Tag Archives: american fiction

The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

“You become friends with someone you wouldn’t be able to stand if you actually had options.”

Siobhan Fallon’s richly textured novel The Confusion of Languages is set during 2011 in the American ex-pat community of the US embassy in Jordan. The story centres on the relationship between two of the wives, Cassandra Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw, both married to career military men, and both, due to their roles in a foreign country, shoved into an ill-fitting friendship. The novel examines conflicts between vastly contrasting cultures, the treacherous friendships between women, and the chasms between husbands and wives.

When the novel opens, Margaret Brickshaw has left her toddler, Mather, in the care of Cassandra Hugo in order to attend to the aftermath of a traffic accident. But as the hours tick away, and there’s no word from Margaret, Cassandra, bored and annoyed that she’s stranded with the baby, turns to Margaret’s journal, and there she learns some unpleasant truths about herself and possible clues to Margaret’s extended absence.

The confusion of languages

Cassandra and her husband, Dan, have already been in Jordan for a couple of years when Dan signs up to sponsor newcomers Margaret and Crick Brickshaw. Margaret, mother of a young baby, is new to military life. She doesn’t ‘get’ the rules of contact with locals, and her desire to see the ‘real’ Jordan and to be friendly infuriates Cassandra, but then again, Cassandra is annoyed with Margaret before she sets eyes on her. Margaret’s apartment is much better, but that’s not all, Margaret “blond and Brahmin thin” has “the sort of body that denotes an entire class system in America, its own regal title regardless of bank account or upbringing, Mayflower ancestors or cabbage soup diet. As long as the thinness comes with a decent set of teeth, the bearer of such luck has it made.” Plus Margaret has a sexually-charged husband and the child that Cassandra is unable to conceive. To Cassandra, Margaret “had it all,”

All this because biology favored the Brickshaws with a child. As if that’s fair. As if lucking out and being able to conceive isn’t enough, then the US government gives you extra bedrooms to pat your propagation of the species on the back 

Cassandra is a tricky character. She does things that no one can actually point to as meanness or sabotage, but her actions have that result nonetheless. Cassandra had another friend before, Rebecca Eisenberg, and while Cassandra says she was just being “helpful” setting up Google alerts to be sent to Rebecca about violence in the region, what was she really playing at? We first see Margaret through Cassandra’s eyes, and Margaret seems possibly, subtly bitchy, and yet when we read Margaret’s words through her journal, we see a very troubled naive young woman who feels guilt about her mother and is unsure of her husband’s love. Beyond that, we also see the country through Margaret’s eyes: Children “trying to sell eggs, eggs! arranged in a little pyramid on a handkerchief.”

We passed a park and I saw two girls swinging, hijabs fluttering over their heads, sneakered feet kicking at the the sky.

Crick and especially Dan remain mostly in the background here, but there are scenes that take place between husbands and wives that illustrate the sex divide. In one scene for example, Crick carelessly knocks papers off the bed without a thought that his wife will be the one who picks them up, and while Margaret acknowledges that “men rule the world,” (at least they do in the world of women married to career military men) she chafes against that. Of course, there’s a time when the men deploy. …

While a sense of impending tragedy gathers like a storm cloud on the horizon, the plot concentrates on the relationship between Cassandra and Margaret and their relationship to the local population. Cassandra follows the embassy guidelines to a fault, but she also holds any of the local help at arm’s length, occasionally dipping into abuse if she feels that they are slacking or becoming too familiar. Meanwhile Margaret “a force of minor collisions, setting off small earthquakes, never thinking about what her tremors might rearrange or crack,” stops at all the street vendors buying “things she doesn’t need.” When “fallen women and widows” pass from car window to car window begging, Margaret throws money:

Margaret in her breathable, no -wrinkle cotton-blouses, her three-hundred-dollar car seat in the back. Can’t she feel how much they hate her?

Margaret doesn’t recognize that the line between us and them is real. She’s infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret things here are different, that our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker is not shared in a place where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means ‘submission.’ 

Margaret is open to friendships with Jordanians, but is this appropriate? Does her attitude, openness and naivete make her a better human being or a foolish one?

