Tag Archives: american fiction

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.

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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

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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)

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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

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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.

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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

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In the Fall They Come Back: Robert Bausch

“Every choice is a step into the moral arena.”

I wasn’t really ready for another book set in a private school, but since In The Fall They Come Back came from the mind of American author Robert Bausch, I decided to take the plunge. Told in retrospect by Ben Jameson, who is now, twenty years later, a lawyer, this is the tale of two years spent teaching English to high school students. Freshly graduated, Ben needs “an emergency job” and needs money so that he can “save up for bigger and better things.”  He takes the job teaching in Virginia at Glenn Acres Preparatory School, and for Ben, he admits even decades later, these two years “changed the world for me in ways I’m still contemplating.” The story examines the boundaries between teacher and student–when caring goes overboard and involvement becomes entanglement. I have a feeling that teachers who read this may identity (and wince) with some of the scenarios here as our (then) idealistic narrator makes some formidable errors.

This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don’t know which.

It’s 1985 Ben is just 25 years old and lives with his extremely attractive girlfriend, Annie when he’s hired by the indomitable owner/headmistress of Glenn Acres, Mrs Creighton. The idiosyncratic nature of the school is immediately made clear through Mrs. Creighton’s behaviour with her dogs. They are locked up in her office at night and then the following morning, Mrs Creighton cleans up their poop. Only an owner could do this, and while this seems like a small observation, it’s indicative of how Mrs Creighton runs her school.

In the Fall they come back

Ben is hired on the spot with the caveat that he read his students’ journal pages: the pages that are supposed to be private and unread. He’s supposed to report anything troubling back to Mrs Creighton. Of course, this rings alarm bells for the reader, but Ben is young, needs a job, and is also inexperienced when it comes to employment.

It doesn’t take long for Ben to begin to wonder how “anybody could be a teacher for his whole life.” He also details the monumental burden of reading thousands of pages of student writing a week (a conservative estimate is 1,250 a week). So it’s not long before Ben finds himself not reading everything and making generalized comments in the margins. Ben forms a close relationship with a much older teacher, Professor Bible, and together they compare concerns about student George Meeker who bears the brunt of his father’s misplaced conceptions of masculinity.

Ben isn’t a sloucher; he genuinely wants to get his students involved, and he embarks on almost suicidal missions to ‘awaken’ his students’ moral consciences. He introduces the subject of Hitler and the Holocaust and then later, he invites the students to write about God.

While Ben’s choices make ‘sense’ as he explains them through his narratives, the reader also understands that Ben is treading on thin ice. According to Annie, who understands Ben all too well, he has a “Christ Complex,” and is deliberately placing “little traps” for himself by introducing such controversial subjects into the curriculum. Of course, Ben protests these accusations, but Annie is onto something as it turns out, and for this reader, it’s clear that Ben’s idealism contains a streak of subconscious self-sabotage when it comes to imagining teaching as a life long career.  It’s also clear that something is going to go horribly wrong….

Bausch tells us that what happens is based on a “true story,” and I believe it. There’s the sense of lingering pain in the tragedy that takes place, and the novel’s strength lies in the sincerity of the narrative voice. The intriguing and paradoxical thing here is while the narrative voice is sincere, it isn’t always honest. Take Ben’s comments, for example, about Annie who is also “smirking.” Yes, Ben wants to ‘open’ students’ mind with the subject of the Holocaust, but that also allows him to sit and watch films in the classroom for hours on end. And then there’s the beautiful Leslie, and while Ben professes to have no sexual feelings for her whatsoever, he certainly crosses more than one line in this relationship.

Ultimately, the novel wrestles with moral questions regarding the teacher’s role in student lives. Mrs Creighton sets Ben on a disastrous mission when she asks him to read the students’ private journals. Where is the cut-off when it comes to involvement and concerns? Over the novel, there lingers the sense that still, twenty years later, Ben is attempting to justify his actions, and while this justification fails, perhaps this is a stronger novel because of Ben’s failure to convince the reader and himself.

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These Violent Delights: Victoria Namkung

Victoria Namkung’s novel, These Violent Delights, concerns a scandal involving a private school for girls. The novel asks questions about the consequences of our actions. If bad things happen, someone pays. But is it always in the way we expect? Can justice ever be achieved even if society and the Law intervene?

