Tag Archives: american fiction

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had been raised by disappointed people who were always telling you they had expected a better life than this, who had withdrawn into themselves and took shortcuts with truth when it served their needs?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

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Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

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Poor George: Paula Fox (1967)

“You light a match and the house burns down.”

George Mecklin, an English teacher at a private Manhattan school, is 34, he’s stepping into middle-age and well into his career. He and wife Emma, a part time librarian, have recently moved out to the country region of Peekskill. The decision to move to the country appears to be driven by financial reasons, but as the plot continues, the move is possibly also a band-aid for their married life. While the country does initially add a degree to solace to their lives, it also, as it turns out, adds new problems and threats.

Poor George

The novel opens with George, sitting in a boring work meeting, asking himself ‘who listens?’ and immediately returning with the answer ‘no one.’ Is he talking about his students, his obviously discontented (and possibly sexually unsatisfied) wife Emma, his self-focused sister, Lila, or Emma’s obnoxious friends, the Devlins? George, an idealist, is aware that he’s not satisfied with life; he finds himself involved in political spats at work, and he also feels alienated from his wife. The very things that attracted him to her in the first place now rankle. He’s beginning to realise that he doesn’t like her very much: “sometimes he thought her coolness not so much a cover as the thing itself, an emptiness.” There are issues in the marriage: issues which gnaw away at the relationship. Emma also seems unhappy; she was supposed to continue her studies “one of these days,” but she seems caught in a web of lethargy. Emma dislikes the country and finds it “eerie.” They live shabbily on a tight budget, she chain smokes and suffers from fatigue.

When he had first known her, the violent decisiveness with which she judged people had charmed him. For Emma, people were enemies or protectors. Even though the charm had worn off, he sometimes envied her–her sense of others devoid of the kind of complex and enervating reflections he was given to–for within her limits she was clear while he, he thought, moved in a permanent blur. 

In spite of the fact that George now lives in the country and no longer jostles for space with other New Yorkers, there’s an sordid, claustrophobic imprisoned, feeling to George’s life.

Behind their cardboard menus their glances raced from entree to price. The waitress stood next to their table; her red arms bulged at the sleeve endings of her uniform, as though she were slowly growing out of it. The plastic mats, the hurricane lamp, the soiled pretentious menu, the waitress with her expression of patience in a hurry, and the humble clotted ketchup dispenser were the elements of a set piece to which they returned again and again. How could he have told her of their thousand evenings of the same entertainments without reference to these tangible manifestations of tedium and habit?

George comes home from work one day to find a local teenager, Ernest, has waltzed into his home. George learns that Ernest is failing at school and against Emma’s wishes, George invites Ernest to return for tutoring. George, feeling an emotional detachment from his career, thinks that Ernest is “appealing to him for salvation,” and so Ernest begins visiting the Mecklins’ home. George lays down ground rules which Ernest constantly flouts, and while Emma simmers with resentment that her husband has overruled her opinion (and effectively chosen Ernest over her) George and Ernest have sporadic learning sessions.

Initially when George finds Ernest in his home, he thinks the teen is a thief, but it’s more complex than that. Ernest seems to be driven more by curiosity than anything else. He’s an odd mix of characteristics–at times he appears naive and possible salvage material, but then underneath that youthfulness there’s something unpleasant.  Ernest’s curiosity combined with an abusive drunken father leads to him spying on the local inhabitants:

–“Where do people get money? Where, how? More shoes than I had in my life … tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with. … Jesus, how do they get it?”

George felt intense pity; he tried to speak to the longing in Ernest, to dissuade him from making a mystery of the economic profligacy about which, as he tried to explain it to the boy, he found himself growing long-winded and uneasy, as though he were lying subtly. But then Ernest would laugh; the tension in his face would be replaced by a loutish leer as he described other things he had seen. George told himself it was defensive–these stories Ernest recited so wolfishly. The scenes were stripped of humanity. like the scrawled graffiti in public places, and George was haunted by them–Charlie Devlin sprinkling his fat, naked wife with gin; Martha and Joe Palladino beating each other and weeping while the children watched from behind furniture. 

While Emma grows increasingly hostile to George and accepts a silent truce with Ernest, other secondary characters weigh in on the relationship. Emma’s  “tedious and vicious” friend Minnie Devlin develops her own toxic theories about what is going on, but George finds an unexpected ally in a fellow teacher:

There’s something flabby about teaching in a place like this,” He said. “If you don’t have to exert yourself once in a while, you begin–or at least I do–to feel like a headwaiter leading people to the second-best table.

