Tag Archives: american fiction

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.

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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.

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The Lives of Edie Pritchard: Larry Watson

Who said the best predictor of someone’s behaviour is past behaviour? That is certainly true for Edie Pritchard, a young woman married to Dean, a man she met in high school. It’s the 60s. Edie and Dean live in an apartment above a bakery in Montana. She’s a bank teller, blonde, a looker; she tends to get a lot of male attention whether she wants it or not, and being beautiful hasn’t made her life easier. Her husband, former athlete Dean, peaked in high school and now seems locked in depression. 

Lives

Dean is a twin, and somewhere in the back of his troubled mind lurks the idea that Edie really wants his brother, Roy.  Dean lacks confidence, Roy does not, and to make matters worse, Edie once had a minor thing with Roy, but that’s all in the past as far as Edie is concerned. A bizarre triangle emerges between Dean, Roy and Edie. Roy pursues Edie, Edie goes off alone with Roy and then Dean accuses Edie of really wanting his twin. It doesn’t matter that Edie denies the accusation.

“Do you know me? I wonder. There’s a me who exists in your mind and you know her. But that’s not me. You’ve made her up and you seem to have a whole life for her.”

There are times when Edie is sure that Dean is shoving her at Roy, and Edie and Roy spend a lot of time together–time that Dean bows out of. And during this time alone, Roy constantly hits on Edie. An incident with a truck brings things to a head, and one day, Edie, who has had enough, takes off.

The novel picks up twenty years later with Edie now on her second marriage. She has a child with Gary Dunn and when the past comes to call, her second marriage explodes. The novel then has a third final section with Edie now in her sixties, living in an apartment when her granddaughter comes to visit.

The book explores Edie’s life, her choices and how those choices then impact three generations of women. Larry Watson’s The Lives of Edie Pritchard is a rather depressing read. The book’s biggest argument, at least in my mind, is that women MUST have an education and or a self-supporting career to fall back on. Until women have that, then their lives are not their own, and they are subject to the vagaries of possession. The book’s argument that Edie’s beauty leads men to want to possess and define her is not invalid, however, any woman in a relationship in which she cannot support herself is vulnerable.

For this reader, Edie was a frustrating character. Roy constantly puts the moves on her, his behaviour and conversation is inappropriate as Edie is, after all, his sister-in-law, not a potential lay. Edie complains to Roy about his behaviour and yet does not avoid being alone with him. Neither does she draw a line in the sand and tell him to back the fuck off. She complains about everyone misunderstanding her relationship with Roy and yet she walks right up that path. Maybe she’s baiting Dean, but whatever her motivation, she annoyed me.

She gets out his pack of marlboros, shakes out a cigarette, and raises it to his lips. If he has to be disabled in some way, she thinks, why couldn’t it be his vision that’s affected. If he were blind or nearly so,. his remarks, his unrelenting remarks, about her appearance would finally cease. And their relationship would be different.

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The Swap: Robyn Harding

“But I had set something in motion that I couldn’t stop.”

Told through the voices of several characters, Robyn Harding’s novel, The Swap is set on an island in the Pacific Northwest. The island, which is known for its “free-love culture” attracts certain types: hippies, holiday makers and people looking for a fresh start. In the latter category, we have Freya Light, a diminutive blonde “social media influencer” and former Instagram star who has now returned to pottery making in the wake of a scandal. Her husband, professional hockey player, Max paralyzed another player with an illegal hit on the playing field. With Max’s career in ruins and Freya coming under fire from social media, the couple move to the island and settle into their gorgeous, waterfront property. 

The swap

Also looking for a fresh start are Jamie and Brian. He’s a former school teacher, now YA fantasy writer and she opens a small gift shop. They are trying to cope with the prospect of never having a child and they are also trying to forget the humiliation of being so desperate for a child, they were scammed for 1000s. 

So two very different couples here: Freya and Max and Jamie and Brian. …

Into the two couple mix, add Low (Swallow), a lonely, awkward teenage girl, the product of a polymorphous household. Low sees Freya and is enchanted. But enchantment leads to obsession. Obsession would be dangerous enough all on its own, but Freya is a narcissist, she only wants relationships with people who are willing to idolize her. She plays favourites, using people like toilet roll, and while she picks Low as a friend, she’s also ready to drop her when Jamie shows interest. 

