Tag Archives: american fiction

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

“Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third Lucy Barton novel; Lucy’s story begins in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she also appears in Anything is Possible. In this third novel, Lucy, a successful writer living in New York, is newly widowed following the death of her much-loved second husband, David. In the aftermath of David’s death, Lucy finds herself thinking back over her life–in particular her complicated relationship with her first husband, William.

My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a–oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

Lucy and William were married for almost 20 years, and they had 2 daughters together. Lucy came from “terribly bleak poverty,” and from snippets she drops, there’s a past of horrible abuse. The feeling of security and love that her relationship with William initially gave her was blasted into outer space when she discovered his serial infidelities which ended with William marrying, and subsequently divorcing, the ‘other woman,’ Joanne. William and Joanne had an affair for at least 6 years and were married for just 7 years. William “understood this about Joanne, that her intelligence was moderate and his attraction to her all those years had simply been the fact that she was not his wife, Lucy.”

For many years William, who works at NYU, has been married to his third wife, Estelle, 22 years his senior, and they have a child together. Lucy, who has the occasional social contact with William at social events held at his home and sometimes meetings with just William, begins to sniff that there are issues afoot. She notices that at 69, William is beginning to show his age, and at first attributes this to the night terrors William is experiencing– night terrors that are connected to his mother, Catherine. William confides in Lucy–not Estelle– about the night terrors, but perhaps he’s motivated by the fact that Lucy knew Catherine who was long dead before wife number 3 popped up. Later, Lucy overhears Estelle making an odd comment to a party guest; it’s a remark that causes Lucy a vague disquiet. Lucy’s husband dies and so Lucy shelves concerns about William, but later, Estelle, who has the most sanguine temperament, departs, possibly for younger pastures. Hardly a shock given the huge age difference. Suddenly it’s all hands on deck as both of Lucy and William’s adult daughters and Lucy begin to be concerned about William’s mental and physical well-being.

William’s mother, Catherine, was a strange creature, and while Lucy says “we loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage,” I can’t help but wonder if Lucy loved the idea of loving her mother-in-law. Catherine, who also came from harsh poverty and seemed to ‘get this’ about Lucy, didn’t always use that knowledge well. She patronized Lucy and occasionally acted in ways that could be construed as deliberately cruel. Loved the bit about how William and his mother dumped Lucy with the two small kids while they sat “somewhere else on the plane.” But that’s the thing about Lucy, her great ability to forgive and to understand people. Catherine is long-dead when the tale begins, but some great mystery from her past rears its head and causes William to ask Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to Maine. Meanwhile William and Lucy’s 2 adult daughters wonder if their parents will get back together,

While I really enjoyed the novel, I felt some frustration with Lucy, so I was glad when, on the Maine trip she pushed back on his swollen sense of self-importance. William turned out to be such a dick during their marriage, and still seems oblivious about that, so there’s a lot to forgive. Lucy manages to do just that. With William’s latest crisis, Lucy comes to the rescue and it’s all about William. Lucy is newly widowed and devastated but William’s troubles selfishly trump all in the manner emotion eaters apply to dominate the lives of others. Things are only important if William thinks they are important. No one else’s problems register–only William’s problems. William is lonely. Well, boo-hoo. Lucy is lonely too, but William is always the only important person–according to William, Lucy and their daughters. Of course, these things happen in every family. Emotional hierarchy: Handle someone with kid gloves as they are sensitive, make sure you call so-and-so as they will be put out if you don’t blah blah. Back to one of my favourite all-time quotes from Amy Witting:

This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.

This may be William’s story, but I think it’s more Lucy’s. She weaves in so many marvelous memories, and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that this woman who could be bitter and hard, instead has managed to cherish the positive in her life. The door is closed on many painful subjects, and I’m all for that. She tells her tale tentatively, creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, as if she’s still working out things in her head, so she uses phrases such as ““I need to say this,” and “please try to understand this.” She comes to revise her opinions about several people she thought she knew. I have to add here–the horrible comment Lucy made to Catherine as she was dying. Was this revenge? Or naivety?

Probably not the best idea to go on a road trip with one’s EX. Especially if he spent years deceiving you and now expects you to hold his hand and give him moral support:

As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at time those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the room, your throat almost clogged with the knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils–the odor of the other’s thoughts, the self-consciousness of every spoken word, the slight flicker of an eyebrow barely raised, the barely perceptible tilting of the chin; no one but the other one would know what it meant; but you could not be free living like that, not ever.

Finally this wonderful scene illustrates William’s incredible ability to see himself as the centre of everyone’s universe.

“Did you ever have an affair with Estelle? I mean did you ever have an affair while you were married to her?” I was surprised that I asked this, that I even wondered this.

