California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)

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Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.

 

 

Bonus Post: Aging Gracefully

Women Rowing North:  Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age    Mary Pipher     (2019)

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Mary Pipher is the perceptive psychologist who burst through cultural expectations in 1994 to bring us Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which examined the effects of societal pressures on young women in America. For this book, Pipher drew on case studies and on her own experiences as a therapist and as the mother of a teenage girl.

Twenty-five years later, Pipher, now aged 71, explores what it is to be an aging woman—specifically, a woman in her sixties or seventies. Women Rowing North is a warm-hearted and encouraging guidebook. Using the overarching image of a boat trip on a river, she divides her narrative into four sections:

  • Challenges of the Journey—addressing the loss of confidence that can come with illness, loneliness, or changes in physical appearance.

  • Travel Skills—with specific advice on “building a good day” and “creating community.”

  • The People on the Boat—expanding the view to the friends, relatives, life partners, and grandchildren of older women.

  • The Northern Lights—focusing on how older women can find their authentic selves as they approach the end of their lives.

Throughout, Pipher illustrates her points with vignettes about actual women whom she interviewed: businesswomen and homemakers, the long-married and the single, the straight and the gay, women of color and white women, middle-class women and women living on the edge of poverty. I found these miniature stories illuminating and reassuring, and I gravitated to them when Pipher occasionally strung together a few too many aphorisms in the rest of the text.

I was also drawn to passages in which Pipher discusses the “sense for deep time and inter-connectedness“ (232) that we often cannot fully experience until we are far advanced in age. Here’s a sample of her reflections: “When we look back, we can see generations of mothers and fathers who managed to take care of their children. We can see our ancestors working in peat fields, drumming around fires, fishing in faraway seas, or traveling by sled through fierce northern winters. We can see the Indian encampments of the Great Plains, the immigration or slave ships, and the grandparents walking west from the big East Coast cities. . . We are adrift on a little boat rocked in the river of time, part of a long line of women who have lived in caves, swum in rivers, and foraged for food.” (205)

I don’t read many self-help books, and I’ve never reviewed one on this blog before, but for Mary Pipher I’ve made an exception. She rows toward the north with peacefulness and power.  

Retirement in Pittsburgh? Don't Yawn!

Henry, Himself     Stewart O’Nan     (2019)

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Stewart O’Nan offers no rootin’ tootin’ action in this novel, no daring heroes, no grisly violence. Henry, Himself is a quiet, introspective portrait of a year in the life of Henry Maxwell, a retired engineer in his 70s who lives in Pittsburgh. If you’re already yawning, stop that for a moment and read this review.  

Somehow, novelist O’Nan is able to turn everyday events into drama that drives his narrative in a highly effective way. I haven’t yet figured out how he does this. It could be the naturalistic dialogue. Henry’s conversations with his wife of nearly fifty years, Emily, can be hilarious. The two have well-worn phrases that they toss back and forth, parrying each other’s comments. 

Maybe the novel works because the hundreds of minor quotidian events are enlivened by actions beyond the edges of the main story, such as the troubled marriage of Margaret, Henry and Emily’s alcoholic daughter.  

It’s also possible that I see my own life in O’Nan’s prose because I’m in the same age range as Henry and Emily. But O’Nan is a decade younger, so I don’t know how he’s able to depict the attitudes and approaches of the elderly so astutely. He’s simply a fine novelist.  

So, what exactly does the character Henry do? He may be retired, but he certainly keeps busy every day, well beyond walking the dog. At his basement workbench he re-glues a kitchen drawer because he can’t afford new cabinets. He makes innumerable trips to his local Home Depot store to buy supplies for his fix-it projects, and in his home office he keeps meticulous records of household expenses. Despite his multiple health challenges (which he manages with an array of prescription medications), he golfs with his old pals, trading barbs in camaraderie. Henry’s beloved wife Emily is always in the picture also, and he takes pains to please her with dinner dates for Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day. The two of them escape Pittsburgh in the summer for Chautauqua, New York, where they meet up with their children and grandchildren at their lakefront house.  

In the midst of these ordinary activities, Henry mentally retraces significant events of his past—a passionate but doomed youthful love affair, his searing combat experience in World War II, his fulfilling career in aeronautics. His companionable marriage to Emily anchors him even as he is baffled by the animosity between Emily and the wife of their son. The unhappy life of daughter Margaret comes to Henry’s mind frequently, as he assesses whether he has failed her as a father. He muses, ”Late in life, after his mother had died, his father cried at baptisms and funerals and sappy movies on TV, age stripping away a final protective layer. Now Henry could feel the same softening taking place inside him, a helpless grief for the past and boundless pity for the world, and that was right too. No fool like an old fool.” (72)

You can get more of the Maxwell family in two other O’Nan novels that I also highly recommend:  Wish You Were Here (published 2002) and Emily, Alone (published 2011). Both are set after Henry, Himself, which makes Henry, Himself a prequel. I can also vouch for two stand-alone O’Nan novels that probe interpersonal relations in a warmhearted way: Last Night at the Lobster and The Odds. Be aware, however, that O’Nan has also written terrifying thrillers that I have stayed far away from!