None of the characters here are likable. Freya is a monster, and it’s interesting that the introduction talks about Low being manipulative when Freya outclasses everyone. Low’s obsession with Freya becomes dangerous when Freya casually dumps Low in favour of Jamie, and this leads to Low spying on all four adults for .. yes.. you guessed it … a ‘swap.’

I love stories about people who blow up their lives–especially if those lives are decent. In this case, the marriages of the two couples are not healthy, and at first Freya finds the gaps, and then Low takes up the slack. 

This is a highly readable novel. I disliked the ending, but that might just be me. Some of my favourite sections include members of Low’s unconventional household trying to remonstrate with her about being ‘normal.’ Oh the irony.  The characters of the women are well done, while the men are a little weak (in more ways than one). Freya is a black hole in space when it comes to attention, so the more she gets, the worse and more outrageous she becomes. Her egotistical pursuit of internet fame and followers highlight her superficiality, and since opening up one’s private life to the world will inevitably bring criticism, someone who wants 100% worship (no haters) will come a cropper on social media  In today’s world, it’s easy for people to post a few carefully chosen pictures to portray the image they want people to have of their lives. Everyone can be a celebrity. In Freya’s case, she wants people to worship her, envy her, and emulate her, but with Freya, media attention is like crack to the addict, and so she inevitably spins out of control.

On a side note: with the internet, it seems hard to imagine that someone would have failed to sniff out the ‘rat’ that Low discovers in Freya and Max’s past. 

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The Old Lovegood Girls: Gail Godwin

In 1958, Feron Hood arrives at the Lovegood Junior College for Girls courtesy of her Uncle Rowan, a lawyer, a man everyone knows and loves. The dean and the dorm mistress make the careful decision to place the troubled newcomer in a dorm room with Merry Jellicoe. The dean surmises, correctly, that Feron, “had been subjected to a wider range of life’s misadventures than our typical Lovegood girl,” and that she “needs a positive, steadying influence.” The two girls could not have a more dissimilar background. Merry is the much-loved protected daughter of wealthy tobacco farmers, and Feron’s mother was an alcoholic who may or who may not have been murdered by her abusive second husband–a man who turned his violence onto Feron after her mother’s death.

Old lovegood girls

So here are these two girls: one whose past is behind a closed door and the other whose natural, sunny optimism cannot grasp how ugly life can be. The two girls hit it off immediately–perhaps because they both bring different characteristics to the table. Feron asks:

Was a person like Merry born with openheartedness, or was it seeded and grown year after year, by the people who had raised her to choose the generous and the true, themselves building on some rich soil of forebears?

But what if you had been raised by disappointed people who were always telling you they had expected a better life than this, who had withdrawn into themselves and took shortcuts with truth when it served their needs?

If one escaped those influences, was it possible to put on a good disposition, like a costume, and practice and practice until no one, except yourself, knew what you had been like before?

Feron and Merry both write creative assignments for English and while they support each other’s writing, there’s an edge of competitiveness from Feron; everything seems to come so easily to Merry. Their life together at Old Lovegood is cut tragically short when Merry fails to return to school after a holiday. The novel follows the trajectory of the two women’s lives, their successes, their losses, their writing, and their shared acquaintances. While they were each other’s best friends in college, strangely they do not keep in constant touch. It’s a friendship that has monumental significance for both of these women with each one acting as a touchstone for the other.

While the novel seems padded at times with the inclusion of various fictional works, and the interminable church service attended by Merry, I enjoyed the rest of the novel. The relationship between Merry and Feron is intriguing and a little odd. Even though the story revolves around these two women, we never really get that close. These two characters hold each other (and the reader) at a distance with (most) major traumatic events arriving via catch-up. It’s almost as though the connection is so deep that they don’t need to keep in touch–that each woman holds a luminous place ( a “reference aura” as Feron calls it) in their respective lives, and yet it’s a friendship fraught with some darker, realistic elements. Feron, a damaged woman who turns her dark past into her books, is the main character here with modest, kind Merry, who once seemed to be the person whose life you would envy,  in the background. The inclusion of some wonderful secondary characters (typical in a good Southern novel IMO) add a great deal to the panorama of the lives of these two women.  An engaging tale of female friendship, and how tragedy and life impact the creative experience.