Years ago, I worked with someone who firmly believed that while most of us are too ‘small’ and insignificant to make a difference in the world, we can bring about change in our little corner of the planet. That question of making a difference in the world stayed with me throughout the book as I read about Margaret. Cassandra knows that no good can come from Margaret’s attempts to battle the culture–an idea Edith Wharton also explored in The Age of Innocence. Here’s an example: Margaret feeds the stray cats in her neighbourhood, but ultimately does she help the cats? To twist that question even further, what would ignoring the cats say about what kind of human being Margaret is? Ultimately does Margaret make her ‘corner’ a better place? We know we should adjust our behaviour depending on where we live, should we also adjust our morality according to location? Those questions stay with me after turning the last page.

Unusual, insightful and thoughtful, The Confusion of Languages will make my best-of year list.
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Small Hours: Jennifer Kitses

Small Hours from Jennifer Kitses examines 24 hours difficult hours in the life of a family of four. The novel argues that with both parents working, juggling job demands, conflicting schedules, no support network and the high cost of child care, it’s inevitable that internal tensions and external pressures make daily life an obstacle course to be overcome, repeatedly,

Helen and Tom were New Yorkers who decided to move to Devon, a small town that seemed to promise the sort of life they wanted. Devon, “an exurb,” is “in the Hudson Valley, but farther out than most commuters were willing to manage–ninety five minutes to Grand Central.” Add that up, and it’s more than a three hour commute daily for this pair.

Helen was the one who iniatated the idea to move to Devon, and at first the town seemed idyllic and affordable:

On their first trip out here, he’d browsed in the used bookstore; Helen wandered along the little street of art galleries. There was a dive bar, a nice bar, and a vegetarian restaurant. Even the stores that sold bespoke denim and artisanal fennel products had seemed like a good sign.

The reality is far different. Now two years later, in the economic downturn, many businesses in town have closed, and both Helen and Tom’s NY jobs were impacted. Helen who was a full-time graphic designer is now working “on contract and off-site, for a lot less money.” Tom lost his job, and after being unemployed for a few months he now works for a newswire service.

Small hours

Tom and Helen managed to hang onto their home. Barely. Their home is still underwater, and Tom realizes that they’re a pay check away from this house of cards tumbling. Meanwhile Helen, who’s been putting the preschool fees for their three-year old twins onto a series of credit cards, is desperately avoiding the school administration as she can no longer pay the fees. Of course, this cannot continue; something is going to happen, and over the course of 24 hours, Tom and Helen each face a crisis.

We follow both characters over the course of a day: Tom, whose job isn’t exactly secure, begs off some time to take care of some personal business. I won’t say what that is, but I will say that Tom made a horrible mistake some time before and now he has to either ‘put up or shut up’ as the saying goes. Tom’s crisis is very concrete: a horrible moral dilemma and a situation which is going to cause a lot of unhappiness before it’s resolved.

Helen’s crisis, on the other hand, is much more existential. She doesn’t have questions about her marriage, but she does have questions about her entire life. While she loves her children, she’s not exactly enamored with the role of motherhood. She works from home, and this conflicts with the needs of her children. At one point, she plops the twins in front of the television in order to work and carries on. Helen as a character is the more problematic of the two. She seems to be more of a neurotic mess than anything else, although I can accept that the family’s situation may partially have driven her to that point. She is very unhappy: she hates the town she insisted that they move to, she hates most of the neighbours…. There’s no easy fix here.

Helen and Tom, as created, are two individuals who happen to share the same house. After reading the book, I wondered why these two were married to each other as they haven’t so much grown apart as become emotionally distant roomies. Tom and Helen are in their 40s, and their lives are depicted as joyless drudgery. If this is a fair depiction (and I suspect it may be) then Small Hours is a commentary on the sad empty lives of America’s middle class young families who struggle from day-to-day like frantic hamsters on activity wheels that go nowhere.

Small Hours is being compared to the works of Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta and while I understand such comparisons are helpful when trying to attract an audience to a debut novel, such comparisons can also backfire and not be much a favour to a new author who should be appreciated on their own terms.

For animal lovers: I immediately disliked Helen for firing a water gun at squirrels for entertainment, and later a lost dog in the neighbourhood meets a sad fate. Yes a spoiler, but some readers, including me, want to know about situations involving animals. The neglect, actual and possibly symbolic, of the dog was just another contributing factor which made me ask: what the hell is wrong with these people???

