loves cruelly ridiculing her parents while blaming them for her messed-up self. So Reginald moves to start writing a book based on the Hollisses.

The novel paces Reginald’s persistent encroaching aggression against the way the Hollisses roll over rather than confront. I’m reminded of Mon Oncle D’Amerique and dominance/avoidance in human behaviour. There were times I laughed out loud at this book, thanks mostly to the appalling Holliss children, all with chips on their shoulders springing from imagined hardship childhoods. They refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their actions, demanding, and taking for granted, endless handouts even as they bitch at (and about) their parents. Claire, for example, claims that she suffered “familial torture while she was a child. She had been obliged to attend concerts, the opera, and on one terrible occasion, the ballet.” The sections with the children are funny–even though the children are appalling in their presumptive privilege for which they ALL blame their parents. Reginald hates the Hollisses for what they represent, and he begins blaming them for his choices. As his obsession with the Hollisses grows along with the idea that everything in HIS life is THEIR fault, it’s almost as though he becomes the fourth child. He demands they become his saviours and just like the Holliss children, any help given to Reginald is not enough–rather the opposite. His belligerence, bitterness and aggression grow. … The book was so funny at times, that its dark turn is shocking. There are many moral lessons to carry away from this entertaining, engrossing book.

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The Price of Salt: Patricia Highsmith (1952)

Working as a temp during the Christmas season at a bustling upscale New York department store, 19-year-old Therese is an aspiring set designer. She has a small apartment and a devoted, boyfriend, Richard, and yet while her whole life and career are ahead of her, she feels that something is missing. Working as a temp “intensified things that always bothered her […] the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done.” Since Therese wants to break into theater set design, her feelings of ennui, being locked in the doldrums, are perfectly natural. But is there something else simmering in Therese? Abandoned as a child and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, it’s possible that Therese’s sense of disconnection is rooted in her early lack of attachments. Perhaps that explains her lukewarm feelings towards Richard.

Then one day, a woman comes into the store looking for a gift:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

Therese waits on this customer and later sends her a card. The woman, married with a child, is Carol, and she returns to the store. Soon a relationship strikes up between the two women. Just what this relationship is, isn’t clear to Therese at all (or this reader) and at one point, it seems possible that Therese is attracted to the older woman. But then again, Therese has no family. Is she seeking friendship? Is she looking for a mother figure? An older sister? Soon Therese, neglecting an increasingly sulky Richard, is spending time at the woman’s large country home, and it becomes evident that Carol, in the midst of a grubby divorce, has a lot of problems.

The plot moves forward with Carol and Therese’s growing relationship, Therese’s burgeoning career, Carol’s divorce, and the small circle of society in which both women move. While it’s not clear exactly what is brewing between Carol and Therese, equally subdued characters, suddenly Therese is avoiding Richard. Curiously Carol, in the midst of ending her own unhappy marriage, encourages Therese to keep trying with Richard. When Carol’s friend, Abby enters the scene, jealousy rears its head.

Weaved with an incredible sense of loneliness and individual isolation, The Price of Salt is a love story, but since its creator is Highsmith, while there’s tenderness and sensitivity, there’s also the threat of violence. When the two women ditch New York and head west, Carol’s unpleasant husband, Harge, bent on winning the custody suit, has the two women followed by a grubby PI. While Carol is somewhat discreet, Therese, who has no idea what she’s up against, makes clumsy mistakes. There are touches of Thelma and Louise, and there were so many ways this novel could have taken. Instead, we see two women drawn to each other and then separated by a society that censors love between two women, and the love between these two women is contrasted to the male-female relationships in these pages which include conformity and possession. Particularly powerful is the idea that it’s so much easier to conform to society’s expectations of heterosexuality. Therese loves Richard’s family, and clearly wants to belong on some level, but then Carol is proof that marriage and a child is a poisonous road to travel.

I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really. There’s a certain woman at the club I wish he’d married. Her life is entirely filled with giving exquisite little dinner parties and being carried out of the best bars feet first–she’s made her husband’s advertising business a great success, so he smiles on her little faults. Harge wouldn’t smile, but he’d have some definite reason for complaint. I think he picked me out like a rug for his living room, and he made a bad mistake. I doubt if he’s capable of loving anyone, really. What he has is a kind of acquisitiveness, which isn’t much separate from his ambition. It’s getting to be a disease, isn’t it, not being able to love?

