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.

Bonus Post: 2 Novels about Slavery

Washington Black     Esi Edugyan     (2018)

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Edugyan’s fictional slave narrative, set in the 1830s, artfully establishes itself in the brutal realities of the sugar cane fields of Barbados before drawing readers into grand continent-hopping sequences that take on the quality of myth.  

George Washington Black is about 11 years old in the opening sequence in 1830, narrating his first-person account in language that is evocative of the era and yet unpretentious. We quickly grasp that “Wash,” as he is known, is an exceptional fellow. Right away, readers will want to learn how he develops from an uneducated and maltreated cane-cutter to become not only literate but also eloquent. Wash’s facility with realistic drawing propels him into the protective orbit of Christopher (“Titch”) Wilde, the scientist brother of the plantation slave master. Titch and Wash escape Barbados in a hot-air balloon, ending up first in Norfolk, Virginia, and then in the Arctic reaches of Canada. Wash becomes more and more proficient in marine biology, especially in technical illustrations, as he travels to London, Amsterdam, and north Africa, seeking acceptance and hoping for love. He’s marked not just by his skin color but by a facial disfigurement from an accident, an undesirable identifier as he flees slave catchers.  

Novelist Edugyan probes the inhumanity of the institution of slavery, certainly, but more notably she analyzes the motivations of the abolitionists who aid Wash. Do they truly view the enslaved Africans as equals, or do they want to save white slaveholders from eternal punishment for their viciousness? Edugyan also does an excellent job of portraying the enthusiasms of 19th-century scientists, in an era when the field of inquiry was vast and the methodology was still under development. Her ending to Washington Black is somewhat ambiguous, but then I like tidy wrap-ups, and life is seldom so orderly.  

The Eulogist     Terry Gamble     (2019)

Terry Gamble’s novel is set in the very same era as Esi Edugyan’s, but The Eulogist takes place in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, right on the border between the free states and the slave states of pre-Civil-War America.  

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The fictional first-person narrator, Olivia Givens, is an 86-year-old woman writing in 1890, looking back at her astounding early life. Olivia’s family of well-educated Protestants emigrate from Ireland in 1819, settling in Cincinnati. Olivia’s mother promptly dies in childbirth, and her father soon deserts his teenage children, Olivia, Erasmus, and James. James builds a successful business through hard work and a shrewd marriage, while Erasmus, latching onto religious evangelism, becomes an itinerant preacher despite his continuing habits of debauchery. Olivia, a woman who defies convention, marries a local doctor and is drawn into the many dramas of her husband’s slave-owning family in Kentucky. Slowly, slowly, the Givenses come to espouse the abolitionist cause, mainly because of their individual interactions with slaves.  

Olivia’s story is frank and at times drolly comical. Her language has a 19th-century tone and vocabulary (“Erasmus looked as peaked as an Ohio winter” [38]). The narrator and her readers know the horrors that will unfold with the Civil War, but her characters in the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s do not. This knowledge gives the novel a taut and expectant quality. Gamble’s plot is intricate, with the final connections not offered until the last chapter, and then only briefly. As I read this book, I kept wondering, Who is the eulogist of the title? This question also is answered in the last chapter, and I won’t spoil it for you.  

Both Washington Black, reviewed above, and The Eulogist are excellent novels that explore the issue of slavery in depth, without resorting to stereotypes or platitudes.

Two Novels about Musicians

Love Is Blind:  The Rapture of Brodie Moncur     William Boyd     (2018)

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Brodie Moncur was born with perfect pitch, and this is his ticket out of the grasp of his alcoholic father and repressive family situation in rural Scotland in the 1890s. Brodie’s superb piano-tuning abilities take him to a shop in Paris, where he suggests an endorsement scheme to help sell pianos. This is how he comes to be the tuner for concert pianist John Kilbarron. Brodie travels around the European continent in Kilbarron’s entourage and falls in love with Kilbarron’s mistress, the elusive Russian soprano Lika Blum. Difficulties result.  

Keep the title of this novel in mind: Brodie is blind to all the danger that his head-over-heels passion draws him into. I was on tenterhooks with worry about his affair with Lika being discovered, and I got fully immersed in the melodrama of the great but erratic and fading pianist Kilbarron and Kilbarron’s slimily malevolent brother, Malachi. Flitting from city to city, the fin de siècle characters inhabit sites deftly conjured with only a few broad strokes of description by the novelist. In each locale they create great music or make love or evade discovery, always seeming very much of their era.