And he stopped chewing the toast he had just bitten into, and then he swallowed and said, “An affair? No, I might have messed around a few times, but I never had an affair.

“You messed around?” I asked.

“With Pam Carlson. But only because I’d known her for years and years, and we’d had a stupid thing way back, so it didn’t feel like anything–because it wasn’t”

“Pam Carlson?” I said. “You mean that woman at your party?”

He glanced at me, chewing. “Yeah. You know, not a lot or anything. I mean I knew her from years ago, back when she was married to Bob Burgess.” “You were doing her then?”

“Oh, a little.” He must not have realized as he said this that he had been married to me at the time. And then I saw it arrive on his face, I felt I saw this. He said, “Oh Lucy, what can I say?”

Indeed.

The upbeat, life-affirming conclusion brings an epiphany to Lucy, and she deserves it. She experiences many shifting emotions throughout the book and finds still at this late stage in life, there is always new knowledge to be gained about people:

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

Olive Kitteridge (I must bring Olive into this) and Lucy are opposites in many ways. Olive is caustic while Lucy is loving and generous. But both Olive and Lucy are outsiders for different reasons. Olive Kitteridge should have had dinner with Lucy and her EX. I would have liked to have been there for the fireworks.

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People Who Knock On the Door: Patricia Highsmith (1983)

I tend to associate Patricia Highsmith with crime novels, but People Who Knock on the Door is a study of human behaviour. This is the story of how one man, a husband and father becomes a religious fanatic. So a story of obsession, self-righteousness, intolerance and hypocrisy. First the disclaimer: I am not religious, but if religion:

1. helps someone be a better/happier person,

2. helps deal with life

3. keeps someone off the streets

4. keeps someone from various deviant behaviours

5. gives your life meaning or structure

then more power to you..

Just don’t come knocking on my door selling your beliefs. It could get ugly. So now that I’ve got that out of the way, onto the book.

The Alderman family consists of insurance salesman dad, Richard, his wife Lois and their two sons: Arthur, who is about to head off to college and Robbie. Richard hasn’t done in well in life as he’d hoped and maybe.. just maybe… there’s a tad of resentment that he married young. Well no matter. Shortly after the novel opens, Robbie has a health crisis and almost dies. He recovers and Richard decides that god intervened. The next thing you know Richard’s a born-again Christian. It’s not so bad at first, but then Richard starts laying down the law regarding Arthur’s love life, and when Arthur won’t bend to his dad’s demands (this involves his girlfriend, Maggie Brewster, getting an abortion, just FYI), Richard closes the purse strings and Arthur’s college plans for Columbia collapse.

There’s the sense that home life chez Alderman wasn’t that much fun before Richard’s conversion, but after that happy event, the domestic atmosphere becomes strained. Lois, who volunteers at a children’s home, becomes Sweden, trying to keep everyone happy (impossible) and Robbie goes along with his dad’s new found faith. And what’s up with Robbie hanging out with all those middle-aged men? (why do I hear banjos?) And why is Irene, a former prostitute, now a born-again waitress, constantly pestering Richard to come over to her place as she’s in desperate need of counseling and may revert to turning tricks if Richard doesn’t come to her house pronto.

And the Brewsters,” Richard went on with faint contempt. “Are they any better? No, Money doesn’t gloss over their life-style. Nice clothes, a fine house, doesn’t hide anything. And you hang out with them.”

His father was maybe jealous, Arthur thought, as well as off the beam. “They’re certainly not the richest people in this town,” Arthur said.” I don’t think they flaunt their money. Not at all.”

“I’m saying that money doesn’t make arrogance look any nicer. What they flaunt is a lack of human decency, basic morals. I wouldn’t have the Brewsters as my clients. Just tonight, I’m looking through my list again, getting rid of two families, one of them every bit as well-off as the Brewsters. I’m suggesting they go to another insurance investment in town.

Everything in the Alderman house goes downhill. I must say that Arthur showed remarkable restraint towards his father especially after other members of the church, and the ex-prostitute, keep popping up with advice and salient bible quotes. The plot shows how when one member of the family takes the moral highground, using religion, their position becomes unassailable. This story resonated with me as I once worked with a woman whose husband had an affair. Their marriage ‘survived’ but in the aftermath she became born-again and was constantly quoting her pastor at her husband. He was never going to be allowed to forget what he did. I don’t know how he kept sane, but then again perhaps it was their private purgatory. Why knows? I didn’t care for any of the characters at all with the exception of the boozy neighbour next door. Not my favourite Highsmith. Not even close.

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The Vixen: Francine Prose

“Beneath my youthful diffidence and insecurity lurked the egomania of a Roman emperor.”

