Tag Archives: american fiction

Please Join Us: Catherine Mckenzie

Catherine Mckenzie’s suspense novel Please Join Us takes the reader into the life of lawyer Nicole Muller. At 39, she has sacrificed a great deal for her career, but after losing a major client, one of the firm’s senior partners delivers a warning that her billing hours must soar or she’s out the door. With depressing speed, the news ricochets around the office. Minor law firms suddenly know that Nicole is on her way down and send recruitment emails. But right at the same time, she receives a cryptic invitation also via email inviting her to join an exclusive club, Panthera Leo for women. Dan, Nicole’s husband advises against the trip and, evoking the example of NXIVM suggests that Panthera Leo may be a cult.

Nicole, thinking that there’s nothing to lose, takes the bait, and then she’s off to attend a Panthera Leo retreat in Colorado. Always with these sorts of scenarios there’s a slippery slope. Is it when Nicole signs over 5K to attend the retreat? Is it when she’s told to hand over her cell phone for 5 days? Or is it when the two female leaders: Karma and Michelle, chant phrases that must be chanted back, over an open campfire?

Nicole identifies with the Pathera Leo spiel and list of grievances:

Putting men charge of women’s companies is one of our specialties. Diversity this and diversity that and sensitivity training and you know what’s changed? Exactly nothing, that’s what. If you have a vagina then you’re handicapped. God forbid if you have a kid or show an emotion at work.

Post retreat, everything in Nicole’s life goes swimmingly …. until it doesn’t. I had never heard of NXIVM and so dug up that name. Even watched a documentary about it. After that, I found the plot much easier to accept. Not that this book is about NXIVM.

I have read Catherine Mckenzie before and while this is not my favourite book of hers to date, I enjoyed parts of it. Initially I had problems accepting that Nicole, who seems hard boiled, would succumb to the Panthera Leo pitch, but she does. I couldn’t quite align Nicole’s narrative voice with the character. Plus Nicole is not an appealing character, and that goes for most of the characters in the book. I was interested in Nicole’s initial plight but after she drank the Kool-Aid, well… not as much.

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The Complicities: Stacey d’Erasmo

Stacey d’Erasmo’s novel The Complicities looks at the fallout of financial fraud through the lives of a handful of characters. When the novel opens, Suzanne is beginning a new life following the imprisonment of her white collar criminal husband Alan for fraud. She moves to Chesham, a Massachusetts beach town, changes her name and tries to find a way to support herself. Suzanne’s new life isn’t easy, plus “her entire life vanished” when her husband was arrested and subsequently imprisoned. The money, the status, the mansion–all gone.

People have lots of opinions, and they say you destroyed their family’s future, but did anyone care about our family and what was happening to us? Why were we suddenly the bad guys?’

Suzanne, while professing not to ‘understand’ money matters, asks herself “how big was his [Alan’s] crime?” Suzanne doesn’t think about Alan’s victims yet she expects people to think about her position:

I’m not saying he didn’t commit a crime; he did things with people’s money that you aren’t really supposed to do, he’d been doing it a long time, and he got caught.

With a “little money” and two suitcases, she trades in her expensive, flashy car for an old Honda which “provided great cover.” She uses her maiden name, rents a dump, prints out a fake certificate from the internet and starts a massage business.

I mean, look: sure, you can call me complicit, but there’s complicit and complicit, isn’t there? It isn’t only one label than explains everything in every situation. There isn’t complicity but complicities, errors of different sizes, plus there are other factors, choices that in hindsight maybe weren’t right, but in the moment it seemed different. Other people have done a lot worse things. Pol Pot. Drug cartels. Sex traffickers.

Hmmm… Suzanne comparing herself favorably to Pol Pot. …

Part of the novel is Suzanne’s new life, her rejection of collect calls from Alan, and her son’s rejection of her. Her life is a slow hard climb just to pay the bills and keep the lights on. As time passes, Suzanne, as narrator, adds Lydia to the tale, the woman Alan meets when he is released from prison. Just as Suzanne skirts the details of her knowledge and involvement in Alan’s crimes, Alan has a constructed a narrative, for Lydia, for what went wrong:

That was when he crossed some lines, but basically, it was all a slow-motion cry for help. He’d had a lot of time in prison to think and read the great philosophers again (again?), and he could see that now. He had always spent so much time taking case of other people, trying to fulfill their expectations even to the point of going to prison himself for it. His need to please, to be the hero, had cost him everything.

