Tag Archives: american fiction

French Braid: Anne Tyler

“What makes a family not work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And little cruelties,” he said.

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

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

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The Prince: Dinitia Smith

It seems bold when an author retells a great classic and places it in a modern setting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What Happened to Anna K? by Irina Reyn works (even though I didn’t expect it to), but, for this reader, Dinitia Smith’s The Prince, a retelling of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, does not.

The Prince opens in Manhattan with the signing of a pre-nup and an awkward meeting between Federico, the Italian Prince, and his soon-to-be father-in-law, the very wealthy Henry Woodward. Penniless Federico, who has looks and a meaningless title to recommend him, is about to marry Henry’s only daughter, Emily. Arriving for the wedding from Italy, with a plane ticket courtesy of Emily, is Christina, a friend Emily met in boarding school. Christina, unbeknownst to Emily (and Henry) had a romantic/sexual relationship with Federico. They broke up suddenly when Christina began demanding more from Federico. He was busy loafing and playing in a band “earning a pittance from gigs here and there.” Federico is almost 30, and nearly a year into his relationship with Christina when she starts talking about marriage and a child. Federico “saw an eternity before him, committed to an absolute thing, a marriage. He was practically a child himself. He didn’t have the means to provide for a family, he had no idea what he was going to do in life.” Christina sees Federico hesitate and throws him out.

Federico bounces to Jean Gavron, Henry Woodward’s art advisor, to cry on her shoulder, and Jean points out that Federico probably “just don’t care enough” about Christina to grow up. It’s Jean who introduces Federico to Emily, and suddenly he’s accepting a job that’s smoothly arranged for him in Manhattan and getting married to the very wealthy Emily. Federico is attracted to many things about Emily, but of course these same things begin to grate after a while:

Emily’s lack of knowledge about worldly things, her indifference to them, astonished Federico. Perhaps it was a kind of efficiency of her part because she didn’t have to understand.

Emily and Federico have a child together. Federico quits his job which just emphasizes his kept-man status and ups his uselessness, and then Christina shows back on the scene and quickly huddles with Henry. Next thing you know, Christina is Federico’s new mother-in-law. Ouch!

The plot with its modern setting had a lot of potential. For this reader, Federico and Christina are a couple of good-looking gold diggers who latch on to the money. One intriguing thing is Federico’s resentment of his wife’s relationship with her father, and eventually Christina’s resentment of Emily. But we never get much of a chance to speculate about motivation here as the novel is all tell–thoughts and feelings are fed to us:

Emily didn’t trust anyone to babysit, Federico felt indispensable. He had an important and vital task as husband and father.

And:

Why could she at least not be pretty, not be an eager lover, or be a wife who wouldn’t sleep with her husband? That would justify it. Why couldn’t she be sarcastic or unkind? If she were somehow “bad,” it would make what he was doing all right. She was none of those things, and it deepened his agony.

There’s a listlessness to the superficial characters as they move through their roles towards the limp ending. For all this taboo claustrophobic passion, drama and tacky behaviour, a few flying saucepans (or tiaras) would have been nice. Marriage to titled European nobility was a thing back in the Gilded Age, but here the fact that Federico is a prince doesn’t have quite the same connotation, and thus it’s practically meaningless.

My opinion of the book seems to be in the minority.

Review copy

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The Dog of the South: Charles Portis (1979)

It’s only February but I can already tell that The Dog of the South, from Charles Portis, is likely to be the most peculiar book I will read this year. It’s essentially a road-trip novel–the story of Ray Midge–a man who sets off in search of his runaway wife, Norma. Norma has run off with her first husband, Dupree, taking Ray’s credit card and his beloved Ford Torino into the bargain. The nerve! If that’s not bad enough, Dupree has jumped bail, so also on Norma and Dupree’s trail is bail bondman, Jack. By following the trail of his stolen credit card, Midge tracks the runaway couple to Mexico and finally to Belize.

Norma was married to Dupree for 11 months, and Midge can’t understand why Norma ran off with her EX–his clothes are dirty and he’s unbalanced. In spite of the fact that Dupree is frequently beaten up in bars for spitting BBs at people, he never shies away from a fight. His confrontational personality always gets him in trouble but that trouble goes to another level when he starts writing threatening letters to the President. “He even challenged him to a fistfight on Pennsylvania Avenue.” Here’s one threat sent to the President:

This time it’s curtains for you and your rat family. I know your movements and I have access to your pets too.