Set in the McCarthy era, Francine Prose’s novel The Vixen follows the bumpy career of a young, naïve idealistic editor, Simon Putnam. It’s 1953, Simon is freshly armed with a brand new shiny Harvard degree in Folklore and Mythology, but his career prospects don’t look great. He’s living back at home, watching the news on the execution of the Rosenbergs, with his sporting goods sales goods father and his migraine-stricken former high school teacher mother, so he’s grateful, well sort of, when his uncle Madison, literary critic and “public intellectual” pulls strings to get him a job with the New York publishing house, Landry, Landry and Bartlett. Simon’s hired to replace a pregnant, unmarried young woman who’s being eased out, so right away the vibes aren’t great. He’s buried with manuscripts–mostly awful ones but since he takes his job seriously he reads ever single one carefully before rejection.

I began each manuscript in a state of hope that curdled into disappointment, then boredom, annoyance, anger, then remorse for the anger that the writer didn’t deserve.

For someone whose psyche lives inside Njal’s Saga, this is all very dull work. Imagine, then, when the manuscript: The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic is tossed onto his desk and he’s told by his boss, the intimidating Warren Landry, to manage the author and bring the book to publication. Simon’s boss drops a bombshell: they need a blockbuster, The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic is that blockbuster, a tacky bodice ripper very obviously based on Ethel Rosenberg (Esther Rosenstein in the book) who was executed just the year before. Without the book’s success the firm will fail. So no pressure. …

The novel is awful, sleazy and plain laughable–except for the fact that it is based on a real (dead) person. To add more problems, Simon’s mother knew Ethel Rosenberg, and Simon knows that his mother would be horrified by the novel. So here’s the moral dilemma: should Simon tell his boss to use the manuscript for toilet paper or should Simon bury any moral scruples and try to tidy up the novel for publication? Decisions, decisions, and then he meets the book’s sexy author Miss Anya Partridge.

What would you call her look? Hong Kong brothel meets Berlin cabaret? Lotte Lenya? Pinch of Marlene Dietrich? Soupçon of Rita Hayworth? Let’s find a more literary model …Let’s say … Colette, only juicier. To coin a phrase … a bad-girl hothouse tomato!”

And to complicate matters even further, the very sexy Anya is an inmate at a mental institution, and it’s the very same mental institution that also houses the other publishing partner: wheelchair bound, Bartlett who occasionally escapes from the asylum and creates disruptive scenes at the publishing house. Simon is already busily having erotic dreams about Anya before he meets her, and he justifies working on the novel to tone it down. Simon cannot walk away from the job because of his sexual attraction to Anya.

In some ways this novel is a romp. We know (and in his heart Simon knows too) that there is something really fishy going on. Why is he, the low man on the totem pole, given this novel to bring to publication? If the novel is so important that the firm’s financial health rests upon its publication, shouldn’t the novel be given to someone more senior? Then what of the novel itself, The Vixen, the Patriot and the Fanatic? Ethel Rosenberg/Esther Rosenstein is portrayed as a “notoriously buxom and beautiful Mati Hari,” sexually rapacious and insatiable as she seduces man after man. It’s actually a dirty book, so badly written it feels like some sort of parody. And why is the bizarre, sexually adventurous Anya so disinterested in what Simon does to her book? Curiouser and curiouser. By the time the novel concludes, the plot feels so fantastic that it’s comic and yet … it’s sadly a reflection of the times and all too real. Skullduggery, propaganda, Red Scare, manipulation, Black Ops…. what a world. …

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Palace of the Drowned: Christine Mangan

“When I read that review, it was as if someone had printed all my worst fears, all my deepest secrets, for everyone to read.”

I’d never intended to visit Venice, but after reading Christine Mangan’s Palace of the Drowned, I can’t say that it sounds appealing. Mangan’s 1966 Venice is portrayed as a dismal place, rotting, smelly and miserable. But since our main character, Frankie Croy is depressed, perhaps, after all, it’s a state of mind. Frankie is a writer with a number of books under her belt.

Her second novel had sold well based on the success of the first, but her third had faltered, and it soon became apparent that this, her fourth and most recent, was destined for the same type of mediocrity.

Frankie’s first novel was the result of personal tragedy and mental anguish. Her ability to write (and subsequently publish) recuperated her life following WWII and the death of her parents. While it’s not explicitly stated, it becomes obvious that her fragile mental health is linked to her success as a writer. It’s as if her creativity is waning since her other novels have not had great success and she “could feel it, she thought: the end lurking just around the corner.” She’s sure that her publishing house is losing interest in her, but she still has a book left on her contract. Frankie “had always had a tendency to fixate, to obsess,” and then she reads a review written by J.L. The review is blunt and to the point: the new novel is “so apathetic, so resigned, so passive,” that J.L (whoever that is) wonders what on earth “happened” to the writer’s talent. Frankie’s publisher at first tries to reassure her and to brush off the review as nothing serious, but then he lets slip that Frankie’s work has become stale. Frankie takes the review personally. She’s angry and suggests that her next novel will be about the murder of a critic.