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The Night Always Comes: Willy Vlautin

One thing in my line of work that you find out is that most people act like they have more than they really do, that they’re better off than they really are. It’s always the same kind of people too. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it never changes. Rednecks and gangsters want to be rich but most of them aren’t rich. Rednecks with their trucks and gangsters with their SUVs and Cadillacs. And on the other side are the full-of-shit people trying to act white collar rich by driving BMWs and Mercedes and Audis.”

“I made a lot of mistakes and got greedy” so says 30-year-old Lynette. Lynette’s conclusion about her behaviour comes after a series of bad decisions taken over the course of two days. This dark bleak tale weaves together a complex tapestry of social and personal ills: poverty, gentrification, prostitution, burglary, assault, drug sales, bitter recriminations and the betrayal of friends and family. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes is a crime novel, but it’s also an examination of American life: those who work, living paycheck-to-paycheck–those who work multiple jobs to hobble together enough to survive; those who tread water but who will sink with just one financial hurdle that could send them out onto the street.

Lynette driving an old banger, holds two jobs (bakery, bar) and in the few hours left in the day, she’s also a prostitute. She lives in a rented house in Portland with her bitter chain-smoking, heavy-drinking mother and her developmentally disabled brother, Kenny–a child in a man’s body. Lynette’s father left years ago and has a brand new family. When the novel opens, Lynette has saved about 80,000 as a downpayment for the house her mother currently rents. The owner, who hasn’t fixed a thing in years, is giving them a ‘deal,’ and with massive gentrification changing the face of Portland, Lynette sees buying the house as an opportunity for stabilization. If they don’t buy, they will have to move which inevitably means a huge rent increase. Lynette’s credit sucks and so the plan is that her mother will get the loan.

As the sale moves closer, Lynette’s mother brings home a brand new car, bought on credit of course, and it’s this purchase that effectively sabotages the plan to buy the house. Unwilling to give up her plan to buy the house, and desperate to get more money, Lynette heads out into the night to collect an old debt from a fellow escort. From here, it’s all downhill as Lynette spirals from one bad decision to another, reconnecting with her past to solve her present problems. At first, author Willy Vlautin only reveals Lynette’s ambitions and she appears to be the hard-working voice of reason, the one person willing to anchor herself to her mother and brother and pull them out of poverty. Gradually, however, Lynette’s troubled past and her irrevocably damaged relationship with her mother is revealed. There’s a dark side to Lynette, and when she hits up her Johns for cash, it’s interesting that she treats the one who actually gives her money the worst. As Lynette sallies on into the night trying to gather together as much money as she can, she sinks into male-dominated, violent, predatory Lord of the Flies territory.

When the novel began with its descriptions of Lynette’s car starting after multiple tries, and Kenny being left in Lynette’s car while she works, all the misery felt a little overdone. But Lynette’s past (and present) float to the surface and her tired, damaged victimhood recedes, to reveal a powerful novel of greed, getting ahead and the twisted reality of the American Dream. There’s an underlying theme about money–how we fight to get it, but how we don’t understand its power, and as a result, how money runs people, not the other way around. “Why does it matter to feel bad about anything? Isn’t that the American Dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want.” And this is the mantra for nearly all the characters in the book. Take or be taken. All relationships carry debt: debts to be repaid

It’s all fancy buildings and skinny people who look like they’re in magazines. I don’t know where they all come from, but they sure are coming, and then all you do is cross another street and there’s homeless people camping everywhere. They’re coming too. You can’t drive around Portland without seeing a hundred tents. People living in tents. Are they all on drugs? Are there that many people who are crazy and on drugs. I always used to ask myself, ‘why would a man in his twenties want to live on the street when he could work?’ I mean, my god, what’s happening? For a long time I didn’t understand it. Why? Why would they live that way? It seems so awful, so miserable, but you know now I think I’m starting to understand. The answer is .. why not? Why should they bust their asses all day when they know no matter what they do, they’ll never get ahead. And why should they pay 300,000 for a falling down shack when they don’t have to. And when it starts raining and getting cold and they get sick, well they’ll be the first ones to march up to any hospital and get taken in. Me? I have to pay for my shitty health insurance and all the goddamn copays and I have to pay out the nose for anything that’s not covered. And there’s a lot of things not covered. And then some homeless creep who lives in a tent just goes to the hospital and gets everything for free. Politicians get healthcare for free and bums do too. But of course not us. How does that make sense? How does that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

