Tag Archives: american fiction

Nothing to See Here: Kevin Wilson

“I felt like the only sane person, and I was in my underwear, holding a ruined muumuu that I’d stolen from a sleeping old lady.”

Kevin Wilson’s quirky, entertaining novel Nothing to See Here is the story of two very different women who collided as teens and now reconnect in adulthood under bizarre circumstances. I have not read The Family Fang, but after watching the film version, Nothing to See Here caught my eye. Through a small set of quirky characters, this engaging, funny novel explores the themes of the families we are stuck with and the families we choose for ourselves.

Twenty-eight year-old Lillian, whose life is a train wreck, gets a letter from Madison Billings. They’ve kept in touch over the years in a desultory way after they met at a “fancy” girls’ school. Lillian was a scholarship pupil who roomed with Madison Billings, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy man who owns a chain of department stores. Lillian is the daughter of a single mother, a woman with a lot of miles:

I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned.

That quote is a good example of the strong narrator voice of this novel, a voice strong enough and tart enough to carry the plot in spite of its flaws. The plot centres on two emotionally damaged children who spontaneously combust. Yes that’s right. You read it correctly. Spontaneous combustion. The plot description put me off to be honest but a sample convinced me that I liked the narrator voice.

But back to Madison and Lillian, two girls who met beyond the social divide. It was an improbable friendship that shouldn’t have happened. As a child, Lillian realised that education was the ticket out of the confining, poverty-stricken life she had with her mother:

I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.

So Lillian makes it to the fancy boarding school and her mother, who tells Lilian that she doesn’t belong with this crowd, goes along with it, but then she goes along with whatever life throws her way. Madison takes Lillian under her wing, but when Madison is caught with drugs, her father pays Lillian’s mother a bribe; Lillian takes the fall, and from that point on, Lillian’s life is all downhill. But since she loves and admires Madison, Lillian never blames her friend. Fast forward 15 years: Lillian is “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, and smoking weed in the attic,” while Madison is married to an extremely wealthy older Senator, Jasper Roberts. They live in a mansion in Tennessee with their son, Timothy, but that may change soon as Jasper is slated to be the next Secretary of State. Imagine Lillian’s surprise when Madison sends $50 for a bus ticket and tells her that she has a “job opportunity” for her old friend. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, but Lillian, who has a curious innocence, or perhaps she just believes in Madison (even if we don’t) doesn’t see the troubles coming her way.

Lillian is awed by Madison’s gorgeous home and seemingly perfect life, but in spite of its glossy perfection, something is definitely off. Timothy, who dabs his mouth with a napkin after eating, seems to be the perfect little gentleman, and Madison, as attractive as ever, is edgy. Then to complete the picture there’s Jasper Roberts–a politician with a grubby past, but he’s shining up nicely under Madison’s iron tutelage and ambition.

He looked a little weary, like being important was a Herculean task. If any aspect of his appearance had been off by even a few degrees, he would have seemed evil.

Jasper has two children, 10 -year-old twins, Bessie and Roland, with his first wife (now dead), and the kids are according to Madison “sweet kids.” Madison asks Lillian to be a governess of sorts for the twins; they are currently living with maternal grandparents but will be relocated to the newly renovated guesthouse on Jasper’s estate. The pay is generous, but Lillian isn’t exactly the world’s most responsible person. It’s doubtful that she could take care of a goldfish, so why is she being given this job? What’s the catch? …. The children spontaneously combust when they are upset. And they get upset a lot.