Frankie’s world begins to fall apart. Initially she tries to identify the reviewer, and the review continues to get under her skin; she can’t let it go. This shift in Frankie’s mental state culminates in a very public embarrassing scene in London, and she flees to her long-term heiress friend, Jack’s, palazzo, The Palace of the Drowned, in Venice to lick her wounds, hide and heal.

In Venice, she was allowed to be someone else. Someone who was, she often though, a version of her former self. She had read somewhere once that the fog in Venice obliterated all reflection.

Frankie is keeping to herself when she meets Gilly, a young woman who claims to know her. Frankie, who isn’t the friendliest person at the best of times, bristles at Gilly’s forwardness at first, but then begins to melt even though Frankie is fairly sure that Gilly is lying about knowing her. There’s something about Gilly that’s not quite right. She appears to be a young, almost giddy girl, a girl whose “life was filled with luck, filled with perfect moments by being somewhere at just the perfect time, by being the type of person to always say the absolute perfect things.” Yet there are glimpses of an agenda under the surface of Gilly’s desire to enter Frankie’s life: uncomfortable moments, manipulations.

Frankie had always trusted her instincts, and there was something now warning her against the girl watching her with an eagerness that continued to unsettle her.

Palace of the Drowned is an atmospheric novel. There’s Maria, the Danvers-esque housekeeper who doesn’t speak English, who may or may not be snooping in Frankie’s room. Then there are those noises in the deserted palazzo next door. And then what of Frankie’s mental state? There are hints of earlier issues–issues prior to the review that sent her over the edge. Is Frankie a reliable judge of character or reality any more? As one journalist said, is she losing the plot???

A terrible sense of dread and impending doom permeate this novel–from the rotting palaces, stinking water and the dreadful weather. The magnetic relationship between Gilly and Frankie, with its bizarre undercurrents is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, and so expect no easy answers here. The heavy fog of depression which seeps through every page combines with multiple vague mysteries to weigh down the plot at times, and the secondary characters are, unfortunately, vague and not that interesting. Ultimately the dark ending carries the tale to a satisfying, although ambiguous ending which made me wish I’d found the characters a bit more compelling.

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Shoulder Season: Christina Clancy

“What have you got to lose?

Christina Clancy’s Shoulder Season is the tale of how one young, morally adrift young woman overcomes tragedy and evolves into a mature, successful woman. Shoulder Season opens in 2019 with Sherri, a special events manager at the Palm Springs Art Museum who lives an organized life “with everything she’s ever wanted.” At almost 60, she’s beautifully, tastefully dressed, her make-up is “perfect” and her nails “gleam.” To Sherri, it’s a perfect life, a life she’s worked hard to achieve, with weekly dates with friends for pinochle, golf and tennis. There’s a boyfriend too, an affluent widower. Looking at Sherri, who knows just how to smooth over egos and deftly handle wrinkles in events, you would never guess that almost forty years earlier, Sherri began her career as a playboy bunny. An email from her hometown of Troy, Wisconsin, calls her back to make a visit, and the novel slides back into the past.

Sherri, the child of a quiet watchmaker who died years before, nurses her mother through a long terminal illness. And at 18, Sherri is at loose ends in the small town of Troy, when her bolder friend, Roberta, suggests that they try out as playboy bunnies at the fairly new Lake Geneva resort. A very nervous Sherri applies, and while she needs persuading to try out for the job, Sherri is surprised to find that she really does want the job. Sherri, who’s desperate for change, gets the job while Roberta does not. Many of the bunnies live in the dorm, the work is hard, and the rules are strict, but that doesn’t stop most of the bunnies from partying hard, and Sherri joins in. She becomes the life of the party, dancing on bars, drinking heavily, experimenting with drugs, and experimenting with sex. It’s a giddying world in a way: men want to have sex with Sherri but they never see beyond the trophy aspect. And Sherri, who’s a virgin when she becomes a bunny, has no moral compass to guide her through the temptations she faces.

Sherri accepted every invitation to go out–it didn’t matter how tired she was after her shift, Now she had a reputation to manage, a persona to craft that would be different from the one she was saddled with in high school. She wanted to be not just fun but reliably fun. She was the first to shoot back a shot of Rumple Minze or Jim Beam, and the last person to step down from dancing on the bar until closing time.

As Sherri becomes swept up in being a Bunny, she forgets who she was before she put those fluffy ears on her head, but it’s easy to understand, after years of nursing her mother, why Sherri wants to become another person and lose herself in this new “tribe.” Unfortunately, Sherri is naïve and she’s also susceptible to pressure from the other bunnies. This leads to trouble, but even more it leads to tragedy.

