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Vacuum in the Dark: Jen Beagin

“I’m definitely fucked up enough to be a therapist.”

Vacuum in the Dark from Jen Beagin is the follow-up novel to Pretend I’m Dead, but it can be read as a standalone. Pretend I’m Dead was the author’s debut novel; it introduces 24-year-old Mona, who cleans houses for a living. In this novel, Mona falls in love with a man she calls Mr Disgusting, and moves to Taos, New Mexico. When Vacuum in the Dark opens, Mona is cleaning the home of Rose, a blind therapist when she discovers a piece of poo, masquerading as soap, sitting on the side of a sink.

Vacuum in the dark

Mona’s cleaning lady observations were brilliant and brilliantly funny. Cleaners get to see a side of their employers that is invisible to others, and the author capitalises on Mona’s employment, making observations, while Mona engages in “clandestine photography.” 

People were like vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened.

Even before Mona starts finding poo strategically placed in Rose’s home, it’s already evident that Mona’s life is strange. She’s surrounded by Strange. Perhaps this explains why she has conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross in her head. “Terry was simply a sober and inquistive voice,” who argues for rational behavior in Mona’s otherwise looney-environment. The weirdness in Mona’s life also extends to her home. She rents half a house while the other half is rented by an older married couple who “made music with homemade instruments and dressed in matching pajamas.”

Then there’s Rose and her household. Rose owns a dog named Dinner, has a hostile teenage daughter, and a husband who makes coffins. The Big Question lurking under Mona’s daily routine is: who is responsible for the poo?

Here’s Mona talking to Rose after describing a photograph she has just found:

“What do you see when you think of the color red?” Mona asked.

“Oh, I remember red,” Rose said. “I wasn’t born blind.”

“Oh,” Mona said. “Were you  … in a accident?”

“Sort of,” she said, and smiled weakly. “I was having an affair with the man you just described.”

Mona silently took a step back. She heard Dinner drink from his bowl in the kitchen.

“Do you mean your father molested you?” Mona asked.

“I thought of it as an affair,” Rose said, “which sounds ridiculous and insane, but I was convinced that we were in love. I was thirteen.”

“Mayday,” Terry whispered. “Bail out.”

“Not now, ” Mona whispered back.

“We never had intercourse,” Rose volunteered. “It was more emotional than anything. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t sexual too.” 

Mona cleared her throat. “And you went blind?” 

“Well, that was partly genetic,” Rose said.

Mona looked toward the front door, Closed, but not locked. She imagined herself tiptoeing out of the room and then making a run for it. 

Opening a novel with a description of grabbing fecal matter is a bold way to begin, and it’s also an off-putting start. I almost gave up right then and there but very quickly found myself engaged by Mona’s engaging narrative voice. Some authors have a talent for creating genuine voices, voices that appeal and compel us to read on, and in this novel, Beagin gives us a marvellous, original voice. Some things really worked in this subversive novel, while others did not. Sex scenes in novels don’t add a lot for this reader, and some of the lines grated: “I want to hump your armpits,” she said. “And maybe your hair.” But that said, I’m glad I stuck with this.

Vacuum in the Dark may appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh

Review copy

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The Children: Edith Wharton (1928)

“Something clear and impenetrable as a pane of crystal seemed to cut him off from her, and from all that surrounded her. He had been to the country from which travellers return with another soul.”

I discovered Wharton many summers ago. I read several of her marvellous great novels and was annoyed that I hadn’t read her sooner. Since then, I’ve read her lesser novels from time and time, and then recently I stumbled upon a copy of The Children, tucked away in a corner of a shelf. There’s a problem when you’ve read ‘the best’ (or at least the acknowledged best) of an author; you expect everything else to be a disappointment.

The children

In The Children, 46-year-old American engineer Martin Boyne is sailing to Europe to join widow Rose Sellars, the woman he loves, who is in the Dolomites. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage, but now, following the death of her husband 7 months earlier, Rose is free. Martin has every intention of having a wonderful holiday, mostly spent with Rose, proposing and then finally settling down

In his homeless years that sense of her stability had appealed to him peculiarly: the way each time he returned, she had simply added a little more to herself, like a rose unfurling another petal.