At the bar where she works, Lynette hands out free drinks, her co-workers hand out free drinks and it never occurs to them to wonder who is paying for all that free booze. Its currency (favours, freebies for friends) is all taken for granted. But then again, there’s so much resentment towards employers, that it’s justified. But other things are currency in the novel too–sex, relationships, power and violence. These are all currencies used to get ahead–to get what various characters want. In one part of the novel, my favourite part, Lynette goes to visit a man who repossesses cars, and he delivers an amazing soliloquy on the stupidity of people who, refusing to be content with what they have, seek credit, larger mortgages, bigger homes, as they try to move up in American society only to lose everything. Rodney has seen it all and knows that just because you drive around in a fancy car or live in fancy house doesn’t mean that you have two nickels to rub together. From his viewpoint, you can’t judge a person’s financial health from the trappings of wealth. Then there’s Lynette’s mother, a woman who’s simply worn out by life and the emotional cost of taking care of a developmentally disabled child: she sees that the struggle to keep afloat or get ahead is pointless: “No one wants to hire a worn-out, middle-aged fatso.”

Thing is Lynette, I’m getting mean. Not angry like you, but just mean and bitter. And on the TV all these rich sons of bitches they just talk bullshit and take whatever they want. They take and take and then when they get themselves in a pickle, we bail them out, so why would they care about anything but themselves. The politicians don’t give a shit times a thousand, all they want to do is stay elected and when they get reelected, they still don’t get anything done. They don’t seem to want to help anybody and they have no backbone. They just argue and blame and take money and get great healthcare while they do it. Those cocksuckers get free healthcare and we don’t. They don’t even care about our health. That says a lot doesn’t it. So why vote? I’m serious, why? Because they don’t do anything. They don’t help and if they don’t help then what’s the point of any of them? She looked at Lynette and took another drink.

Audio review copy. (punctuation of speeches may not be perfect)

 

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Nothing to See Here: Kevin Wilson

“I felt like the only sane person, and I was in my underwear, holding a ruined muumuu that I’d stolen from a sleeping old lady.”

Kevin Wilson’s quirky, entertaining novel Nothing to See Here is the story of two very different women who collided as teens and now reconnect in adulthood under bizarre circumstances. I have not read The Family Fang, but after watching the film version, Nothing to See Here caught my eye. Through a small set of quirky characters, this engaging, funny novel explores the themes of the families we are stuck with and the families we choose for ourselves.

Twenty-eight year-old Lillian, whose life is a train wreck, gets a letter from Madison Billings. They’ve kept in touch over the years in a desultory way after they met at a “fancy” girls’ school. Lillian was a scholarship pupil who roomed with Madison Billings, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy man who owns a chain of department stores. Lillian is the daughter of a single mother, a woman with a lot of miles:

I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned.

That quote is a good example of the strong narrator voice of this novel, a voice strong enough and tart enough to carry the plot in spite of its flaws. The plot centres on two emotionally damaged children who spontaneously combust. Yes that’s right. You read it correctly. Spontaneous combustion. The plot description put me off to be honest but a sample convinced me that I liked the narrator voice.

But back to Madison and Lillian, two girls who met beyond the social divide. It was an improbable friendship that shouldn’t have happened. As a child, Lillian realised that education was the ticket out of the confining, poverty-stricken life she had with her mother:

I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.

So Lillian makes it to the fancy boarding school and her mother, who tells Lilian that she doesn’t belong with this crowd, goes along with it, but then she goes along with whatever life throws her way. Madison takes Lillian under her wing, but when Madison is caught with drugs, her father pays Lillian’s mother a bribe; Lillian takes the fall, and from that point on, Lillian’s life is all downhill. But since she loves and admires Madison, Lillian never blames her friend. Fast forward 15 years: Lillian is “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, and smoking weed in the attic,” while Madison is married to an extremely wealthy older Senator, Jasper Roberts. They live in a mansion in Tennessee with their son, Timothy, but that may change soon as Jasper is slated to be the next Secretary of State. Imagine Lillian’s surprise when Madison sends $50 for a bus ticket and tells her that she has a “job opportunity” for her old friend. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, but Lillian, who has a curious innocence, or perhaps she just believes in Madison (even if we don’t) doesn’t see the troubles coming her way.