For other novels about Rust Belt places like Pittsburgh, check out Anne Tyler (Baltimore), Richard Russo (upstate New York), and Leif Enger (northern Minnesota). For other introspective novels, try Kent Haruf or James Wood or Bernard MacLaverty. You can click the links for my reviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miracles in MN and ND

Peace Like a River     Leif Enger     (2001)

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Most of the religions of the world have in their histories or traditions the working of miracles, perhaps because humans want to believe that the usual unrelenting laws of the universe can sometimes be subverted. Peace Like a River is a book about miracles, but novelist Leif Enger doesn’t proselytize. Right up front, on page 3, his narrator, Reuben Land, writes, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

Reuben is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy living in rural Minnesota with his younger sister (Swede), his older brother (Davy), and his father (Jeremiah, the one who performs the miracles) in the year 1962. After their small town’s two bullies engage in an escalating series of episodes of battering and vandalism, Davy strikes back and ends up in jail. When Davy’s trial seems to be going against him, he escapes, managing to evade both officers of the law and a civilian posse. His family sets off to find him, figuring that he might be hiding out in the rugged Badlands of the neighboring state of North Dakota. The family encounters several distinctive characters on their quest, and the story—after taking turns toward love, fear, hope, and loss—builds to a shocking conclusion.

This forward-driving narrative line alone would be sufficient to keep the interest of many readers, but Enger adds much more. Jeremiah’s miracles, some of which might be odd coincidences, appear when they’re least expected, as the family’s road trip to the Badlands takes on qualities of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Reuben is an unpretentious first-person storyteller who inspires reader confidence in his truthfulness, and his version of 1962 is accurate without feeling forced. His language can be rich: “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (54) He frequently includes galloping verse, based on the lore of the Old West, which he presents as written by Swede, who is unusual in both her name and her precocity.

I sought out Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s debut novel, after placing his most recent offering, Virgil Wander, on my Favorite Reads of 2018 list. Enger’s prose style has developed in seventeen years, but his writing was already powerful in 2001, and if you’re familiar with the Upper Midwest, you may feel an extra zing. For the record, you don’t  have to believe in miracles to love this novel.

A Cautionary Novel about Cults

Little Faith     Nickolas Butler     (2019)

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In the title to this blog post, I don’t use the word “cult” lightly. I use it to mean a group professing a religious belief that they claim provides exclusive access to salvation. But this alone would not distinguish a cult from many mainstream religious groups. Cults often have arcane rules about conduct of life—rules that can be secretive. In addition, a cult demands absolute obedience to a leader, usually a charismatic man, and urges total allegiance to the group, alienating members from family and indeed from the greater society. The risk of exploitation of members by the cult’s leader is high.

I’ve noticed that the media don’t much use the term “cult” lately, rather giving these groups the benefit of the doubt as “new sects” or “alternative religious movements.” I was raised in the 1960s in a religious splinter group that fell short of being a cult but that could also have been given one of these more benign labels. I see a distinct tipping point between “new sect” and “cult”: When a member’s fervent adherence to the group leads the member to perform destructive (including self-destructive) acts that are widely recognized by civil society as unacceptable or even criminal, to me that group is clearly a cult.

Now, to get the novel at hand, Little Faith. In present-day rural Wisconsin, a retired couple, Lyle and Peg Hovde, are delighted when their long-estranged adult daughter, Shiloh, comes to live with them again. Shiloh brings with her Isaac, her five-year-old son. The Hovdes don’t ask about Isaac’s father; they’re just reveling in their newfound grandparenthood. And Isaac is a bright, sweet child.

The knot of this novel, however, arises when we find that Shiloh has become a member of a cult. True, Shiloh calls the group that she joins her “church,” but it has all the hallmarks of a cult. Lyle and Peg try to be respectful of Shiloh’s beliefs, not the least because they’re desperate to have good relationships with their only child and only grandchild. But the deceptive and damaging aspects of Shiloh’s beliefs become more and more apparent as the story wends through the seasons of a year. Lyle’s own struggles with religious belief weave in and out of the narrative.

Nickolas Butler’s prose is straightforward but occasionally lyrical, his characters are beautifully developed, and his plot is achingly tragic. I challenge any reader of Little Faith not to weep at the ending of the novel, which I will not spoil with a full revelation of the plot. An Author’s Note tells us that part of the story is based on an actual 2008 incident in Wisconsin, where Butler lives. Thus, Little Faith becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremist, authoritarian groups that entrap needy souls in the name of religion.

Click here for my review of another of Nickolas Butler’s novels, The Hearts of Men.

A Riverside Mystery

Once upon a River     Diane Setterfield     (2018)

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The river of the title is the Thames, meandering its way through southern England toward London and the sea. It’s a waterway freighted with history, mystery, and folklore. Diane Setterfield calls upon all these qualities of the Thames in this mystical, magical novel.