Now their moment has come. Or has it?

In the port of Algiers, other passengers embark, and leaning over the deck, Martin spies a young woman who herds several young children. Looking at her face, he literally “gasps” and murmurs to himself  “Jove– if a fellow was younger.” He begins to count the children and decides that this girl “must have been married out of the nursery.” Over the course of the trip, he learns that this young girl, Judith Wheater, is the oldest child of old acquaintances: Cliffe Wheater, one of “the showiest New York millionaires,” and the former Joyce Mervin.  At one point, Martin was one of the young men who circled Joyce but she married Cliffe and his money instead. Martin is intrigued by 15-year old Judith–especially when he learns that Cliffe and Joyce married and divorced, married other (unsuitable) people and then subsequently patched things up and married each other again. Judith heads a troupe of 7 children which includes her brother Terry, who has frail health, several ‘steps’ and Chipstone, the latest child from the Wheater’s (re)union.

Cliffe and Joyce Wheater’s former spouses include a shifty Italian prince and an actress; two of the children are Italian and aren’t the Wheaters’ children at all. As the Wheater parents, part of the glittering social set, traverse Europe, the 7 children are moved from one location to another, rather like luggage, with a-too-malleable governess and various servants in tow.

During the sea voyage, Martin and Judith strike up a relationship, and when the situation between Cliffe and Joyce Wheater turns south (again), Judith turns to Martin for help. The children are about to be separated and sent off to various households, and Judith begs Martin to help her keep the children together. Martin has been enjoying a wonderful, peaceful reunion with Rose, but in the company of Judith and her siblings, Martin’s opinion and relationship with Rose shifts. …

But already, too, he was beginning to wonder how he was to fit Rose Sellars into the picture of his success. It was curious: when they were apart it was always her courage and her ardour that he felt: as soon as they came together again she seemed hemmed in by little restrictions and inhibitions.

Martin is a classic Wharton character whose actions sometimes undermine his security, his respectability, and certainly his future. Also as with Wharton characters, Martin doesn’t examine his (uncomfortable) murky motives too closely. Is Martin, who’s loved Rose from a distance, now looking for excuses to slip the yoke of domesticity? It’s one thing to love someone who is unavailable and quite another when the woman who is worshiped, the ‘perfect’ unattainable woman, is suddenly up for grabs. Marrying Rose means moving to New York and joining the society he despises. Plus now Rose is courting an elderly aunt who has promised her niece a legacy, and this is a relationship that repels Martin.

he had schooled himself to think that hat he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within himself he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more

Then what of Rose? When we first see her through Martin’s eyes, she’s elegant, patient, calm, understanding, mature, but as Martin becomes more involved with the children, Rose’s disapproval alters how Martin (and we) see Rose. Her perfection slips.

All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains.

And then there’s Judith. … 15- years-old, an ill-educated girl who, due to the tawdry aspects of her parents’ lives, seems mature beyond her years, and yet her spelling reveals both her immaturity and the sad lack of a proper education. Is Judith as naive and innocent as she appears? Martin, a middle-aged bachelor who has avoided commitment his entire life, suddenly assumes the responsibility of 7 children. This is extreme behaviour, and it’s completely impractical. Does he agree to help because of his infatuation with Judith or is he deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Rose? Is Martin attached to the children partly because this is the family he never had? Is it a coincidence that Judith happens to be the daughter of a woman he once courted? Is he, in essence, trying to step back into the past? That’s for the reader to decide.

One of the memorable scenes in this memorable novel takes place when Rose’s lawyer, the much older Dobree, travels to Cortina to see her on the excuse of business. Dobree, Rose, Martin and the children go on a picnic, and there’s Martin staring at Judith’s sleeping face when he spies Dobree, also watching the girl. It’s classic Freudian projection:

As Boyne continued to observe him, Mr Dobree’s habitual pinkness turned to a red which suffused his temples and eyelids, so that his carefully brushed white hair looked like a sunlit cloud against an angry sky. But with whom was Mr. Dobree angry? Why, with himself, manifestly. His eyes still rested on the dreaming Judith; but the rest of his face looked as if every muscle were tightened in the effort to pull the eyes away. “He’s frightened–he’s frightened at himself,” Boyne thought, calling to mind –with a faint recoil from the reminder–that he also, once or twice, had been vaguely afraid of himself when he had looked too long at Judith.