Lillian’s first reaction is to reject the job, but then with no other prospects on the horizon and her (misplaced) devotion to Madison, Lillian accepts. Visions of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins float in her head, with the thought that she’d “just stand next to them for the whole summer and gently direct them toward good decisions. I thought I’d just sit in a beanbag chair and they’d read magazines.” All those fantasies disappear when Lillian meets the children for the first time. Accompanied by Jasper’s fixer, Carl, Lillian picks up the children from their grandparents:

We walked into the cabin, which was dark, not a single light on, but we could see activity in the backyard. The sofa, some flowery abomination with plastic covering it, was burned black on one side, the ceiling above it dusted with soot. Carl slid open the glass door, and we saw Mr. Cunningham in a tiny swimsuit and some flip flops, cooking a steak on a rickety old charcoal grill. His wife was dead asleep in a lawn chair. “Carl!” Mr. Cunningham said. He was in his seventies, but he had curly gray hair like a wig. He looked like he was in the process of melting, his skin sunburned and sagging everywhere, hanging in folds.

So Lillian takes over the care of the children. With Carl wanting to drug the kids with Mickey-Finn’ed Kool-Aid, slimy Jasper only concerned about his political career, and Madison eager to keep up appearances (but ready to ship the kids out as the nuclear option), Lillian, unexpectedly bonds with the children. The children have been rejected and have lived through horrible, emotionally damaging situations. They’ve received no support, no love, and they continue to be rejected. The proximity to the main house, the way Jasper and Madison avoid the twins, and Timothy “looking at us through his own little pair of opera glasses, like he was in a grand theater house in London” underscore the ostracism, the human zoo, of the three outcasts. Lillian tends to self-destruct or smash something when she loses it, and so she finds that she admires the power that pours from the twins when they burst into flames. They can’t control the process, but the ability to spontaneous combust certainly dictates that the children have to be handled with care. The twins need Lillian and she needs them:

I’m not joking when I say that I never liked people, because people scared me. Because anytime I said what was inside me, they had no idea what I was talking about. They made me want to smash a window just to have a reason to walk away from them. Because I kept fucking up, because it seemed so hard not to fuck up, I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want even less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air, and if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.

Madison remains a murky figure and Lillian’s devotion to her isn’t credible–especially given Lillian’s anti-social tendencies, and if I mentally deducted the swearing (swearing in a novel is a plus imo) the novel, sadly, loses a lot of its transgressive feel. So scrape away the swearing and there’s a lot of sentimentality. Think a decent, but not wonderful film, with an incredible acting performance that makes the film seem superior, and that’s how I felt about this book. I liked the humour and the narrative voice which appears to push those transgressive buttons, but ultimately, a few swear words don’t add up to a transgressive novel or character. It’s just custard on the pudding. On the up side, Lillian’s sense of humour and observations are well worth catching. Spinning into Madison’s orbit once more creates a sense of resolution for Lillian. She realizes that wealth “could normalize just about anything.” And being around the children gives Lillian perspective about her own mother:

And this was what I finally realized, that even as we sank deeper and deeper into our lives, we were always separate.

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Goodnight Beautiful: Aimee Molloy

In Aimee Molloy’s domestic thriller, Goodnight Beautiful, newlyweds Therapist Dr Sam Statler and his wife Annie Potter make the move from New York to Chestnut Hill. They buy a roomy home and Sam is trying to build up his practice. Sam’s good looks attract almost exclusively female patients, but then Sam, a notorious lothario in his younger days, always had a way with women.

While on the surface it would seem that Sam and Annie have a lot going for them, ugly secrets fester under the surface on this shiny, new marriage. Annie, an expert in sexual role-playing, keeps Sam on the boil with her constant, unpredictable games. But Sam is wrestling with massive debt which he expected to pay off when he received the 2 million promised to him by his mother who suffers from dementia. All he needs is for her to sign the paperwork and then he gets the big bucks. The 2 mill, his mother says, is a guilt gift from Sam’s estranged millionaire father who dumped Sam and his mother decades earlier. The pressure mounts for Sam and then … he disappears.

Why do men disappear without a trace. “There was a guy from Delaware who went out for doughnuts,” I tell the pigeon. “Found him two weeks later, trying to get a face tattoo in San Diego.”

It’s hard to review this book without giving away spoilers, so this will be a short piece. No one here is what they seem. I was a considerable way into the book when the plot spun on its axis and all my assumptions were uprooted.