The novel centres on a handful of women in an sexual abuse case involving the very popular Dr Copeland, the chair of the English Department at Windermere, a private school for girls in Southern California. At tuition of $38,000 a year, parents expect their children to have an excellent education in a safe environment, but everything goes to hell when newspaper intern, 22-year-old USC Journalism student, Caryn, confides in veteran reporter Jane that years earlier, Copeland made inappropriate comments to her followed by emails, and sexual overtures. Even though Caryn contacted the school administration about the situation, it was basically just covered up.

These Violent delights

Caryn, feeling strongly that her story should be told, writes an article about the problems at Windermere but doesn’t name the teacher. Soon several other young women approach Jane and Caryn with their stories. Copeland abused his position and his access to young, vulnerable girls for years.

In these days of social media and “online reaction,” all hell breaks loose. Caryn is vilified by some members of the public and lauded for her bravery by others. As more victims speak out and the story widens, Windermere administration is forced to publicly respond via a ‘Special Investigative Committee.’

There were times when I wasn’t sure where the story was taking me, but overall, the plot takes a predictable course. While many aspects of the story are black and white, interesting gray sections, the politics of the ‘Special Committee’ and “organizational loyalty,” (a term that I’d never heard before) remain unexplored. Institutionalized/organizational wrong doing, which must be the foundation problem here, still comes down to a few decisions made by one individual. Possible thought processes are mentioned rather than explored when it comes down to the choices made by this individual.

Although the story unfolds via the voices of several female characters, Dr Copeland remains a murky figure.  These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends a phrase from Romeo and Juliet lingers over the novel with a sense of impending dread. These young women are permanently damaged–some much more than others. Dealing with the acknowledgment and shame causes a great deal of distress and pain, and ultimately, sadly, there seems to be very little ‘won.’

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The Last Mrs. Parrish: Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish, a tale of betrayal, adultery and revenge is the debut novel from sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine (pen name = Liv Constantine).  This page-turner is already being compared to Gone Girl which probably guarantees sales, but it is an unfortunate comparison for this reader as Gone Girl pissed me off more than anything else.

That said, expect The Last Mrs Parrish to make it to either a TV series or film. And who would I cast for the lead stars … well more of that later.

the last mrs parrish

Approximately the first half of the novel is told from the view of Amber Patterson, a young women who moves to the affluent area of Bishop’s Harbor, Connecticut with the sole goal of seducing a billionaire international real estate magnate in his 40s, Jackson Parrish. Amber, and that’s a fake name by the way, has done her research. She knows all about the Parrish family, how much they are worth, what they own and what their interests are. It doesn’t matter to Amber that Jackson is married with two children. In fact, Amber uses Jackson’s wife, Daphne, a woman who runs a charity foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to worm her way into the lives of the Parrish family. Soon Amber is Daphne’s friend, and she pretends to like Daphne’s two little girls in order to get invited to family events.

Amber has her work cut out for her. Pencil-thin Daphne is gorgeous, educated, elegant, and an overall nice person, and what’s more, Jackson Parrish appears to adore his wife. But Amber conducts a ferocious, single-minded, obsessive campaign to hunt and bag Jackson. At first she dresses plainly but gradually moves to tarty as she gets closer to Jackson.

The strength of the novel lies is Amber’s tart, vindictive self-justified POV:

Amber leaned forward and did her best to look interested while she calculated the total worth of the diamonds on Daphne’s ears, the tennis bracelet on her wrist, and the huge diamond on her tanned and perfectly manicured finger. She must have had at least a hundred grand walking around on her size-four body, and all she could do was whine about her sad childhood. Amber suppressed a yawn and gave Daphne a tight smile.

And then there’s her malicious, brooding resentment of the two little girls

Once she was Mrs Parrish, those two brats were on borrowed time. They could go to community college as far as she was concerned. 

It can be tough to create sympathy for characters who are so wealthy they are removed from the cares most readers share, but the authors initially create Daphne as viewed by a conscienceless predator. Even though we don’t get to see Daphne’s first person narration until the second half of the novel, Amber’s vicious intentions are so vile (she wears Daphne’s perfume and takes her underwear,) you can’t help but see Daphne as an Everywoman walking right towards her own destruction. When the novel switches to Daphne, the novel loses some of its power which just goes to prove that ‘nice’ people are far less interesting than nasty ones. We all love someone we can hate, and the character of Amber keeps the reader turning those pages. While I regretted the loss of the novel’s momentum as Daphne took the helm, I was committed to the bitter, bitter end of this one.