Boo hoo. Alan knows how to pick ’em. Later in the novel, the story moves to include Alan’s mother and her role, or complicity, in her son’s approach to life. Ultimately, tangled associations stain and mold our lives and decisions. I enjoyed the novel for its complex approach to moral responsibility, and how love, trust and loyalty are elastically stretched until complicity takes over. I love to read books about how characters deal with money–not just how they spend it, but how the promise of money, the thought of money, lots of it, influences actions and makes people run off the rails.

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Lucy by the Sea: Elizabeth Strout

It was inevitable that the COVID lockdown entered the realm of fiction: after all, it is an historic event and to be honest, I was rather interested to see how authors incorporated the many aspects of life during COVID into novels. That brings me to Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea, a seemingly child-like title which belies the reality… or does it?

Lucy is a reappearing character in several Strout novels: My Name is Lucy Barton (have to backtrack to read this one), Anything is Possible, and Oh, William. In Oh, William, Elizabeth Strout gave us a first hand look at the after-marriage of Lucy Barton and her X-William. In that novel, writer Lucy Barton, freshly widowed from her second husband, becomes embroiled in the life of her self-focused X when his much-younger wife, unsurprisingly, moves onto fresher pastures. William is a Dickhead. Selfish, self-focused, not, I suppose a ‘bad’ man, but in his prime a serial adulterer who now aged 70 seems as little aware of the damage he caused as when he had numerous affairs.

Lucy by the Sea takes us to COVID lockdown. Lucy, like many people, hears about the virus tangentially in the news but William, who after all is/was a scientist, takes the news very seriously indeed and drives Lucy to a rental house in Maine for the duration. This is not an action novel by any means–instead this is Lucy’s tale as she sits out the virus–until vaccination time that is. So it’s a novel about waiting, watching the news and missing loved ones. In other words, this is a relatable novel. Bob Burgess makes an appearance as a supporting character. He helps arrange the Maine rental, and when the situation allows, he and his wife Margaret visit Lucy and William, maintaining social distance of course. For Lucy, this period takes on a dream like-quality. Watching the news, seeing the deaths, from a safe distance, seems almost surreal. Lucy and William’s two daughters Chrissy and Becka, each have their own crises during lockdown and Lucy cannot run to their sides to help. She can only wait for news at a distance. Bob Burgess (The Burgess Boys) is a kindred spirit to Lucy and helps with William and Lucy’s Maine transition.

In Oh, William, a highly enjoyable read, a great deal of the delight came from Lucy’s observations of William, a selfish sod whose world consists of two daughters, ex-wife Lucy and his much younger wife and third daughter who have just left him. William’s two adult daughters and Lucy seem to spend a great deal of time worrying about William–a man whose self-focus guarantees he puts himself first. In Lucy by the Sea, William appears to be thinking of someone else for a change.

When I read the synopsis of the novel, I thought Poor Lucy… imagine being in lockdown with that prick for a year.. but Elizabeth Strout chooses not to play the novel that way. I had imagined them driving each other crazy, and while that does happen to a mild degree, lockdown pushes William into protective mode, and brings panic attacks to Lucy. What happened to William’s dickheadedness? Or does COVID bring out the best in William–at last? Is his desire to ‘save’ Lucy sincere or is her just using COVID to control her? Strout does a wonderful job of recreating a COVID lockdown experience (many varieties exist): the ennui, the feeling of suspended animation, the heartbreak of being unable to have physical contact with family, and the bitter crunch of being housebound 24/7 with someone whose habits drive you around the bend. At some point, I became disappointed with the plot, but I came to that conclusion too soon. Ultimately, Elizabeth Strout did not disappoint me. There’s a wonderful scene with William and Lucy in which William confesses that he wished he had lived his life better:

“Oh Lucy, come on. I sit here and think over my life , and I think, Who have I been? I have been an idiot.”

