Tag Archives: american fiction

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.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Makkai Rebecca

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?

Review copy/own a copy

 

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hunter Evan

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

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Reed Mungo Joe

Little Disasters: Randall Klein

Randall Klein’s debut novel, Little Disasters, is told through the voices of two men: Michael and Paul. These two very different men are connected by the fact that their wives each gave birth on the same day, at the same Brooklyn hospital. That’s how they met, waiting for the news while their wives were in labour. Furniture maker Michael is married to cookie entrepreneur Rebecca, and actor and paralegal Paul is married to writer, Jenny. Rebecca gives birth to a baby boy, but Jenny’s baby dies. Fast forward to a year later and Michael who is now having an affair with Jenny, receives a text saying she can’t meet him. Both men find themselves stranded in the city, unable to get home, and their stories move back and forth in time.

The four characters, with their careers, and personal tics, are well constructed. When we first see Rebecca, she’s preparing to leave for the hospital, and everything is all perfectly done: bags packed, and even a celebratory flask of bourbon for her husband etc. The married couples are so well drawn that’s it’s easy to see why they are together, and how they work together–each partner compensating and/or complementing the other.

The birth of Michael’s son changes his marriage dramatically: chaos reigns and sex is more or less just a memory, and of course, since Jenny and Paul’s baby died, there’s a layer of grief which has damaged their marriage. But was it that great before the loss of the baby? Paul invites Michael and Rebecca over for dinner, ostensibly to discuss bookshelves, but in reality, it’s a desperate move from Paul to inject some healing into his marriage. Ironically, of course, that plan goes haywire and Michael and Jenny embark on an affair. …

Little disasters

While the premise was good, it was difficult to have sympathy with Michael who moans about how his life has changed, especially since the moaning is in light of the fact that they have a healthy child. Then again, he didn’t really plan on having a child that soon, and he feels a bit betrayed that Rebecca stopped taking the pill without his agreement.

Would be nice to have a beer with someone–I didn’t realize that would stop once my wife pushed out a baby. I didn’t realize that having a child would lead to the immediate death of my social life. I’m not an adolescent and I don’t exist in a sitcom; I knew sacrifices would be made. I knew I wasn’t going to be stumbling home while Rebecca provided the 2:00 am feeding, but I didn’t anticipate the full stop at he end of the sentence. Plug up that release valve and it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

For this reader, the book’s best scene takes place when the two couples meet for dinner for the first time: Rebecca and Michael should have RUN. Rebecca has obviously been drinking and seems determined to embarrass everyone with stories about her sexual past:

She punctuates the story by finally spooning gazpacho between her lips. I give Jennifer an appreciate smirk. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You roped me back in. “What happened to Danny Perlis?” I ask.

“He gave me a lecture that he clearly thought was eviscerating and I thought was directed entirely to my tits. Probably a good thing that we didn’t elope like he wanted . I loved him, but the thing I loved most about him was how much he loved me. I mailed his ring back after graduation. 

Jennifer pushes her virtually untouched bowl of soup forward. She drains another glass of wine and reaches halfway across the table for the bottle but Paul’s arm shoots out and grabs it first. He holds it just out of Jennifer’s reach and the two of them glare at each other. Rebecca has on her no-lipped mortified face, but I cannot imagine a better standoff. Either they will go full George-and-Martha and my wife and I will get home (or to a bar, so long as we have babysitters …) or she’ll wrestle the bottle from his hands and deliver another monologue of her checkered sexual history. Either way, I’m getting dinner and a show. 

While the two marriages were nicely created, and the nuances of the affair (between ‘friends’) well done,  the background setting of the disaster which occurs in NYC was, after a while, a distracting structural device that did not serve the plot.

I recently finished We Don’t live Here Anymore from Andre Dubus (review to follow) which follows  the lives of married couples Hank and Edith & Jack and Terry. The two books, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Little Disasters were read back-to-back, and as it turned out, this was a fortuitous choice. We Don’t Live Here Anymore has a totally different take on infidelity, and comparing the two books was thought provoking. The infidelity writers of several decades ago (Updike, Dubus, Roth) seem fascinated by the act of infidelity itself, while today infidelity seems so much more wrapped around the pressures of commuting, child-rearing, juggling two careers, oversized mortgages, etc. Little Disasters is infidelity of the 21st century. Still the same act, but the view is a little more domestic-centric than its 70s/80s counterparts.

review copy

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Klein Randall

The Good Liar: Catherine McKenzie

In some ways, The Good Liar mirrors the all-too familiar headlines of our current times, but the back story explores the aftermath of grief through the lens of three women who all played a role in a horrific tragic event.