Shoulder Season takes us on the entertaining journey that is Sherri’s life, and along the way she meets many people she’ll never forget and someone who surprises her with his kindness. People who need to ‘find themselves’ are often troubled and trouble; this is true of Sherri. Living in a world full of temptations, she makes a lot of mistakes–mostly with men. Too much too soon. As a reader, I frequently became annoyed with Sherri, and I had to remind myself she was only 19 and adrift in the world. Lots of teenagers go astray, but the Bunny aspect adds dimension to the book (as well as a lot more problems for Sherri). Many of the locals are appalled at Sherri’s decision to become a bunny, but Sherri defends her choices even though she has yet to grasp the far-reaching consequences. She doesn’t see the job as having a short shelf life or a dead end and there’s the shimmering mention of Hugh Hefner who might swoop in, or the magazines who might court bunnies for soft porn spreads.

“Stand there, against the wall, so your knees and ankles touch.” Gloria said without looking up. Gloria got up and shut the door so it was just the two of them in the room. She bent down and inspected Sherri’s kegs; Sherri realized that she was counting to see if she could see three triangles of light shining between her feet and ankles, between her ankles and knees, and between her thighs.

I listened to the audible version which was read by Karissa Vacker. The reader’s voice and style were perfect for this book.

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Take Me Apart: Sara Sligar

In Sara Sligar’s novel Take Me Apart, former journalist Kate Aiken is under some unspecified cloud when she relocates from New York to California. At the town of Callinas, California, Kate has a new job as archivist for famed, controversial deceased painter, Miranda Brand. Miranda’s house, located dramatically on an isolated coastal cliff top is now owned by her son, Theo, a troubled man who has issues, some of which involve his famous mother. But who wouldn’t have issues growing up with Miranda?

As Kate wades through the chaotic stack (think rooms) of Miranda’s papers, Kate’s task to separate that which is important from the trivial, seems overwhelming, but since she’s there to work and forget about whatever happened in New York (events which are vaguely hinted about), she’s happy to dig in and work.

It looked like a dump truck had backed in through the bay window and unloaded an entire town’s worth of recycling.

But there’s an atmosphere in the house. Touchy Theo wants Kate to work but only within certain confines. Plus then there’s the question of Miranda’s death. Was is a suicide or was it murder? Through Miranda’s journals, a portrait of a troubled woman emerges. Since Miranda had a history of mental illness (including some rather bizarre feeling about her new born son) it’s fairly easy to accept that Miranda topped herself. But then there are rumours…..Her “art dealer had killed her in order to limit supply and raise her value,” that her husband Jake or Theo killed her, or that she was the victim of a serial killer. But then Miranda’s work shows self-inflicted violence:

The next sections were on Inside Me, Miranda’s mutilation series. She had slashed different parts of her body and photographed them up close. A hand, sliced open. The inside of a knee, blood pooling from a horizontal slit. An ear with blood pouring out of the canal, over a diamond earring. The gristle and fat and bone of her, torn open into elegant flicks and syrupy drips.

Take Me Apart has a very slow build up. I wanted to know what the hell happened in New York and found the breadcrumb hints rather scanty and frustrating. Plus then there’s Miranda herself who comes across as a horrible human being…

It was late at night and I had looked at the baby and thought about running a blade through his tiny heart and I knew I could not do this anymore.

The sections regarding the archivist job are interesting, and soon, Kate, who sniffs something is rotten at the heart of Miranda’s death, begins asking questions. This is a tight community in which residents gossip and form opinions. Opinions that they are happy to share. Since Kate is on the run from her own issues, she’s intrigued by Miranda and the journals draw her into Miranda’s world.

The premise of the novel was intriguing but for this reader, the gothic overtones combined with the emphasis on Miranda’s journals were too much. Being inside Miranda’s head made me want to head for the exit. Many reviews bring up the term ‘noir’ but I didn’t get the noir vibe at all. I’ll stick with gothic–with an archivist instead of a governess and with a romance (blech) at the end.

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The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

They first met Reginald Parker ages ago–in the innocent part of the year 2001– before disaster struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at a time when it was still possible to think ours was a virtuous country, and everyone liked us and terrorists were just a plot complication in the movies. We had no idea then what forms terrorism could take, at home and away, in that innocent time ages ago.

John L’ Heureux’s novel The Beggar’s Pawn gives a whole new meaning to the expression: home invasion. This is the story of a happily married, affluent couple in their 60s whose lives are slowly invaded by a casual acquaintance. While the plot is deceptively simple, various tangled moral dilemmas complicate our characters’ lives: the vagaries of helping those less fortunate, just how involved should we become with the problems of others, transparency in marriage vs keeping the peace, what do parents ‘owe’ to children, what do children ‘owe’ to parents, when does helping one’s children start ruining their characters, at what age (if any) do people stop blaming their parents and start taking responsibility for their own actions? All these dilemmas are faced by the two main characters, and the result is a splendid book–at once very funny and terrifying. The sort of thing that happens in these pages could easily happen to many of us. I loved this book for its approach to one of my pet theories: Don’t tolerate the intolerable.