To Midge, it’s a mystery what Norma sees in Dupree, but then again, she was showing tell-tale signs of restlessness:

She announced one day that she wanted to give a party in our apartment with the theme of “Around the World in 80 Days.” I couldn’t believe my ears. A party! She talked about applying for a job as stewardess with Braniff Airlines. She bought a bicycle, an expensive multi-geared model, and joined a cycling club against my wishes. The idea was that she and her chums would pedal along leafy country lanes, shouting and singing like a bunch of Germans, but from all I could see they just had meetings in the damp basement of a church.

I could go on and on. She wanted to dye her hair. She wanted to change her name to Staci or Pam or April. She wanted to open a shop selling Indian jewelry. It wouldn’t have hurt me to discuss the shop idea with her–big profits are made every day in that silver and turquoise stuff–but I couldn’t be bothered. I had to get on with my reading!

Midge may not understand why Norma ran off with Dupree, but it’s obvious to the reader that she ran away from her boring life with Midge. This becomes clear when Midge (who is planning on becoming a high school teacher) reveals a few tidbits about his marriage to Norma:

I think now this coolness must have started with our algebra course. She had agreed to let me practice my teaching methods on her and so I had worked out a lecture plan in elementary algebra. I had a little blackboard, green actually, that I set up in the kitchen every Thursday at 7 pm, for my demonstrations. It was not the kind of thing you like to ask a person to do but Norma was a good sport about it and I thought that if I could teach her ninth-grade algebra I could teach just about anything to anybody. A good sport, I say, but that was only at the beginning of the course. Later on she began to fake her answers on her weekly tests. That is. she would look up the answers to the problems in the back of the textbook and copy them without showing me her step-by-step proofs. But wasn’t this part of teaching too? Wouldn’t I have to deal with widespread cheating in the raucous classrooms of our public schools? I handled it this way with Norma. I said nothing about her dishonesty and simply gave her a score of zero on each test.

Along the way in this road-trip novel, Midge picks up Dr Symes, whose motor home, named Dog of the South has broken down. Dr Symes, who no longer practices, is a con-man on the way to Belize to try and talk his ancient, pickled missionary mother out of a piece of land. Symes is a know-it-all who follows the edicts of various shady gurus, and Symes constantly spouts spurious words of advice. While this is a road trip novel, it’s also a picaresque novel, so Midge meets the most incredibly bizarre people while he is hot on the trail of his wife. Since Midge’s car was stolen by Dupree, he has to drive Dupree’s “junker,” a car littered with Heath candy bar wrappers and a big hole in the floor.

The drive to Laredo took all day. Gasoline was cheap–22.9 cents a gallon at some Shamrock stations–and the Texas police didn’t care how fast you drove, but I had to be about sixty because at that point the wind came up through the floor hole in such a way that the Heath wrappers were suspended behind my head in a noisy brown vortex.

Midge’s voice is fresh and unique. He constantly punctuates his sentences with exclamation marks which somehow conveys a naiveté and also a zest for life. He’s going to need all that zest for life when he finally arrives in Belize. As with any picaresque novel, the book becomes a little wearisome in spots, but nonetheless, this is a lively, funny read, and I enjoyed it.

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Subdivision: J. Robert Lennon

A reading acquaintance recommended J. Robert Lennon a few years ago. First I read Castle, a surreal, tense tale of a man who returns to rural New York and buys a dilapidated house on a large amount of property. Then Familiar, which remains my favourite parallel universe novel. Next: Happyland, a complete change of pace, is the story of a unpleasant millionairess, a manufacturer of dolls, who takes over (with her money) a small town. Then came a short story collection: See You in Paradise. That brings me to Subdivision, which content wise is the most similar to Castle.