The writing here is lyrical and effortless, sweeping the reader along and creating sympathy for Brodie’s plight. Late in the novel he ruminates: “It was astonishing how quickly life could change, how the ground moved beneath you and the landscape you thought you were living in turned out to be entirely different. Like waking up after an earthquake.” (303)

The weaknesses of Boyd’s story lie in the failure to develop fully the tantalizing story line about Brodie’s family and the lack of substance in the depiction of Lika. Even acknowledging these faults, Love Is Blind is a solid read.

The Ensemble     Aja Gabel     (2018)

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Playing in a high-powered string quartet is challenging to the body as well as to the mind; the personal interactions of the four musicians, both on stage and off, are also a part of the mix. Novelist Aja Gabel, described on the dust jacket as “a former cellist,” has an insider’s understanding of the musical details as well as of the relationships involved in chamber music performance.

She introduces readers to the fictional Van Ness Quartet: Jana (hard-driving first violinist), Brit (reserved second violinist), Henry (note-perfect violist), and Daniel (unhappy cellist). If you played in your high school orchestra or if you’ve sung in a choral group or if you’ve collected all three of Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Bach “Cello Suites,” you may appreciate the many musical insights about performances of the quartet. If you know little about classical music, you’ll miss some of the subtleties about the rehearsals and performances of the quartet, but you can still enjoy the plot and the very good character development of this novel.

For my review of another novel about a musician, click here.

Century Hopping with Kingsolver

Unsheltered     Barbara Kingsolver     (2018)

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A meme that has turned up on Facebook proclaims, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”* Barbara Kingsolver presents this view in various guises in her century-hopping novel. At one point a character even says, about his fellow citizens, “‘They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.’” (261) How does Kingsolver unfold this story about people who fear homelessness and yet expect wealth? 

In 2015-2016, Willa Knox and her husband, Iano Tavoularis, have just moved into a tumbledown house in Vineland, New Jersey, that they inherited at the same time as their fortunes collapsed. Willa was laid off from her job as a journalist, and Iano lost his tenured post—as well as their house, which was on college grounds—when his college closed. Willa and Iano are taking care of Iano’s difficult and very sick father. Their adult daughter has moved in with them after a mysterious venture in Cuba, and their adult son has saddled them with a newborn grandson. All this occurs in the first chapter, as readers access the story from Willa’s viewpoint.  

Quick as a wink, and with clever word links between chapters, Kingsolver sweeps us back to 1874, to a Vineland, New Jersey, house that is also inherited and also tumbledown. Thatcher Greenwood lives with his social-climbing bride, Rose, plus Rose’s mother and young sister. Thatcher has a job teaching science at a high school where his views on Darwin’s recent publications about evolution are not at all welcome, but he finds support from a neighbor, self-taught biologist Mary Treat.  

As explained in the Author’s Note, some of the characters in Unsheltered are actual historical figures. Mary Treat was one of the pre-eminent scientists of the nineteenth century. And real estate developer Charles Landis founded Vineland in the 1860s as a kind of benevolent utopian community. The settlers lured to Vineland by Landis with promises of prosperity were kept in poverty, though still expecting to become wealthy. Landis turned out to be a charlatan and autocrat. Similarly, Kingsolver portrays the populace of the United States of 2015-16 as being hoodwinked by a presidential candidate called “the Bullhorn,” who is clearly Donald Trump, though never named as such in the novel.  

From our twenty-first century standpoint, we know that Darwin’s theories will eventually gain wide (though not universal) acceptance. In the 1870s, however, Thatcher Greenwood does not have this assurance as he argues for evolution, risking the loss of his job. In chapters that alternate between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, Kingsolver points out the parallels between Thatcher’s era and Willa’s, sometimes very bluntly, as when Mary Treat says,  “‘When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.’” (206) In 2016, Willa’s daughter tells her, “’All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’” (410) 

Alas, Kingsolver pushes too hard on the polemics in Unsheltered, which comes off as preachy. The sections in which poor Thatcher argues science against creationists are positively painful to read. If this is the first Kingsolver book that you read, please do not judge her by this one novel! She’s a gifted writer. Among my favorite novels of hers are The Bean Trees (1988), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and Prodigal Summer (2000), plus the nonfiction Animal, Vegetable Miracle (2007), with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.

* This quote has been attributed to John Steinbeck but is probably a paraphrase of Steinbeck by Ronald Wright.