Triple Ten is the name given to the event: this was an explosion that ripped apart a Chicago building and left hundreds dead or missing. It’s now a year later, the anniversary of the event, and Cecily Grayson, who has, unwillingly, become the poster woman for the tragedy, is still unable to move on with her life. Then there’s Kate, a woman who’s working as a nanny for an affluent family in Canada. Finally, there’s  Franny, a young woman whose birth mother died in the fire.

The Good Liar

Through these three characters (with published articles and the transcripts of interviews from a documentary filmmaker thrown in) it gradually becomes clear that all three women are lying to one extent or another. Slowly, the real stories of the relationships lost in the fire emerge.

A shiver runs through me, because that is how I feel now all the time, that nervous feeling like something bad’s about to happen, something I could avoid if I knew which event to skip, which route not to take, which call not to answer. 

Cecily Grayson, now in therapy, a widow and mother of two, is the main character here, which is a good thing as she is sympathetic.  At first, all we know about Kate is that she fled Chicago and hasn’t returned. Franny, who had just managed to reconnect with her birth mother, has become a permanent fixture in the family her deceased birth mother left behind. While Cecily and Franny run a foundation which dispenses compensation to the victims of the tragedy, there’s a slippery unease between them which is hard to place.

Through the plot, the story explores how we grieve, and how guilt combined with lack of closure disrupt the healing process. But there’s also the thriller element here, a streak of danger, a stench of psycho running through the narrative, and while the plot takes a long time to get there, we know that explosive confrontations will occur.

Cecily is the most convincing character here, and it’s easy to identify with her conflicting feelings of anger and loss combined with the shattered sense of security and safety. As always with domestic thrillers, we are left pondering the choices our characters make. Some of these choices are foolish, some are downright illogical, but then we all know people who constantly make stupid mistakes. I guessed the big reveal, which was a shame. Glancing over reviews on Goodreads, the book seems to be a big hit with fans. While I liked the lack of closure/guilt elements, the thriller/psycho aspect of the book stretched credulity for this reader.

Review copy

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McKenzie Catherine

Sunburn: Laura Lippman

“If only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes.”

Laura Lippman’s standalone novel, Sunburn begins in 1995 when two strangers, Adam and Polly, meet in a bar in Belleville, a small town in Delaware. Their meeting seems accidental and innocent enough, but is it? After dumping her husband and child and hitching a ride, Polly finds herself in this dead-end town, while Adam claims to be passing through. He is attracted to this prickly redhead, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Adam, who claims he has a few months to kill before moving on, decides to stay in Belleville and begins working in the same bar as Polly.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. 

As the plot unfolds, it’s apparent that Adam and Polly are lying about who they really are and about their intentions. …

And why is she here? Does her husband know where she is? Does the husband know anything? Why did she leave him? And her little girl, how does that work? Feral his client says of her. No capacity for genuine emotion. She’s out for herself, always.

“Whatever you do,” his client says, “don’t turn your back on her.” Then he chuckles in an odd way. “Even face-to-face, you might not be safe with that one.”

Although the two central characters are introduced immediately, and we know their innermost thoughts, the controlled narrative keeps us at a distance, parceling out slivers of information at a time. Just as we come to know the real reason for Adam’s interest in Polly, we also begin to understand exactly what Polly is running from.

sunburn

And yet, even though we discover elements to Polly’s past that might create some sympathy… there’s a lot about Polly that sends shivers down the spine. She’s cold, hard, and calculating and uses men to get what she wants.

The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

There’s a murder in Polly’s past and very possibly another looming in her future. In creating Polly who is clearly fashioned as a noir femme fatale (think Phyllis Dietrichson), Lippman takes chances, and yet she succeeds admirably in her noir archetype creations. Polly is not a woman who’s easy to warm to–although Adam certainly charges in–despite many warnings. With Polly as the reptilian, intriguing femme fatale, that leaves Adam as the gullible male, well one of them, at least.