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Grief Cottage: Gail Godwin

In Grief Cottage author Gail Godwin describes a place: an abandoned decaying cottage on the edge of an island, but Grief Cottage also has a non-literal presence in the minds of more than one emotionally troubled character. This is the coming of age story of eleven-year-old Marcus, who following the accidental death of his mother, bounces briefly into the foster system before being sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte on a small South Carolina island. Aunt Charlotte is an artist, used to a solitary life, and Marcus, concerned about being underfoot, quickly becomes fixated on the story of a boy about his age who drowned along with his family, tourists staying at Grief Cottage, in a hurricane fifty years earlier.

Grief Cottage

Marcus never knew his father, and his identity, if it’s known, is shrouded in mystery. Gradually Marcus’s history unfolds; it’s a life spent in poverty with Marcus and his mother eking out a living, and Marcus, unable to understand his mother’s sacrifices and concerns, instead feels ashamed of her and their living conditions. Once Marcus’s anguish erupted in rage, and the incident that led to a rapid move, but now the rage is buried and wrapped with guilt and grief.

Aunt Charlotte battles her own demons, and while she makes a good living with painting, she also struggles with her past. It’s not too long before it’s obvious that Aunt Charlotte is an alcoholic, but of course, Marcus doesn’t understand this, and after Aunt Charlotte suffers a fall during a binge, he’s proud to be able to open several wine bottles at once.

Since this is a coming of age story, most of the plot concerns Marcus. Left to his own devices, he’s both fascinated and repelled by Grief Cottage, a picturesque but ramshackle dwelling near the shore. Here, Marcus feels the presence of a ghost, the boy who went missing in the hurricane:

I don’t know how long I sat with my back to the door before I felt a change in the air that caused me to tense up. The tension was close to fear, but not the usual kind of fear. This was a brand-new sensation. The longer I sat there straining to stay alert, the stronger the sensation became, until it felt like something was coming closer. Then something made me stand up, as though I was being challenged to show more of myself.

As Marcus punctures the membrane between the living and the dead, this becomes a story of how we deal with death, dying and grief. This is a languorous melancholy tale, beautifully told with an emphasis on the damage we endure and the fragility of life (underscored by the survival struggles of the loggerhead turtles). Over the course of one summer, Marcus explores the island, connecting with various locals, occasionally constructing relationships in his hunger for a father. Marcus is an interesting child: solitary and thoughtful–although occasionally this thoughtfulness strains credulity even given that this is a tale told in retrospect.

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Anything is Possible: Elizabeth Strout

“Life had simply not been what she thought it would be.”

I recently watched Olive Kitteridge, and I liked the sour, yet sturdy character of Olive Kitteridge so much, I decided it was about time I tried some of the author’s work. That brings me to Anything is Possible which isn’t a novel as much as a series of interconnected stories, mostly set in Amgash, Illinois. While there’s no one single theme to these nine stories/chapters, family secrets, life’s disappointments, certainties and doubts are highlighted as we flow into, and out of, these characters’ lives.

The first story, The Sign, is told by Tommy Guptill, a former dairy farmer turned school janitor, who in his 80s, reminisces about the child Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a famous author living in New York, and her memoir is on sale in town. The memory of Lucy, who Tommy suspected was abused, causes him to drive out to the isolated Barton homestead and visit her damaged brother. This visit in turn leads Tommy to question an event that uprooted his life.

anything is possible

Other stories concern an overweight, widowed high school guidance councilor who has a meeting with Lucy Barton’s niece, and the councilor’s sister, who’s so afraid of ending up living in a trailer, alone, that she buries her head in the sand concerning her husband. In another story, a married man frequently meets with a prostitute, and fittingly, in “Sister,” Lucy returns home to visit and reconnects with her siblings.  Of the collection, “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast” stood out for its portrayal of the marriage of Dr and Mrs Small, so miserable and pathological that Dottie feels “comforted about her divorce.

What Dottie had not understood until the Smalls came to stay was that there were different experiences she attended to in this business that made her feel either connected to or used by people. 

I disliked the first story, The Sign as for its cliches, and while I warmed to some of the characters, (Patty, Dottie) for the most part these are a miserable lot. A thread of deep melancholy runs through these stories, and while we all have to live with our mistakes, these lives of quiet desperation made me wonder about the suicide rate among these characters, but no, then again, they seem to carry on, shouldering the burden of disappointment, mistakes, and secrets.

I haven’t read Lucy Barton, and although other reviews state that it’s not necessary to read Lucy Barton before reading Anything is Possible,  it might have helped to be given some background to these characters. I seem to be in the minority opinion here and glowing reviews dominate, but in spite of my disappointment, I still intend to read Olive Kitteridge. 