On the (minor) down side of this novel, the children are annoying–especially the ‘steps’ who all sort of merge into each other. While the Italian children are described unpleasantly at times, I saw this as a reflection of the children’s unfortunate upbringing and lack of structure which became increasingly fragmented with each marriage and divorce. So Judith and Teddy, for example, had the benefit of at least some early structure while the younger children did not. One of the subtle questions asked by this novel is: should the children stay together? Obviously Judith runs the governess, not the other way around. The younger children are wild. Would they be better separated?

Wharton’s focus on the psychological aspects of Martin and Rose’s actions make this novel well worth reading. Martin is attracted to Judith but he can’t admit it to himself. At one point, he plies her with alcohol and cigarettes and then there’s a walk in the moonlight. Martin, who doesn’t examine his feelings for Judith, can’t say no to her, and that places his relationship with Rose is jeopardy. One of the themes of Wharton’s work is the individual in society, and here we see Martin, who has spent his entire career working across the globe. At several points in the novel, Martin is depicted as an outsider watching various social situations, questioning and longing for the choices he passed by. Marriage to Rose means settling down in New York, and as the prospect moves closer, it becomes unappealing.

Finally: the dream sequence towards the end of the book along with the book’s final scene … both are exquisite.

There’s another, excellent, review at:

Tredynas Days

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Looker: Laura Sims

In Looker, the debut novel from Laura Sims, our unnamed narrator fixates on a successful actress who lives with her husband and children in her brownstone neighbourhood. At first, I thought I was going to read a story about some crazy stalker who goes off the rails, but this is a very interior novel narrated by a bitterly unhappy (I could just as well say ‘bitter’) teacher whose husband Nathan,  has walked out.

looker

Everything in this woman’s trainwreck of a life is a toxic disaster: from her relationship to her neighbors, her envy that other women have children, to her painful vicious ruminations about her childlessness and IVF treatments. Her venom even extends to the cat, who becomes a chess piece in the divorce war. Nathan dumped his cat with the narrator, and even though she dislikes the cat, she’s not about to give Nathan the satisfaction of letting him have his cat back.

I return home, exhausted and emptied out. Fitting my key in the lock, a wave of absolute terror washes over me: this is where my phone and computer live. This is how all the poisonous others reach me, infect me, ruin my days. 

I’m not a therapist, so I’m not going to try and place terms on what is wrong with this woman, but she’s a mess. We can sympathize with people when they are unhappy, but when they are unhappy and want that unhappiness to spread to YOU, sympathy trickles and runs out the door….

With a first person narrator, we are placed in that person’s head. In the case of Looker, the narrator’s head feels as if it’s about to explode with hatred and rage and so the read is wearing and depressing.  This is marketed as a thriller and even a crime novel, and that’s unfortunate because the book draws a crowd that is bound to be disappointed. This is a psychological novel, and in its construction of a woman who needs HELP ASAP, I think it succeeds, however, that said, this isn’t an easy book to read as being inside this woman’s head is torturous. At one point, she says “here I am, back in my lonesome, loathsome reality.” And I couldn’t agree more. Finally for cat lovers, I’ll add a warning.

Review copy

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Binstead’s Safari: Rachel Ingalls

Oh, Stan. All the lousy things to say I’ve saved up for so many years, and now it’s too late.”

Middle-aged academic Stan Binstead travels to Africa with hopes of encountering and researching a mysterious lion cult which may or may not exist. His wife, Millie, insists on joining him–even though he does his best to dissuade her. Chronically unfaithful Stan feels that his wife is “dreary” and boring. He finds her company tedious:

I was foolish. I should have just left. I should have said: Take a vacation wherever you want to, as long as it’s a long way away from me.