Lillian is awed by Madison’s gorgeous home and seemingly perfect life, but in spite of its glossy perfection, something is definitely off. Timothy, who dabs his mouth with a napkin after eating, seems to be the perfect little gentleman, and Madison, as attractive as ever, is edgy. Then to complete the picture there’s Jasper Roberts–a politician with a grubby past, but he’s shining up nicely under Madison’s iron tutelage and ambition.

He looked a little weary, like being important was a Herculean task. If any aspect of his appearance had been off by even a few degrees, he would have seemed evil.

Jasper has two children, 10 -year-old twins, Bessie and Roland, with his first wife (now dead), and the kids are according to Madison “sweet kids.” Madison asks Lillian to be a governess of sorts for the twins; they are currently living with maternal grandparents but will be relocated to the newly renovated guesthouse on Jasper’s estate. The pay is generous, but Lillian isn’t exactly the world’s most responsible person. It’s doubtful that she could take care of a goldfish, so why is she being given this job? What’s the catch? …. The children spontaneously combust when they are upset. And they get upset a lot.

Lillian’s first reaction is to reject the job, but then with no other prospects on the horizon and her (misplaced) devotion to Madison, Lillian accepts. Visions of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins float in her head, with the thought that she’d “just stand next to them for the whole summer and gently direct them toward good decisions. I thought I’d just sit in a beanbag chair and they’d read magazines.” All those fantasies disappear when Lillian meets the children for the first time. Accompanied by Jasper’s fixer, Carl, Lillian picks up the children from their grandparents:

We walked into the cabin, which was dark, not a single light on, but we could see activity in the backyard. The sofa, some flowery abomination with plastic covering it, was burned black on one side, the ceiling above it dusted with soot. Carl slid open the glass door, and we saw Mr. Cunningham in a tiny swimsuit and some flip flops, cooking a steak on a rickety old charcoal grill. His wife was dead asleep in a lawn chair. “Carl!” Mr. Cunningham said. He was in his seventies, but he had curly gray hair like a wig. He looked like he was in the process of melting, his skin sunburned and sagging everywhere, hanging in folds.

So Lillian takes over the care of the children. With Carl wanting to drug the kids with Mickey-Finn’ed Kool-Aid, slimy Jasper only concerned about his political career, and Madison eager to keep up appearances (but ready to ship the kids out as the nuclear option), Lillian, unexpectedly bonds with the children. The children have been rejected and have lived through horrible, emotionally damaging situations. They’ve received no support, no love, and they continue to be rejected. The proximity to the main house, the way Jasper and Madison avoid the twins, and Timothy “looking at us through his own little pair of opera glasses, like he was in a grand theater house in London” underscore the ostracism, the human zoo, of the three outcasts. Lillian tends to self-destruct or smash something when she loses it, and so she finds that she admires the power that pours from the twins when they burst into flames. They can’t control the process, but the ability to spontaneous combust certainly dictates that the children have to be handled with care. The twins need Lillian and she needs them:

I’m not joking when I say that I never liked people, because people scared me. Because anytime I said what was inside me, they had no idea what I was talking about. They made me want to smash a window just to have a reason to walk away from them. Because I kept fucking up, because it seemed so hard not to fuck up, I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want even less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air, and if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.

Madison remains a murky figure and Lillian’s devotion to her isn’t credible–especially given Lillian’s anti-social tendencies, and if I mentally deducted the swearing (swearing in a novel is a plus imo) the novel, sadly, loses a lot of its transgressive feel. So scrape away the swearing and there’s a lot of sentimentality. Think a decent, but not wonderful film, with an incredible acting performance that makes the film seem superior, and that’s how I felt about this book. I liked the humour and the narrative voice which appears to push those transgressive buttons, but ultimately, a few swear words don’t add up to a transgressive novel or character. It’s just custard on the pudding. On the up side, Lillian’s sense of humour and observations are well worth catching. Spinning into Madison’s orbit once more creates a sense of resolution for Lillian. She realizes that wealth “could normalize just about anything.” And being around the children gives Lillian perspective about her own mother:

And this was what I finally realized, that even as we sank deeper and deeper into our lives, we were always separate.

