Tag Archives: green housing

Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Heather and Mack McKay’s marriage is in trouble–not overtly, and on the surface of things, they may seem to lead an enviable life, but when Alix Kates Shulman’s witty, intelligent comedy of manners Ménage begins, the rot is creeping into the foundations. Mack, at 36, is phenomenally successful & wealthy.  The CEO of his own company, he’s moved his wife, Heather away from her New York career, to their ecologically designed  ‘dream home’ in Wildbloom, New Jersey, built in homage to her “green ideals.” Heather, who once had pretensions to a writing career, has shelved those ambitions and now runs her home (and two children with the appropriate hired help) while soothing her ego with ecology articles for an online journal, The Ecology of Everyday Life. Mack’s continuing absences, facilitated by a small private plane, have left Heather marooned on the mountaintop home, resentful that she abandoned her career, and suspicious that Mack is having affairs:

Not that Mack flaunted his affairs or was indiscreet; he was so discreet that she had virtually nothing to confront him with. Still, there were too many signs to ignore: guilty gifts to her; his evasive behaviour when he returned from a trip; the way he disappeared in his plane every Sunday of the increasingly rare weekends when he was home; and most tellingly, her inability to reach him, though he knew it made her anxious when he turned off his phone.

Mack flies to L.A often and his continual “jabbering” about the glamorous sexually rapacious Hollywood-connected Maja Stern, leads Heather to suspect that Maja is Mack’s latest conquest, but she’s only partially correct. Following Maja’s typically dramatic break-up with has-been Balkan writer, Zoltan Barbu, she commits suicide. Mack misses out on his intended affair with Maja, and although he flew to L.A. to have dinner with Maja (hopefully followed by a passionate session in bed,) he finds himself, instead, attending Maja’s funeral as she had “chosen instead to dine alone on Seconal.” So by page 25, Mack runs into Zoltan Barbu at Maja’s funeral, and Zoltan suspects Mack must be Maja’s latest and final conquest:

Now that Maja was in no position to contradict him, Mack was tempted to use the traditional male prerogative of claiming the sexual victory that had so far eluded him but that he hoped to perhaps secure that very night. On the other hand, there was undoubtedly a certain moral benefit attached to proclaiming fidelity to one’s wife. He didn’t know which response was more likely to win Zoltan’s admiration and confidence. Which was more appropriate to the circumstances? Mack whipped out his handkerchief and coughed into it for the full thirty seconds it took to weigh the pros and cons of each response before saying, “Just friends.”

Zoltan, down on his luck, penniless, and about to be evicted from his grotty apartment accepts Mack’s seemingly kind offer of a plane ticket to New Jersey and a room in his home where Zoltan can write his next magnum opus undisturbed. It’s an open-ended offer–one which comes with no expiration date, but Zoltan is intelligent enough to understand that Mack, a man he considers a philistine, must be getting something out of the deal too. And of course, he is. Mack is delighted by the prospect of Zoltan moving in–after all, he thinks that a writer on the premises, a cultural trophy,  may help inspire Heather, and also Zoltan’s intellectual presence in the home helps assuage Mack’s guilt about leaving. Does Mack, who triumphantly carries Zoltan to his home rather as one might bring home an exotic new pet, see Zoltan as a substitute?

Deception, self-deception, shifting alliances and multiple mis-readings are all part of this deliriously witty novel. A marriage is an impenetrable relationship at the best of times, and in Ménage, author Alix Kates Shulman creates three characters who are all unhappy with their lives for various reasons, and who each see someone else in this delicately awkward triangle as the solution to their problems. Will Zoltan heal and revitalize the McKays’ marriage or bury it? The plot’s light and wise humour is assisted by the fact that none of the three main characters are pleasant people: There’s the hopelessly crass Mack who believes problems are solved by throwing money around, and then there’s Heather who’s idiotic enough to pride herself on being environmentally friendly even as she lives in her mountaintop mansion whose solar panels allow her to bury the fact that her husband is hardly saving the planet with his solo flights to L.A to catch a meal with an attractive woman. And then there’s Zoltan…part fraud, part hipster. Is he using the McKays or are they using him? And the answer to that question is entirely in the hands of the reader.

A throughly enjoyable read, Ménage is a novel version of the best of Woody Allen films, and I’m specifically thinking Husband and Wives (it can be no coincidence that Woody Allen is mentioned in the novel). The politics of any marriage are delicate; add a third person and the results can be unpredictable. While my favourite section occurs when Heather and Mack’s friends, Barbara and Abe Rabin arrive as “witnesses,” one of my favourite quotes is this:

Everything Heather said plunged Zoltan deeper into confusion. He feared that her eyes, bright with passion, would fill up and overflow again. The tears he had found charming his first night in this house now seemed as dangerous as Maja’s. Were all women the same? What he needed was solitude; what she needed was company: irreconcilable differences. She was daily becoming less fascinating and more terrifying, like a North American Madame Bovary: self-destructive, incapable of foresight, in love with danger

Author Alix Kates Shulman is considered an early radical feminist, and she’s arguably best known for her novel (which I haven’t read) Memoirs of a Prom Queen. When I first started reading Ménage and scrapped away the surface of Heather’s thwarted career, I thought I was about to read a fairly typical story of a woman who sacrifices self to the many demands of home life. Well yes in a way that’s true, but Shulman’s novel is far cleverer than that, and with wicked humour, the plot explores the delicate politics of marriage and its unspoken, treacherous negotiations.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press.