The book opens in 2001, with 65-year-old Stanford professor David Holliss and his wife Maggie who are empty nesters living in “professorville,” in a large, beautiful home in Palo Alto. The house was bought a long time ago with Maggie’s trust fund money (always a sore spot with David) and they raised three ungrateful, awful, privileged children in that house: Sedge, Will and Claire.

Serial monogamist handsome Sedge “would marry an unsuspecting girl, buy a house, he could always depend on the parents in a pinch, and settle down forever with his new bride. Within the next year or two, Sedge and his wife would decide it had all been a well-intentioned, glittering mistake, though of course they would remain good friends. Divorce, division of the spoils, alimony for a specified time. Never any children so there was no need for child support.

Will, the supposedly perfect son, tends to take the moral high ground with his family. Like his father, he’s a professor, but he lives in England with his British house and his growing family. Since Will lives in England, his parents don’t see him or the grandkids much. Finally there’s arguably the most trouble, and troubled, of the bunch: Claire. Claire and her abrasive “fierce integrity” (rude) drifts from one extreme to another. Unable to find a job, she joined a commune, and had a child she abandoned. (This child eventually attended Princeton paid for, of course by the Hollisses.) After the commune, Claire has a lesbian relationship with a theatre director but moved on to “The Little Sisters of the Poor in Oklahoma. She made a retreat at their convent and after the 8 days were over, she asked to be admitted as a novice. The Mother Superior was an old hand at delayed vocation.” The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic seemed to be of no importance to Claire who answered the Mother Superior’s questions with her typical aggressive hostility. So much for the convent.

Thank god the kids are gone, and now the Hollisses share their home with a puppy, Dickens, a dog that they were supposed to just take care of while their son Sedge went through his 4th divorce. All the trouble starts in David and Maggie’s tranquil enviable life when they have a chance meeting with Reginald Parker while walking the dog. It’s a Spot-The-Looney situation. Maggie thinks Reginald is “nice,” but David has some intuitive feeling that the man is “trouble,” although all he can pinpoint is that Reginald’s hair is too long and he’s “intrusive.” As a long-time married couple, both Maggie and David have well-established roles. She’s friendly and more tolerant and David is the curmudgeon.

The few casual meetings between Reginald and David and Maggie are limited, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the man is a liar, hostile and on drugs. He patently and nastily rubs in what he can and can’t afford. (He rubs it in that he can’t afford a dog which may be what happens when you siphon your wife’s meagre income towards cocaine.) He always leaves the Hollisses with a definite uncomfortable feeling. His words are moored with conventional politeness, and weighted down by guilt over their material situation, the Hollisses tolerate Reginald, who latches on like a blood-sucking parasite when really they should tell him to fuck off. But one day in 2009, Reginald, after scoping out the Hollisses’ home, saves Dickens from being run over. This incident acts as a lever for Parker to insinuate himself into the lives of the Hollisses. Soon he hits Maggie up for a loan, and then invites them to a horrible dinner with his downtrodden wife Helen, who’s employed part-time at Walmart and their poor neglected daughter, Iris. From this point, Reginald Parker becomes obsessed with the Hollisses, and the situation isn’t helped by Claire who has a sexual relationship with Reginald. Claire loves cruelly ridiculing her parents while blaming them for her messed-up self. So Reginald moves to start writing a book based on the Hollisses.

The novel paces Reginald’s persistent encroaching aggression against the way the Hollisses roll over rather than confront. I’m reminded of Mon Oncle D’Amerique and dominance/avoidance in human behaviour. There were times I laughed out loud at this book, thanks mostly to the appalling Holliss children, all with chips on their shoulders springing from imagined hardship childhoods. They refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their actions, demanding, and taking for granted, endless handouts even as they bitch at (and about) their parents. Claire, for example, claims that she suffered “familial torture while she was a child. She had been obliged to attend concerts, the opera, and on one terrible occasion, the ballet.” The sections with the children are funny–even though the children are appalling in their presumptive privilege for which they ALL blame their parents. Reginald hates the Hollisses for what they represent, and he begins blaming them for his choices. As his obsession with the Hollisses grows along with the idea that everything in HIS life is THEIR fault, it’s almost as though he becomes the fourth child. He demands they become his saviours and just like the Holliss children, any help given to Reginald is not enough–rather the opposite. His belligerence, bitterness and aggression grow. … The book was so funny at times, that its dark turn is shocking. There are many moral lessons to carry away from this entertaining, engrossing book.