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The Barrowfields: Phillip Lewis

“Yet at last, he was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him.”

There are some places that imprint themselves so deeply in the people who live there, that either you never leave or you always come back. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I read The Barrowfields from Phillip Lewis. As the title suggests, the plot and its characters are tied to a particular geographical area: in this case, Old Buckram, North Carolina, “an achromatic town high in the Appalachian Mountains.” The Barrowfields of the title is an area which probably should be named the Barren Fields but somebody made a mistake along the way.  It’s a place “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss.”

Growing up in extreme poverty, Henry Aster is a cuckoo in the nest of this large, impoverished and nearly illiterate household. As a child, Henry grabs onto the power of books and never lets go, even at one point stealing library books and hoarding them under his bed for future reads. Eventually, Henry leaves home and goes to college and law school only to return when his mother (she’s constantly smoking–her one vice) becomes ill. Coming home is a mistake for Henry. …

The Barrowfields

Henry, with ambitions to become “a beloved American writer,”  and his horse-loving wife Eleonore, buy an abandoned mansion, built by an dying architect with a penchant for the occult. Its gothic, vlad-the-impaler design makes the house a unique, intriguing, yet daunting prospect. The house, “a monstrous gothic skeleton,” has a tragic history, but the Asters ignore it–even though of course they simply become another twist in the house’s past.

On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built.

While Henry practices “a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town,” by night he drinks himself into oblivion and tries to write. His wife has her horses, and the house, with its magnificent library is a fabulous labyrinth of childhood fantasies for Henry and Eleonore’s son, also called Henry.

This is a sweeping novel about a man who’s deeply rooted to a region he can’t wait to escape from, and Henry’s ultimate abandonment of his wife and children is the central mystery/emotional dilemma of the plot. I loved the first half of The Barrowfields, with its fine Southern tradition, but the second half with Henry junior’s life becoming the focus, just couldn’t match up to the first half. There’s so much going on here–so much so I wondered how this would read in serial form. The whole build up of the house with its tragic past never really goes anywhere, but hangs like a faded banner over the new residents, and the whole baby sister episode just seemed another layer of melodrama/tragedy that existed for its own sake.

Sprawling, ambitious and flawed this is a novel about fathers and sons. It’s described as a coming-of-age novel, but for me it was more about identity. There are some very fine parts indeed here which are evidence of perhaps future books we might expect from this author, for example, when son Henry, describes how his father has developed a persona to converse with the locals:

He knew how to talk like them, though. He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say, “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place. He’d run into someone at the grocery store and listen intently as the man talked. He’d listen with a deep focus, looking dead into the man’s eyes, almost unblinking and without saying much of anything, hunched slightly to be more or less on the same level with the man, without anything much beyond an anthropological interest in the story and the man telling it, and at the end of it he’d offer amusement and say something like, “Well, all right, Junior, I hope you have a good night. I reckon I better get on home.

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Repent in Haste: John P. Marquand (1945)

“You can’t help what life makes you, can you?”

Although John Marquand (1893-1960) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for The Late George Apley, he seems to be out-of-fashion and little read these days. I came across his name when watching a film version of one of his books: H.M Pulham esq. I’ve picked up a few dusty copies of his books over the years and decided to start with Repent in Haste, mainly because I couldn’t find much information about the book online. This is possibly because it’s one of the few books he wrote that wasn’t turned into a film.

Repent in Haste is set in WWII after Pearl Harbor. It’s a short book, a very focused story running at just over 150 pages. This is the tale of an unlikely relationship formed between Briggs, an older journalist and a young Lieutenant, Boyden nicknamed Boysie. Boysie was in a torpedo carrier plane that was shot down, and he along with two other crew members survived in the ocean for two days on a rubber raft. Boysie and Briggs meet at a press conference in Hawaii, and at first Briggs isn’t impressed by Boysie, a “typical American boy, and the same sort of dull normality,” but they meet again months later when Boysie is assigned to the support carrier, Rogue River. The war has changed and this time Briggs gets to know Boysie better. This time Boyden leaves a different impression:

The only trouble, Briggs was thinking, was that if you knew too much about anyone, even someone like Lieutenant Boyden, there began to be lights and shadows.