Then there’s the train wreck: Mrs Palladino, the alcoholic neighbour who doesn’t go outside much following a recent incident in which she passed out in a ditch.  No one seems to blame her husband for straying, but then which came first? Martha Palladino’s drinking problem or her husband’s serial affairs? Her ramshackle home is an epic disaster but somehow the children manage to survive in the havoc. Mrs. Palladino admits she’s considered “setting fire” to her home, and while she hasn’t done that yet, there’s another form of disintegration afoot. Emma goes for a visit and can’t get out of there fast enough as Mrs. Palladino is disturbing:

You know there isn’t much to do in life once you fall though the surface of things.

Set in the 60s, the book gives a glimpse of the social fabric of the times: Racism, homophobia and commie-hating. George has a lot going for him: he’s still young, he’s healthy, educated and employed, yet George is “experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with life.”  How many of us arrive at a point in our lives when we ask ‘is this all there is?’ We see other characters who are experiencing the same thing but have either fallen through the cracks of middle aged, middle class angst or have developed various coping mechanisms.  The world is fluid yet George feels stagnant, trapped, in a rut. George thinks he can rescue Ernest, but isn’t he really expecting Ernest to give meaning to his (George’s) life? While this is George’s story, there’s also the feeling that Emma’s unhappiness lingers just around the corner. At one point she asks George: “Do you think I’m only here when you look at me?” Then there’s a scene when she wants to rescue a dog (could this be her Ernest?) and George stamps on the idea. Poor George  was everything that a recent Richard Yates read was not.

In the end you learned to live with things once you stopped talking about them.

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The Body of Jonah Boyd: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s The Body of Jonah Boyd is narrated by Judith “Denny” Denham, a secretary who’s having an affair with her psychology professor boss, Dr. Ernest Wright. It’s the 60s and the story is told in retrospect thirty years later by Denny, and while it’s her story, it’s also the story of the Wright family.

It’s sticky enough that Denny is having an affair (one in a long series of affairs) with her married boss, but the entanglement doesn’t stop there. Nancy Wright, Ernest’s wife, “found” Denny at the hairdresser’s and insists on inviting her home as a “four-hand partner” for the piano. The idea is that Denny is supposed to replace Nancy’s former piano partner and best friend Anne. Denny accepts and so begins her relationship with the Wright family. Denny is frequently a guest at the Wrights’ home, and her invitation to Thanksgiving is secured. On weekends, Ernest and Denny often scurry up to his office above the garage for some gropey sex, while Nancy and the Wright children: Mark, Daphne and Ben are in other parts of the house. Denny doesn’t have a problem with all these complications and claims to keep her relationships with Nancy and Ernest cleanly separate, stating that “my friendship with Nancy was in certain crucial ways remote from my relationship with her husband.”  But is that true?

When Thanksgiving 1969 rolls around, the Wrights’ oldest child, Mark is a draft dodger in Canada, and that’s the Thanksgiving that Nancy’s best friend, Anne and her second husband, Jonah Boyd come to visit.

Denny, whose role was to replace Anne at the piano, has heard so many nauseatingly positive things about Anne that the reality is a shock.

Anne was wearing a wool coat that had been torn near the pocket and then clumsily restitched, and she carried an enormous, shapeless handbag. She had shaggy red hair that was graying at the roots, nicotine-stained teeth, a thick middle. Also her eye makeup was smudged in a way that suggested she had been weeping. 

All at once, a sensation of misplaced triumph welled up in me. This Anne was a far cry from the willowy creature Nancy had described. Certainly they could never have shared clothes! I admit, my rival’s sordid demeanor–not to mention the expression of concern and disappointment that claimed Nancy’s face as she gave Anne the once-over–sparked in me an unexpected confidence, and I shook Anne’s hand heartily. 

There are obvious marital problems between Jonah and Anne, and while Anne seethes and drinks too much, Jonah sets out to charm everyone. The fact that he succeeds so easily seems to bother Anne, and so she airs some of the marital dirty laundry. It’s not a particularly pleasant evening–especially when, after Jonah gives a reading of his soon-to-be-published novel, teenager Ben insists on reading some of his angst-ridden poetry.