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The Wife-Stalker: Liv Constantine

The Wife Stalker, a domestic thriller from the writing team Liv Constantine (sisters Lynne and Valerie) is told through two alternating voices: Piper, the drop-dead gorgeous owner of the Phoenix Recovery Centre and the dumpy, clingy Joanna. The action takes place (mostly) in Westport, Connecticut. We know almost immediately that there is something wrong in Joanna’s life with high-powered, affluent attorney Leo Drakos and two young children Stelli and Evie.  Leo is obviously depressed but we don’t know why. His latest case sends him to the Phoenix Recovery Centre which has recently been purchased by fresh transplant from California, Piper Reynard. The lovely Piper sets her eyes on Leo and it’s just a matter of days before they are cooking up excuses to spend time together.

It doesn’t take long for Joanna to sniff a rat, and a little recon confirms her suspicions. When Joanna leaves to nurse her unpleasant mother who has broken her leg, Leo immediately takes advantage of her absence to have Joanna’s belongings delivered to her mother’s home. Yes it’s finito, baby.

The Wife stalker

The competing chapters unfold with a very nasty Piper who modifies her temper with truly nauseating mantras.

As we heal. we are reborn. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

(gag)

Manipulative Piper has drawn a screen over her past, and she swiftly explodes into Leo’s life, scheming her next step. Her past includes some experiences with a stepchild, and that didn’t end well. She tries with the stepkids and while Evie accepts Piper, Stelli does not.  This leads to a lot of teeth-gritting from Piper as she forces smiles and says everything is alright. The children are told their mother is in heaven, blah blah, but that doesn’t help Stelli much, especially when Piper starts redecorating the family home, threatens to fire the long-term live-in nanny, and what’s up with those smoothies that include “special vitamins” for Stelli?

With Piper taking over, Joanna, from a distance, digs into Piper’s past and she finds a lot of dirt. ….

This is a highly readable book. At times, when we are inside Piper’s head, it reads like a bad romance novel which is ok, as this is how Piper thinks. I got the cuckoo-for-coco-puffs vibe from BOTH female characters. Two psycho competing female characters; yeah, I’m down with that. Joanna seems off the rails, stuck in the past. She’s overweight, unhappy and unfulfilled. Drop-dead-gorgeous Piper is evil, manipulative and rather nasty to Stelli. It apparently comes as a SHOCK to her that the children, step-children that is, come first once again. Imagine that. There’s nothing like sick children to thrown a piss-pot all over a planned night of erotic lingerie sex. 

While I was reading this, there were things, holes in the narrative, that bothered me. Why is Joanna’s attorney so useless? Why is her therapist like a broken record? Why can’t Joanna see the children AT ALL? Why are there no repercussions regarding the story that the childrens’ mother is dead… up in heaven… wouldn’t that spring back on Piper and Leo?

At the end of the novel, all those questions are answered. Authors withhold information. I know that. But in this instance, it was over the top. And when all the cards were on the table, I was really annoyed by the book. It was one of those Gone-Girl deceptions that instead of revealing additional information that filled in the gaps, showed how thoroughly manipulated you were, as the reader. If you’re ok with that, then you may enjoy the book.  I seem to have a minority opinion.

I enjoyed The Last Mrs Parrish which was great fun. But this one … not so much. 

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The Motion of the Body Through Space: Lionel Shriver

“I’d prefer not to think of our marriage as an endurance sport.”

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space examines how a decades-long marriage changes when a husband turns to endurance sport. 64-year-old Remington Alabaster and his 60-year-old wife Serenata made the economy move to Hudson, upstate New York after Remington’s humiliating dismissal from his job as an engineer at Albany’s York City’s Department of Transportation. With a diminished pension, and without a steady paycheck, the Alabasters are forced to economize. Serenata does voice-over work, so money is still coming in, but they also have two financially insolvent children: the perennially unemployed, laid-back Deacon and the annoying, born-again Valeria. The Alabasters have a good marriage; they are intellectual equals, good friends, but when Serenata, always an avid exerciser, finds that her knees now control her physical ability, Remington, a man who has never exercised a day in his life, suddenly becomes interested in running. The novel examines aging, adjusting to retirement, society’s approach to physical fitness, and the complex power plays within marriage.

