Tag Archives: american fiction

Device Free Weekend: Sean Doolittle

Here’s a piece of free advice: your old college roommate, now a billionaire in his 50s, invites you and a handful of other college pals, for a device -free weekend at his remote island.


Will, Perry, Beau, Lainie, Stephen and Emma all accept their invitations which are cryptically number 1-6. They are transported to Link Village, billionaire Ryan Cloverhill’s “waterfront office complex,” in Washington state, and from there they take a ferry to Sham Rock, Cloverhill’s island. Apart from the numbered invitations, everything starts out as you would expect. No alarm bells yet.

Will and Perry are a married couple. Perry had a terrible bout of COVID which has left him with permanent scar tissue in his lungs, and Will is an insulin dependent diabetic. Lainie and Beau are a “luxury couple” self-made celebrity Linkstreamers.” They have built an “online brand” and are extremely successful. Emma, a single parent, has history with Ryan, and Stephen is the dark horse of the group.

Ryan’s house, which he designed, is 6500 sq feet, “constructed of smooth concrete, with entire walls made of windows that capture the stunning 360 degree views.” When the guests arrive, Ryan “a middle-aged megabillionaire social media CEO” insists everyone turn over their devices. It very quickly becomes apparent that Ryan has an itinerary which begins to morph into an agenda. Ryan is the founder and the CEO of the world’s most popular social media platform, and then when he tells his guests to hand over your devices… well you know something is up. Is this about quality time or control? It’s not as though I have a love affair with my phone, but I would be done right there. …

After a first boozy night, the guests wake up to find Ryan gone, and the only way to communicate with him is via a tablet. The catch is that first they have to crack the code to access the tablet. At first it seems like a game (annoying, but still a game) but then Ryan’s agenda becomes clear. All I can say is that if this is how Ryan treats his friends … you don’t want to be on his enemy list.

Sean Doolittle’s Device Free Weekend is a techno-thriller. At first I thought the set-up was classic Agatha Christie but the subtext here is not murder but responsibility: the responsibility we have to ourselves, our friends and yes… the wider social responsibility. The characters never develop, and that is unfortunate as I am a character-driven reader. Also Ryan is annoying, out of touch with reality, and a dickhead. I didn’t buy his late-in-the-day concerns. Still this would make a good film in the right hands.

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My Last Innocent Year: Daisy Alpert Florin

“Here’s what I do when I’ve made a mistake. First, I ask myself if it’s something I can fix. And if it’s not, I ask myself if it’s something I can live with.”

While the Monica Lewinsky scandal heats up in Washington, on the campus of Wilder College in New Hampshire, 21-year-old Isabel Rosen, a girl who hails from a modest New York background, completes her senior year. It’s a year that will shape her permanently, but not in ways she expects. One night in December, leaving the library accompanied by Zev, another Jewish student, she agrees to go to his room. Isabel hazily imagines them with a future together–not that that is something she ardently desires; it’s more than she tests out the possibility in her mind. Kissing leads to sex. She asks him to “slow down,” but he says he “can’t.” Zev’s aggressive tactics leave Isabel confused. She feels “as though [she’d] been dropped in the middle of a sexual encounter that had been going on for a while.”

Later that night Debra, Isabel’s roommate, asks Isabel what’s wrong. Isabel is aware that since the encounter “something hurt, deep in some place I couldn’t see or name,” but at the same time she “couldn’t frame what had happened with Zev […] There was a darkness to it, a heaviness.” Debra already deeply dislikes Zev. She is the founder of Bitch SlapWilder’s first and only feminist journal.” Isabel insists that Zev didn’t “force” her but Debra says Zev is a rapist. Debra leads Isabel into taking action.