In Stan’s view, his marriage is dead and he’s gathering the energy to ask for a divorce. Millie, who’s hoping for a second honeymoon,  is very much the subordinate ‘partner’ in this relationship, and Stan continually scripts her into various roles–all of them unflattering.

binsteads safari

The balance of power in the Binstead’s marriage begins to shift at their first stop, London. Stan, who goes off to meet a friend, dumps Millie, and she, finally realising that the trip isn’t going to mend her marriage, attends ballets, visits museums and thinks that London is “a wonderful town if you’re alone.” She begins to accept that being alone is better than always trying to please a man who makes it clear she’s a burden. Meanwhile Stan, still living with the script that Millie is waiting for crumbs of attention and affection, travels to Africa, little realising that his wife has begun to move away from their toxic relationship and is transforming into the person she would have been if she hadn’t met him.

What would you do without me? she thought. She’d never say it. Once at a party back home, they had heard their friend Sally Murchison ask her husband, Jerry, what he’d do without her and he had answered “Rejoice.”

Stan employs safari guides to take him to villages in search of the lion cult, but before they head out, Millie and Stan are swept up into local white society.  Adultery, murder and scandal seem to fester and then flourish in the wilds of Africa. Tourists murder other tourists, straying tourists are eaten, one woman goes stark raving bonkers, and some wealthy tourists bed-hop in an alarming fashion. As one seasoned guide notes: “It’s extraordinary the way people behave in a country that isn’t their own.” Meanwhile Millie, very much in her element in Africa, blossoms on the safari, and rather shockingly  (to both Stan and Millie) he no longer has the ability to make her feel inadequate:

A kind of dizziness moved across his senses, left and came again, sliding away and washing back over him. She shouldn’t be this way. She never was before. It had started in London. 

As the trip continues, stuffy Stan mulls over his past and his mistakes. As the Binsteads move deeper into lion country, Stan feels an increasing sense of impending doom. For once he’s not in control; for once he’s not admired or given special status due to his academic standing. Stan is largely clueless about the country, definitely clueless about what is going on with his wife, and certainly outflanked by the legendary hunter Simba Lewis.

Stan woke up thirsty when the sun was already fairly high and the day was growing hot. He looked at the others, at Millie in particular. It was increasingly odd to him–astonishing–that she, who always made a mess of everything, worried, and then made the worrying come true, had not put a foot wrong from the moment she’d found herself in foreign surroundings. Once she was away from home, she said the right words, did the right things, and was accepted by everyone. More than that-they all liked her, very much and straight away. Whereas he–they tolerated him. 

Binstead’s Safari is not predictable. The safari becomes a redemptive trek with the main characters embracing their fates as, once in the wilds of Africa, their well-honed domestic roles fall away, and both Stan and Millie become part of something mystical. As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for–or in this case be careful of what you are looking for:

Binstead’s Safari is going to be republished by New Directions next month, so it seemed the perfect time to review my old copy. I have also read Mrs Caliban but preferred Binstead’s Safari.

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Happy All the Time: Laurie Colwin

Back in the 80s and early 90s, I read, and enjoyed a lot of stories written by Laurie Colwin, so when I picked up one of her novels Happy All the Time, I expected to really enjoy it.

This is the story of two male cousins, third cousins, but we’ll go with cousins,  Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy. They are very different, and yet good friends, and when the novel opens they are both in Cambridge. Vincent initially hoped to win a Nobel prize for physics while Guido intended to “write poetry in heroic couplets.” But practicality intervenes and Guido has a law degree, but disliked the work and returns as a graduate student of literature before taking over the “Morris family trust–the Magna Charta Foundation.” Vincent’s ambitions are also tempered; he’s fascinated by “sanitation engineering” but here they are wasting time as “they lolled around Cambridge and wondered whom they should marry.”

happy all the time

Both men have very different relationships with women. Vincent always tends to go for the same type: “vague blond girls who either were on the verge of engagement or had just left their husbands or were recovering from some grand passion or were just about to leave on an extended tour of Europe, or were in fact European and just about to return to their native land.” Guido has a much more difficult time negotiating male-female relationships.