The motion of the body through space

Remington and Serenata had a good marriage, or at least so it seemed. The first inkling of a problem emerges when Remington announces that he’s “decided to run a marathon,” (and that’s just the beginning.) Shocked into disbelief, Serenata “had the sense, rare in her marriage, that she should watch what she said.” Serenata, who has just been forced by her bad knees to give up running, feels that Remington’s decision “coincides with a certain incapacity.” His “timing was cruel.” Serenata reacts badly; he calls her a bitch. The exchange is adversarial, and a line is drawn in the sand.

And it gets worse. He’s all togged up ready to go running:

Yet his getup was annoying by any measure: leggings, silky green shorts with undershorts of bright purple, and a shiny green shirt with purple netting for aeration–a set, its price tag dangling at the back of his neck. His wrist gleamed with a new sports watch. On a younger man the red bandanna around his forehead might have seemed rakish, but on Remington at sixty-four it looked like a costuming choice that cinemagoers were to read at a glance: this guy is a nut. In case the bandanna wasn’t enough, add the air-traffic-control orange shoes, with trim of more purple.

He only bent to clutch an ankle with both hands when she walked in. He’d been waiting for her.

So, fine, she watched.

I’ve read a lot of books about marriage problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that shows a disintegrating marriage through the lens of extreme exercise. Self-contained Serenata, who has always had a private, healthy respect for keeping in shape, cannot understand Remington’s “idiotically self-important” need to drive himself into a competitive event, and she’s horrified by Remington’s desire for praise. She doesn’t understand her husband’s obsession, and when the bank account begins draining thanks to high end equipment (a $10,000 bike) and a 1200 a month retainer for a pushy, obnoxious trainer named Bambi, Serenata discovers that she’s shoved to the sidelines. Her role is to scurry around, to cook and serve meals for the Tri training team and to cheer at the finishing lines. The situation, Remington with his new Tri-Club friends, and Bambi (Serenata should have kicked her in the rear right before shoving her out the front door and damn the consequences,) opens “a fissure between them that at their age shouldn’t have been possible.”

Remington and Serenata drift farther and farther apart, and suddenly they are not companions anymore. Of course, this is all stoked by Bambi who sneers at Serenata’s health issues, claiming that “exercise doesn’t wear you out,” and “limits are all in your head.” Bambi, and the club members believe that if you cannot do achieve a physical fitness goal, then you are a failure–a mental weakling. To Bambi, it’s mind over matter. And of course, this leaves Serenata in the Losers’ Corner.

At your age, Sera, you might consider an e-bike,” Bambi suggested. “I recommend plug-in models to older clients all the time. Keeps them on the road, even with, you know–bum joints.”

“Yes, I’ve considered one of those,” Serenata said, “But it seems more cost efficient to go straight to the mobility scooter.” 

Serenata has experience of sports injury and she is concerned that Remington is being pushed beyond his abilities. Unfortunately, Remington, who has “always been more suggestible” is infatuated with Bambi and anything Serenata says clashes with Bambi’s mantras. Yet while Serenata tries dishing out advice to Remington about avoiding injury, she, dreading and delaying knee surgery, doesn’t apply that same advice to her own situation. 

There are some marvellous scenes at the Marathons. These marathons attract all sorts, including “fat,out-of-shape bucket-list box-tickers” who, according to one woman, “cheapen what completing this distance means.” As the race takes shape, there’s a “distinctive subsection of the over-the-hill contestants  [who] began to exert a queasy fascination. All men in their seventies and eighties, they were lean to the point of desiccation, with limbs like beef jerky.”

The book may sound amusing, and, with its emphasis on extreme sports and fitness mania it could certainly have been written that way. While there are amusing scenes thanks to Serenata’s tart tongue, Shriver takes a dead-eyed look at the disintegration of the Alabasters’ marriage: Serenata’s spiraling rejection of Remington’s goals and Remington’s folly, neglect and emotional abandonment of his devoted wife. This is a richly textured book which examines how social media sharpens competitive training, the human desire for attention and praise, and what happens when one marriage partner goes off the rails. The novel asks: at what point does exercise become ‘unhealthy?’ Couch potatoes would remain that way unless challenged, but at what point does challenge become insane? The marathons here include all types: the young and vigorous and the aged “wizened immortals” with many of the spectators making snide comments.  Is the participation of the elderly, who cannot compete with those decades younger, heroic or misguided? I didn’t quite get the utterly charmless characters of Lucinda (Remington’s former boss ) or Bambi. They seemed caricatures rather than fully fleshed beings, and the book is marred as a result. Finally Serenata, for all her unemotional, rational approach to life, takes far too much shit (which is not a knock at the book). She needs to kick some rear ends. Starting with Valeria and Remington. 