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

Intertwined Lives in Minnesota

Virgil Wander     Leif Enger     (2018)

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The title character, Virgil Wander, narrates this enchanting tale, starting with his improbable survival from a catastrophic car crash: In a freak autumn snowstorm, Virgil sailed his Pontiac off a cliff and into 90 feet of Lake Superior blueness. It was an accident, the result of slick roads and white-out visibility. Or was it? Virgil is a conundrum, suffering from a traumatic brain injury that robs him of some memories and some elements of language, especially adjectives. He's dizzy and unfocused. Having met Death and walked away, he’s more appreciative of small wonders and less tolerant of bullshit. His name alone would have told us this. He does indeed wander in his post-accident days and weeks, but he is Virgil, the Roman poet of the Aeniad, who guided Dante. This modern-day Virgil now guides us to depths of understanding of the human condition.

Virgil Wander is a movie projectionist and part-time city clerk in fictional Greenstone, Minnesota, about as far north in the continental United States as you can go—even north of Duluth. The winters start in early October and are harsh, but the Lake Superior shoreline is spectacular. The inhabitants who remain in Greenstone now that its mining boom is long past are there because they crave the ruggedness, the quiet, and the slow pace, or maybe because they have nowhere else to go. (National reviewers of this novel who reside on ocean coasts clearly don't waltz to this leisurely beat, since they use the word "quirky" excessively and irritatingly.)

Into Virgil's post-accident world comes an elderly fellow from Norway, Rune, who is searching for Alec Sandstrom, who he just learned was his son. Problem is, Alec, a promising minor league baseball pitcher, flew off over Lake Superior in a small plane a decade before and never returned. Rune, whose name carries connotations of magic and inscrutability, is also a master kite builder who captivates the Greenstone natives with his whimsically festooned flyers that sail on the breezes and gales of this marvelous inland seaside. Many other characters join the ensemble, each swiftly and convincingly limned:

  • Alec's presumed widow, the luminous Nadine

  • Alec's teenage son, the loner Bjorn

  • Virgil's garrulous journalist friend, Tom Beeman

  • Virgil's enthusiastic co-worker Ann Fandeen and her sadsack husband, Jerry

  • mysterious Adam Leer, returned from Hollywood to Greenstone

  • ambitious snowplow driver Lily Pea and her young brother, Galen.

Novelist Enger skillfully intertwines their lives, in the way that lives naturally do intertwine, and crafts a plot that centers on the potential for revival of the ill-fated town and the gradual recovery of Virgil Wander from his near-death experience.

Good Lord, the folks in this novel have every manner of trouble accost them. Virgil himself was orphaned at 17 when his lay missionary parents died in a train derailment in Mexico. Other characters endure financial ruin, alcoholism, the bite of a rabid raccoon, or death by crushing (don't ask). A mist of magic realism suffuses the scene, as townspeople find happiness flying kites with Rune or watching classic movies with Virgil at the ramshackle but comforting Empress Theater.

Clearly, I loved both the plot and the characters of Virgil Wander, but the richness of Leif Enger's language stopped me in my tracks to read many paragraphs a second time, for the sheer joy of the words. Opening to a random page (9), I find this description of Rune: "He pulled a kitchen match from his pocket, thumbnailed it, and relit his pipe, which let me tell you held the most fragrant tobacco—brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel. A few sharp puffs brought it crackling and he held it up to watch smoke drift off the bowl. The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided." Of course I'm pulled to the smell of the tobacco ("brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel"). But the verb "thumbnailed" tells you right away what kind of a guy Rune is, that he struck a match—a "kitchen match"—with his fingers. The puffs that Rune took were "sharp," and the smoke from the pipe didn't just rise, it "ghosted and hung there undecided," with a mind of its own to make up or not. Every page holds such images, seemingly tossed off. Aphorisms of startling clarity also jump out: “Memory's oldest trick is convincing us of its accuracy.” “I would say projectionists aren't more sentimental than blacksmiths except that we probably are.” (both on page 84)

You might put Leif Enger in the company of Richard Russo (reviewed here), for his bang-on portrayal of a decaying small American industrial town. You might compare Enger to Kent Haruf (reviewed here) for his laconic Midwestern characters. But for God's sake don't compare him to fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, who doesn't reside in Enger's sphere of genius at all. Read Virgil Wander, definitely.