“In what way?”

I asked him. And interestingly he answered first about his profession. “I have taught student after student after student, but did I make a real contribution to science? No.”

I opened my mouth, but he held up his hand to stop me.

“And on a personal level, look how I have lived my life.” I thought he must have been talking about his affairs. But he was not.

Lucy had a terrible childhood, and now in her 60s, she is, to this reader, surprisingly childlike. That kind of abuse creates permanent damage, yet somehow Lucy is cocooned by her belief in the beauty of the world. In her head she has created an imaginary mother–a loving kind mother who supports her and comforts her. It’s a great coping mechanism. Lucy is a believable character because she is so consistent. She never acts outside of the character created by Strout. To this reader, Lucy is remarkable because she is so good in spite of all her horrible experiences. But, at the same time, even though Lucy is good and believable, she is a little vanilla. Lucy is an observer of the world more than anything, and she is a passive character. In Oh, William, William’s dickheadedness added spike and spice to the plot, and there were times when even Lucy got sick of him. Olive Kitteridge appears in the sidelines and there were times I longed for Olive’s acidic tongue. She would make short work of William.

There’s a sequel here. I know it. And the big boom is coming.

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Aurora: David Koepp

Since COVID, I have developed a taste for The-End-of-Civilization-as-We-Know-It books, and that brings me to David Koepp’s novel, Aurora. The novel is set post-COVID, and it’s a world in which some people are solidly prepared for the next disaster (or so they think), but the majority are focused on surviving day-to-day. The novel opens with almost breath-taking speed when scientists discover that a CME (coronal mass ejection) will take out most of the world’s power grids within hours. This leaves the world, and for the purposes of this story, North America, without electricity. Ok, so we have all ridden out a power outage, but how would we survive if that power outage extended to 6 months? A year? It wouldn’t be pretty.

The novel follows two storylines: billionaire Thom Banning is totally prepared for the next apocalypse–so much so that when he gets the news of the impending Black Sky Event, he’s excited. He’s an obsessive control freak, and the prospect of a societal meltdown kicks his plan into gear. He hustles his pissed-off wife, 2 children and a carefully selected number of staff to his compound in Utah. The compound is a renovated government nuclear missile underground silo. Thom bought this for a pittance and then ploughed millions into his prepper project. Some of those millions are locked in the underground bunker. It’s a entire compound with armed guards and a guard house. There’s a:

six thousand-square-foot modernist chateau nestled into the artificial hillside beside the gatehouse. It was designed to shelter a single family, Thom’s family, for as long as things stayed somewhat docile out in the world at large. But the real masterpiece, for when the shit really hit the fan, was all underground, inside the converted silo, which was now fourteen floors of scrupulously conceived subterranean living space.

The second storyline follows Thom’s sister Aubrey who lives in Illinois with her teenage stepson, Scott, the remnant of an ugly marriage to Rusty–a low-life whose addictions took over his life, and his marriage. Thom’s prepper plans included whipping Aubrey into readiness, but when the lights go out, Aubrey has a total of 11 cans of beans in the basement. …

We see the wealthy hit the road on the way to their mountain hideouts while those in the suburbs scramble for food, find strength in numbers and show great ingenuity. Meanwhile, the slums get slummier, and crime spills from the have-nots with alarming alacrity.

David Koepp is a screenwriter and it shows here in this remarkably visual page-turner. I was not surprised to read that there’s a film version in the works. For the first 9/10 of the book, I thought this would be one of my reads of the year, but in spite of a fantastic start and some highly dramatic scenes right towards the end, for this reader, the book finished with a fizzle. That said, it’s a perfect cinematic ending. We hear about social unrest across America, but the action stays focused on Thom and Aubrey. Thom, in his “Fuhrerbunker” discovers the hard way that you can plan for every scenario, but the vagaries of human nature are impossible to control. I had to laugh at the ways his meticulously devised plan melted down almost immediately. Hilarious.