Guido, the poet, obviously has a much more romanticized approach to relationships and he meets Holly in a museum and begins to pursue her. He takes everything seriously while Holly isn’t particularly expressive. Eventually they marry. Vincent, after a serious of lacklustre relationships later meets and marries prickly Misty.

The novel follows these relationships, and as the years pass, both men conclude that their women remain mysterious, unfathomable. Perhaps thirty years ago, Happy All the Time would have appealed more, but I never engaged with the lives of these affluent couples: yes this is a novel about marriage and the complications of male-female relationships, but these four float in a different society: a grating ozone of privilege. I’ve read plenty of novels about the well-to-do, but here I never engaged with the characters, and they never seemed to have much depth and seemed constructed as ‘types’ rather than flesh and blood people–particularly the males Guido and Vincent who are clueless, bland and uninteresting twits. Conclusion: I prefer Colwin’s short stories which are much darker.

Review copy

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Early Work: Andrew Martin

“Most of my friends were superficial and unpleasant.”

I’m a sucker for certain literary themes: and the flailing writer/academic is a great favourite, so Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, drew me in.  Protagonist Peter Cunningham is supposedly working on a novel, but … it’s not working out well.

Early work

The novel opens with Peter attending a party at the home of a “New Age-leaning woman named Anna whose family, through what specific brand of plunder I don’t know, owned a gigantic house out in horse country.”

Anna was magnificently curly-haired and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets. She’s grown up in the area and had recently moved back for somewhat mysterious reasons, possibly involving a now ex-boyfriend’s arrest for dealing prescription drugs. She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely suppressed rage.

Anna’s “family compound” has the look of a “nouveau hunting lodge,” and Peter, who arrives solo as his long-term girlfriend, medical student Julia, is working, gets a good look at one of the guests through a kitchen window. The woman, Peter soon learns, is Leslie, and once they meet, an immediate banter flows:

Leslie grinned at me, the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call, it. Love.

Leslie is also a writer, and so the connections between Peter and Leslie are solidified. Peter disregards his current relationship and finds himself competing for Leslie’s attention over the dinner table. Quite soon, it’s clear that Peter’s relationship with Julia is problematic. He doesn’t care if she’s “thinking about someone else,” during sex, and while Peter considers that he’s “intellectually compatible” with Julia, he admits that “neither of us quite expected not to” have sex with “anyone else for the rest of our lives.” 

Dig a little deeper and there are failed ambitions on all sides here. Julia writes poetry, but has plunged into a medical career. Peter met Julia in college, but then he later moved onto Yale and discovered that the PhD program was, for him, a horrible mistake. Deciding “novelists don’t need PhDs. They don’t need shit,”  he dropped out and moved to Virginia to join Julia who was attending med school. The plan was that Peter would write the Great Novel, so as a couple, they’ve become each other’s complex excuses: his drop-out school war chest money supported Julia, and he will have the literary career Julia has turned away from. But as we all know, it’s just not that easy to write a novel let alone sell it:

the book was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of fire and ice that were they imagining.

So this is why we find Peter teaching at a women’s correctional facility and chafing at his relationship with Julia.

I enjoyed parts of this novel and its take on career failures and failures in love. Peter’s voice was sharp and witty but occasionally grating. The main problem was that I really disliked the foul-mouthed Leslie and failed to see her charm. She’s a walking disaster (one of Woody Allen’s Kamikaze Women), but then when was love ever logical? Beyond that, the ending was wobbly, and it was difficult to connect with the characters who are a fairly privileged, vacuous spoiled lot.

review copy

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The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy lingered on the shelf for some time, but the enthusiasm of the Gerts drove the book closer to the top of the pile. Good thing too, as this book is just the sort of read I crave. Why: the viewpoint of an unreliable protagonist, a summer holiday, and the nebulous morality of a handful of characters.