Millennials vs Boomers

Boomer1     Daniel Torday     (2018)

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The hard-driving music, the hand-rolled joints, the idiosyncratic clothing, the privileged youth in prosperous times, the disillusionment with war that their elders got them into: it’s the Baby Boomers, right? Well, those descriptors could also be applied to the Millennial generation, except that Millennials might call those smokes “spliffs.”  

Daniel Torday’s deeply satirical novel pits the Boomers against the Millennials in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. It’s not clear whether the Boomers or the Millennials come out worse in his view, which is a very dark view.  

Millennial Mark Brumfeld has an editorial job in New York City and a PhD in English under his belt. He and  his girlfriend, Cassie Black, both play in bluegrass bands, groovin’ to retro tunes by the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley. When Mark’s career and relationship both fall apart, he has to move to his parents’ basement in Baltimore. He vents his rage against the economic machine in videos that he posts on the Dark Web, ranting about how the Baby Boomers have had all the luck and now refuse to retire to allow Millennials to secure jobs. Mark styles himself as “Boomer1,” even though he was born in 1980 (go figure). His ominous online mantras include “Retire or we’ll retire you” and “boom boom.”  

Some sections of this novel are presented from Mark’s viewpoint and other sections follow Cassie as she figures out her sexual orientation and her career trajectory. The main Boomer character is Julia, Mark’s mother, who was a musician on the fringes of stardom back in the late 1960s. She gets her chapters, too, sometimes flashing back forty years, but these chapters do not pack the power of the rest of the novel. The plot gets hot when Mark’s anti-Boomer videos spark a nationwide revolution among Millennials, leading to vandalism and violence against prominent Boomers and against the institutions that support them. 

I think that many of the Boomers do deserve blame for abandoning the causes of civil rights and pacifism that characterized their heyday in the 1960s. After the protest marches, the Boomers graduated, put on the suits, joined the establishment, and inherited money from the Greatest Generation. The Boomers could afford to buy houses because they had little or no student loan debt. And they spoiled their kids, the Millennials, nodding in agreement as those kids followed their dreams, however impractical. I understand the Millennial anger, expressed here by Boomer1 in portraying his parents’ generation: “They were not the purveyors nor the architects nor the executors of the noble task nor the players in the great game. They were the recipients of the spoils, and they basked in it. They received the signifier but not the sign, they were the first generation to have fall in their lap all the lucre without exerting one iota of the toil.” (112)  

However, novelist Torday liberally inserts indicators of ambivalence and incongruity into his characterizations and into his narrative. Both Mark and Cassie, for example, have alternate names. Cassie was born Claire Stankowitcz. Mark, in addition to his Boomer1 handle, calls himself “Isaac Abramson,” the biblical figure led to ritual sacrifice by his father. For all his education, Mark makes foolish financial choices that exacerbate his situation. (He thought he could get a tenure-track academic job in English? Really? That’s been a long shot since the 1970s.) Meanwhile, Cassie exploits the burgeoning world of banal digital news while she reveals Mark’s naiveté and the oversimplification of his anti-Boomer crusade. Symbols are also tossed around. Mark’s Boomer mother, Julia, had her hearing damaged in those amped-up rock concerts of yore and refuses to wear a hearing aid for her increasing deafness, so she truly can’t hear what Mark is saying about the Boomers.  

Boomer1 is an enigmatic novel, with no clear heroes or villains. Torday will challenge your assumptions and stereotypes with his well-paced and thoughtful novel.

Quiet Conflict

Upstate     James Wood     (2018)

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The British-born writer James Wood, transplanted to the United States, has produced a novel about a British businessman visiting his adult daughter in upstate New York. Commentary on the differences between the two countries is inevitable. Here are a couple of the observations of the character Alan Querry:  

  • “He did sincerely love—and rate as one of the great American contributions—the phrase ‘Take it easy.’ . . .That benign blessing wouldn’t catch on in Britain, where the pavements were sopped with cold rainwater and everyone seemed to have attended queuing school, to learn how to do it with the requisite degree of resigned submission.” (27)

  • “America was peculiar, more foreign than he had expected, it sharpened his senses. What a contradictory place: for every limitation, there was an expansion, for every frustration, an easement. The train was absurd, trundling along at barely sixty miles an hour. And Penn Station was a bloody embarrassment to a great capital city. To a great city, rather.” (51)

These are the contexts of the novel, which revolves quietly around family conflict. Alan’s 2007 trip to Saratoga Springs, New York, arises from his concern over the mental health of his daughter Vanessa, who teaches philosophy at Skidmore College. Traveling with Alan is his other daughter, Helen, a harried and hurried music executive with Sony in London. The fourth main character is Josh, Vanessa’s boyfriend, who has alerted Vanessa’s father and sister to a potentially serious bout of depression that Vanessa seems to be suffering. Although the stated issue is Vanessa’s health, Helen isn’t in great shape either, with a rocky marriage, twin sons whom she has little time for, and an urge to leave Sony and start her own company.