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Valentine: Elizabeth Wetmore

“When things get out of hand, people start reaching for their guns.”

Set in the barren oil field region of 1970s West Texas, Elizabeth Wetmore’s powerful debut novel, Valentine examines the fallout from the rape of a 14 year-old Mexican girl. Through this incident, the story examines female moral courage in a world in which the odds are stacked against their sex. The plot also explores the relationships between women who have tremendous courage individually and yet so often fail one another. In some ways, structurally at least, Valentine reminds me of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge . Both novels are set in regions that dictate lifestyle, and both novels are composed of interconnected stories. Yet in case I lead readers astray,  Valentine, a disturbing, haunting novel, is darker.

Valentine

The novel focuses on the lives of several women, and begins with Gloria, the 14-year-old daughter of an illegal alien. One night, Gloria makes the mistake of getting into Dale Strickland’s truck. She’s driven out to the middle of nowhere where she is violently raped. The novel doesn’t detail the rape but opens with Gloria savagely beaten and struggling to survive.

Gloria manages to walk and crawl through the wrecked, deserted landscape of pollution, oil patches, pumpjacks and mesquite scrub until she reaches the remote farmhouse of the heavily pregnant Mary Rose who is at home with her daughter Aimee. Mary Rose, baseball bat in hand, lets Gloria in, and then the story flows from that point.

It’s obvious that Gloria, who changes her name to Glory, will never be the same again, but what is not so predictable is how other women in the small town of Odessa become swept up in the maelstrom. Mary Rose, who used to love her remote home, finds she can no longer stand the isolation, and she moves to town with her daughter. Ready to testify at the trial of Dale Strickland, Mary Rose loses her husband’s support and becomes the target of local hate.

Another character is Corrine (who could be a soul sister of Olive Kitteridge). Corrine’s husband, Potter, wanted to stop Gloria from getting into the truck with Dale Strickland, but his wife shut down the idea. Shortly thereafter, Potter is dead, and Corrine, an acerbic retired teacher, sinking into depression and drink, becomes involved, indirectly with the rape case when Mary Rose, the prosecution’s sole witness, moves across the street.

In the same neighbourhood, 10 year-old Debra Ann Pierce runs wild after her mother, Ginny, departs for greener pastures. The child’s neglect is stark and troubling, and yet no one steps in to help. It’s as though compassion in this town is dried up and lost in the dust of the oil fields.

Also in the neighbourhood is Suzanne Ledbetter who squirrels away cash from her Avon and Tupperware sales. Suzanne is a ‘planner’ so she saves for her daughter’s college and wedding, but there’s also a secret ‘charity’ account that is her “safety net.” Suzanne seems to be one of those perfectly organized women with the perfect life and the perfect husband but haunted by her past she is well aware that:

You stop paying attention and next thing you know somebody’s come and towed the family car away, or you come from from church one day and find all the furniture sitting on the lawn, sinking into the swamp.

Finally there’s Karla, a single mother at 17 who works at a local bar where the women “carry pistols and Mace” in their purses. Karla’s boss is a woman called Evelyn, and she’s armed with a cattle prod kept behind the bar. Here’s her advice to the young women she employs:

Start your engines, gals. Get ready to make bank. Keep your eyes peeled for the next serial killer.

Everyone knows that Dale Strickland is a violent, dangerous man, but he’s white and while the white community deals with Dale in its own way, Mexicans are not included.  The bar is the social meeting place, and the rape case is the main topic of conversation. 

What we have here are two competing stories. A text book case of he said, she said, one man said just as plain as day.

A second sipped his beer and set it down hard against the bar. I saw that little Mexican gal’s picture in the newspaper, he said, and she didn’t look fourteen. 