At this point in the novel, I expected to read a novel about sexual consent or the fallout from the incident. Interestingly, the plot led away from the sexual encounter and continues with Isabel’s academic career. Isabel is completing her thesis on Edith Wharton. Her advisor, Tom Fisher, is married to Joanna Maxwell, the head of the English Department. Tom and Joanna are getting divorced and that disrupts Isabel’s thesis plans. Tom becomes increasingly unreliable, and poet/professor/reporter Connelly takes over one of Joanna’s classes. It’s a creative writing class, and Isabel finds herself drawn to Connelly. They begin an affair. …

The rain picked up. I pictured a hallway lined with doors I couldn’t open, things I needed trapped behind them: means of rescue, survival, escape. My lover put himself inside me and unlocked everything I’d ever had there: shame, fear. [..] I no longer knew what was inside me anymore, only that I never again found a door I couldn’t open. He held the key to my undoing and I let him undo everything.

The sexual encounter between Isabel and Zev opens My Last Innocent Year, and it is certainly topical and serious enough for us to expect this to carry the entire novel. But author Daisy Alpert Florin, and this is, incidentally, her debut novel, moves away from the topic of consent, or at least seems to. As the affair with Connelly continues and becomes increasingly more serious, I was unsure how the Isabel/Zev encounter wove into the tale. I wondered if it was added to the story for topical value, but even as that occured to me, the lack of a conclusion about exactly what took place rape vs consent was oddly absent. The absence of a solution increased the opaque quality of much of what occurs in the novel. Most blurbs contain the non-consensual sex aspect of the book, and yet really that is not what the book is about. Beginning with sex with Zev, Isabel finds herself thrown in a series of morally complex situations; her life and experiences so far have not prepared her for the moral consequences of her actions. Ultimately this is the story of a young woman who has yet to form her opinions about the world. She has yet to learn to read the warning signs. She is vulnerable.

The novel is told by Isabel in retrospect, so some of the story with its themes of inexperience and naivete is told now with the voice of experience. Daisy Alpert Florin follows Isabel into middle age, so we see how the path that she took at Wilder influenced the rest of her life, and at one point, as we see Isabel later in life, she admits that her “need to link sex with secrecy was born that spring.” The denouement, which I shan’t reveal, seemed a little too dramatic and out-of-line with the rest of the novel, but that said, this is a remarkable debut novel. It’s understated emotional content packs a powerful punch.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over its structure. Initially I anticipated that the Zev incident would propel the rest of the plot, but instead it served as a door into the rest of the story. It is a bold move to throw out a topical subject such as this and then maneuver it to the starting line. (And incidentally, Isabel does arrive at a conclusion about sex with Zev by the end of the novel.) Underlying the tale is the implicit idea of the complications of sex. Two people approach sex imagining they are on the same page–but when the final chapter is written on any sexual relationship, it becomes clear that those involved had their own versions, their own stories. Zev is insensitive to Isabel, and without an iota of intimacy, he uses her in the most intimate way. But what of Connelly? This is a relationship of full consent, yet in spite of that, does Isabel have any idea what she is getting into?

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Ms. Demeanor: Elinor Lipman

Let’s say there were two people, a man and a woman, lounging on the rooftop terrace of an apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She is thirty-nine, a lawyer. He, on the neighboring chaise longue, is twenty-seven, a new associate in the same firm.”

In Elinor Lipman’s novel, Ms Demeanor, New York lawyer Jane Morgan has sex with a younger coworker on the roof of her apartment building. Little does she know that she has outraged a neighbor who has seen all with the use of a handy-dandy pair of binoculars. The neighbor insists that the police arrest Jane and her amorato. Next thing you know, the police arrive, she’s arrested and finds and herself in court. While “Noah” the male half of this incident leaves with a fine and a slap on the wrist, Jane, who takes the high road (professional suicide) route of arguing that the act took place between consenting adults in private property, ends up under house confinement for six months. The Bar Association then suspends Jane’s license to practice law.

Who didn’t suggest that I view my sentence as a sabbatical, a much-needed rest from briefs and deadlines and clients? Would they like to try six months off without travel or passport, without weekends away, or nights out, with the only fresh air available from the roof that was the scene of their crime.

Boredom is of course an issue, but more pressing still is the issue of money. Jane’s twin sister, dermatologist Jackleen finds “ways to underwrite” Jane’s “unemployed existence,” so Jackleen picks up the bills and even has food delivered. Jackleen comes up with the idea of hiring Jane as a “food guide and recipe curator” as a service to dermatology clients.