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The Price of Salt: Patricia Highsmith (1952)

Working as a temp during the Christmas season at a bustling upscale New York department store, 19-year-old Therese is an aspiring set designer. She has a small apartment and a devoted, boyfriend, Richard, and yet while her whole life and career are ahead of her, she feels that something is missing. Working as a temp “intensified things that always bothered her […] the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done.” Since Therese wants to break into theater set design, her feelings of ennui, being locked in the doldrums, are perfectly natural. But is there something else simmering in Therese? Abandoned as a child and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, it’s possible that Therese’s sense of disconnection is rooted in her early lack of attachments. Perhaps that explains her lukewarm feelings towards Richard.

Then one day, a woman comes into the store looking for a gift:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

Therese waits on this customer and later sends her a card. The woman, married with a child, is Carol, and she returns to the store. Soon a relationship strikes up between the two women. Just what this relationship is, isn’t clear to Therese at all (or this reader) and at one point, it seems possible that Therese is attracted to the older woman. But then again, Therese has no family. Is she seeking friendship? Is she looking for a mother figure? An older sister? Soon Therese, neglecting an increasingly sulky Richard, is spending time at the woman’s large country home, and it becomes evident that Carol, in the midst of a grubby divorce, has a lot of problems.

The plot moves forward with Carol and Therese’s growing relationship, Therese’s burgeoning career, Carol’s divorce, and the small circle of society in which both women move. While it’s not clear exactly what is brewing between Carol and Therese, equally subdued characters, suddenly Therese is avoiding Richard. Curiously Carol, in the midst of ending her own unhappy marriage, encourages Therese to keep trying with Richard. When Carol’s friend, Abby enters the scene, jealousy rears its head.

Weaved with an incredible sense of loneliness and individual isolation, The Price of Salt is a love story, but since its creator is Highsmith, while there’s tenderness and sensitivity, there’s also the threat of violence. When the two women ditch New York and head west, Carol’s unpleasant husband, Harge, bent on winning the custody suit, has the two women followed by a grubby PI. While Carol is somewhat discreet, Therese, who has no idea what she’s up against, makes clumsy mistakes. There are touches of Thelma and Louise, and there were so many ways this novel could have taken. Instead, we see two women drawn to each other and then separated by a society that censors love between two women, and the love between these two women is contrasted to the male-female relationships in these pages which include conformity and possession. Particularly powerful is the idea that it’s so much easier to conform to society’s expectations of heterosexuality. Therese loves Richard’s family, and clearly wants to belong on some level, but then Carol is proof that marriage and a child is a poisonous road to travel.

I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really. There’s a certain woman at the club I wish he’d married. Her life is entirely filled with giving exquisite little dinner parties and being carried out of the best bars feet first–she’s made her husband’s advertising business a great success, so he smiles on her little faults. Harge wouldn’t smile, but he’d have some definite reason for complaint. I think he picked me out like a rug for his living room, and he made a bad mistake. I doubt if he’s capable of loving anyone, really. What he has is a kind of acquisitiveness, which isn’t much separate from his ambition. It’s getting to be a disease, isn’t it, not being able to love?

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The Night Always Comes: Willy Vlautin

One thing in my line of work that you find out is that most people act like they have more than they really do, that they’re better off than they really are. It’s always the same kind of people too. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it never changes. Rednecks and gangsters want to be rich but most of them aren’t rich. Rednecks with their trucks and gangsters with their SUVs and Cadillacs. And on the other side are the full-of-shit people trying to act white collar rich by driving BMWs and Mercedes and Audis.”

“I made a lot of mistakes and got greedy” so says 30-year-old Lynette. Lynette’s conclusion about her behaviour comes after a series of bad decisions taken over the course of two days. This dark bleak tale weaves together a complex tapestry of social and personal ills: poverty, gentrification, prostitution, burglary, assault, drug sales, bitter recriminations and the betrayal of friends and family. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes is a crime novel, but it’s also an examination of American life: those who work, living paycheck-to-paycheck–those who work multiple jobs to hobble together enough to survive; those who tread water but who will sink with just one financial hurdle that could send them out onto the street.

Lynette driving an old banger, holds two jobs (bakery, bar) and in the few hours left in the day, she’s also a prostitute. She lives in a rented house in Portland with her bitter chain-smoking, heavy-drinking mother and her developmentally disabled brother, Kenny–a child in a man’s body. Lynette’s father left years ago and has a brand new family. When the novel opens, Lynette has saved about 80,000 as a downpayment for the house her mother currently rents. The owner, who hasn’t fixed a thing in years, is giving them a ‘deal,’ and with massive gentrification changing the face of Portland, Lynette sees buying the house as an opportunity for stabilization. If they don’t buy, they will have to move which inevitably means a huge rent increase. Lynette’s credit sucks and so the plan is that her mother will get the loan.