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The Lifeguards: Amanda Eyre Ward

Amanda Eyre Ward’s The Lifeguards is set in Austin, Texas, and revolves around 3 mothers who live in an upscale neighbourhood: Whitney, a highly successful real estate agent, trophy wife Annette, who is married to an oil fund heir and the odd woman out in this trio, Liza, a single parent and food writer, who hustles for extra cash by doing menial work such as walking dogs. The sons of these three women, Charlie (Liza), Xavier (Whitney) and Bobcat (Annette) are friends, constantly in each other’s company. It’s the end of the school year, and the three boys are lifeguards, or they are going to be full-time summer lifeguards starting the very next morning, so the novel opens with a sense of accomplishment and goals met. The 3 mothers can breathe a sigh of relief, right?

The action starts almost immediately when the boys return in a state of agitation and the news that they found a dead woman “on the greenbelt.” It’s obvious right away that the boys are more involved than they admit. The plot then splinters into chapters told by the mothers, their sons, a detective and a chat group. As the investigation explores the facts behind the death of the woman, the families hire lawyers. These people have extremely privileged backgrounds with Liza hanging on to that status through osmosis for dear life.

The book felt a little disjointed at times, and I found it impossible to connect (care) about any of the characters. The main moral question here: how far will parents go for their children is an interesting one, but the story boils down to the mysterious death. Was this a crime? If so, who did it? All the other stuff (the privilege, the botox) seemed like icing.
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French Braid: Anne Tyler

“What makes a family not work?”

Anne Tyler’s multi-generational novel French Braid takes a look at the complications and peculiarities of family life. For outsiders, family dynamics are impossible to dissect, but sometimes, even for close relatives, those dynamics are equally murky. For the purposes of the novel, the Garrett family history begins with Mercy, the daughter of a man who owns a Baltimore plumbing supply shop. A frequent customer is plumber Robin, who may appear to come to shop, but who falls for Mercy. According to Robin, “all the plumbers in Baltimore were crazy about her,” but he won. Or did he? Mercy and Robin marry and they have 3 children: Lily, Alice and David.

The novel opens in 2010 with Serena, Alice’s daughter (Mercy’s granddaughter), returning from a visit with her boyfriend, James, to his parents for the first time. The meeting appeared to go well, but when Serena spies cousin Nicholas in the Philadelphia station, the incident drives a wedge between Serena and James and also sets in motion the idea that the Garrett family are not close. What happened?

Then the plot segues back to 1959 to the Garrett family’s first holiday since Robin and Mercy took over the plumbing supply shop. Mercy has to talk Robin into it, and the family take off for a week to Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. This holiday illustrates the family dynamics and divisions already firmly set in place: Mercy goes off on her own painting a lot, Robin buddies up with another dad, and 15-year-old Lily, who is sulking about leaving a boyfriend behind, quickly takes up with a much older boy. 17-year-old Alice, possibly the only ‘adult’ here, is the observer of her sister’s antics and notes that “the boys would flock to Lily.”

It seemed she gave off some kind of high-pitched signal that only male ears could detect. (Grown men as well as boys. Alice had noticed more than one friend’s father sending Lily that same sharp arrow of awareness.)

7-year-old David, an odd, introverted child, almost drowns. So much for the ‘family’ in family holiday.

Then the novel segues to the 70s with Lily and Alice married and David bringing home a girlfriend. As the years pass, Lily and Alice lead very different lives and see each other rarely. David “serves[s] as the family’s connector.” Years pass, and Mercy notes that “so many unexpected people seemed to edge unto a person’s life, once that person had children.” Lily’s second husband, as an outsider, talks about family subjects that the Garrett family have decided to ignore. To an outsider (and I mean not related by blood) some Garrett behaviour seems inexplicable.

“So, this is how it works,” she said. “This is what families do for each other–hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.”

“And little cruelties,” he said.

French Braid dissects family politics from the 50s through the beginnings of the pandemic and shows how relationships and patterns of behaviour are set in place. The great thing about these multi generational novels is that we follow established patterns of behaviour along their natural trajectories. No wonder families drift apart.