Briggs is returning stateside and Boysie asks him to go and talk to his family and his wife, Daisy in New York. Boysie met Daisy in Pensacola and after one of those whirlwind wartime courtships they married. There’s a bond between the two men; Boysie calls Briggs ‘Pops,’ and Briggs, underestimating the younger man, assumes a protective fatherly role. Boysie, who at first appears to be naive, a rather dull hero, has survival reserves. At times, it’s fair to say that the war, and the things he’s seen, have not appeared to alter Boysie, but that’s not true. Briggs meets Boysie three times over the course of the novel, and by its conclusion, he’s finding it not so easy to bounce back–in spite of his philosophy to not let anything ‘bother him’ and not to get too attached to fellow soldiers.

“There are a lot of new kids here,” Boyden said. “It makes me kind of tired looking at all these new kids–all full of the old wham-wham. It’s a very funny thing. I keep thinking I’m back on the Rogue. It seems more real than here. It’s taking longer to snap back.”

As Boyden tried inexpertly to express himself, his words had a clumsy eloquence. He talked of the Rogue River as he ate. There had been a swell crowd of kids aboard and Boyden had been “in.” He knew he had been in, as soon as that blast had landed him on the deck. When he got up and found he was all right, he knew he did not have to bother about himself. It was the other kids that bothered him.

“Seeing them shot down,” he said, “is different from seeing a whole lot of kids catch it on the deck; and kids shut in up forward, burning up-oh boy.”

You had your mind on other things when the ready ammunition magazines began exploding, but cleaning up afterwards-oh boy! Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get squared away,” he said, “and get back and polish off that Scotch.”

There’s something about this book that I liked a great deal. It feels very real, very plausible and quite poignant in its portrayal of how people behave during war, the personal choices they make, and whether or not they will be indelibly altered by their experiences.  It’s a deceptively simple book, and by that I mean, there are no scenes of war and fighting–all the action takes place off the page, so we see soldiers trying to relax and wind down after combat missions. Marquand shows us a humble hero, a young man who lacks the eloquence and wisdom to articulate his survival philosophies.  In spite of all that has happened to Boyden, he’s still essentially who he was before combat, although after each battle, he finds it harder to snap back to normalcy and with his natural optimism, he’s destined to make the same mistakes.

And here’s a marvellous quote I’m adding since there’s so little about this book online:

The black sand of the beach lay just in front, with wrecks of landing craft washed against it and with new ships pushing in. He could see the colored markers, and the tanks and jeeps crawling inland. He could see the bursts of mortar shells dropping near a supply dump, and the greenish figures of a reserve Marine battalion moving through the dust. Further inland there was a line of tanks, and he could see the flash from their guns and the sudden spurt of flame thrower. He had thought it was a great show once and now it was commonplace–only another part of the Pacific war and so much a part of ordinary living that it became puzzling to think of home. You could accept an environment of violence and sudden death but, once you faced it, it was hard to understand the attitude of those who had not.

The novel was published in 1945 and at the moment of writing this post, it’s listed as a crime novel on Wikipedia. Given the date of its publication, there are some wince worthy moments: “slant-eyed Joes,” and the capturing of Japanese trophies. Some of the language is archaic. My old copy is a rejected library book and from the looks of the stamps inside the cover, this book was checked out A LOT in 1946 and 47 and then … nothing…

Boyden was right-war was nothing but a repetition, a series of the same anecdotes that grew monotonous with the telling. 

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The Arrangement: Sarah Dunn

“Yeah, but I’m not sure marriage should be like dating,” said Lucy. “Where you’re always looking for someone to hook up with.”

I knew I wanted to read Sarah Dunn’s novel, The Arrangement after reading the blurb: A hilarious and emotionally charged novel about a couple who embark on an open marriage-what could possibly go wrong? What indeed? This is an extremely funny look at a couple, who bored with their lives, make what they think is a mature, controlled decision, but in reality, it’s a decision that leads to chaos, confrontation, and other unexpected results.

Lucy and Owen, married and with a five-year-old autistic son, have traded in their fast-paced New York life and moved to the Beekman burbs. It’s a move that was supposed to bring more ‘quality of life’ but like many young couples, Lucy and Owen are feeling overwhelmed and even, possibly, bored. One evening, married friends confess to Lucy and Owen that they’ve decided to try an open marriage as they’re “both tired of this persistent, […] low-grade dissatisfaction.” At first it seems like an outrageous idea, but after Lucy and Owen discuss it one evening, they find themselves creating ground rules and embarking on a six-month long experiment.