I was mostly annoyed by the manipulations of Gone Girl–even though I’ll acknowledge that it was a page turner. This book is packed with twists and turns but the author doesn’t withhold information as much as build narrative constructs in which we make assumptions that later prove untrue. I was ok with this device since the main characters in this book are all operating on various levels of deceit.

For this reader, the book’s pace bogged down at one point, and while I have no problem with unlikable characters (and I disliked them all), they were also uninteresting. Consequently it was hard for me to care. The sections regarding Sam and his demented mother and self-focused father were very well drawn, as are the portraits of the book’s nutjobs. But the drop in momentum caused the plot to lag.

Review copy

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Temptation: Douglas Kennedy

When Douglas Kennedy’s novel Temptation opens, David Armitage is a struggling screen-writer. He’s had marginal success but doggedly hangs in there–all this made possible by his wife Lucy. She was an actress who landed a role in a sit-com pilot, and the role caused the couple to relocate from New York to LA. The sit-com never materalised. Lucy made a few commercials here and there, but finally with no money in the bank and bills to be paid, Lucy turned to telemarketing while David holds marginal hours at a book shop. They have a child, but things aren’t great:

But as the years accelerated–and we both started to cruise into our late thirties–we began to regard each other as our respective jailers.

But then David gets a call from his agent, Alison; someone is interested in David’s script. From here, things for David change rapidly. One success sails in on the heels of another. Soon there are new cars, a new house, new furniture, and then Lucy realises that soon there will be a new wife. …

Temptation arrives in form of Sally Birmingham, a “young executive” at Fox television. They meet for a business lunch and the speed at which David betrays and ditches Lucy is staggering. Next comes the bitter divorce, and soon Sally and David are the hottest couple in Hollywood. It’s clear that ambitious Sally sees David as career arm candy, so naturally his relationship with Sally hinges on his success–not that David, too caught up in his ballooning celebrity, understands that.

Dickhead David never shoulders the moral weight of his bad behaviour, and as his success continues, we know that Karma awaits…

It all unravels so beautifully beginning with a sleazy, big mouth broker named Roberto Barra, ‘Bobby’ who promises 100% return on investments within 6 months. Bobby’s aggressive, demeaning treatment of women is appalling, and yet at no point does David stop and think about Bobby’s moral behaviour and how perhaps Bobby’s ill-advised and disgusting attitude towards women may signal judgement issues. The red lights are flashing, but David is blind.

Hmmm. All I could think of was Thackeray’s Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond.

Then reclusive billionaire, film buff Philip Fleck invites David to his private island to discuss business and it’s all downhill from there.

A number of Douglas Kennedy books have been made into films: The Woman in the Fifth, The Big Picture (amazing) , The Dead Heart (the wildly insane Welcome to Woop Woop which is one of my all-time favourite films). Temptation is a slick, highly readable written novel and with its Faustian approach to the rise and fall of David Armitage (yes, we want to see him squirm), this book screams to be adapted too. Some of the character’s names drove me nuts: Bobby Barra, Brad Bruce and Philip Fleck–but perhaps Kennedy picked these names on purpose, modeling on the picaresque novel. Kennedy is particularly adept at creating the inner moral dilemma and how the journey from ignorance to acceptance of one’s flaws is costly, painful and yet ultimately strangely liberating.

 

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Shelter In Place: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s marvellous novel Shelter in Place opens in November 2016, right after the presidential election. Childless couple, 56-year-old Eva and her wealth management advisor husband Bruce, are hosting a motley assortment of houseguests at their Connecticut home. The people we meet that night: Min Marable, decorator Jake Lovett, married book editors Aaron and Rachel Weisenstein, neighbour Grady and his cousin, recently separated Sandra comprise almost all the book’s characters, although a few more appear as the plot fans out.