Angelina Jolie as Daphne Patterson. Alexander Skarsgård as Jackson Parrish. Can’t decide who should play Amber–arguably the most difficult role. (But I’m still thinking about it.)

Review copy

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The Locals: Jonathan Dee

“There was no earthly specimen more out of touch with reality than a New Yorker. People who lived on an island and paid a million dollars for a bedroom.”

The Locals from Jonathan Dee is a remarkable novel which captures American life in the decade following 9-11: the shock, the aftermath, economic stagnation, the real estate boom and subsequent bust. All of this is seen through a handful of characters who live in Howland, a town in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Regular readers know that I groan at appearances of 9-11 in novels, but here, in The Locals, Jonathan Dee hits just the right note.

The novel begins on 9-11 with a rather nasty narrator, a lab worker, who subsequently drops out of the novel. He’s on his way to see a lawyer to seek recompense from an investor who fleeced him of over 200K. Also in New York that day is contractor Mark Firth, who has traveled from Howland to see the same lawyer, for the same reason.  This early section sets the scene for the stratification, the money and class divides–of American society–a theme that lies at the heart of the novel.

the locals

Mark Firth returns home to Howland, only to find that he’s welcomed like a surviving hero. And this is one of the things I loved about this novel-the way Dee captures the 9-11 feeling in the country. For a brief moment, everyone in the country seemed to come together in collective grief.

Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next. That’s true I guess–when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good–but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you . 

Mark returns home to face a bleak future. Contracting work has dried up, and as for getting his stolen money back, there’s not much hope of that. Mark’s wife Karen, who hasn’t forgiven him for losing all their savings to a con man, temporarily puts her grievances on hold in light of 9-11, and, as she sees it, her husband’s close call with terrorism.

When billionaire Philip Hadi decides to make his summer Howland home his permanent residence, things begin to improve for Mark. Hadi, who has left New York following 9-11, is obsessed with making his house ‘safe.’ He hires Mark for various security jobs, and then settles into the town taking up local politics. After a comment from Hadi, Mark decides to stop building and improving houses, and instead begins picking up houses at auction and then flipping them for profit. He’s joined in this venture by his brother Gerry.

Most of the novel is concerned with Mark’s family and that includes his aging parents who haven’t saved enough for retirement, Mark’s single sister, vice principal Candace, and Mark’s brother, Gerry, whose work at a real estate company comes to an abrupt end following a corrosive affair with a married coworker.

Hadi’s presence in town begins to sharply divide residents. Hadi, who takes up political office, begins to suck up the town’s deficit , but that comes at a cost, and Gerry in particular, who has extreme libertarian views, sees Hadi’s generosity as what it is–a benevolent dictatorship. Using the anonymity of his blog, Gerry tries to flail citizens into action, but most people are far too happy taking Hadi’s handouts to complain or question Hadi’s decisions.

As the plot continues, Mark’s daughter, Haley, who serves as the battleground for her parents’ toxic marriage, grows up in a new America–an America in which the one-percent live in their own stratosphere while city budgets face shortfalls, small businesses fold, libraries close and homes across America fall into foreclosure at unprecedented rates. Howland has its year-round residents, the locals, who, in many cases, depend on income from the wealthy second home residents. Some of the businesses that spring up for the wealthy are totally inaccessible to the average local: the phenomenally expensive yoga retreat centre that’s booked up for almost a year in advance:

Rich people who led lives full of manufactured stress. Women who worked harder than they needed to, or women who didn’t work at all. Their hyper-refined problems expanded to fill the shape of expensive solutions.

Or the pretentious destination restaurant that serves 16 or 17 course meals, so expensive that the locals who can scrape up the money can come for a “special occasion.” Diners are given a booklet and a “small pencil, in case they want to record, for memory’s sake any details or impressions.”

Mark Firth tries to rise in American society in the shadow of Hadi, and we see Hadi, a man who has no emotional investment in the community, try to transform Howland into a personal fiefdom. In spite of the fact that Hadi is a prominent figure in the plot, his motives remain cloudy. The wealth he drops into Howland improves life, but there’s a cost that some of the locals are unwilling to pay. Hadi states that “democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” and then consciously or unconsciously proves he’s right.  The novel takes the town of Howland as its crucible and asks some important moral questions about the sustainability and future of American society. This is a story that begins in collective grief, purpose and cooperation and ends in divisiveness and an unsettling, uncertain future

Review copy.

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