On a blustery night at the winter solstice, in an unnamed year in the nineteenth century, some inveterate storytellers are drinking at an inn called The Swan in a town called Radcot (an actual place in West Oxfordshire). Bursting in at the door comes a badly injured man carrying what seems to be a floppy doll. The man turns out to be a photographer whose boat crashed at a weir upstream. The doll turns out to be a young girl, about four years of age, who is at first thought to be dead but then revives at the hands of the local nurse/midwife, who is called to the scene.

The basis of the book is revealed in the first few chapters, but the unraveling of the tale takes 400 more pages. Who is the little girl? She does not speak, so she cannot reveal any information. Does she belong to the photographer? Is she the daughter of a local landowner—a child kidnapped two years previously and never found? Is she the sister of the parson’s housekeeper, a fearful woman with many reasons to be twitchy? Is she the step-granddaughter of a mixed-race farmer who lives nearby?   

The narrative snakes back and forth among these possibilities, much like the flow of the River Thames, with language that evokes folk legend or fairy tale, though grounded in daily life. In keeping with this tone, the characters are drawn with broad strokes. The farmer is a most upright and kindly man; the nurse is highly skilled and compassionate. As foils, the evil characters at the fringes of the novel are truly nasty. For example, the farmer’s stepson is unrepentant as he pursues various unethical and criminal activities in the face of unrelenting kindness from the farmer.    

Novelist Setterfield keeps coming back to those storytelling tipplers at The Swan. Their speculations about the strange little girl, and their embroideries upon the events of that winter solstice night, are like the Facebook posts of their era. As a year of seasons advances, most of the plot and sub-plot components are ultimately resolved, but readers are left with some of the same uncertainties that the storytellers at the inn have.  

It’s a cracking good tale.

Cozy Mysteries in Maine

The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries     Lea Wait    (2015-present)

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I’ve recently dipped into this popular American cozy mystery series. In the initial book, Twisted Threads, we learn that the first-person narrator, Angie Curtis, was raised in Maine by her grandmother (“Gram”) after the disappearance of Angie’s mother. When the mother’s body is found after 17 years, 27-year-old Angie heads back to Maine from Arizona, where she’s been working as an assistant to a private detective. Angie’s skills come in handy with the investigation into her mother’s death and other mysteries in the small Maine tourist town of Haven Harbor. After these are solved, Angie agrees to stay on for six months to help Gram run her home-based business, Mainely Needlepoint, which produces high-end custom pillows, chair covers, and wall hangings.

Of course, in subsequent books in the series, other crimes in Haven Harbor bubble to the surface for Angie to tackle. She finds herself pretty happy to be back in Maine with her delightful Gram, the eccentric cast of needle crafters who work for Mainely Needlepoint, and potential romantic partners.

The dialogue in these novels is realistic, and the plots move quickly, resolving in the final few pages, though I did detect signs of haste in the writing. The setting on the coast of Maine comes to life with descriptions of ocean views and luscious seafood. I guessed some of the perpetrators of crimes early on, but I liked learning more about Angie as she weighs whether to stay on in her native Maine or return to the sunny Southwest.

You can read the books in any order, but chronologically works best. The series titles are

Twisted Threads (2015)

Threads of Evidence (2015)

Thread and Gone (2015)

Dangling by a Thread (2016)

Tightening the Threads (2017)

Thread the Halls (2017)

Thread Herrings (2018)

Thread on Arrival (2019)

For other cozy mysteries, see my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels (also here).

Graham Norton’s Holding is another great cozy, reviewed here.

Surviving Exploitation

Before We Were Yours      Lisa Wingate     (2017)

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When children are exploited and abused by adults, the response of most people is to recoil in horror and call for criminal prosecution. This has occurred with Jewish children in the Holocaust, indigenous children in Canadian schools, children abused by Roman Catholic priests, and Central American children in the detention centers at the southern border of the United States.  

One documented case of severe and widespread child abuse that has not received much attention took place from the 1920s until 1950 at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, under the direction of a woman named Georgia Tann. Although Tann covered her tracks through falsification of thousands of records, some survivors have been able to piece together the history of how they were abducted from their impoverished parents and sold by Tann to wealthy families. Children with blonde hair and blue eyes fetched especially high prices. Tann never came to trial because she died in 1950 just as the her nefarious scheme was being exposed.   

Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is a novel, but it’s based on the actual remembrances of survivors who lived in Tann’s squalid holding facility while they were waiting to be sold. In this re-creation, we meet the fictional Foss children through the eyes of the eldest, Rill Foss, who is twelve. In 1939, she and her four younger siblings are living happily with their loving parents on a houseboat that plies the Mississippi River. When the mother faces complications in childbirth, the father rushes her to a hospital on shore, and Rill is left to supervise her siblings. She’s powerless when strangers arrive at the houseboat and spirit all the children away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. In first-person narration, Rill describes the maltreatment of the children with a level of detail that I found painful to read.  

Novelist Wingate wisely softens this narration by flashing forward in alternate chapters to the life of a young woman named Avery Stafford, an affluent attorney in present-day South Carolina. Avery stumbles upon some pieces of her family’s history that confuse her, and she sets out to unravel the mysteries of her lineage. Readers know that the story from 1939 and the story from the present day are likely to coalesce at some point, and Wingate handles the tension that leads to the solution of the mysteries adeptly, throwing in a couple of sub-plots to further pique reader interest. The tenacity of familial love is a central theme in this fictionalization of a dark chapter in the history of adoption services.  