Although it’s a “benevolent autumn sunset,” Eva’s mood, extreme distress at the prospect of Trump as president, eradicates the sense of peace and relaxation. A debate ensues about free speech with Eva announcing that she’s “possessed by this mad urge” to ask Siri how to assassinate Trump. Interestingly, once Eva starts the fireworks, she doesn’t actually go through with it, but instead tells her husband to do it. From this point, everyone jumps in with their opinions on this “thought experiment.” Min, who says she’s Eva’s best friend, (translation: sycophant and object of belittlingly criticism) defends Eva (as always) noting her Jewish background and concern about fascism. One of the houseguests concludes that Eva’s preposterous and toothless statement that she would do anything to defend democracy makes her a “teensy bit fascist.” Another debate ensues about “majority rule.”

This evening becomes the leaping point for the rest of the story. Eva, feeling that she can’t stand to remain in America for the inauguration party, leaves for a holiday in Venice, taking along mooching, much put upon journalist Min. Once in Venice, Eva decides to buy a palazzo apartment, and it’s the beginning of a real estate transaction nightmare and also the beginning of a deep rift between Bruce and Eva.

Shelter in Place, a comedy of manners, takes a spiky look at the affluent New Yorkers in Eva’s orbit.  Eva is a spoilt, vastly uninteresting, hollow, self-focused woman, one of the 1% cushioned by vast wealth and therefore the least likely strata of society to feel any societal turbulence. She becomes so consumed with repugnance at the thought of a Trump driven America, she decides to leave. While neurotic Eva calls Trump a “demon,” this dreadful woman (think of Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives) terrorizes most of those in her circle. She loves to patronise people with the grandeur of her liberal, moral opinions–opinions that don’t hold up under scrutiny, so, for example, she’ll have an impoverished pet chef for a while until he “touched the third rail.” And then there’s Min: Eva will shove cookies and food at Min and then humiliate her for eating whenever the opportunity arises (and especially if there’s a third person as witness).

Quiet Bruce acknowledges that as a couple, he and Eva “have a system. She does the wanting and I do the paying.” As the deal for the Venice apartment becomes more complex and dodgy, Bruce, for the first time in his married life considers denying his wife’s whims, but at the slightest hint of Bruce’s resistance, Eva turns on the marital screws. She mouths platitudes about how politically she’s “refusing to do what everyone else is doing, which is either lapsing into this state of terrible ennui or putting all their energy into looking the other way.” So she garlands herself with noble status for bailing from the country while others don’t–and yet how many Americans can afford to go and buy an apartment in Venice just because they feel like it? (Or even a trailer in the Salton Sea?) And of course before long it becomes obvious that escape from Trump is just a narrative for Eva to get what she wants. Eva talks about political oppression and yet treats her servants and friends appallingly. Meanwhile, Bruce ponders the life and financial circumstances of his long-term secretary Kathy who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Kathy has been dumped by her husband (when he heard about the diagnosis), she’s drowning in debt and supports both of her impossibly selfish children. Kathy isn’t a martyr to duty; she’s a realist and in spite of her many troubles, she blames no one.

Shelter In Place, a very clever title, also refers to decorator Jake, who has emotionally ‘sheltered in place’ for decades following a tragedy. He finds it safer to engage in sexting with strangers than take a risk with real flesh and blood relationships. There’s are wonderful sections involving Jake and his partner Pablo, both decorators, each with a different aesthetic, attitudes, and motivations.

The point wasn’t to create a room that reflected their personalities. It was to create a room where they belonged.

It’s hard to relate to the privilege some of these characters enjoy–the millions they fling around and yet at the novel’s core we see humans struggling with their lives, finding excuses to bail. Ultimately Eva is a case study in a horrible human being: not ‘bad’ in a criminal sense, but a woman who’s been so indulged that she’s become a tyrant, holding everyone in her orbit in thrall, never called on her bullshit accounts of her past and present. Some of the funniest scenes involve her 3 Bedlington terriers–all named after characters from the novels of Henry James. It’s through these three dogs, we see Eva at her most intolerant worst, bitching at Bruce for walking the dogs with a neighbour who voted for Trump and then coming unglued from her perfect world when her dogs start peeing on the furniture.