This is a novel to be savored for its simplicity and its glimpses into the minds of people sincerely endeavoring to help each other, though with approaches determined by the personality of each. Alan, for example, is a real estate developer who is “not in the top tier, probably not even in the second or third tier” (119) of developers in his region because he’s not cutthroat enough. Vanessa views her father and sister as “proud, impulsive people who considered themselves largely modest and rational.  . . .Vanessa hated confrontation—partly because she couldn’t believe that anyone who had strongly argued with her could ever like her again.” (153) The underlying motives of the boyfriend Josh are elusive until the very end of the novel.

The landscapes of upstate New York are richly portrayed in this work that sometimes verges into prose poetry. But don’t expect bedazzlement or sensationalism when you’re going to be served thoughtfulness.

 

Reckoning with the Past

My Ex-Life     Stephen McCauley     (2018)

This novel is hilarious. One-liners, often capping a narrative paragraph or a conversation, pop up on nearly every page: “Julie knew only one man who’d betrayed his marriage for a woman older than his wife, and it was overstating it to say she knew Prince Charles.” (3)

Short descriptors of characters pack a punch with clever comparisons:

  • “She had the melancholy, elongated beauty of a Modigliani, while he had the compact boyishness of a high school wrestler.” (49)

  • “She had the hard face of someone who could stand to eat a cupcake once or twice a year.” (266)

  • “He had a dark suntan, an attractive affectation, but one that these days looked somehow vintage, like a dial telephone or an electric carving knife.” (266)

Beyond the hilarity, Stephen McCauley spins a touching story of missed opportunity, unfair betrayal, loss of dignity, and cynical exploitation—all with hopes for second chances, or maybe even third chances.

Fifty-something David Hedges is a freelance college admissions consultant for sulky rich kids in San Francisco. As the book opens, his lover has deserted him, and in his distress he’s been putting on weight. The charming carriage house that he’s rented for years at a low rate is being sold out from under him. As if all this isn’t enough, he gets a call from his ex-wife, Julie Fiske, who lives in a seaside tourist town north of Boston. David hasn’t been in touch with Julie for decades, and he figured that she was doing well with her second husband and teenage daughter. Not so much. Julie’s husband has left her for a younger woman and is demanding that she buy him out of their house. Julie’s income as a teacher won’t stretch to this purchase, but she’s desperate to stay in the house where her daughter has grown up. Oh, and the daughter, Mandy, is struggling with body image issues and with loneliness that is leading to highly questionable friendships.

David takes a trip east, ostensibly to help Mandy with her college applications but actually to get away from San Francisco and to get some perspective on his own path forward. The resolution of this plot setup has a number of twists and revelations of secrets, as does real life. Novelist McCauley keeps churning out the funny lines, but he ends My Ex-Life on a nostalgic note that gave me a good sense of resolution. 

Evangelical Secrets

The Book of Essie     Meghan MacLean Weir     (2018)

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Given the prevalence of news stories about sexual abuse of children, women, and young men by priests in the Catholic Church, we may fall into the assumption that such abuse does not occur very much in Protestant evangelical religious groups. This novel is here to remind us that, wherever there is a great imbalance of power in a relationship, the potential for abuse of all kinds exists, and cover-ups that prolong the agony of the victims are certainly not limited to church hierarchies operating behind the closed doors of Catholic bishops’ offices.

The story of Esther (“Essie”) Hicks seems transparent. She’s one of the stars of the long-running fictional reality TV show Six for Hicks, which has chronicled the career of a preacher father (Jethro), a scheming mother (Celia), and their six children since before Essie’s birth. Essie is the youngest member of the family, and now, at age 17, she finds herself pregnant. Since it’s clear that her daily activities are tightly circumscribed and often filmed, readers suspect early on that the pregnancy is unlikely to have been the result of a consensual relationship.