Postscript: Many thanks to Dorothy Needham Moreno for suggesting this author for me to read! 

Social Histories of Detroit

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story    David Maraniss     (2015)

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I’ve been reading a lot of Detroit histories as background for a novel I’m currently writing. This is my favorite.  

Journalist David Maraniss combines deep research with eminent readability as he describes  Detroit in a narrow but critical slice of time—from the fall of 1962 into the spring of 1964. In an Author’s Note, Maraniss confirms that “the city itself is the main character in this urban biography” (xiii). But a dozen or so of Detroit’s prominent inhabitants are featured also, their stories woven through the narrative, their characters and personalities tellingly revealed: labor leader Walter Reuther, auto exec Henry Ford II (“the Deuce”), Aretha’s father the Rev CL Franklin, mayor Jerome P Cavanagh, and Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr, among others.  

Maraniss also interviewed many ordinary citizens. I found the remembrances of Robert C Ankony, as transcribed by Maraniss, particularly effective in evoking Southwest Detroit, which was smack up against the border with Dearborn. He describes the smokestack smell from the foundry at the River Rouge Complex and the look of the storefronts on West Vernor and Michigan. Ankony was a 14-year-old truant from school on the fateful day of November 9, 1962, when he became an eyewitness to the massive fire that burned the Ford Rotunda to the ground. The Rotunda was a fabulous exhibition space that was one of the five top tourist attractions in the US at the time, and its destruction, which opens Once in a Great City, portends coming troubles in all sectors of Detroit life.  

Complete with maps to help you visually locate key sites from the period, Once in a Great City chronicles the battles for civil rights, the marketing of the first Ford Mustang, and Detroit’s failed bid to host the 1968 Olympics. National events form a backdrop: the assassination of JFK, the rise to prominence of MLK, the Great Society promises of LBJ. These three men paid attention to Detroit in the early Sixties because it was then still a truly great city.  

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit     Thomas J. Sugrue     (1996, with a new preface by the author in the 2005 edition) 

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In academic research about 20th-century Detroit, everything starts with this classic social history, which breaks through previous assumptions that a “culture of poverty” and the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson created urban decline in Rust Belt cities such as Detroit. Thomas Sugrue amasses meticulous details to construct instead a picture of deindustrialization and of discrimination in employment and housing that led to an impoverished underclass of African Americans hopelessly stuck in a deteriorating urban landscape. 

The research basis of this book is astounding. Sugrue went digging in numerous archives, drilling down to the level of newsletters of local neighborhood associations and minutes of city commission meetings (as just two examples) to extract the story of what really happened in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. He didn’t rely just on newspaper accounts or police reports, which were often skewed to downplay racial violence, redlining, and the shenanigans of the captains of industry. While we may assume that the 1950s were a period of unalloyed American prosperity, Sugrue’s data demonstrate that the societal prejudices of the 1950s and the previous decades led directly to massive unemployment, infrastructure decay, and white flight to the suburbs in mid-century and late-century Detroit.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis is not a quick read, but for anyone who wants to fully understand Detroit—and many other major American cities—it’s essential.

Two Novels Set in Detroit

I’m currently writing a novel set in 1960s Detroit, so I’ve been reading widely about this time and place. Two of my fiction finds are reviewed here. Watch for a future post on social histories of Detroit.

We Hope for Better Things     Erin Bartels     (2019)

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Interracial relationships are the theme of Erin Bartels’ multi-century historical novel. In the present-day chapters, white Detroit journalist Elizabeth Balsam, following up on a lead about unpublished photos of the 1967 Detroit riots, ends up at her great-aunt Nora’s farmhouse in Lapeer, about an hour’s drive north of the city. Elizabeth slowly uncovers information about Nora’s romance with an African American man in the turbulent Detroit of the 1960s; readers get this backstory in separate chapters.  

Yet another layer of Elizabeth’s family history is revealed in chapters set in Lapeer in 1861, when the farmhouse was a stop for slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad. I had to pay close attention to keep all the characters straight, but I appreciated all the local color and period detail in Bartels’ writing, as she places her characters at watershed moments of history, such as the June 1963 speech by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, in Detroit. And that title? It’s from the motto for the city of Detroit: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

Beautiful Music      Michael Zadoorian     (2018)

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If you’re familiar with the arcana of hard rock in the early 1970s (and I mean way beyond just MC5 and Iggy Pop), you’ll probably love this novel. That’s not my music, so I skimmed over the many references to bands and radio disc jockeys and album covers. I read the book instead for the touching story of a high school freshman at Redford High School, on Detroit’s far northwest side, in a period of increasing racial tension and violence in the city.

Danny Yzemski is a sweet, shy kid who’s bullied in school and beleaguered at home. His coming-of-age is aided by his discovery of the transformative power of music. He demonstrates that if you find the tracks that speak to you, the music can make all the difference in your survival. One chapter is aptly titled “Music Soothes the Savage Brain.” The detailed descriptions of Danny’s neighborhood along the Grand River corridor—the routes he took, the stores he frequented—re-create the era precisely. Even the breakfast cereals that Danny eats are authentic to the period. For vintage Detroit flavor, tune in to Beautiful Music.