The Arrangement

Owen who complains about how his wife is constantly “choring,” slips gleefully into an affair with the free-spirited, sexually adventurous Izzy, a woman with the laugh of a “mental patient,” and while Owen finds himself being dragged into a relationship that’s more demanding than his marriage, he doesn’t for a minute suspect that Lucy is hunting for prospects at local coffee shops.

It was like a whole world of signs and signals had been floating right past her-lingering looks, secret smiles, eyes moving up and down, wineglasses lifted in solidarity, charged conversations in bookstores. It was like an energy field, and some people were aware of it and some people weren’t.

The Arrangement is a very funny look at the mistakes made by a couple who really need time for themselves and each other--not time for other people.  Owen and Lucy’s experiment is set against the backdrop of the affluent Beekman community and the local drama concerning a male elementary school teacher who decides he’s a woman and starts dressing accordingly. One cohort of parents support Mr Lowell’s decision to become a woman and think that the kindergarteners “have an opportunity to watch her as she becomes who she truly is.” Other parents demand Lowell’s removal.  The lively cast of characters include Lucy’s friend, Sunny Bang, who arranges a hook-up for Lucy, Susan Howard, an annoying perfect and PC mother, and George Allen, a crass bombastic billionaire on his umpteenth wife, a ex-cocktail waitress.

Infidelity isn’t a naturally hilarious subject, but Sarah Dunn wickedly inverts the age-old scenario of ‘cheating.’ Owen and Lucy choose to bring disaster and chaos down upon their heads, so the novel is more about the foibles of the affluent who have the time and money to burn on hotel bills and trips to NYC.  Owen and Lucy’s married life is essentially good–but strained by time and familiarity, and stressed by parenting a difficult child.

The Arrangement argues that the emptiness of modern life makes people crazy as they age. Many of the characters here have arrived at middle age with their goals achieved but find only boredom at the end of the rainbow. At one point, a character mentions how all of her female friends are going crazy and how she knows one woman, “perfect Jen,” who spends her free time making out with men she meets in bars:

This semi-normal women is, in fact, like a grenade with the pin pulled out.

I haven’t laughed so hard at a book in a long time, and The Arrangement is going to make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, irreverent, insightful, and Sarah Dunn’s flexible, smooth style perfected matched the content:

And the pictures. Good God, the pictures. After his second time with Izzy, a seemingly unending stream of pornographic selfies popped up on his text screen to the point where Owen’s once rather cozy relationship with his cell phone was forever changed. He’d type in his password and see he had four new texts and then be like Whah? She really didn’t have a good eye, Izzy. She didn’t seem to know the difference between a sexy picture and an alarming one. 

Author Sarah Dunn is a television writer, and someone out there, PLEASE make this into a television series.

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The Devil and Webster: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel The Devil and Webster is a witty, wise and topical look at life on at a small, prestigious college campus. Dean Naomi Roth, the first female president at Webster College, “one of the most selective colleges in the nation,” made her career by the delicate handling of a potentially explosive situation. She came to the attention of the Board of Trustees for the manner in which she dealt with the uproar among the residents of the all-female Radclyffe Hall. Problems began when a female resident, Nell changed her name to Neil, and started undergoing gender change treatments. The female residents wanted Neil out, but he wanted to stay. It was a hot subject, the press became involved and while Neil argued discrimination, according to the female housemates:

This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space.

With disaster diplomatically averted, Naomi, Webster’s “first dedicated professor of feminist and gender studies,” had all the proper credentials, including past activism and was subsequently made the next president. She loves her job, and her large mansion (courtesy of the college) but there are rumblings on the campus which grow into a major PR catastrophe, disrupt her life and bring her deepest beliefs under scrutiny and into question.

the devil and webster

Naomi’s troubles begin when students begin camping out at the Stump–historically the location for Webster student protests. The cause this time is student discontent over the very popular Professor Gall (a notoriously easy grader) not receiving tenure. Normally professors who don’t get tenure just quietly pack their bags and leave, but in the case of Professor Gall, students begin championing his cause by a building a camp at the Stump. Naomi knows that Gall hasn’t been granted tenure because he’s failed to publish and also because he’s committed the cardinal sin of plagiarism, but according to the legal department, she’s can’t publicly air these reasons.

The number of protestors at the Stump grows with students flooding in from other campuses. Parents begin complaining, the media gets involved and then all hell breaks loose….