It’s an evening to remember, and as Denny narrates the story we learn about the terrible things that subsequently happened to several of the people who attended Thanksgiving that evening. Years pass and then Denny runs into Ben again. …

Every story must begin somewhere and end somewhere. The author (or the narrator) takes a cookie cutter to life and offers readers just that piece. A large portion of Denny’s time must have existed outside of the Wrights but it seems that they are the most important part of her life. And what a tangled relationship she has with this family. At times she seems to wish herself Nancy’s daughter, and she admits “yearning” “to have been Daphne.” But when you put that in the context of Denny’s affair with Ernest, it seems rather incestuous–especially when there are a few times she sees her affair with Ernest as a sort of revenge against Nancy’s slights. Then there is another time Denny admits that she’s “besotted” with Nancy.  The Wrights seem to have various “needs” for Nancy too, so the relationship between Nancy and the Wrights isn’t a one-way street.

This was a reread. I was struck this time by Ernest’s philosophy to life. Ernest believes that “what people get, most of the time, is what they want,” and this philosophy seems to work itself into the later relationship between Danny and Ben. I wasn’t as convinced by the character of Denny this time around. This is a young woman who has a series of affairs with married men, yet asks nothing from them. Given her feelings about various members of the Wright family, somehow she seems  needy and not the cool I-need-my-space serial mistress type.

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Stay Up With Hugo Best: Erin Somers

Aspiring comic June Bloom is a writer’s assistant on the late night talk show Stay Up with Hugo Best. The long standing show has stayed the course for years, but now Best is retiring, rather unexpectedly. There will be a new host who “would hire his own writers, and those writers would hire their own assistant.” It’s been a long hard climb for June, and now she’s unemployed and broke.

Stay Up with Hugo Best

June goes to a bar to do a stand-up routine and runs into Best who is is part of the small audience. The evening ends with Best inviting June to his house in Connecticut, “No funny business,” promises Best. Given that 65 year old Best has a reputation as a womanizer–specifically there’s one incident which involved an underage girl, that “dogged him forever,” we expect hanky panky (at least attempted) with perhaps some humorous barbs (thanks to the cover) shooting back and forth. Best is an icon to June; the comic who made her think she could have a career in comedy too:

My crush had been a minicollison of forces, a science fair Krakatau. The double whammy of loving him and also wanting to be him.

Initially the novel has a lot of energy, and the plot seems full of possibilities. June is too curious to reject Best’s offer, and author Erin Somers wisely avoids the cliches we might expect from the weekend in Connecticut scenario.

Part of the book was brilliant. Best’s life turns out to be as muddled, sad and unglamorous as only the life of an aging comic can be. Some of the book’s best, funniest scenes take place at the home of obnoxious “shock jock” Roman Doyle and his surprisingly unconventional wife, Gypsy. June isn’t eager to be at Roman’s party, but she is interested to meet his wife. June admits that “the thought that someone could stand him [Roman] intrigued her.”

I was disappointed by the gray restraint of the place. Where were the vulgar classical touches, the marble nymphs and cherubs in repose? Even shock jocks had taste these days. You had to go to Los Angeles to see anything truly vulgar anymore. 

One of the themes is the TV persona vs the real human being. For some reason, we seem more shocked when comics turn out to be alcoholic, druggies, and or depressive failures. After all, that humour and disposition they project has to come from somewhere right? Perhaps we need to see that some people manage to use humour as a buoy to float above  life’s crushing defeats and disappointments, converting them into humour. If they can do it, perhaps we can:

In theory, it made sense that there would be some separation between the two. That the real guy would have depths the TV persona didn’t. But I felt sure that there were people out there who were exactly what they seemed to be, people you could pin down immediately. For instance, the moment they grabbed your ass in the workplace, which was something Roman had done to me. 

It’s clear that comedy, as a business, is a grueling career. “Writer’s contracts were renewed every thirteen weeks.” Imagine the pressure of trying to keep up the humour when you are under the gun with no idea where the next pay check will come from? It’s no wonder some comics seem to grow more desperate as they age.

What starts as a funny novel becomes rather sad and grim as it becomes clear that June must learn some degrading, humiliating lessons and that her idol Hugo Best must topple from his exalted position. The book is being adapted to film and IMO there’s every possibility that the film may work better than the book. It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just rather depressing given that we are June’s audience for a lesson that’s painful to read about. By the time the book has concluded it’s harder to say who is more winceworthy figure: washed out Hugo Best who was dealt an excellent hand but still managed to trash his life, or June Bloom who had plenty of warning signs and should know better.

Review copy

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