Click here for a radio interview with author Michael Zadoorian.

Historical Drama in Tuscany

The Tuscan Child     Rhys Bowen     (2018)

Rhys Bowen knows how to write a mystery, having penned dozens of them for her three series—the Constable Evans, Molly Murphy, and Royal Spyness Mysteries. In The Tuscan Child, a standalone novel, she tucks several mysteries into a package that also holds its own as a historical novel.  

The story shifts between 1944-45 and 1973 in alternating chapters. In the World War II sequences, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley lies badly wounded near the fictional village of San Salvatore in Nazi-held Tuscany, tended for many weeks by the kindly Sofia Bartoli. He hides in the ruins of a monastery as he gains strength and tries to plan an escape to the south, where there are Allied forces. 

Readers know that Hugo survives the war, because decades later, Hugo’s daughter, Joanna, is sorting out her father’s belongings after his sudden death near the family’s former estate in England. When Joanna finds a letter, returned as undeliverable, that Hugo wrote to Sofia after the war, she decides to travel to Tuscany herself to unravel the secrets of Hugo’s war service. Tangled in with these two stories are the unknown activities of the Nazi soldiers and of the Tuscan resistance during World War II, the business dealings of a wealthy landowner in San Salvatore, and a surprise murder. In 1973, World War II was still fresh in the memories of the European civilians who survived devastating conflict in their countryside, but they may choose to forget. 

Italian cuisine provides a mouthwatering backdrop to the Tuscan adventures. Raised on English food (think sausage rolls and Yorkshire pudding), Joanna has her taste buds awakened by basil and squash blossoms and homemade pasta and fresh-picked tomatoes. Even Hugo, during the severe privations of the war, learns to love flavorful Tuscan bean soup. Culinary delights prime the characters for amorous adventures.

With brisk dialogue and well-sketched protagonists, novelist Bowen kept me racing through the chapters to find out the fate of that Tuscan child and the resolution of all the other mysteries.

Re-post: Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

The Overstory     Richard Powers     (2018)

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I’m re-posting this review, since The Overstory just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Overstory is a novel that’s massive in scope, sophisticated in descriptive power, and disturbing in message.

I hadn’t read  any reviews before I cracked open the cover, where I met nine characters in the first 152 pages, including a farmer in Iowa, a Silicon Valley computer programmer, a Minnesota couple who are community theater buffs, a soldier serving in the Vietnam War, and a budding scientist in Appalachia. I thought that The Overstory might be a set of interwoven short stories about unrelated people from all corners of the United States. The stories are damn fine, and I figured that novelist Powers might extend each story and perhaps have some of these characters meet each other in the remaining 350 pages of the book. I soon caught on, however, that trees seemed to be a common element in the stories, and the bonds between the people in The Overstory mirror the bonds between species in the forests.

Some of Powers’s characters do meet, as they become involved in radical environmental activism on behalf of trees in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the forests of North America take center stage in the narrative. I learned that humans share about a quarter of their genetic makeup with trees, and Powers is highly effective in portraying the sentient qualities and the community attachments of those leafy overstories: “There are no individuals in a forest. Each trunk depends on others.” (279) One human character, a psychologist studying the personality traits of environmentalists, finds that most of them agree with the statement “A forest deserves protection regardless of its value to humans.” (331)

I’m a great fan of forests—especially of hiking through them—so I devoured segments like this one, where a botanist explores an old growth forest in the western Cascades during a damp September: “The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderweb leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks in terraced ledges. Dead salmon feed the trees. Soaked by fog all winter long, spongy green stuff she can’t name covers every wooden pillar in a thick baize reaching higher than her head.” (134) The description kept my attention for two full pages.

Powers could have framed his book as a nonfiction exposé of the sins of the logging industry, but showing the motivations of fictional “tree huggers” from all walks of life is much more effective in getting across the message that human destruction of forests will eventually, and pretty soon, make our planet unlivable. Put simply:  “Deforestation: A bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together.” (281) And lest you be deceived, the replanting touted by those who exploit forests for financial gain can never replicate the millennia-old diversity and interconnectedness that clear-cutting obliterates.

If you’ve enjoyed Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, or any of Wendell Berry’s poetry, you should read The Overstory. And for another novel about the devastation of North American forests, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

For People Who Love Books

The Library Book     Susan Orlean     (2018) 

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Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for the New Yorker for decades, so she knows how to write a punchy piece about a disaster like the catastrophic 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. But this time, instead of boiling her investigations down to 5000 words, she has expanded them into a book-length exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library and of libraries in general. With each chapter of The Library Book she traipses off in a different direction—the biographies of early librarians in LA, her own love of books, and even the burning of books as a tool of oppression in Nazi Germany.  