I thought French Braid was ok but didn’t love it, and this was due mostly to the only mildly interesting characters, and the rather sad cloud that hovers over the book. Mercy annoyed me and what she did with the cat was phenomenally wrong. That said, I enjoyed the dynamics between Mercy and Lily tremendously.

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The Prince: Dinitia Smith

It seems bold when an author retells a great classic and places it in a modern setting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What Happened to Anna K? by Irina Reyn works (even though I didn’t expect it to), but, for this reader, Dinitia Smith’s The Prince, a retelling of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, does not.

The Prince opens in Manhattan with the signing of a pre-nup and an awkward meeting between Federico, the Italian Prince, and his soon-to-be father-in-law, the very wealthy Henry Woodward. Penniless Federico, who has looks and a meaningless title to recommend him, is about to marry Henry’s only daughter, Emily. Arriving for the wedding from Italy, with a plane ticket courtesy of Emily, is Christina, a friend Emily met in boarding school. Christina, unbeknownst to Emily (and Henry) had a romantic/sexual relationship with Federico. They broke up suddenly when Christina began demanding more from Federico. He was busy loafing and playing in a band “earning a pittance from gigs here and there.” Federico is almost 30, and nearly a year into his relationship with Christina when she starts talking about marriage and a child. Federico “saw an eternity before him, committed to an absolute thing, a marriage. He was practically a child himself. He didn’t have the means to provide for a family, he had no idea what he was going to do in life.” Christina sees Federico hesitate and throws him out.

Federico bounces to Jean Gavron, Henry Woodward’s art advisor, to cry on her shoulder, and Jean points out that Federico probably “just don’t care enough” about Christina to grow up. It’s Jean who introduces Federico to Emily, and suddenly he’s accepting a job that’s smoothly arranged for him in Manhattan and getting married to the very wealthy Emily. Federico is attracted to many things about Emily, but of course these same things begin to grate after a while:

Emily’s lack of knowledge about worldly things, her indifference to them, astonished Federico. Perhaps it was a kind of efficiency of her part because she didn’t have to understand.

Emily and Federico have a child together. Federico quits his job which just emphasizes his kept-man status and ups his uselessness, and then Christina shows back on the scene and quickly huddles with Henry. Next thing you know, Christina is Federico’s new mother-in-law. Ouch!

The plot with its modern setting had a lot of potential. For this reader, Federico and Christina are a couple of good-looking gold diggers who latch on to the money. One intriguing thing is Federico’s resentment of his wife’s relationship with her father, and eventually Christina’s resentment of Emily. But we never get much of a chance to speculate about motivation here as the novel is all tell–thoughts and feelings are fed to us:

Emily didn’t trust anyone to babysit, Federico felt indispensable. He had an important and vital task as husband and father.

And:

Why could she at least not be pretty, not be an eager lover, or be a wife who wouldn’t sleep with her husband? That would justify it. Why couldn’t she be sarcastic or unkind? If she were somehow “bad,” it would make what he was doing all right. She was none of those things, and it deepened his agony.

There’s a listlessness to the superficial characters as they move through their roles towards the limp ending. For all this taboo claustrophobic passion, drama and tacky behaviour, a few flying saucepans (or tiaras) would have been nice. Marriage to titled European nobility was a thing back in the Gilded Age, but here the fact that Federico is a prince doesn’t have quite the same connotation, and thus it’s practically meaningless.

My opinion of the book seems to be in the minority.

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The Dog of the South: Charles Portis (1979)

It’s only February but I can already tell that The Dog of the South, from Charles Portis, is likely to be the most peculiar book I will read this year. It’s essentially a road-trip novel–the story of Ray Midge–a man who sets off in search of his runaway wife, Norma. Norma has run off with her first husband, Dupree, taking Ray’s credit card and his beloved Ford Torino into the bargain. The nerve! If that’s not bad enough, Dupree has jumped bail, so also on Norma and Dupree’s trail is bail bondman, Jack. By following the trail of his stolen credit card, Midge tracks the runaway couple to Mexico and finally to Belize.