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Goodnight Beautiful: Aimee Molloy

In Aimee Molloy’s domestic thriller, Goodnight Beautiful, newlyweds Therapist Dr Sam Statler and his wife Annie Potter make the move from New York to Chestnut Hill. They buy a roomy home and Sam is trying to build up his practice. Sam’s good looks attract almost exclusively female patients, but then Sam, a notorious lothario in his younger days, always had a way with women.

While on the surface it would seem that Sam and Annie have a lot going for them, ugly secrets fester under the surface on this shiny, new marriage. Annie, an expert in sexual role-playing, keeps Sam on the boil with her constant, unpredictable games. But Sam is wrestling with massive debt which he expected to pay off when he received the 2 million promised to him by his mother who suffers from dementia. All he needs is for her to sign the paperwork and then he gets the big bucks. The 2 mill, his mother says, is a guilt gift from Sam’s estranged millionaire father who dumped Sam and his mother decades earlier. The pressure mounts for Sam and then … he disappears.

Why do men disappear without a trace. “There was a guy from Delaware who went out for doughnuts,” I tell the pigeon. “Found him two weeks later, trying to get a face tattoo in San Diego.”

It’s hard to review this book without giving away spoilers, so this will be a short piece. No one here is what they seem. I was a considerable way into the book when the plot spun on its axis and all my assumptions were uprooted.

I was mostly annoyed by the manipulations of Gone Girl–even though I’ll acknowledge that it was a page turner. This book is packed with twists and turns but the author doesn’t withhold information as much as build narrative constructs in which we make assumptions that later prove untrue. I was ok with this device since the main characters in this book are all operating on various levels of deceit.

For this reader, the book’s pace bogged down at one point, and while I have no problem with unlikable characters (and I disliked them all), they were also uninteresting. Consequently it was hard for me to care. The sections regarding Sam and his demented mother and self-focused father were very well drawn, as are the portraits of the book’s nutjobs. But the drop in momentum caused the plot to lag.

Review copy

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Temptation: Douglas Kennedy

When Douglas Kennedy’s novel Temptation opens, David Armitage is a struggling screen-writer. He’s had marginal success but doggedly hangs in there–all this made possible by his wife Lucy. She was an actress who landed a role in a sit-com pilot, and the role caused the couple to relocate from New York to LA. The sit-com never materalised. Lucy made a few commercials here and there, but finally with no money in the bank and bills to be paid, Lucy turned to telemarketing while David holds marginal hours at a book shop. They have a child, but things aren’t great:

But as the years accelerated–and we both started to cruise into our late thirties–we began to regard each other as our respective jailers.

But then David gets a call from his agent, Alison; someone is interested in David’s script. From here, things for David change rapidly. One success sails in on the heels of another. Soon there are new cars, a new house, new furniture, and then Lucy realises that soon there will be a new wife. …

Temptation arrives in form of Sally Birmingham, a “young executive” at Fox television. They meet for a business lunch and the speed at which David betrays and ditches Lucy is staggering. Next comes the bitter divorce, and soon Sally and David are the hottest couple in Hollywood. It’s clear that ambitious Sally sees David as career arm candy, so naturally his relationship with Sally hinges on his success–not that David, too caught up in his ballooning celebrity, understands that.

Dickhead David never shoulders the moral weight of his bad behaviour, and as his success continues, we know that Karma awaits…

It all unravels so beautifully beginning with a sleazy, big mouth broker named Roberto Barra, ‘Bobby’ who promises 100% return on investments within 6 months. Bobby’s aggressive, demeaning treatment of women is appalling, and yet at no point does David stop and think about Bobby’s moral behaviour and how perhaps Bobby’s ill-advised and disgusting attitude towards women may signal judgement issues. The red lights are flashing, but David is blind.

Hmmm. All I could think of was Thackeray’s Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond.

Then reclusive billionaire, film buff Philip Fleck invites David to his private island to discuss business and it’s all downhill from there.