Threading through it all is Orlean’s search for answers to why the LA Public Library burned in 1986, with the incineration of 400,000 books and serious damage to 700,000 more. Orlean keeps coming back to arson suspect Harry Peak, and she interviews Peak’s family, friends, and associates as she tries to figure out what really happened. Orlean’s weaving of the story is mesmerizing. You come away knowing a lot more about the creation of books and libraries, without even realizing that you’ve been taught.  

Her insights into the value of public libraries, backed by many examples, are priceless. Here are a few:  

  • “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” (67)

  • “In times of trouble libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers—even blood-draw locations.” (76)

  • “Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.” (103) 

My home-town source for reading material, the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL), is a gem of a system. Since I can’t afford to buy books, all the reviews on this Cedar Park Book Blog are based on my borrowings from AADL, which has an aggressive acquisitions program as well as exceptional staff at all levels. The visionary Library Director, Josie Parker, has shepherded the AADL into the digital age while retaining all the qualities of a traditional library. I applaud the Ann Arbor District Library as I recommend Susan Orlean’s book, which is an encomium for all libraries.  

For you writers out there, I offer one more quotation: 

“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” (309-310)

An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

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Celeste Ng’s 2018 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, made my list of the best of that year. I checked out Ng’s 2014 offering, Everything I Never Told You, to get more of her deep probing of complex family issues, and I was not disappointed.  

The first words of Everything I Never Told You are “Lydia is dead,” so it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that the death of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is the central mystery of the novel, which is set primarily in 1977 in a small college town in northwestern Ohio. The narrative line zigs and zags, back and forth in time, tracing the lead-up to the death of Lydia and, in the process, uncovering the backgrounds and personalities of the other members of her immediate family.  

Lydia’s father, James Lee, is a professor of history at the local college. The Chinese American James has struggled against bigotry throughout his life, and the ante is upped when he marries Marilyn, an undergraduate he meets in 1957 when he’s a graduate student at Harvard. Marilyn, with her honey-colored hair and blue eyes, has battled discrimination and bullying as a woman trying to make a career in science. Her plans to become a physician are scuttled when she gets pregnant, marries James, and drops out of Radcliffe. As a bored stay-at-home mother, she finds a focus for her considerable intellect in grooming daughter Lydia for medical school, even though Lydia doesn’t have the interest or ability that Marilyn assumes. Lydia’s older brother, Nath, is pretty much ignored by the family as he quietly applies to and is accepted by Harvard to pursue his passion for aeronautics. And Lydia’s younger sister, Hannah, hiding under tables and around corners, observes much but is dismissed as irrelevant by the rest of the family.

As the title of the novel lays out clearly, the Lee family members don’t open their hearts to each other. James pushes his biracial children toward conformity, wanting them to fit in even though they look different from everyone else in town. (“. . . different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.” [251]) Marilyn is mostly able to hide her anguish about her abandoned career, but at a high price. Lydia’s siblings do what they can to support each other, but Nath in particular longs to escape the backwater where he was raised. Novelist Ng takes readers behind the scenes, reconstructing the months leading up to Lydia’s death as well as the months afterwards. The Lees are all stupefied by their grief, but each family member’s reaction to Lydia’s death is unique. The inability of the Lee family to discuss racism and sex discrimination is a microcosm of society’s struggles on these topics. 

When I finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to hug James and Marilyn and Nath and Hannah and tell them that they are good people who will survive the tragedy of losing Lydia. I wanted to gently encourage them to talk to each other more. I wanted to know how the rest of their lives played out. Obviously, these fictional characters came fully alive for me, testifying to the skill of Celeste Ng. Her intimate family story is sad and poignant and yet glimmering with hope.

A Field Hospital in WWI

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The Winter Soldier     Daniel Mason     (2018) 

Gruesomeness alert: This novel is set in Europe during World War I, so you’re going to encounter dead horses, gangrenous limbs, and rats in the mud. But it’s well worth wading past the paragraphs of war trauma to read Daniel Mason’s novel about a young medical student working in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. And there’s only one actual battle scene, easy to skim over.  

Lucius Krzelewski (pronounced K-she-lev-ski) has had virtually no patient contact when he drops out of medical school in 1915 and leaves his wealthy Viennese family for a posting to a remote village in the eastern Carpathian Mountains. He’s eager to get experience with hands-on medicine, and the converted church with minimal equipment that is the first stop for war casualties shoves him right into surgery. Since all the other medical staff have fled or died of typhus, his mentor is Sister Margarete, a nun-nurse who guides him as gently as possible in treating the horrific wounds of early-20th-century warfare in primitive conditions. Lucius does his share of amputations, but he’s most interested in trying to help the soldiers who are mentally wounded, rendered paralyzed or mute or raging by the terrors of war. We’d call them victims of PTSD now, but in 1915, the WWI descriptor “shell shock” hadn’t even been fixed. These soldiers were assumed to be malingerers or cowards.  

When a local farmer brings Sergeant József Horváth to the church/hospital door in a wheelbarrow, Lucius is intrigued. Lucius’s medical curiosity—and a sincere desire to help Horváth—sets in motion a series of events destined to change the course of his life. Lucius and Sister Margarete are the main actors in this drama, but the supporting cast is large, and each individual is exquisitely portrayed, down to the people encountered by chance in railway cars.  