As the sale moves closer, Lynette’s mother brings home a brand new car, bought on credit of course, and it’s this purchase that effectively sabotages the plan to buy the house. Unwilling to give up her plan to buy the house, and desperate to get more money, Lynette heads out into the night to collect an old debt from a fellow escort. From here, it’s all downhill as Lynette spirals from one bad decision to another, reconnecting with her past to solve her present problems. At first, author Willy Vlautin only reveals Lynette’s ambitions and she appears to be the hard-working voice of reason, the one person willing to anchor herself to her mother and brother and pull them out of poverty. Gradually, however, Lynette’s troubled past and her irrevocably damaged relationship with her mother is revealed. There’s a dark side to Lynette, and when she hits up her Johns for cash, it’s interesting that she treats the one who actually gives her money the worst. As Lynette sallies on into the night trying to gather together as much money as she can, she sinks into male-dominated, violent, predatory Lord of the Flies territory.

When the novel began with its descriptions of Lynette’s car starting after multiple tries, and Kenny being left in Lynette’s car while she works, all the misery felt a little overdone. But Lynette’s past (and present) float to the surface and her tired, damaged victimhood recedes, to reveal a powerful novel of greed, getting ahead and the twisted reality of the American Dream. There’s an underlying theme about money–how we fight to get it, but how we don’t understand its power, and as a result, how money runs people, not the other way around. “Why does it matter to feel bad about anything? Isn’t that the American Dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want.” And this is the mantra for nearly all the characters in the book. Take or be taken. All relationships carry debt: debts to be repaid

It’s all fancy buildings and skinny people who look like they’re in magazines. I don’t know where they all come from, but they sure are coming, and then all you do is cross another street and there’s homeless people camping everywhere. They’re coming too. You can’t drive around Portland without seeing a hundred tents. People living in tents. Are they all on drugs? Are there that many people who are crazy and on drugs. I always used to ask myself, ‘why would a man in his twenties want to live on the street when he could work?’ I mean, my god, what’s happening? For a long time I didn’t understand it. Why? Why would they live that way? It seems so awful, so miserable, but you know now I think I’m starting to understand. The answer is .. why not? Why should they bust their asses all day when they know no matter what they do, they’ll never get ahead. And why should they pay 300,000 for a falling down shack when they don’t have to. And when it starts raining and getting cold and they get sick, well they’ll be the first ones to march up to any hospital and get taken in. Me? I have to pay for my shitty health insurance and all the goddamn copays and I have to pay out the nose for anything that’s not covered. And there’s a lot of things not covered. And then some homeless creep who lives in a tent just goes to the hospital and gets everything for free. Politicians get healthcare for free and bums do too. But of course not us. How does that make sense? How does that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

At the bar where she works, Lynette hands out free drinks, her co-workers hand out free drinks and it never occurs to them to wonder who is paying for all that free booze. Its currency (favours, freebies for friends) is all taken for granted. But then again, there’s so much resentment towards employers, that it’s justified. But other things are currency in the novel too–sex, relationships, power and violence. These are all currencies used to get ahead–to get what various characters want. In one part of the novel, my favourite part, Lynette goes to visit a man who repossesses cars, and he delivers an amazing soliloquy on the stupidity of people who, refusing to be content with what they have, seek credit, larger mortgages, bigger homes, as they try to move up in American society only to lose everything. Rodney has seen it all and knows that just because you drive around in a fancy car or live in fancy house doesn’t mean that you have two nickels to rub together. From his viewpoint, you can’t judge a person’s financial health from the trappings of wealth. Then there’s Lynette’s mother, a woman who’s simply worn out by life and the emotional cost of taking care of a developmentally disabled child: she sees that the struggle to keep afloat or get ahead is pointless: “No one wants to hire a worn-out, middle-aged fatso.”

Thing is Lynette, I’m getting mean. Not angry like you, but just mean and bitter. And on the TV all these rich sons of bitches they just talk bullshit and take whatever they want. They take and take and then when they get themselves in a pickle, we bail them out, so why would they care about anything but themselves. The politicians don’t give a shit times a thousand, all they want to do is stay elected and when they get reelected, they still don’t get anything done. They don’t seem to want to help anybody and they have no backbone. They just argue and blame and take money and get great healthcare while they do it. Those cocksuckers get free healthcare and we don’t. They don’t even care about our health. That says a lot doesn’t it. So why vote? I’m serious, why? Because they don’t do anything. They don’t help and if they don’t help then what’s the point of any of them? She looked at Lynette and took another drink.

Audio review copy. (punctuation of speeches may not be perfect)

 

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Nothing to See Here: Kevin Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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