You have to be willing to leave some doors closed, to focus on the task at hand. Some people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far.

Lippman has written a range of crime fiction, and Sunburn is a far darker read than the Tess Monaghan novels.

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lippman Laura

Straying: Molly McCloskey

After I finished Molly McCloskey’s eloquent, thought-provoking novel Straying, I thought about the title. What is the definition of ‘straying?’ The word evokes the idea that someone … or some thing … wanders off the path. Not intentionally. No never intentionally–but an aimless, purposeless wandering off. And that brings me to the book’s plot:  Straying  is the story of a young American ex-pat who travels to Ireland, gets a job, and marries. Alice, a journalist in a stalled career, has no particular plans when she arrives in Ireland “at the tail end of the 80s.” She makes connections and drifts into a job in Sligo as a barmaid. Here she meets Eddie, a quiet, older man, who imports furniture. While Eddie seems perfect husband material, Alice feels a tug of resistance.

And then, one night, I had what felt like a conversion experience. I allowed myself to accept, with what seemed my whole heart, a future with Eddie. It wasn’t a decision (even allowed isn’t the right word), and that was why it felt like something I could trust.

All the right boxes are checked, and so they marry. Eddie buys them a lovely home, and is kind and thoughtful to his younger wife. Why then does the marriage go wrong?

Straying

In the novel, Alice is now a middle-aged woman who’s spent nomadic years working for non profits abroad. She returns to Ireland after wandering the world being exposed to some of the planet’s greatest miseries, and she finds herself alone with the memories of her brief marriage and an affair. Alice reminisces about Eddie and their marriage, still trying to unravel the motives for her actions decades later, yet even deeper than these troubling memories which are entwined with thoughts about her decisions, Alice deeply mourns her mother. By far the strongest connection in the book exists between Alice and her mother–even in death.

Now that Alice’s life is far removed from the notion of home and children, she finds herself thinking more about her mother and some of the conversations they had, especially those that took place towards the end of her mother’s life when “she often sounded distracted, as though she had caught sight of something approaching in the distance, something she couldn’t quite make out.” People who reach middle age (or late middle age) are fortunate indeed if their parents are still alive, for it’s only with age that we can possibly begin to understand our parents.

Straying is essentially the story of an affair, yet it’s also a story of loss,

Beyond the end of the lawn, the upper half of the Protestant church, which dominates the Crescent, looms like a giant risen from slumber, and when the night is cold and wet and moonlight falls on the yew tree and its needles glint like tinsel, the spectacle of it all is more than satisfying–for though I lament that narrowing of world that comes with age, I know that, like all children, I overlooked much and took everything for granted, and that even into the early years of adulthood, when I thought about the world at all in that way, I mistakenly assumed that all of its good, beautiful things would come around again, and then again, and again, until the time was right for me to pluck them. Now I am old enough to know that there are people I would like to see again whom I have already seen for the last time, there are places I dream of returning to that I will never revisit, and that though a few things do come around again and offer themselves, many more do not. 

After finishing this wonderful book, I found myself puzzling over Alice’s behaviour. How did she drift into marriage? How did she drift into this affair? She certainly never intended to hurt anyone, yet that was the ultimate result.

The title has a double meaning: Alice’s affair but also the aimlessness of her early life and marriage. Yet was she really aimless? Bad things happen in life. Take disease for example. We don’t choose disease, but sometimes it happens anyway, in spite of our plans or our tactics of avoidance. But can we say the same thing about marriage and/or infidelity? Do they just happen or are they murky attempts to establish or demolish something we don’t even recognize that we are seeking?

I’m a big believer in the idea that most of the time, people have a way of getting what they want. I’m not talking about money or health; I’m talking about the subtle manipulation of circumstance: I didn’t mean to let the dog off leash; I didn’t mean to have an affair. 

If you like books that delve into the murky waters of motivation, then you should enjoy Straying. While Alice chews over the choices she made, because yes they were choices even though she didn’t see things that way, this leaves room for the reader to speculate about the deep motivations for the decisions she made. Alice is a sensitive, thoughtful narrator who is still chewing over her actions decades later, and perhaps because she doesn’t make excuses, I liked her even more.