The story is told through the mind of main character Matthew, a British chef who moved to America and is between jobs after selling a restaurant. He’s a part, an outer part, of his wealthy cousin Charlie’s life. Charlie, an investment banker who was ‘let go’ is also between jobs, but whereas Charlie has a considerable family fortune to bolster his lifestyle, Matthew does not. The third main character here is Charlie’s second wife Chloe, and when Charlie invites Matthew to his second home near the town of Aurelia in New York State for the duration of the summer, Matthew jumps at the chance.

What should be an idyllic summer is actually a season of tension, unease and strange undercurrents which shift beneath the three main characters. Charlie spends most of the time alternating between his next career move and meditating, Chloe is supposedly attending yoga classes, and Matthew is a sort of go-fer, using Charlie’s card to buy high-end food items with which he prepares nightly meals. While the three people share an address, they don’t share space apart from meal times.

The summer thickened around them. Soon it reached that point of miraculous equilibrium where it felt at once as if it had been going on forever and as if it would never end. The heat merged with the constant sounds of insects and red-winged blackbirds, to form its own throbbing, hypnotic medium. It made you feel as if you were inside some green-lit womb, full of soft pulsations. 

The relationship between the three characters, on the surface, seems comfortable. Matthew admits (to himself) a “general feeling of enchantment” in Chloe’s company. Everyone says the right things, and yet… the relationship between Charlie and Matthew, under scrutiny, seems strained. Can this be explained by the gap in their social status? There’s something unhealthy and unspoken here: a toleration instead of a family bond. A gap in fortunes and social status can (and often does) create awkward moments. That’s definitely true here, and there’s the feeling that Matthew ‘pays’ for his board by running errands and cooking meals. Plus there’s an undercurrent of an alternate agenda from Matthew. He wants to “jumpstart his career,” and there’s a falseness, an element of hanger-on to this relationship.

Matthew, who is bewitched by Chloe, admits that “the woman who was so obviously the right woman for Charlie, was, so to speak, the right woman” for him. He’s content to admire her, and bask in her company, but the situation shifts when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, and it’s this discovery which shifts the unease into overdrive.

Meanwhile the sight of Charlie working or meditating, or driving off in his tennis gear, formed an image of increasingly irritating innocence. Even his pleasantly mindless activities were losing their charm, their soothing rhythms broken by gusts of crackling interference from a situation that had nothing to do with the problems he was trying to sort out. 

James Lasdun creates an odd love-quadrangle here with Matthew as the bit player and yet one who places himself in the power position in the affair. Matthew could tell his cousin Charlie, but should he? After all, if he tells Charlie, Charlie will be devastated and there goes Matthew’s relationship with Chloe (not to mention the cessation of his summer holiday). At first Matthew’s discovery is a moral dilemma but as the novel continues, Matthew’s role becomes much darker.

The Gerts describe the plot as Hitchcockian, and I agree. The Fall Guy plumbs the depths of dark human emotions while teasing the reader with the possibilities of the true, twisted nature of the relationships which exist between these characters.

Highly recommended. Mixed opinions on Goodreads, but I loved it.

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The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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Strangers When We Meet: Evan Hunter (1958)

“You didn’t invent infidelity.”

The film version of Strangers When We Meet is one of my favourites. This 1960 film stars Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas as married (to other people) neighbours who meet and have an affair. The film is splendid, IMO, with terrific performances from the two main stars; it captures the nuances, excitement and agonies of an extramarital affair.

Now to the novel from Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain …

Strangers when we meet

Architect Larry Cole, married to Eve, and the father of two little boys, lives in a modern suburban estate that he loathes. Early in Larry’s career, he won an architectural prize, but now, years later, the reality is that he designs ugly buildings and homes he dislikes but that fit the market tastes/demands. He has a loving, beautiful wife, but somehow … discontent creeps in, and then he meets Maggie, a gorgeous slightly younger married woman who lives in the same neighbourhood. Maggie is married to Don and has one son.

Is Larry’s discontent stoked by his meeting with Roger Altar, a successful writer and bachelor who employs Larry to build a home? Altar and Larry are the same age and Altar, a consummate bachelor, always has a fresh woman at his side, promptly discarded like a pair of old socks. There’s a synergy between the men, and there’s a subtle air of comparison of  their lives.