These characters manage to travel all around war-ravaged eastern Europe, by rail, by cart, or on foot, and Mason’s settings vividly evoke each stop. One example: “In the fields, high grass crowded out the maize and sunflowers. My God, thought Lucius as he stared into the green expanse, he had almost forgotten the land’s fecundity. Great heaps of flax and St. John’s wort rose on the roadside berms, and the road itself, a paisley of mud and tire tracks, was overgrown with brome. Ahead, the mountains rose before him in their grandeur, massive, like the rumpled repose of a stage curtain with its rich, brocaded pleats.” (287) 

Novelist Mason is a physician, specializing in psychiatry, so he writes with authority on the medical side: “It was a curse to be a doctor, to know anything! In this at least his patients were lucky, oblivious to the horrors that could happen. Now the possibilities seemed endless.” (153) Mason’s rich historical details also seem to be accurate. The result is a novel that hews to a grand tradition of war fiction, in which the shattering effects of war on human relationships are exposed in heartbreaking detail. In this, the novel has resonances with Anthony Doerr’s modern masterpiece set in World War II, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Readers who prefer more cryptic, avant garde novels may find The Winter Soldier too old fashioned. I’ll take old fashioned this time.

Bonus Post: Michelle Obama's Memoir

Becoming     Michelle Obama     (2018)

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Michelle Obama’s memoir was the bestselling book of 2018, even though it wasn’t published until November of that year. Many of the surprises of the book have been widely discussed in news articles—for instance, that Michelle had a miscarriage before her older daughter, Malia, was born and that she and Barack used IVF to conceive both Malia and their second daughter, Sasha.

Becoming is as engaging as a page-turner novel; I read it cover-to- cover in one day. Instead of rehearsing the biographical details of the book, which you can find in reviews all over the place, I’ll tell you what aspects struck me most:

  • The authentic voice of Michelle Obama.

The Michelle in this memoir is the same Michelle that you know from talk shows and interviews and that slam-dunk speech that she gave at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The cadence of the phrases is the same, the warmth is the same, the frankness is the same.

  • The story of the evening that Barack proposed marriage.

Readers are aware, of course, that Michelle and Barack did get married, but the suspense in this scene is delightful.

  • The insights into ordinary middle-class African American family life.

Yes, Michelle grew up on Chicago’s tough South Side, but she doesn’t whine about what she lacked. She describes gatherings of her large extended family with obvious affection. She praises her parents for the sacrifices they made so that she and her older brother could have good educations.

  • The insights into life in the White House.

It’s luxurious, but the necessary security measures make it a virtual prison for the First Family. Michelle was determined that her young daughters have some semblance of a normal childhood, and this was a tall order for the eight years of Barack’s presidency.

  • The sad truth of how hurtful right-wing media attacks are.

Over and over, Michelle describes how devastated she was when her patriotism was questioned about quotes taken out of context or when she was viciously attacked for wearing a particular piece of clothing. 

  • The revelation of Michelle’s sense of insecurity.

The seemingly indomitable former First Lady recounts, repeatedly, when she felt inadequate, when she feared that she was not good enough. Her 2016 appearance on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” seemed effortless and relaxed, but she tells us that it was “a little terrifying” (402) and that she practiced for weeks. She agreed to appear only to promote a song that would raise money for a global project for the education of girls.

You’ll notice that I refer to the author here as “Michelle,” and I mean no disrespect in using her given name. Don’t most Americans feel as if they know her personally? Didn’t she connect with the citizenry in a way that other First Ladies simply haven’t? Becoming cements that connection.

Postscript: Thanks to Dorothy Needham Moreno for lending me her copy of Becoming so that I didn’t have to sit for a year on the library’s wait list!

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.  

A Novel about a Nasty Novelist

A Ladder to the Sky     John Boyne     (2018)

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 “Nasty, nasty, and nasty” are the words that come to mind to describe the character Maurice Swift in this latest novel by Irish author John Boyne. Maurice wants to be a writer, and not just any writer but a world-renowned one. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, though he himself says that ambition is “like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.” (309) He also admits that he has absolutely no talent for plot, though if he’s given a plot he can hang words on it fairly well. 

We first meet the slick, handsome Maurice in 1988, when he’s a young ex-pat Yorkshireman working as a waiter in Berlin. He charms Erich Ackermann, a novelist on a book tour. Then we jump ahead a few years to another European locale: the stunning home of (the real-life author) Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast. In this segment, Maurice is even more confident—no, brazen—as he arrives to visit Vidal in the company of Dash Hardy, another of his conquests. Although Maurice doesn’t fool the savvy Vidal, his literary star is rising. The next episode takes place in Norwich, England, in 2000-2001, with Maurice now married to Edith, who has recently published a successful novel. Then, after a stint in New York running a literary magazine, Maurice ends up in present-day London, meeting with young Theo Field, who interviews him for a proposed biography. With each successive segment of the novel, told from various narrative perspectives, we get a fuller picture of the true evil that lies in the heart of Maurice Swift.   