The novel started off a bit off-kilter for this reader. I didn’t have a great deal of sympathy for Jane but even less as the novel wore on. Parts were very funny and others not funny at all


Man, woman, mojitos. One thing leads to another


She praised not just my culinary expertise and presentation, but also the courage it took to plunge the [live] lobsters into boiling water.

There’s some romance if that’s what it’s called–or rather an arrangement with a fellow person under house-arrest, and a few other plot elements thrown into the mix. Ultimately this reads more like chick-lit (I’ll admit I am not familiar with the genre) than anything else. I have thoroughly enjoyed many novels by this author over the years, but this one was a little too giddy for my taste.

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Now Is Not the Time to Panic: Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson’s novel Now Is Not the Time to Panic is built around the relationship between two loner teenagers in the small, drab town of Coalfield. It’s 1996, and 16-year-old Frankie lives with her mother and rowdy, older triplet brothers. Frankie is a loner while her brothers move in a mass of testosterone-driven mayhem. Frankie’s mother works hard to support the family since her husband departed with a much younger woman and established a whole new family. He even had the nerve to call his new daughter Frankie–as if the original just faded away or died. This is a period of great confusion for Frankie. While other girls talk nonstop about boys and sex, Frankie doesn’t relate at all to other girls’ interests, and consequently she becomes even more mentally isolated. Then into her life comes Zeke. He moved to Coalfield after his father took up with a younger woman (women as it turns out), so right away the two teens bond over their fathers’ abandonment. Zeke comes from Memphis and now lives with his depressed mother and grandmother. He doesn’t understand what Coalfield people “do for fun.”

“This town is weird,” he said. “It’s like a bomb was dropped on it, and you guys are just getting back to normal.”

Frankie, our narrator, admits “I lived inside myself way more than I lived inside this town,” while Zeke is emotionally distressed by recent events and goes “into some trance […] and gets destructive.” They realise that they are “both alone in the same way.” They “both had dads who sucked.”

The two teens start hanging out, and out of boredom, they create a poster. Zeke is the artist and Frankie creates the words:

The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.

Using a copier stolen by Frankie’s brothers, the two teens makes 100s of copies of the poster and then begin hanging them all over town. Two local teens use the poster as an excuse for staying out and drinking; they claim they met the devil-worshipping “fugitives” who made the poster. Nothing ever happens in Coalfield so the news that devil worshippers are on the outskirts of town, drives many of the residents into a frenzy. Soon, there’s a “poster posse” a “dad militia” guarding the streets and all hell breaks loose.

The plot follows Zeke and Frankie in 1996, and then some chapters take place twenty years later when Frankie, now a successful author, is contacted by a journalist regarding the “Coalfield Panic of 96.” There’s a sweetness to this novel, and the sweetness dominates any humour. These are two very sad teens, good kids who are struggling to adjust to their new lives, and for a while at least they think they can help each other. The novel also has an amazingly sincere introduction from the author explaining the genesis of the novel. There is something about Wilson’s approach to life: it’s fascinating, fresh quirkiness that appeals to me. I am not a fan of books about teens but I enjoyed this, its exploration of moral responsibility, individuality and friendship. I particularly liked the idea that nonconformity and creativity are right there for these two teens, and the plot shows how these two teens shaped each other for the years ahead.

Our life, which was so boring and normal was still happening. Right at this moment, as everything was changing, it was like my life didn’t know it yet. It didn’t know to just stop, to freeze, because nothing was going to be the same. Let the pizza burn,. Forget about that stupid, shitty latch on the window. Pack up your stuff. Let’s get the hell out of here. Let’s burn down the house and start over.

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Please Join Us: Catherine Mckenzie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Complicities: Stacey d’Erasmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm… Suzanne comparing herself favorably to Pol Pot. …

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

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

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

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Lucy by the Sea: Elizabeth Strout

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In what way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Aurora: David Koepp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lifeguards: Amanda Eyre Ward

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

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

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

“What makes a family not work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And little cruelties,” he said.

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

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

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