When Larry meets Maggie, there’s an instant attraction, and Maggie, who’s no novice to infidelity, recognises the signs. Soon Larry and Maggie begin an affair which begins at a cheap run-down motel.

Larry is the novel’s focus here. In the midst of this passionate affair which begins to define his life and his career, he finds himself confiding in the writer Altar, whose cynical view of women and sexual relationships doesn’t help Larry much.

“I’ve got a closetful of manufacturer’s labels. Architect, Husband, Father, Son, Striver, Brooder, man! I sew the labels into my own clothes. but the suits never fit me. Underneath all the crap, there’s me! And I’m never really me, never the Larry Cole I want to be until I’m with –” he cut himself off, suddenly wary.

“Sure,” Altar said, “and then you fly, don’t you? Then you’re bigger and stronger and handsomer and wittier, aren’t you? Then you can ride your white charger against the black knight! Then you can storm the enemy bastions!”

Another confidante is Felix, a casual acquaintance who welcomes Larry to an “international fraternity” and who, guessing Larry’s secret advises caution. According to Felix, if your wife suspects “then you haven’t got a wife any more, you’ve got the New York branch of the FBI.” Once Felix realises how Larry feels about Maggie, he recommends dropping the affair as it’s too consuming.

Larry realises that Felix, butcher by trade, is a completely different person as a philandering husband. Felix is a “cynical boudoir philosopher” who becomes the type of man he’d like to be–not a butcher, but a suave seducer of women. And yet… even while Larry grasps this about Felix, he doesn’t grasp that Maggie also fills a need. Is Larry’s married life constricting? Or is Larry just stymied in his career? Does anyone ever end up with the sort of life they wanted or planned? Felix, who has a very low opinion of women, doesn’t believe in Great Love, but he believes that all married people have affairs.

“It’s a big soapy dishpan of boredom. That’s the truth. And no husband can understand that soapy dishpan. And a woman can’t explain it to another woman because they’ve all got their hands in that same soapy boredom. So all a man has to be is understanding.

Yes baby, I know, I know, you’ve got a miserable life, here’re some flowers. Here’s some perfume, here’s ‘I love you,’ take off your pants.’ Bang!”

This novel was published in 1958, and it oozes the shifting views towards sexuality. Straight to the punch: in parts, the novel has not aged well. This is clearly a novel which reflects its times in the very typical male attitudes of the towards women and sex. And that’s not a good thing. In fact, at times, I found myself wincing.

There are scenes when Maggie is telling Larry, “no, no,” for example, and Larry hears “yes, yes.” (Actually I’m not sure that we’re supposed to hear mixed messages.) There’s another scene which depicts Maggie’s sexual frustration when she greets her husband at the door, sans undies, but her ‘dirty talk’ (mild) turns him off. Finally Maggie tells Larry about her relationship with a young man named Buck. Maggie’s version of events is ludicrous so I’m glad that Larry called her on it.

Still…. in spite of its dated view of life, women and sex, the novel has a lot going for it, and I’m glad I read it. The timeless lure of the affair is very well portrayed. Larry is discontented with life, wasting his talent on projects he doesn’t care about. He’s looking at middle age, and yes … he’s bored. Maggie appears to fill the gaps. Suddenly his life is exciting and unpredictable, but the affair doesn’t solve anything and ultimately creates turmoil. Many scenes between Larry and Eve are pitch-perfect–the way in which Larry picks a fight with Eve for no reason, for example:

He felt anger full upon him now, and he thought, We’re going to have a fight, but he was helpless to stop the anger or the argument which he was certain would erupt around them, He didn’t even know why he was angry, and his inability to pinpoint the cause of his irritation made him angrier still. 

One last point: Larry “found it impossible to conceive of anyone ever having an affair before the telephone was invented,” What would he make of cell phones? Have they made infidelity easier or more difficult?