The women who work at the bar never leave alone, and they all know that Dale Strickland, a man from a privileged family, usually full of amphetamines, is as guilty as sin, but no one can afford to shake the status quo. The author capitalizes on the bleak, scorched landscape, a landscape in which all the vitality has been sucked away so that all that is left is a dusty, hollowed-out mess. The locals appear as a direct consequence of the terrain: tough, resilient and with a tendency to mind their own business. The rape case changes that and stains everyone. Mary Rose struggles with the knowledge that the courage she showed against face Dale Strickland was fragile, and Corrine struggles with loss and regret, knowing that her husband was “so much better at life.”

We lose the men when they try to beat the train and their pickup trucks stall on the tracks, or they get drunk and accidentally shoot themselves, or they get drunk and climb the water tower and fall ten stories to their deaths. During cutting season, when they stumble in the chute and a bull calf roars and kicks them in the heart. On fishing trips, when they drown in the lake or fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Pile-up on the interstate, shooting at the Dixie Motel, hydrogen sulfide leak outside Gardendale. Looks like somebody came down with a fatal case of stupid, Evelyn says when one of the regulars shares the news at happy hour. Those are the usual ways, the ordinary days, but now it is the first of September and the Bone Springs shale is coming back into play. Now we will also lose them to crystal and coke and painkillers. We will lose them to slipped drill bits or unsecured stacks of pipeline or fires caused by vapor clouds. And the women, how do we lose them? Usually, it’s when one of the men kills them. (Karla)

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The New Life of Hugo Gardner: Louis Begley

My first Louis Begley book was About Schmidt and I came to it via the film. Can’t say I liked the film much but there was something about the main character that drove me to check out the source material. Since then, I’ve read a few other novels by the same author, so when I saw The New Life of Hugo Gardner, I knew I had to read it. 

the new life of hugo gardner

Hugo Gardner is 84, he’s still healthy–although there are some nagging questions about his PSA. He’s had a phenomenal career as a journalist and author, he’s wealthy, he has two children, Barbara and Rod and he’s happily married to Valerie. Wait … he thought he was happily married, so Hugo is stunned one day to get a phone call from Valerie’s new lawyer who tells Hugo that Valerie, a successful food writer who has her own cooking show, wants a divorce. Valerie, at “a very shapely 61” has left Hugo for a younger man. Oh the humiliation. Hugo wants to confirm his wife’s decision:

Don’t you know that living with you is like living with a corpse? Not even a zombie. An unburied corpse! I can’t stand you, I haven’t been able to stand you for years! You don’t know that, imbecile!

Ouch!

Hugo lawyers up, and after the first shock passes, the divorce moves quickly and as painlessly as possible.

This life-changing event causes Hugo to reevaluate himself as a husband and a father, and all this takes him back to revisit his past in the form of the girlfriend he dumped when he met Valerie.

On one level, it’s hard as a reader to relate to Hugo–he’s part of the 1%, with a great New York apartment and a house in Bridgehampton. Trips to Paris, eating at the finest restaurants and hiring staff to clean etc all come easy to Hugo. But scrape that aside and this is an engaging tale of a man who suddenly finds himself alone, wondering if he made the right choices, troubled by his children, and facing his own mortality. Hugo may be 84, but there’s still a lot of living to be done, and his zest for life is admirable. There’s some marvellous stuff between Hugo and his daughter, Barbara. Hugo continually shells out money for his grandchildren and while he wonders what is going on between Barbara and her dermatologist husband, he never questions or refuses her requests for money. For him, it’s there no moral decision involved

Barbara’s calls, the ones timed for when I would have finished breakfast but hadn’t yet gone out, were often of the ‘I’ve got something I’d sort of like to ask you’ variety. Duly translated they meant: I want some money. For the kids’ piano and dance lessons, summer camp fees, and the like. Why her dermatologist husband, practicing in Wellesley, which is, to my knowledge, still a wealthy suburb, can’t afford this stuff, I don’t know. The truth is that I don’t much care. When I am invited, for instance, to fund my elder granddaughter Trudy’s first-year tuition at a private day school, a sum for which I could have bought myself a Mercedes two-seater, I reply, but of course. Why should I say no? I have no desire to become the owner of that two-seater and love unconditionally my daughter and granddaughters.