The story opens with an unnamed narrator, a woman arriving at a guest house in what is known as the Subdivision. Her hosts are two older women, the narrator knows that one is called Clara and the other, the Judge. Here things begin to become tangled. Both of the women are named Clara and both of them are retired judges. There’s a vast unfinished puzzle in the middle of one of the rooms: for some reason, both of the hosts are fixated on this puzzle and although some pieces of the puzzle are completed, the narrator doesn’t see anyone working on it, and for some reason, her hosts think she is completing the puzzle. She has her choice of rooms, “Virtue, Mercy, Justice, Duty and Glory.” Ok, perhaps just a quirk on the part of the hosts’ law background, or perhaps the names have some deeper meaning.

We don’t know why the narrator is there, how she arrived, where she came from, but there are flashes of past trauma. She intends to find a job and a permanent place to stay, so her hosts draw her a map, and the next day she sets off. At a local shop, she buys a Cylvia device, a “digital assistant” whose capabilities appear to be Alexa-like. The town’s streets are not marked with names and the first place she visits to rent is “the Tess” owned by a small woman named Justine. The Tess is a bizarre construction of tiny rooms–so small that the narrator must get down on her hands and knees to crawl through.:

I didn’t see Justine when I passed through the doorway; it simply opened onto another hallway, somehow even narrower than before, that was punctuated by several more narrow doors. One of them, however, was split. like a Dutch door, and the top hung half open. I shuffled over to it and peered inside. Here, the space had been divided vertically, creating two tiny cubicle rooms. Justine sat cross-legged on the top floor. Its floor was parquet; a miniature chandelier hung from the ceiling.

The next place is owned by Jules, a handsome man who is leaving the area and seeks a tenant for his home. His garden is spectacular, with an apple tree, a swing, a fire pit and a croquet court. The house has three large windows which offer views of the east, the west and the north. Through one window is a glorious view: another blighted and dead.

As we came around the side of the house, I turned for one last glance at the lovely back yard . . . my gaze, however, fell upon the western window of the living room, and then out to the yard again through the eastern window.

What I saw puzzled me. The living room appeared normal . . . but as seen through both windows, the back yard looked different. The apple tree was dead—blackened, in fact, as though it had been partially consumed by fire. The fire pit and bench swing had been destroyed; their pieces scattered about on stony, weedy ground. And from the hills in the distance, smoke rose.

In both views: the green, paradisaical and the blighted and dead, there is one constant: a crow. The narrator feels a strong sexual attraction to Jules, and she begins to have sexual fantasies. Jules draws her closer and he smells smoky, but then other odours emerge: I smelled smoke, wood smoke, tinged with other things, gasoline, melted plastic, seared hair and meat.

The house, explains the owner, was built in a “probability well,” and the “windows aren’t event tempered against narrative repolarization.” According to Jules, “they show the past, the future or some alternate version of the present.”

During all this, Cylvia is vibrating in the narrator’s bag, and the crow caws. Cylvia becomes a character in a sense as the plot unfolds, issuing warnings and alerts. Throughout the labyrinth story, it becomes clear that the narrator is on a journey of self-discovery, but why is the big question. Dreams often make no sense; we have bizarre encounters and we never stop to question the logic of our dream narrative. The same is true here; the narrator accepts all the bizarre characters in this bizarre landscape. I tend to prefer concrete characters (with names) but here Lennon cleverly weaves an unusual tale full of imagery. Could have done without the biblical imagery, but that’s just me. Is the narrator seeing an alternate reality or the past and an apocalyptic future?

I guessed what was going on here, so the ‘journey,’ for me became somewhat heavy. If you like fantasy or surreal fiction, then there’s a good chance you will like this. Lennon is one of the most remarkable American writers producing books these days (IMO). Always original, and I never know what to expect. This is the least favourite of his books so far, but I’d read this writer’s shopping list.

review copy

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.

Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.

The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.

Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.

Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.

The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.

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The Husbands: Chandler Baker

“Don’t you just love an organized cIoset?”

In Chandler Baker’s domestic thriller, The Husbands, Nora Spangler is a personal injury lawyer who puts in extra hours every chance she gets. She’s been long enough at the same firm to expect to be made partner, but her personal life often strains her professional commitments. She has one child, 4 year-old Liv, and is pregnant with a second. She’s the one who buys the groceries, goes to pediatric appointments, does 99% of the housework, and bathes and puts her toddler to bed, yet she still feels as though she’s a failure as a mother. Her husband, software salesman, Hayden, always says he will help, but somehow he always manages to disappear whenever he’s needed. Here she is juggling laundry, work, and a demanding toddler–all on a Sunday afternoon:

“Hayden!” she shouts, barely clinging to a note of self-control. “Hay-den!” She leans deep into the two syllables. She can’t help it. Her husband appears from the garage, tilting his head to remove his Airpods. “Where were you?” She sounds like a detective trying to intimidate a suspect into providing his alibi. She hates herself a little for it.