A number of Douglas Kennedy books have been made into films: The Woman in the Fifth, The Big Picture (amazing) , The Dead Heart (the wildly insane Welcome to Woop Woop which is one of my all-time favourite films). Temptation is a slick, highly readable written novel and with its Faustian approach to the rise and fall of David Armitage (yes, we want to see him squirm), this book screams to be adapted too. Some of the character’s names drove me nuts: Bobby Barra, Brad Bruce and Philip Fleck–but perhaps Kennedy picked these names on purpose, modeling on the picaresque novel. Kennedy is particularly adept at creating the inner moral dilemma and how the journey from ignorance to acceptance of one’s flaws is costly, painful and yet ultimately strangely liberating.

 

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Shelter In Place: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s marvellous novel Shelter in Place opens in November 2016, right after the presidential election. Childless couple, 56-year-old Eva and her wealth management advisor husband Bruce, are hosting a motley assortment of houseguests at their Connecticut home. The people we meet that night: Min Marable, decorator Jake Lovett, married book editors Aaron and Rachel Weisenstein, neighbour Grady and his cousin, recently separated Sandra comprise almost all the book’s characters, although a few more appear as the plot fans out.

Although it’s a “benevolent autumn sunset,” Eva’s mood, extreme distress at the prospect of Trump as president, eradicates the sense of peace and relaxation. A debate ensues about free speech with Eva announcing that she’s “possessed by this mad urge” to ask Siri how to assassinate Trump. Interestingly, once Eva starts the fireworks, she doesn’t actually go through with it, but instead tells her husband to do it. From this point, everyone jumps in with their opinions on this “thought experiment.” Min, who says she’s Eva’s best friend, (translation: sycophant and object of belittlingly criticism) defends Eva (as always) noting her Jewish background and concern about fascism. One of the houseguests concludes that Eva’s preposterous and toothless statement that she would do anything to defend democracy makes her a “teensy bit fascist.” Another debate ensues about “majority rule.”

This evening becomes the leaping point for the rest of the story. Eva, feeling that she can’t stand to remain in America for the inauguration party, leaves for a holiday in Venice, taking along mooching, much put upon journalist Min. Once in Venice, Eva decides to buy a palazzo apartment, and it’s the beginning of a real estate transaction nightmare and also the beginning of a deep rift between Bruce and Eva.

Shelter in Place, a comedy of manners, takes a spiky look at the affluent New Yorkers in Eva’s orbit.  Eva is a spoilt, vastly uninteresting, hollow, self-focused woman, one of the 1% cushioned by vast wealth and therefore the least likely strata of society to feel any societal turbulence. She becomes so consumed with repugnance at the thought of a Trump driven America, she decides to leave. While neurotic Eva calls Trump a “demon,” this dreadful woman (think of Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives) terrorizes most of those in her circle. She loves to patronise people with the grandeur of her liberal, moral opinions–opinions that don’t hold up under scrutiny, so, for example, she’ll have an impoverished pet chef for a while until he “touched the third rail.” And then there’s Min: Eva will shove cookies and food at Min and then humiliate her for eating whenever the opportunity arises (and especially if there’s a third person as witness).

Quiet Bruce acknowledges that as a couple, he and Eva “have a system. She does the wanting and I do the paying.” As the deal for the Venice apartment becomes more complex and dodgy, Bruce, for the first time in his married life considers denying his wife’s whims, but at the slightest hint of Bruce’s resistance, Eva turns on the marital screws. She mouths platitudes about how politically she’s “refusing to do what everyone else is doing, which is either lapsing into this state of terrible ennui or putting all their energy into looking the other way.” So she garlands herself with noble status for bailing from the country while others don’t–and yet how many Americans can afford to go and buy an apartment in Venice just because they feel like it? (Or even a trailer in the Salton Sea?) And of course before long it becomes obvious that escape from Trump is just a narrative for Eva to get what she wants. Eva talks about political oppression and yet treats her servants and friends appallingly. Meanwhile, Bruce ponders the life and financial circumstances of his long-term secretary Kathy who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Kathy has been dumped by her husband (when he heard about the diagnosis), she’s drowning in debt and supports both of her impossibly selfish children. Kathy isn’t a martyr to duty; she’s a realist and in spite of her many troubles, she blames no one.