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Getting Lucky by DC Brod

I’m going to say upfront that I dislike the title of DC Brod’s novel Getting Lucky. There’s an easy-pick-up implication to the novel that doesn’t do the plot or the book’s content justice. I’m also going to say that I read this on a whim–not sure if I’d like it at all. My review copy came from netgalley, and I decided to give it a go after taking a look at the author’s website.

The novel’s protagonist is freelance journalist, forty-something Robyn Guthrie–a single woman who ekes out a marginal living in the town of Fowler, Illinois. Robyn’s life, shared with her dog, is fairly standard and non-glamorous. She lives alone, has a boyfriend, a strange, slightly shady character–ex-jockey, Mick and her mother is safely stashed, albeit reluctantly at Dryden Manor with the other “decrepits.” When the novel begins, Robyn is confronted with two situations:

1) Her mother has decided she wants to buy a house and share it with Robyn

2) Robyn is asked to take over the work left by a reporter killed in a hit-and-run accident.

It’s difficult to say which scenario causes Robyn the most anguish.

The reporter killed in the accident was Clair, a woman whose integrity Robyn admired. Clair worked for the Fowler News and Record and was working on a piece about Cedar Ridge–a new  ‘Green’  housing development at the time of her death. Clair’s boss, Nita asks Robyn to take over the assignment and picking up Clair’s notes, Robyn begins working on completing the story while simultaneously digging into the details surrounding Clair’s death. At the same time, she also juggles her mother’s demands to snap up a house in this buyer’s market.

One of the first things Robyn does is keep a meeting Clair had scheduled with Joseph Kendrick, the man “behind the Cedar Ridge concept.” The meeting takes place at the snotty Douglas Grove Country Club, and it’s here that Robyn begins to sense that there’s more to the Cedar Ridge story. Here’s Robyn’s meeting with Kendrick:

Although middle-age spread had begun to claim his waistline and his face was a bit jowly, Kendrick gave the impression of being the image of health, His smile was warm and energetic, and when he shook my hand I felt as though he meant it. He was one of those shakers who moved in with his other hand and grasped my elbow as he pumped. Nothing unseemly about it, but I’m one of those people who appreciates the concept of personal space.

As luck would have it, Kendrick’s trophy wife, Katherine–now trendily known as “Kat” is an old nemesis from Robyn’s past. Kendrick and Kat, a lawyer who worked for Habitat for Humanity seem to treat Cedar Ridge as an idealistic project rather than a business venture. According to Kendrick, he and his wife consider Cedar Ridge a way of “giving back”

At Cedar Ridge, we’re developing a community of affordable green homes and offering low-interest loans to help people buy those homes.

Sounds good, but then Robyn has this feeling that everything at Cedar Ridge isn’t as perfect as it appears, and she begins to wonder if Clair’s story on the housing project had anything to do with her death.

D C Brod’s storyline is well constructed, but it’s the warmth and humour here that make this an entertaining read. Robyn is a great character–certainly not perfect and sometimes so frank that it’s very easy to identify with some of her opinions and reactions. Here’s Robyn remembering, but trying to hide, how much she disliked Kat:

Isn’t it great the way life loves to bite you on the butt every now and then? How the mere mention of a name evokes all that high school angst, reminding you that we never, ever really get over it. Your face may clear up and you may be earning enough to put a roof over your head, but a high school moment still has the power to flatten you.

I realized he [Kendrick] wasn’t looking at me anymore, and was, in fact, watching me. Compelled to give him something , I just said, “It”ll be fun to see her.” Why I said that and not something like, “Keep that bitch away from me,” I’ll never know.

The novel is also strong on characterisation, and we see Brod’s characters through Robyn’s eyes, with her wit and her pithy comments. Here she is at the Country Club catching a glimpse of a nasty piece of work, a man named Leoni:

As Leoni waxed on, Kendrick, who had begun to perspire, mainly nodded and produced monosyllabic responses. Apparently that was all he had to do, because Leoni seemed capable of long chats with himself. I also noticed he didn’t quite focus on Kendrick, looking past him, toward the patio, as though something there distracted him. Diverted him. Almost like he was admiring something. When I followed his gaze, I couldn’t figure out who was out there. The tables were empty and no one was strolling across the patio. And that’s when I realized what it was–he was flirting with his own reflection. When it hit me, I tried not to laugh. He must have realized he’d been busted when he glanced my way, seeing how hard I was trying not to laugh. He abruptly broke off his fixation and turned towards Kendrick.

The scenes with Leoni’s bratty daughter are hilarious, and for this reader, I admired the way D. D. Brod took ‘the road less traveled’ in her portrayal of a child who’s less-than angelically perfect. Robyn is a plucky heroine: practical independent, a dog lover. She’s the sort of person whose beliefs have defined her lifestyle but in a subtle–not obnoxious way, so we find her working freelance and worrying more about the quality of her work than a splashy career. Meanwhile she juggles her relationship with her mother and her relationship with Mick, and all these mundane concerns make her a very real person. Throughout the course of the story, Robyn moves from Fowler’s elite to Fowler’s underbelly, and naturally she feels more comfortable with a local prostitute than she does with the country club crowd. It’s Robyn’s sense of humour (and probably the author’s) that made this an enjoyable read. Getting Lucky is, apparently, the first installment in a new series. After finishing the book, I strolled over to Amazon and found the second installment, Getting Sassy (again I’m not a fan of this title either) free. You bet I’ll be reading it. Getting Lucky is lighter than my average fare–yes, there are a few bodies but the violence is off the page and some of it is even amusing, but in spite of the fact this novel is not as hard core as my usual picks, I really enjoyed it nonetheless. The experience felt like a short trip in friendlier climes, and if you find yourself enjoying the quotes, I’d hazard a guess that you’d enjoy this book too.

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