Tag Archives: Baltimore

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.

Review copy

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Lady in the Lake: Laura Lippman

Once again set in Baltimore, Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake is a crime novel inspired by the 1969 death of Shirley Parker, a woman who worked at Baltimore’s Sphinx Club. Turning to fiction, the Lady in the Lake is Cleo, a black woman with a chequered past, who is initially a missing person until she turns up dead in a fountain in Druid Hill Park.

At the heart of the story is Maddie Schwartz, a well-to-do married woman in her 30s who leaves her husband, Milton, son, Seth, and affluent lifestyle to start a new life. There’s nothing really wrong with the marriage, but Maddie feels “as if she had been living in one of those shoebox dioramas” children build. It’s a ‘perfect’ life in many ways; it’s certainly the type of life that’s expected of her, but Maddie wants more. After leaving Milton and her comfortable life, Maddie receives a small allowance from her husband, sets up in a grotty flat, and she quickly discovers that “post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.” She tries to sell a ring to raise cash, and this act leads to her illicit relationship with black patrol cop, Ferdie.

When Maddie finds a murdered child during a search, she capitalizes on her social skills and inside knowledge of the case in order to get a start in journalism. Having gained some exclusive information (bedroom talk) she trades this for a minor job assisting the Helpline columnist of the Baltimore Star, a man named Don Heath. Once in this job, Maddie becomes involved in the Cleo Sherwood case, and ambition drives Maddie onward.

The story is told through a host of characters. With any crime, stories narrow down to victim and perpetrator. We tend to forget that many lives are irrevocably altered by a murder. Sweeping in all the people impacted by Cleo’s death (as well as sundry others) Lippman captures the sensation of the ripples from Cleo’s death. However, while some voices added a great deal to the story, others seemed superfluous. I liked seeing Maddie through the eyes of other characters, and while I was never quite convinced by Maddie’s drive to leave her cocooned life with Milton, other characters’ impressions of Maddie helped fill out her character. Maddie is a privileged woman whose social position opens doors, and she seems to be a bit on the powder puff side, yet the stunt she pulls with her ring reveals a hard side, and it’s clear that Maddie is going to have a career, a good career as she’s extremely ambitious. Maddie’s ambition is nicely contrasted against many other characters whose lives are sad and disappointing. There’s reporter Bob Bauer who compares his private life to a Baltimore version of Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball, yet Bauer’s wife is severely incapacitated by MS. Then there’s Don Heath who knows that he cannot outrun dementia.

I don’t think anyone lives long enough to imagine his next decade accurately. You get to thirty and you think you know what forty will be like, but you don’t, then comes fifty and boy does forty look good. I’m fifty-eight now and I’m not going to pretend I have a clue what my seventh decade will be, other than disappointing. Because every decade so far has been less than I hoped; why should the next one be different?

Not Lippman’s best; the story is too fragmented for that, but Lady in the Lake breathes life into the Baltimore world of the 60s, rife with racism and sexism.

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After I’m Gone: Laura Lippman

“Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time.”

63 -year-old retired Baltimore homicide detective ‘Sandy’ Sanchez now works on cold case crimes for the city. The pay isn’t great, but it keeps him busy and gives him the semblance of a life. With his wife dead, and his only son institutionalized, Sandy understands that solving cold cases brings some sense of meaning to his life.

There are no shortage of cold case crimes, but when the book opens, Sandy selects the unsolved murder of Julie Saxony for his attention. Although Sandy prefers to work on the cases of elderly victims, there’s something about the Julie Saxony case that catches his interest. Julie, a one-time stripper, cleaned up her act when her married boyfriend, Felix Brewer, who was facing a long term prison sentence, disappeared in 1976. Rumour has it that Julie helped Felix flee the country. Rumour also has it that Felix left her a wad of cash. While Bambi Brewer, Felix’s wife, floundered with no income stream, Julie morphed from stripper to coffee shop owner once Felix skipped town. Ten years later, in 1986, Julie was on the verge of opening an upscale inn complete with restaurant when she disappeared off the face of the planet. Many people assumed she’d finally joined Felix in exile, but when Julie’s body was found in 2001, that rumour was laid to rest.

After I'm gone

So Sandy begins digging into Julie’s murder which is, of course, connected to Felix’s flight so many years earlier. Reading the files, Sandy concludes that with this case, with this victim, there are  “really two stories, parallel universes.” On one hand here’s Julie Romeo, stripper, and then years later, Julie “respectable business owner.” As he works through the evidence, Sandy encounters a range of people who knew Julie in both of her lives; there’s her sister who’s not telling the whole story, and Julie’s former chef who swears Julie never mentioned Felix and yet he knows a lot of details. There’s also Julie’s friend, a stripper turned housewife, and Felix’s bail bondsman, Tubby Schroeder, who now lords it over the ladies in assisted living.  Tubby is a slippery character, and he obviously knows more than he’s saying. Yet he doesn’t entirely clam up either:

He didn’t answer. He was a smart guy. Smart enough not to talk to a cop at all, if it came to that. But something–Sandy’s not-quite-cop status, Tubby’s boredom in his plush nest–made him want to play this game. More challenging than bridge with a bunch of wistful ladies. 

Sandy is a great character–a man who feels that he failed his wife and son and clings to the detective work he’s good at. He’s calm, non-confrontational and as he talks to these witnesses about a decades old crime, Sandy learns that sometimes it’s not what people say, but how they say it, or what they leave out. 

She knew something. He wasn’t sure what it was, or if she even realized she had something of significance to share He’d prefer that she be a liar, actually. You could break down a liar. 

Sandy also questions Felix’s wife, Bambi, a beautiful trophy, a high-maintenance woman abandoned by her husband. With no money (and yes what happened to Felix’s money btw?), Bambi brings up their three daughters alone, convinced that her philandering hubbie left his mistress every rotten penny. Bambi’s three daughters grow up with memories of a larger-than-life man who apparently adored them yet who easily abandoned them, severing ties completely. 

I’m a Laura Lippman fan, and After I’m Gone written with great sensitivity, is one of her best IMO. Just as Sandy finds that there are two parallel universes in Julie’s life, there are two sets of characters–those who knew Julie in her stripper life and those who knew of her from their cushier nests. These rich, three-dimensional characters leap off the pages almost as though they were waiting for Sandy to come and ask the questions that went unanswered for so long. Some of those questioned by Sandy had things to hide when Julie first disappeared; others held back information as it didn’t seem relevant or they were protective of Julie. Others have had a shift in attitude as the years ground on or simply no longer have anything to lose. There’s Bambi’s best friend, a lawyer’s pampered wife, Lorraine, living in a home of “ruthless perfection” who reveals she knew more about Julie than initially discovered, and then there’s Julie’s best friend whose loyalty has been honed into a searing honesty.  As Sandy moves around Baltimore digging up the past, he confronts his own memories and demons.

Felix appears in the first pages before he does a bunk, and even in his absence, as the book goes back and forth in time, Felix dominates the story.  His abandonment and disappearance force his daughters and his wife to confront the uglier aspects of his life–that his stripper mistresses “were like Cadillacs to him.” “He drove them for two to three years and traded them in.” 

How did this selfish, self-focused man get so many women to love him? His disappearance left a huge void in the lives of those women, and it’s sad as quite frankly he wasn’t worth a tear.

There’s always been this stupid fiction that he comes back, like some benevolent spirit.

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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