I’ll be reading this author again. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.

I recall a single midnight downpour, parked in Eddie’s car above the beach at Rosses Point, the world through the windscreen a rich black smear, as though painted in oils. 

(Alternate title: When Light is Like Water)

review copy

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McCloskey Molly

Magnetism: F. Scott Fitzgerald

“People over forty can seldom be convinced of anything. At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

Magnetism is one of the titles from Penguin’s Great Loves series. I have a few titles from this series that I’ve collected over the years, and now I’m curious to see how some of the other selections match up. I’d hardly call any of the four short stories in Magnetism ‘great love,’ but perhaps that’s just me.

So here’s the breakdown:

The Sensible Thing

The Bridal Party

Magnetism

Bernice Bobs Her Hair.

The Sensible Thing, which competes with Bernice Bobs Her Hair as my favourite story in the collection, is the tale of a young man named George O’Kelly who, even though he’s a trained engineer, has a measly job as an insurance agent earning forty dollars a week. George is living and working in New York when he receives a letter from the girl he loves, Jonquil, who lives in Tennessee. The letter makes George nervous enough to leave his job and travel back to Tennessee. He senses that he’s losing Jonquil. He wants to marry her, but she says it’s not “sensible.” They part and meet a year later when George has become successful….

In The Bridal Party, Michael, a young man is in Paris trying to forget the woman he loves when he learns that she’s in Paris about to be married to another man.

Magnetism is the story of a handsome actor, George Hannaford, who is married to Kay. Women tend to throw themselves at George and for the most part, he’s oblivious to the attention. Trouble comes to George from two directions: he’s attracted to a young actress he works with, and a woman he knows resorts to blackmail.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair isn’t about love at all: it’s about how women undermine each other, and how women compete in underhand ways for men. Bernice, who is from Wisconsin, visits her worldly, attractive, popular cousin Marjorie. Socially, Bernice is a hopeless failure, and initially Marjorie undertakes to improve Bernice’s social life, but the plan works a little too well.

The content of the stories is typical F. Scott Fitzgerald fare, and if you’re not ready to tackle one of this author’s novels yet, or conversely, if you’ve read the novels, you may like these short stories. In The Bridal Party and The Sensible Thing, Fitzgerald cynically assesses how money influences love. While George O’Kelly and Michael are sincere young men, they have the misfortune to fall in love with women who value money above character. The gay young things of Bernice Bobs Her Hair date the story a bit but the central idea: women with their knives out for the competition is still relevant today.

TBR stack

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Fitzgerald, F. Scott

Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry from Lisa Halliday unfolds through three seemingly disparate sections, yet there’s an underlying theme of inequality that weaves these three sections together. I rarely comment about covers, but this clever design shows creativity and offers a visual hint of the book’s content.

Asymmetry

The first section concerns a relationship between Alice, a young book editor who lives in New York and the much older, successful writer Ezra Blazer. The book’s blurb says it’s an account of a “tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance.” Hardly. This is an account of a writer successful enough in the literary world to win the Pulitzer prize who begins a sexual relationship with a young woman. Most of their relationship takes place at his apartment (with the occasional dinner at a restaurant and a trip out to his Long Island home), and while the relationship seems at least initially to be almost totally sexual, gradually it erodes into selfish, aging male and young nursemaid/errand girl who satisfies every whim.

Of course an older male can pat himself on the back that he is offering a young woman exposure to opportunities or education that a young, male rival cannot, and so we see that here. Ezra assumes the role of professor Higgins to Alice’s Eliza, and it’s just as cringeworthy as the film when Ezra slips Alice money and tells her how to get her hair cut if she should ever decided to cut it short.

There’s almost a trance-like quality in Ezra’s relationship to Alice (Alice down the rabbit hole). Why doesn’t she tell him to shove it when, for example, they are watching a baseball game, and he sends her out at night for ice-cream?

“Darling, in the cooler in the back of the deli here on the corner they have Häagen-Dazs bar. Do you want one?”

“Now?”

“Sure. You’ll be right back. But listen. I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, nuts. If they don’t have that I want chocolate on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. And if they don’t have that I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. Plus whatever you want darling. My wallet’s right on the table there. Go.”