Shelter In Place, a very clever title, also refers to decorator Jake, who has emotionally ‘sheltered in place’ for decades following a tragedy. He finds it safer to engage in sexting with strangers than take a risk with real flesh and blood relationships. There’s are wonderful sections involving Jake and his partner Pablo, both decorators, each with a different aesthetic, attitudes, and motivations.

The point wasn’t to create a room that reflected their personalities. It was to create a room where they belonged.

It’s hard to relate to the privilege some of these characters enjoy–the millions they fling around and yet at the novel’s core we see humans struggling with their lives, finding excuses to bail. Ultimately Eva is a case study in a horrible human being: not ‘bad’ in a criminal sense, but a woman who’s been so indulged that she’s become a tyrant, holding everyone in her orbit in thrall, never called on her bullshit accounts of her past and present. Some of the funniest scenes involve her 3 Bedlington terriers–all named after characters from the novels of Henry James. It’s through these three dogs, we see Eva at her most intolerant worst, bitching at Bruce for walking the dogs with a neighbour who voted for Trump and then coming unglued from her perfect world when her dogs start peeing on the furniture.

One of my favourite characters is the perennially angry Aaron; fired from his job, he now simmers in the stew of failure. While he’s a liberal, he wants to take PC-ness and tear it out of society; so far he’s doing a pretty good job of it as a one-man wrecking ball. He attends a Lydia Davis book signing, although he can’t stand her work, claiming, as he holds up one of her books that the problem isn’t that young people don’t read but “what they read. Shit like this.” When told he doesn’t ‘get it’ because he’s “a man,” Aaron cuts loose:

Fine, then, Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s a Jerk-off. As is Jonathan Fucking Franzen, and Jonathan Fucking Lethem, and Jonathan Asshole Safran Foer. All of these fucking Jonathans, they’re total jerkoffs.

Then he launches into Barbara Kingsolver:

She is the embodiment of liberal piety at its most middlebrow and tendentious. Her novels are the beef ribs of fiction.

And:

Ninety percent of what gets published is worthless. With any luck, that’ll be the silver lining of this fucking election, that when writers start to feel oppressed again they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.

If you can’t tell. I loved this book.

Review copy

 

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The Big Door Prize: M.O. Walsh

After reading a series of crime novels, I was in the mood for something lighter, and so I turned to  the delightfully unusual premise of M.O. Walsh’s novel, The Big Door Prize.

The novel is set in the small town of Deerfield. Louisiana. Nothing much ever happens here and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. One day a machine which resembles a photo booth appears inside a local shop. You simply step inside, draw the curtain, use a q-tip for a cheek swab and then the machine spews out the results of “your potential in life, what your body and mind are capable of doing based on the science of DNA.” Soon all the residents of Deerfield are either using the machine or talking about it. There’s a disclaimer: “the company DNAMIX, is not liable for any stress your new potential may cause.”

It’s easy to see that the results from the machine could have far-reaching consequences, and that’s exactly what happens. How will people react to the results? Each generation has its own unique method of going-off-the-rails, but middle-age regrets, which are mainly the emphasis here, are arguably the most fascinating.

When the novel opens, teacher Douglas Hubbard has decided (without the machine’s help) that his fortieth birthday gift to himself should be a trombone. The purchase sparks fantasies which spin out into the future even before he tries to play it. He’s so absorbed in these flights of fantasy that he doesn’t realise that his wife, Cherilyn, is preoccupied with the results of the DNAMIX machine.

Use of the machine has a range of results: one woman decides to dump her job as a principal and launch into a career as a carpenter–the fact she”s never held a saw or a hammer in her life is not an impediment:

“Just one question, Pat,” he said. “Do you know anything at all in the big beeping fleeping world about carpentry?

Pat reached into either her breast or pants pocket and pulled out a pair of goggles. She held them up in the air like evidence. “I bought these over at the Rockery Ace yesterday,” she said. “So, I know about safety.”

Possibly the funniest sections of the book concern Cherilyn’s new identification as “royalty” (yes thanks to the machine) but for some reason this makes her turn away from various crafts and to internet sex.

What was her true calling? Making birdhouses out of Popsicle sticks? Crocheting Christmas stocking? What great places had she stamped on her passport? An entire life in Deerfield? Is that what she was meant for? Why not something bigger? Something grand? Wasn’t she about to turn forty as well?