Norma was married to Dupree for 11 months, and Midge can’t understand why Norma ran off with her EX–his clothes are dirty and he’s unbalanced. In spite of the fact that Dupree is frequently beaten up in bars for spitting BBs at people, he never shies away from a fight. His confrontational personality always gets him in trouble but that trouble goes to another level when he starts writing threatening letters to the President. “He even challenged him to a fistfight on Pennsylvania Avenue.” Here’s one threat sent to the President:

This time it’s curtains for you and your rat family. I know your movements and I have access to your pets too.

To Midge, it’s a mystery what Norma sees in Dupree, but then again, she was showing tell-tale signs of restlessness:

She announced one day that she wanted to give a party in our apartment with the theme of “Around the World in 80 Days.” I couldn’t believe my ears. A party! She talked about applying for a job as stewardess with Braniff Airlines. She bought a bicycle, an expensive multi-geared model, and joined a cycling club against my wishes. The idea was that she and her chums would pedal along leafy country lanes, shouting and singing like a bunch of Germans, but from all I could see they just had meetings in the damp basement of a church.

I could go on and on. She wanted to dye her hair. She wanted to change her name to Staci or Pam or April. She wanted to open a shop selling Indian jewelry. It wouldn’t have hurt me to discuss the shop idea with her–big profits are made every day in that silver and turquoise stuff–but I couldn’t be bothered. I had to get on with my reading!

Midge may not understand why Norma ran off with Dupree, but it’s obvious to the reader that she ran away from her boring life with Midge. This becomes clear when Midge (who is planning on becoming a high school teacher) reveals a few tidbits about his marriage to Norma:

I think now this coolness must have started with our algebra course. She had agreed to let me practice my teaching methods on her and so I had worked out a lecture plan in elementary algebra. I had a little blackboard, green actually, that I set up in the kitchen every Thursday at 7 pm, for my demonstrations. It was not the kind of thing you like to ask a person to do but Norma was a good sport about it and I thought that if I could teach her ninth-grade algebra I could teach just about anything to anybody. A good sport, I say, but that was only at the beginning of the course. Later on she began to fake her answers on her weekly tests. That is. she would look up the answers to the problems in the back of the textbook and copy them without showing me her step-by-step proofs. But wasn’t this part of teaching too? Wouldn’t I have to deal with widespread cheating in the raucous classrooms of our public schools? I handled it this way with Norma. I said nothing about her dishonesty and simply gave her a score of zero on each test.

Along the way in this road-trip novel, Midge picks up Dr Symes, whose motor home, named Dog of the South has broken down. Dr Symes, who no longer practices, is a con-man on the way to Belize to try and talk his ancient, pickled missionary mother out of a piece of land. Symes is a know-it-all who follows the edicts of various shady gurus, and Symes constantly spouts spurious words of advice. While this is a road trip novel, it’s also a picaresque novel, so Midge meets the most incredibly bizarre people while he is hot on the trail of his wife. Since Midge’s car was stolen by Dupree, he has to drive Dupree’s “junker,” a car littered with Heath candy bar wrappers and a big hole in the floor.

The drive to Laredo took all day. Gasoline was cheap–22.9 cents a gallon at some Shamrock stations–and the Texas police didn’t care how fast you drove, but I had to be about sixty because at that point the wind came up through the floor hole in such a way that the Heath wrappers were suspended behind my head in a noisy brown vortex.

Midge’s voice is fresh and unique. He constantly punctuates his sentences with exclamation marks which somehow conveys a naiveté and also a zest for life. He’s going to need all that zest for life when he finally arrives in Belize. As with any picaresque novel, the book becomes a little wearisome in spots, but nonetheless, this is a lively, funny read, and I enjoyed it.

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Subdivision: J. Robert Lennon

A reading acquaintance recommended J. Robert Lennon a few years ago. First I read Castle, a surreal, tense tale of a man who returns to rural New York and buys a dilapidated house on a large amount of property. Then Familiar, which remains my favourite parallel universe novel. Next: Happyland, a complete change of pace, is the story of a unpleasant millionairess, a manufacturer of dolls, who takes over (with her money) a small town. Then came a short story collection: See You in Paradise. That brings me to Subdivision, which content wise is the most similar to Castle.