The second section takes place at Heathrow as an Iraqi-American tries to spend two days in London before flying onto Iraq to see his brother. While in the previous section, inequalities of power, age, wealth and experience exist in the relationship between Alice and Ezra,  Amar, who is politically disadvantaged, is held hostage to bureaucratic red tape. As Amar waits patiently, his story gradually unfolds and we see a man, who through no fault of his own, has been a hostage to history and war.

The third section is Ezra on the Desert island Discs. I disliked Ezra in the novel’s first section, and in this final part, his character is fully revealed in its egotistical, exploitative glory as he talks about his disc choices.

I enjoyed the two main sections of Asymmetry very much indeed, and the novel’s underlying themes about inequalities are lucidly argued on both the personal and political level. My main complaint is the filler used in the first section: large sections of book excerpts (recommended to Alice by Ezra) break up the story and then there’s an entire section taken from a pamphlet explaining abortion. This is not a moral complaint, but just a reader complaint. Filler such as this seems … well just like filler. Apart from that complaint (which IMO unfortunately weakened the book) the two different stories with their vastly different characters were intense and excellent

Review copy.

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Halliday Lisa

The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

“And if there’s magic in the world, there’s magic beyond it.”

Chloe Benjamin’s novel, The Immortalists begins in 1969 with the four Gold children Varya, 13, Daniel, 11, Klara, 9, Simon, 7 who head out, pressured by Daniel to have their fortunes told by a travelling psychic. Daniel has heard that the fortune-teller can predict death dates.

The practical minded Varya asks “What is it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?”

“Then it would better to know, ” said Daniel. “So you could get everything done before.”

But would the knowledge of the date of your death ‘help’ or hinder you? You won’t know if the date is correct or not until it arrives. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel as many years ago I had a friend who had a similar experience. He refused to tell me the date he was given, but it haunted him. After seeing how traumatized he was by this experience, I would rather not know. Of course, we all come with a hidden expiration date, and the novel asks whether or not knowing (or thinking you know) the day of your death makes a difference as to how you choose to live your life. What if the date is wrong? How does this knowledge, true or false, impact behaviour?

In a tatty apartment building, the children are each, separately, told the day of their deaths. Although they keep the information initially secret, it impacts their behavior in the years to come.

the immortalists

Simon Gold as a teenager who is facing joining the family’s “Tailor and Dressmaking”  business, instead opts to run off to the heady freedom of San Francisco in the late 70s-early 80s. There, underage Simon finds work as a dancer in a gay bar, and he meets an older man. Meanwhile his sister Klara who runs off to San Francisco with Simon gets a job as temp. while dreaming of becoming an illusionist. Klara turns to magic in a dangerous and obsessive attempt to cross the barriers between the living  and the dead.

The second brother Daniel, quiet, steady and serious becomes an army doctor post 9-11 and Varya becomes a scientist whose area of expertise/interest is longevity research. (This involves Rhesus monkeys, so reader beware). In her longevity research, quantity becomes more important than quality.

The Immortalists, beginning with Simon, follows the siblings on their life paths. Each sibling keeps the death date in his/her head, always conscious of it, even if they disbelieve it. Simon, who is told that he will die young, certainly takes this information and runs with it. Hurls himself towards it might even be a better description.

What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.

I liked the novel’s premise and the mystical elements, and I loved Klara and Varya’s stories, possibly because they tried to understand life in alternate ways. Daniel’s section stretched credulity, and readers should be aware that in Simon’s story, there’s a considerable amount of sex. This is described rather clinically, not salaciously, but still, anyone intending to read this should know what they are in for. IMO, it added nothing to the book. That’s not meant in a puritanical way, but these scenes did nothing for me whatsoever, and seemed, frankly, rather gratuitous.

The Immortalists asks how much we really control our lives. Would the Gold children have acted differently if they’d never met the fortune-teller? If you were told you were going to die young, would you dive right into life and to hell with the consequences or would you try to avoid disaster? Character is fate, right? Can you escape fate? We see each of the Gold children tackle those questions differently.

If you like The Immortalists, you will probably also like Daniel Kehlmann’s F  (or vice versa)

Review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Benjamin Chloe, Fiction