The story is set against the upcoming presidential nomination, and Hugo isn’t shy about expressing his political opinions. Hugo is in many ways a disconnected character. His divorce comes as a shock,  his daughter’s resentments are unexpected tirades (later explained) and he’s not that close with his son. Later when Hugo reconnects (and reignites sexually) with an old flame in Paris, he’s also far behind the 8 ball. Hugo, who leads an active life of the mind, is self-absorbed and so he’s always taken off guard in his personal relationships. That will never change. But ultimately, he’s a character who travels lightly–bears no grudges, rolls with the punches, and deals with life’s humiliations with equanimity and gentle self-deprecating humour.

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The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

“I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”

A story of inheritance, failed responsibility and restitution, The Dutch House from Ann Patchett is told by Danny Conroy. Danny, now a middle aged man narrates the retrospective tale which begins in Danny’s childhood. Danny and his sister Maeve are the children of real estate tycoon, Cyril Conroy who, following WWII, begins to accumulate real estate in Pennsylvania. The jewel in his crown is ‘the Dutch House’ of the title, a mansion built by the ill-fated VanHoebeek family, whose possessions (what’s left) remain in the house. The fact that inside this incredible house, all these accumulated objects, some worth a considerable amount of money, are forgotten and gathering dust, is significant. The VanHoebeeks were wealthy before the depression, but the disintegration of the family made all else immaterial. 

The Dutch House.

Cyril’s wife, Brooklyn born Elna Conroy, who had at one point been a novice, was uncomfortable with immense wealth and the surprise ‘gift’ of the vast VanHoebeek house. She finds the 3 storey mansion with its walnut bas-relief walls and her new life suffocating, so she abandons her 2 children departing the scene for India. Shortly thereafter, Maeve becomes diabetic.

My father sighed, sank his hands down into his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.

“Crazy how?”

“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off your coat and giving it away too.”

Within a few years, Cyril marries again, an avaricious woman named Andrea who has two young daughters. Andrea, the complete opposite of Cyril’s first wife, holds herself in check, barely, but when Cyril dies unexpectedly, she loses no time in evicting 15-year-old Danny–Maeve has long since been made to feel unwelcome. Maeve and Danny, in a matter of days, find themselves cast out of the house and cut off from what they assumed would be their inheritance. There is, however, an education trust fund set up for Danny and also for Andrea’s two daughters. Maeve, loathing Andrea and feeling the injustice of her stepmother’s actions, pushes Danny into medical school in order to drain as much of the trust as possible.

The novel covers five decades, and most of the novel is defined by Danny’s close relationship with Maeve. They connect through their shared past and also through the home they lost. Maeve is a mother figure, sacrificing herself for Danny in contrast to their mother who ran away, ditching her responsibilities in order to care for strangers.

To say too much more about the plot would be to ruin it for others. This is a strongly narrative novel told by Danny, and we only see glimpses of his wife Celeste who takes second place to Maeve. Through Danny’s tale, the novel explores failed relationships and failed responsibilities. Maeve’s drive to score against Andrea leads Danny to a life he didn’t choose for himself, and yet he still manages to pull himself into a direction in which he’s comfortable. Both Danny and Maeve suffered from their parents’ failed responsibilities. Their mother physically abandoned them, and while their father remained, he emotionally abandoned his children. It’s interesting then to see Danny’s relationship with Celeste. He’s absent in more ways than one. There’s one scene when Celeste sees that Danny has improved Maeve’s kitchen, and Celeste quietly notes that she had wanted exactly the same thing for years. The narration is well-paced and interesting, and I wanted to know what happened to Danny and Maeve. Elan’s early departure stranded the two children for almost their entire adult lives and while they developed into successful people (Maeve was underemployed) the damage was done. Lots of children have it way tougher than Danny and Maeve, but these siblings lost a great deal of money. Ultimately the money lost was secondary to the need for loving parents.

But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.

The novel takes a rather idealised view of human nature (with Andrea sucking up the book’s negative view of humanity). People who’ve been shafted usually seem to scar and yet here healing takes place in a redemptive way.  Should we let toxic people back into our lives? Should we forgive? Is forgiveness for the transgressor or for us? That said, there’s one character I won’t name (but you can guess it if you’ve read the book) who needs a good wallop over the head. Does she not see the irony of her behavior? Perhaps, arguably, it’s ‘penance’ as she says but poor Maeve pays for it as she pays for almost all the bad things that take place in the novel. Telescopic Philanthropy so well described by Dickens. 

Review copy. 

 

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