The story opens with an unnamed narrator, a woman arriving at a guest house in what is known as the Subdivision. Her hosts are two older women, the narrator knows that one is called Clara and the other, the Judge. Here things begin to become tangled. Both of the women are named Clara and both of them are retired judges. There’s a vast unfinished puzzle in the middle of one of the rooms: for some reason, both of the hosts are fixated on this puzzle and although some pieces of the puzzle are completed, the narrator doesn’t see anyone working on it, and for some reason, her hosts think she is completing the puzzle. She has her choice of rooms, “Virtue, Mercy, Justice, Duty and Glory.” Ok, perhaps just a quirk on the part of the hosts’ law background, or perhaps the names have some deeper meaning.

We don’t know why the narrator is there, how she arrived, where she came from, but there are flashes of past trauma. She intends to find a job and a permanent place to stay, so her hosts draw her a map, and the next day she sets off. At a local shop, she buys a Cylvia device, a “digital assistant” whose capabilities appear to be Alexa-like. The town’s streets are not marked with names and the first place she visits to rent is “the Tess” owned by a small woman named Justine. The Tess is a bizarre construction of tiny rooms–so small that the narrator must get down on her hands and knees to crawl through.:

I didn’t see Justine when I passed through the doorway; it simply opened onto another hallway, somehow even narrower than before, that was punctuated by several more narrow doors. One of them, however, was split. like a Dutch door, and the top hung half open. I shuffled over to it and peered inside. Here, the space had been divided vertically, creating two tiny cubicle rooms. Justine sat cross-legged on the top floor. Its floor was parquet; a miniature chandelier hung from the ceiling.

The next place is owned by Jules, a handsome man who is leaving the area and seeks a tenant for his home. His garden is spectacular, with an apple tree, a swing, a fire pit and a croquet court. The house has three large windows which offer views of the east, the west and the north. Through one window is a glorious view: another blighted and dead.

As we came around the side of the house, I turned for one last glance at the lovely back yard . . . my gaze, however, fell upon the western window of the living room, and then out to the yard again through the eastern window.

What I saw puzzled me. The living room appeared normal . . . but as seen through both windows, the back yard looked different. The apple tree was dead—blackened, in fact, as though it had been partially consumed by fire. The fire pit and bench swing had been destroyed; their pieces scattered about on stony, weedy ground. And from the hills in the distance, smoke rose.

In both views: the green, paradisaical and the blighted and dead, there is one constant: a crow. The narrator feels a strong sexual attraction to Jules, and she begins to have sexual fantasies. Jules draws her closer and he smells smoky, but then other odours emerge: I smelled smoke, wood smoke, tinged with other things, gasoline, melted plastic, seared hair and meat.

The house, explains the owner, was built in a “probability well,” and the “windows aren’t event tempered against narrative repolarization.” According to Jules, “they show the past, the future or some alternate version of the present.”

During all this, Cylvia is vibrating in the narrator’s bag, and the crow caws. Cylvia becomes a character in a sense as the plot unfolds, issuing warnings and alerts. Throughout the labyrinth story, it becomes clear that the narrator is on a journey of self-discovery, but why is the big question. Dreams often make no sense; we have bizarre encounters and we never stop to question the logic of our dream narrative. The same is true here; the narrator accepts all the bizarre characters in this bizarre landscape. I tend to prefer concrete characters (with names) but here Lennon cleverly weaves an unusual tale full of imagery. Could have done without the biblical imagery, but that’s just me. Is the narrator seeing an alternate reality or the past and an apocalyptic future?

I guessed what was going on here, so the ‘journey,’ for me became somewhat heavy. If you like fantasy or surreal fiction, then there’s a good chance you will like this. Lennon is one of the most remarkable American writers producing books these days (IMO). Always original, and I never know what to expect. This is the least favourite of his books so far, but I’d read this writer’s shopping list.

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.

Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.

The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.

Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.

Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.

The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.

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