One of my favourite characters is the perennially angry Aaron; fired from his job, he now simmers in the stew of failure. While he’s a liberal, he wants to take PC-ness and tear it out of society; so far he’s doing a pretty good job of it as a one-man wrecking ball. He attends a Lydia Davis book signing, although he can’t stand her work, claiming, as he holds up one of her books that the problem isn’t that young people don’t read but “what they read. Shit like this.” When told he doesn’t ‘get it’ because he’s “a man,” Aaron cuts loose:

Fine, then, Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s a Jerk-off. As is Jonathan Fucking Franzen, and Jonathan Fucking Lethem, and Jonathan Asshole Safran Foer. All of these fucking Jonathans, they’re total jerkoffs.

Then he launches into Barbara Kingsolver:

She is the embodiment of liberal piety at its most middlebrow and tendentious. Her novels are the beef ribs of fiction.

And:

Ninety percent of what gets published is worthless. With any luck, that’ll be the silver lining of this fucking election, that when writers start to feel oppressed again they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.

If you can’t tell. I loved this book.

Review copy

 

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The Big Door Prize: M.O. Walsh

After reading a series of crime novels, I was in the mood for something lighter, and so I turned to  the delightfully unusual premise of M.O. Walsh’s novel, The Big Door Prize.

The novel is set in the small town of Deerfield. Louisiana. Nothing much ever happens here and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. One day a machine which resembles a photo booth appears inside a local shop. You simply step inside, draw the curtain, use a q-tip for a cheek swab and then the machine spews out the results of “your potential in life, what your body and mind are capable of doing based on the science of DNA.” Soon all the residents of Deerfield are either using the machine or talking about it. There’s a disclaimer: “the company DNAMIX, is not liable for any stress your new potential may cause.”

It’s easy to see that the results from the machine could have far-reaching consequences, and that’s exactly what happens. How will people react to the results? Each generation has its own unique method of going-off-the-rails, but middle-age regrets, which are mainly the emphasis here, are arguably the most fascinating.

When the novel opens, teacher Douglas Hubbard has decided (without the machine’s help) that his fortieth birthday gift to himself should be a trombone. The purchase sparks fantasies which spin out into the future even before he tries to play it. He’s so absorbed in these flights of fantasy that he doesn’t realise that his wife, Cherilyn, is preoccupied with the results of the DNAMIX machine.

Use of the machine has a range of results: one woman decides to dump her job as a principal and launch into a career as a carpenter–the fact she”s never held a saw or a hammer in her life is not an impediment:

“Just one question, Pat,” he said. “Do you know anything at all in the big beeping fleeping world about carpentry?

Pat reached into either her breast or pants pocket and pulled out a pair of goggles. She held them up in the air like evidence. “I bought these over at the Rockery Ace yesterday,” she said. “So, I know about safety.”

Possibly the funniest sections of the book concern Cherilyn’s new identification as “royalty” (yes thanks to the machine) but for some reason this makes her turn away from various crafts and to internet sex.

What was her true calling? Making birdhouses out of Popsicle sticks? Crocheting Christmas stocking? What great places had she stamped on her passport? An entire life in Deerfield? Is that what she was meant for? Why not something bigger? Something grand? Wasn’t she about to turn forty as well?

Through a handful of characters, we see the consequences of the DNAMIX machine; the results make people discontent, take chances, take risks, and throw over their entire lives. The novel, while amusing, bogged down with a subplot that detracts from the story, and for this reader the tale floated on the surface of life while missing the opportunity for deeper observations. Perhaps I would have liked people to go a little crazier.

Review copy

 

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Monogamy: Sue Miller

“Love isn’t just what two people have together, it’s what two people make together.”