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We Begin Our Ascent: Joe Mungo Reed

In these internet times, blurbs are often the entry point for book reading, and that is true in the case of We Begin Our Ascent, a debut fiction novel from Joe Mungo Reed. The description proffered a look into the life of professional cyclist, Sol and his research biologist wife, Liz as they navigate various moral choices. There’s nothing wrong with that description, however, I’ll add for potential readers that the novel follows Sol during the Tour de France, so scenes of Sol and Liz’s married life are mostly seen through memories.

We begin our ascent

If I’d known that the book described Sol’s grueling, punishing days spent on the Tour de France, I might have passed over the novel, and that would have been my loss. The book could be categorized as a sport novel, but that categorization is limiting. Essentially this is a novel about how far we are prepared to go to achieve our goals, and just how much we are willing to sacrifice.

We join Sol on day 12 of the Tour de France. Sol is a “domestique,” It’s his job to support team leader, Fabrice:

We are competing only to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this tour in as little time as possible. This cumulative time, the criteria on which the winner of the tour is judged, is all that matters to us. Our own results are not important. We shade him from the wind, pace him, will give him our own bike if he punctures. These measures have just small effects upon his time, yet this is a sport of fine margins–decided by difference of seconds after days and days of riding–and so small advantages, wrung from our fanatical assistance of our strongest rider, offer our team the best chance of victory. We only think of the ever-rising time it takes Fabrice to make his way through this race, how that time compares to his rivals’, how we may act to lessen it. 

Some days the route is mountainous, and other days the land is flat. Before and after each day’s race, as Sol makes his preparations, he thinks of Liz, a specialist in Zebra fish, and how they met. So we see two people with extremely different career goals pursue an elusive end-point. While Liz’s colleagues “marveled at her fluency” in her specialist field, “in her actual accomplishment of the position she had built so long toward, she was truly faced for the first time with the scant effect of the work she had chosen, the world’s apparent indifference to all her expertise.” In contrast to Liz, to those outside of the cycling world, Sol appears to have some sort of stardom, but Sol realises, like most athletes, that he has a short shelf life, and he will never be a household name.

“It must be nice to be able to succeed to clearly,” she said. “To have such definite parameters. Clear successes. No one is cheering me in my lab.”

I knew next to nothing about the Tour de France before reading this book, and since I’m not that interested in sport, it’s to the author’s credit that I enjoyed this novel. But then again, the plot rises above sport, racing, training and instead hits obsession and moral dilemmas when Sol reveals various strategies involving drugs. We spend days with Sol as part of the peloton, his grueling routine, his life of preparation, deprivation and superstition:

I had assumed, when I became a professional, that things would be more intense, somehow, more vivid, and real. The reality, though was that my life had become smaller. I prohibited myself from many things, set myself a limited pattern of thinking. It is perhaps obvious in hindsight, but obsession does not give you more, but less. 

I loved the vivid scenes when Sol recalls how he tried to explain his career to skeptical his in-laws who don’t get that the Tour de France isn’t about Sol winning, and Sol’s dialogues with former cycling champion, now coach Rafael were simply brilliant. One night, Sol is called to a meeting with his coach in the hotel basement:

“What do women like about men?” he said. “What does your wife like about you?”

“Conversation?” I said.

He shook his head.
“Commitment? Empathy?” He kept shaking.”Jokes? Cooking?

“Okay, okay, okay,” he said. “Perhaps all of those things a little bit, but what they like a lot is height. Of all the James Bonds only Daniel Craig has been under six foot. And what is Daniel Craig?”

He mimed flicking something off the table. “A little goblin.”

“I like Casino Royale,” I said.

“Of all the Bonds, only Roger Moore has the true British style.” Rafael wrinkled his nose. There was rattling from the laundry chute and a ball of towels shot out. “Women like height. So in the chase for this, how you say, ‘hypothetical girl in our village,’ height is important.”

“Okay,” I said, “I can see that.”

“And it is man’s nature to maximize every advantage.”

The novel’s conclusion seems a little moralistic, and prior to that, the plot was much more sophisticated and deserved, IMO, a slightly different ending.  Still, in spite of that, I was glued to every entertaining, thoughtful page.

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Reed Mungo Joe