Through a handful of characters, we see the consequences of the DNAMIX machine; the results make people discontent, take chances, take risks, and throw over their entire lives. The novel, while amusing, bogged down with a subplot that detracts from the story, and for this reader the tale floated on the surface of life while missing the opportunity for deeper observations. Perhaps I would have liked people to go a little crazier.

Review copy

 

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Monogamy: Sue Miller

“Love isn’t just what two people have together, it’s what two people make together.”

Sue Miller’s novel Monogamy examines the marriage of Graham and Annie married now for almost 30 years. The novel begins, appropriately with their meeting. They’ve both been married before, and (in theory) have learned from their mistakes. Annie discovered a deep incapability with her first spouse which led to divorce and now she’s had a series of casual relationships. Graham’s marriage ended when his wife Frieda, who’d been talked into an “open” arrangement realised that while this deal suited Graham, she could no longer endure a relationship that knew no sexual boundaries.

Annie meets Graham at a party celebrating the opening of his bookshop. They hit it off immediately and are soon a couple. They marry and almost 30 years later, Graham has become a significant figure in the community while Annie finds that she has allowed her career to be subsumed by Graham’s needs. Not that Annie resents that; she’s happily married and loves Graham. He’s a man of vast appetites and somehow along the way, Annie has been absorbed into Graham’s social circle.

But things are going well, career-wise for Annie. After neglecting her career for decades, she’s now had a few shows and even published a book.

What she wanted now, she realized, was to give up on people. Or more accurately, to see them differently, to imagine them differently, through their absence. To make images that said something about the people who weren’t there. She thought of some of the painting of Vuillard, or Bonnard–the figures half seen, the rooms themselves often more the subject than the people in them. But rooms suffused with the feeling of a liminal presence. Or with the feeling of absence–but an absence full of implication, of mystery.

So here’s Annie who has moved from photographing people and capturing the intimate sometimes even “murderous” glances sent from one spouse to another, to photographing rooms and houses–noting the absence of people–“images that said something about the people who weren’t there.” Does Annie realise that she’s possibly trying to capture the problems in her own life? Larger-than-life Graham is ‘there’ but absent. Yes, there’s still a relationship, communication and sex, but something is ‘wrong.’ It’s as though part of Graham is absent…

Well Graham, back to that man of huge appetites, is having an affair. It’s not the only affair he’s had while married to Annie, but it is the most dangerous one. Just as things come to a head, Graham dies, and Annie, at first his grieving widow, discovers the affair, as we knew she would and then she struggles to balance grief at the loss of her husband with anger that he betrayed her.

Monogamy is at the root of this story. Sooner or later we come across articles or books that argue that monogamy is impossible, and that’s certainly true for many people. But others, Annie, for example, and Graham’s friend John cannot imagine having an affair. It’s over lunch with John that Graham, who hasn’t been honest with himself since he started the affair, reveals his puerile nature. While the exquisite descriptions of Annie’s work reveal a deeply serious and intense nature, Graham’s bonhomie life covers a stunted career and a man who has created a persona for himself which he wears like a suit of clothes. 

After Graham’s death, and what a turd to die before he gets his comeuppance, Annie retreats into her grief. She cannot confide in her daughter or Graham’s son from his first marriage, and then she discovers that Frieda, Graham’s ex-wife knew all about the affair….

A lot of the tension seeped out of the book with Graham’s death. Was he going to tell Annie? Was ‘the other woman’ going to sabotage his marriage? What would happen to their marriage in light of his adultery? Those questions dissipate into grief and depression as Annie struggles with the new, toxic version of her relationship with Graham–the bastard who had the audacity to die before he had to face the consequences of his actions. Instead of tension, Annie’s grief and depression become paramount.

How well do we know those we live with? Can a marriage survive adultery? In the wake of Graham’s death, Annie struggles to find a mental place: should she feel grief, should she feel anger? This reader had a very clear reaction, but that’s easy for me to say since I had no investment in Graham whatsoever. Consequently I became impatient with Annie and wanted to smack her upside the head which probably isn’t fair, but we bring ourselves and our experiences to reading. Can’t help it.

Review copy.

 

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