Sue Miller’s novel Monogamy examines the marriage of Graham and Annie married now for almost 30 years. The novel begins, appropriately with their meeting. They’ve both been married before, and (in theory) have learned from their mistakes. Annie discovered a deep incapability with her first spouse which led to divorce and now she’s had a series of casual relationships. Graham’s marriage ended when his wife Frieda, who’d been talked into an “open” arrangement realised that while this deal suited Graham, she could no longer endure a relationship that knew no sexual boundaries.

Annie meets Graham at a party celebrating the opening of his bookshop. They hit it off immediately and are soon a couple. They marry and almost 30 years later, Graham has become a significant figure in the community while Annie finds that she has allowed her career to be subsumed by Graham’s needs. Not that Annie resents that; she’s happily married and loves Graham. He’s a man of vast appetites and somehow along the way, Annie has been absorbed into Graham’s social circle.

But things are going well, career-wise for Annie. After neglecting her career for decades, she’s now had a few shows and even published a book.

What she wanted now, she realized, was to give up on people. Or more accurately, to see them differently, to imagine them differently, through their absence. To make images that said something about the people who weren’t there. She thought of some of the painting of Vuillard, or Bonnard–the figures half seen, the rooms themselves often more the subject than the people in them. But rooms suffused with the feeling of a liminal presence. Or with the feeling of absence–but an absence full of implication, of mystery.

So here’s Annie who has moved from photographing people and capturing the intimate sometimes even “murderous” glances sent from one spouse to another, to photographing rooms and houses–noting the absence of people–“images that said something about the people who weren’t there.” Does Annie realise that she’s possibly trying to capture the problems in her own life? Larger-than-life Graham is ‘there’ but absent. Yes, there’s still a relationship, communication and sex, but something is ‘wrong.’ It’s as though part of Graham is absent…

Well Graham, back to that man of huge appetites, is having an affair. It’s not the only affair he’s had while married to Annie, but it is the most dangerous one. Just as things come to a head, Graham dies, and Annie, at first his grieving widow, discovers the affair, as we knew she would and then she struggles to balance grief at the loss of her husband with anger that he betrayed her.

Monogamy is at the root of this story. Sooner or later we come across articles or books that argue that monogamy is impossible, and that’s certainly true for many people. But others, Annie, for example, and Graham’s friend John cannot imagine having an affair. It’s over lunch with John that Graham, who hasn’t been honest with himself since he started the affair, reveals his puerile nature. While the exquisite descriptions of Annie’s work reveal a deeply serious and intense nature, Graham’s bonhomie life covers a stunted career and a man who has created a persona for himself which he wears like a suit of clothes. 

After Graham’s death, and what a turd to die before he gets his comeuppance, Annie retreats into her grief. She cannot confide in her daughter or Graham’s son from his first marriage, and then she discovers that Frieda, Graham’s ex-wife knew all about the affair….

A lot of the tension seeped out of the book with Graham’s death. Was he going to tell Annie? Was ‘the other woman’ going to sabotage his marriage? What would happen to their marriage in light of his adultery? Those questions dissipate into grief and depression as Annie struggles with the new, toxic version of her relationship with Graham–the bastard who had the audacity to die before he had to face the consequences of his actions. Instead of tension, Annie’s grief and depression become paramount.

How well do we know those we live with? Can a marriage survive adultery? In the wake of Graham’s death, Annie struggles to find a mental place: should she feel grief, should she feel anger? This reader had a very clear reaction, but that’s easy for me to say since I had no investment in Graham whatsoever. Consequently I became impatient with Annie and wanted to smack her upside the head which probably isn’t fair, but we bring ourselves and our experiences to reading. Can’t help it.

Review copy.

 

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The Lives of Edie Pritchard: Larry Watson

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

Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Swap: Robyn Harding

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

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

The swap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy. 

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Filed under Fiction, Harding Robyn

The Old Lovegood Girls: Gail Godwin

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

Old lovegood girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Godwin Gail

The Wife-Stalker: Liv Constantine

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

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

The Wife stalker

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

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

(gag)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy

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Filed under Constantine Liv, Fiction