In The Devil and Webster, author Jean Hanff Korelitz shows there are no sacred cows in academia. On one hand we have a college with a past which includes institutional racism and massive hypocrisy–an elite school in which money talks to the unacknowledged competitive admissions process, and a number of disenfranchised students are admitted and yet are not supposed to feel ‘token.’ Also addressed, very subtly, is the way in which sometimes violent (even murderous) revolutionary cred can trump academic achievements–this in the most established of establishments.  And there’s another issue of ‘genteel’ protests–protests that make everyone (the participants and the establishment) feel enlightened and ‘involved.’

Whatever cause or grievance brought Webster students to the Stump, what happened once when they got there was always pretty much the same: a clear statement of purpose, a plainly identified leader, and lines of communication smartly established with Webster’s president, whoever he was at the time, after which that president would at least pretend to consider the students’ demands or sympathize with their feelings. But then, once the protesters had picketed a trustees’ retreat or a commencement to emphasize their point, the students would always just … go away.

In the protest under scrutiny, student leader Omar doesn’t play by these genteel rules; he plays dirty, and Naomi finds the old methods of dealing with students doesn’t work in Omar’s case. …

This rich and topical novel skewers academia, its highly competitive selection process, along with the wealthy who buy an ‘authentic,’ culturally aware experience for their children that raises consciousness but only safely within their economic boundaries. The book argues that in the current campus culture of identify and identification, division inevitably results:

A basketball player from Georgia or a robotics whiz from northern New Jersey? An equestrian who’d bring her own horse (and a strongly hinted at donation to campus) or a waif from Bangladesh who was being sponsored by a famous tech philanthropist? How could you weigh innovation against opportunity? How could you put a value on simple security-the experience of growing up in a stable society with guaranteed schooling-when others had no such thing?

The author has fun with all sides of the debate here. From Naomi listening to NPR and Garrison Keillor’s “narcotic” voice while serving her daughter “humanely euthanized fish in good conscience, to old-school Professor Russell who believes the protest is “the inevitable result of years of capitulation to liberal idiocy.” While the figures of both Omar and Gall remain disappointingly murky, the author raises many issues pertinent to the nepotism, privilege, politics and mission of university campuses.

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All Grown Up: Jami Attenberg

I really enjoyed Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins–the very funny story of how one woman’s overeating impacts her family. It’s a serious subject treated in a very readable light-hearted manner, and that brings me to All Grown Up, the story of a single 40- year-old woman, a New Yorker, a former artist, whose meaningless relationships and a job that serves to pay the bills have left Andrea Bern adrift in her own life. Ultimately this is the story of a woman whose life didn’t end up the way she planned and how she needs to come to terms with this.

As Andrea falls further into the void of meaninglessness, the years pass, her friends move, marry, have children, and seem to slip into gilded adulthoods:

Other people you know seem to change quite easily. They have no problem at all with succeeding at their careers and buying apartments and moving to other cities and falling in love and getting married and hyphenating their names and adopting rescue cats and, finally, having children, and then documenting all of this meticulously on the internet. Really, it appears to be effortless on their part. Their lives are constructed like buildings, each precious but totally unsurprising block stacked before your eyes.

While Andrea’s employment started out as simply a means to an end, somehow temporary turns into permanent. She’s offered a promotion but after realizing that means “more responsibility,” she steps away from the opportunity. She still sees the job as a temporary situation–a stop gap in her life as an artist. And yet the years are running away from her …

you are moved to a new cube, which you must share with a freshly hired coworker who is thirteen years younger than you and is hilarious and loud and pretty and probably making half of what you make but still spends it on tight dresses. 

The years pass for Andrea relentlessly as the chapters move back and forward in time. Andrea’s brother and sister-in-law have a child, a baby girl who is born with a heart defect. This is a child who will never have the chance to grow up, and just as Andrea sidesteps responsibilities, she also avoids becoming involved with the brief life this child will have.

all grown up

The chapters read like interconnecting short stories. We see the trajectory of the life of one of Andrea’s best friends, Indigo, as she marries and has a child. Indigo, who lives in a two million dollar Tribeca loft has a seemingly perfect, envious life–even if Indigo becomes a living breathing cliche (yes she’s a yoga instructor) in order to achieve this state of Nirvana. I loved the character of Indigo–most of us know someone like her–so perfect, you want to vomit. One of the funniest chapters in the book occurs when Andrea attends Indigo’s wedding and finds herself sitting at the ‘singles’ table.