“Sorry.” He pours himself a glass of water, and a stream of it drips onto the front of the refrigerator where it will leave marks on the stainless steel and a puddle on the floor. “I was just working out. I had my headphones in. Did you need me?” He takes in her face. “What’s wrong?”

The thing with Hayden, is that he never refuses to help. He tells Nora that he’s happy to pitch in–“just tell me what to do” is a familiar refrain, but this puts Nora in the position of hunting Hayden down and telling him what needs to be done when more often than not, it’s pretty friggin’ obvious. No wonder Nora is worn out, frustrated and fed up by the sheer inequity of labour at home.

House-hunting for a one-storey home, Nora and Hayden take a look at a suburb called Dynasty Ranch. It’s full of successful, powerful women who are completely and utterly supported by their husbands. One of the women asks Nora to represent neighbour, author Penny, in a wrongful-death suit involving the death of her husband in a Dynasty Ranch home fire. At first, Nora declines the case but under pressure at work to beef up her numbers, she changes her mind.

Dynasty Ranch has a HOA and any new buyer must have a sponsor. After a get-to-know-you dinner party, Hayden is not so keen to move in–he finds he has little in common with the husbands who don’t use the golf course but instead ooze enthusiasm when discussing various ways to remove stains from clothing and the joys of closet organization. While the Spanglers can’t come to a decision on the purchase of the Dynasty Ranch house, thanks to the Penny’s case, Nora still has frequent contact with a handful of the resident wives. During a party, there’s a horrible scene between Hayden and Nora. Dynasty Ranch resident, psychiatrist Cornelia White suggests couples therapy, and so the games begin….

The Husbands is an entertaining read. Just what is afoot in Dynasty Ranch is the book’s big mystery, but another, subtler question concerns Hayden. Is he really clueless when it comes to recognizing how to help Nora? Or has he learned clever avoidance techniques which allow him to hold on to the label of ‘modern’ husband who is always there to help when the reality is that he’s just as hands-off childcare/housework as a 50s spouse? I know where my opinion lands, but Nora is still undecided and that’s where a lot of her problems lie. She feels that she’s nagging Hayden when she must repeatedly ask him for the most basic help, and since he’s so agreeable and reasonable about helping, she can’t quite pinpoint who is at fault here.

Loved the scene where Hayden sends Nora a video of Liv having a temper tantrum and demands that Nora leave work to come and deal with it as it’s “not normal.” One of Nora’s workmates identifies Hayden as the “lazy traveler” in the marriage, and the description rings true.

The lazy traveler. It’s a theory about couples. Two people are travelling together and no matter what their two individual personality types might be, one person will start doing, right? That person starts figuring out which way to the metro, what the day’s itinerary is, how to exchange currency. All that stuff and the other one, they sit back.

The demands of Nora’s life seem all too real–we may ask why they don’t hire a nanny–although there’s mention of difficulties getting childcare. The book addresses the dilemma faced by career women who’ve been told they can have it all. But all too often it means doing it all as well:

Part of her wants to murder feminism herself. Somebody please hand her the knife and Nora will be happy to stab that saucy bitch right in the back. The traitor.

This book was great fun, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. I read a lot of reviews that the book is man bashing. It’s a story. It’s fiction, I’ve seen husband-father disconnect “just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it” umpteen times in virtuoso performances by men who can’t ‘get’ that they too can pick up dirty clothes etc. Learned uselessness. Plus I’ve seen other husbands pitch in. This is a story about husbands of professional women who don’t pitch in (or don’t pitch in enough) and how far a group of women are prepared to go to have ‘perfect’ supportive spouses. This tale has a great dark, twisty ending.

I listened to the audio version of this book. It was beautifully read by Allyson Ryan.

Review copy.

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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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