The blurbs and reviews of this book have focused on Maurice’s theft of intellectual property in the form of plots and plot components. I don’t really see these appropriations of his as criminal. In fact, before the modern era, originality in plot was not a literary skill that was highly prized. Chaucer and Shakespeare rarely came up with original plots. And some stories have been mined for centuries: the Arthurian legends have been reworked by countless greats, from Malory to Tennyson to Lerner and Loewe. Some contemporary genres are all about reused plot elements—autofiction, for instance, is constructed out of pieces of the novelist’s own life history. I could offer countless other examples. So, no, I don’t see plot thievery as Maurice’s sin. Instead, his sin is ambition. His overweening desire to be a famous novelist leads him to steal more than just plots and to commit many other increasingly heinous crimes.  

As Maurice’s wife, Edith, says to him: “’You’re not a writer at all, Maurice. You’re desperate to be but you don’t have the talent. You never did have. That’s why you’ve always attached yourself to people more successful than yourself, pretended to be their friend and then dropped them when they were no longer of any use to you.’” (215) Maurice’s pretense of friendship is only the half of it.  

With Maurice Swift, Boyne has created a character who plays the game of contemporary fiction shrewdly, vying for the attention of agents and publishers and making the rounds of all the book festivals. Maurice cultivates those who can advance his career, using his natural good looks and sensuality to seduce both men and women. In this multi-layered novel, Boyne is not only offering a portrait of an unscrupulous writer but also skewering the entire current-day system by which writers must climb the ladder of literary success, which does not reach the sky but which is propped against a shaky edifice.  

[I’ve also reviewed another, quite different, novel by John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.]

The Gilded Age: 2 Novels

Life in the United States today has many elements of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when the concentration of wealth in a tiny class of industrialists left many Americans in hopeless poverty. The era was not golden for most people but rather characterized by fake gilding. In this post, I review two recent novels set in the Gilded Age.  

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts     Therese Anne Fowler     (2018) 

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New York City in the Gilded Age is the setting for this novel that seeks to reconstruct the inner life of the historical Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva is living in genteel poverty with her three sisters and their dying father when she captures the attention of William K Vanderbilt of New York City and marries him in 1875. The Vanderbilt family has made unimaginable millions in railroads but is shut out of the New York social scene by old-money families such as the Astors. Alva is determined to crash the gates. She commissions and helps design spectacular (and gaudily ornate) homes, hosts extravagant balls, travels the world, and eventually finds social acceptance. Yet, according to this fictionalization, she’s never happy in her marriage to William.  

Keep in mind that $1 million in the 1880s would be about $25 million today, so the Vanderbilts were the one-percenters of their era. It’s hard to sympathize with their discontents as they guzzle the champagne, but Alva has a few redeeming qualities. She takes on charitable causes and later in life becomes an advocate for women’s suffrage. The focus of this novel, however, is on Alva’s family and social interactions, from her young adulthood through her middle age. I couldn’t help rooting for her to dump the contemptible William, which she finally does with a scandal-generating divorce in 1895.  

The Lake on Fire     Rosellen Brown     (2018) 

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Like A Well-Behaved Woman, reviewed above, The Lake on Fire is a kind of Cinderella tale, featuring a young, impoverished woman who marries a wealthy man. But in this historical novel the woman is purely fictional, not based on a real person, and the Cinderella story has a number of twists. 

Chaya-Libbe Shaderowsky is a Jewish immigrant from Russia to rural Wisconsin who flees the matchmaking ploys of her family in 1891, running away to Chicago. Her younger brother Asher, a prodigy in both learning and petty theft, tags along with her. He roams the dangerous streets of the city while Chaya works in a sweat shop, rolling tobacco into cigars. Chaya’s  chance encounter with a wealthy socialist, Gregory Stillman, leads to romance. But Chaya is hesitant to follow the happily-ever-after path of the typical romance heroine. She tells her landlady, who encourages the match, “’He doesn’t love me for myself, he loves me for everything I don’t have. He hasn’t known anyone who’s as different from him as I am.’” (134) Chaya poses rhetorical questions for herself: “Is every life a fabric of compromises, then? Warp what you love, weft what you must tolerate, an imperfect weave, however strong and lovely it might look?”  (219) 

The city of Chicago becomes one of the central characters in this novel, and it’s lovingly described, even by those who live in its most sordid quarters: “She [Chaya] knew every inflection of Chicago dawn, different in each season—cool purple turning gold; tranced a dull fog-gray so many days, locked under cloud, or pearly with snow about to let down as if the sky were a trapdoor that silently, invisibly opened.”  (229) 

I visit Chicago fairly often, so I have a good sense of the street grid and of the strong presence of Lake Michigan, whose winds gust their way through the city. The layout of downtown Chicago in the early 1890s is similar to the layout today. From Rosellen Brown’s depiction, I could visualize the magnificent but temporarily constructed Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1893, the site of some of the action in this novel. And the introduction into the narrative of the historical Jane Addams of Hull House fame did not seem forced at all.  

If you’re looking for a Gilded Age novel that depicts both ends of the money spectrum, read The Lake on Fire. If you’re fascinated with the history of the rich and powerful of New York City, try A Well-Behaved Woman.