I sit at the singles table under a nest of twinkling lights and grape leaves. There are four other single women at the table: two of them are lesbians, who are best friends with each other and seem invested in gossiping about everyone they went to college with; one of them is a retired nun, whose story remains mysterious throughout the night; and the fourth woman is Karen, a real career gal. I say this not to make fun of her but because she described herself as such, which means it is doubly true. 

There are two gay men at the table, who used to date and are using the evening to hash out a few things, and there are two straight men: a newly divorced uncle of the groom named Warren, and a tall, broad, masculine man named Kurt. 

All Grown Up is a very funny, lively look at one woman’s messy life. Andrea careens from disaster to disaster in a life she didn’t plan and doesn’t acknowledge as her own. We get glimpses of Andrea’s youth, her chaotic upbringing, her drinking, her drug use and her eccentric activist mother. For potential readers: in adulthood, Andrea has numerous pointless sexual relationships, and while the sex isn’t explicit, it’s there. Also I would say that if you don’t like the ‘f’ word, then move on. This is very much a New York novel, grounded in its unique environment, so it should appeal to fans of Tana Janowitz. I really liked All Grown Up; it’s a book that made me laugh even as I shook my head over Andrea’s actions and mistakes.

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The Antiques: Kris D’Agostino

There’s a frenetic energy to Kris D’Agostino’s novel The Antiques which matches both its backdrop, an epic storm which engulfs Hudson, New York, and the lives of the Westfall family. When the novel opens, the Westfall family is in crisis, but I’ll back up here and say ‘crises.’ Yes it’s multiple; family patriarch George Westfall, cofounder of George and Ana Westfall Antiques, is dying of cancer. His wife Ana, hearty and healthy, but wrapped in her own concerns, isn’t sure how she’ll continue the business alone, and that brings us to the three Westfall offspring: sex addict Josef, daughter Charlie, out in California pursuing a career in publicity, and Armie, who still lives in the basement.

the-antiques

With George taking a turn for the worse, Ana begins frantically contacting Josef and Charlie, but they both ignore the desperate messages as they are deep in their own problems. In Josef’s case, the problems revolve around his sex addiction. He’s on the brink of making a huge, lucrative business move, and while he waits for news, as is typical, he distracts himself with thoughts of sex. Every woman, including his therapist, is a potential sex partner. This is a recently divorced man (no shock there) who buys used female underwear to sniff and claims that “it’s like my penis led me astray.”

Enough of Josef.

Onto Charlie.

Charlie works with P.Le.A.Se. Publicity LLC’s “most needy and lucrative client,” Hollywood starlet, Melody Montrose. Melody’s latest claim to fame is the starring role as a “vampire heiress” in  a “teen-fantasy saga based on a cycle of YA bestsellers called Thornglow.” Melody’s needy life is one publicity nightmare after another, and that leaves Charlie mopping up Melody’s messes and performing the work of a PA. There’s a pull between Melody’s petulant immature demands and Charlie’s personal life. Charlie has put her private life on the back burner, but after finding a pair of women’s underwear at her home, Charlie suspects her French husband is cheating. Meanwhile their son, Abbott is thrown out of school for violence towards another child.

As for basement dweller, Armie, he’s seriously damaged after being tangled in a questionable business deal which involved Josef and led to a stressful session with the FBI. He’s almost afraid to leave the safety of the basement, and yet love calls him in the shape of a young woman who occasionally offers to walk the Westfall family dog.

All the Westfall children converge on the family home, and there a drama unfolds over the sale of a valuable painting….

The book is well-paced and well-plotted but it is full of unpleasant people–I even disliked Ana, a character who should, technically speaking, be somewhat sympathetic. But it’s never a problem for me to read books about unpleasant people–after all, they’re usually much more interesting than ‘good’ people. But here, the characters were unpleasant and uninteresting–a deadly combination. Josef was a waste of good oxygen and Charlie … well there’s a telephone conversation that takes place between Charlie and another parent which left me shaking my head. While the author certainly mined aspects of today’s superficial culture, somehow that vapidity stuck to the plot with the result that I couldn’t wait to leave these people.

The Antiques is being compared to The Nest, and while I can see the connections: siblings and an inheritance, the resemblance stops there.  Most of the reviews of The Antiques on Goodreads are overwhelmingly positive, so I am in the minority opinion.

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