 We hear from three characters in turn, in first-person narrative:

  • Essie Hicks;

  • Roarke Richards, a male student at Essie’s high school who is not really part of the Hicks religious group; and

  • Liberty (“Libby”) Bell, who herself grew up in a different ultra-conservative millennarian cult and is now a journalist reporting on Essie.

Essie seems to have an elaborate plan to escape her family and provide financial security for herself and her unborn child, drawing on the significant resources generated for her parents by the TV show and by her father’s ministry. “Don’t get mad, get even,” she says at one point (131), as she remains improbably calm. However, the specifics of Essie’s plan are not revealed, even though readers hear directly from her throughout the novel. A lot is left to guesswork, and that keeps those pages turning. I was especially fascinated by the background details offered by the novelist, such as the phrasing used by the evangelicals in their conversations. Perhaps this was because I was brought up in a similar fundamentalist environment—though minus the reality TV show. I know the territory. Roarke sums up Essie’s family and her entire religious community in one explosive sentence: “You are, all of you, manipulative, self-centered, egomaniacal phonies. You use people up and you toss them aside.” (140)

The Book of Essie certainly has its flaws. I wanted much more character development of Essie’s father, Rev Jethro Hicks, the preacher who has kept evangelicals spellbound both in his mega-church and on television for decades. I wanted more explanation of the personality of the inscrutable Celia Hicks, Essie’s mother and the true force behind the media throne that Jethro occupies. I wanted more background on Essie’s five older siblings. I wanted less unrealistic analysis of difficult life situations by teenagers (Essie, Roarke), however precocious they may be. I wanted less of the distracting subplot about the tragic life story of Libby Bell.

Still, the narrative momentum of The Book of Essie is strong, with the author withholding the revelation of the paternity of Essie’s baby until late in the novel. The exploitation of Essie, not just by the man who impregnated her but by the many people who conspired to hide this crime, is painful to read about. Sadly, Essie’s story plays out in real life all too often. 

 

A Novel with Heart

The Ice House     Laura Lee Smith     (2017)

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When I reviewed Laura Lee Smith’s previous novel, Heart of Palm, I resolved to read The Ice House as soon as my local library ordered it. Here is a novelist who can weave a complex plot and manage to tuck in all the seemingly loose threads by the end. She can conjure up characters who are like people you know, maybe because their conversations are so convincing. She can take you inside a manufacturing plant (in The Ice House, it's a company that produces those bags of crystal clear ice) and make you feel as if you’re getting a personal tour, from the production floor to the administrative offices to the parking lot. Best of all, her novels have heart. Her characters wrestle with tough decisions in their lives, and they do the very best that they can. They’re imperfect but basically likeable.

The Ice House is set mainly in Jacksonville, in the same sector of Florida as Heart of Palm, and once again, the oppressive heat of the region is highlighted. In The Ice House, the outdoor weather contrasts with the mandatory frigidness of the ice-making plant, where workers wear heavy parkas year round. One of the owners of the plant, Johnny MacKinnon, bears the nickname “Ice,” and a chunk of the novel’s action takes place in the chilly northern reaches of Scotland, where Johnny grew up and where his ex-wife, son, and granddaughter live.

“Johnny’s father used to have a saying: And as soon as you’re oot one load o’ shite, there’s another.” (30)  This is how the arc of the narrative works, with one catastrophe after another occurring for the main characters. Johnny is facing surgery for what may be brain cancer. He’s estranged from his adult son, who’s a heroin addict. And his ice company is being charged with negligence for a leak of ammonia gas; the potential fines would wipe out the business. Minor characters also encounter serious problems. My favorite struggler is Chemal, the Puerto Rican teenager who lives next door to Johnny. Chemal becomes a Sancho Panza of sorts to Johnny’s Don Quixote as they take off on a hasty, ill-advised trip to Scotland.

The Ice House is about trying to reconcile the issues in life when death comes stalking. It’s about showing compassion and accepting the differences in the people around you. And I found the ending highly satisfying. 

Trees in Peril

The Overstory     Richard Powers     (2018)

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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.

Adventures in 1956 Italy

The Italian Party     Christina Lynch     (2018)

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Welcome to Siena, Italy, in the year 1956, when the Italians have regrouped after the destruction and privations of World War II. Rolling into this magnificent Tuscan city are the newlywed Americans Michael and Scottie Messina, in a brand new Ford Fairlane. (Good Lord, how much it must have cost to ship that behemoth for them!) Michael has a job selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, whom he must convert from their traditional agrarian practices. Scottie will be the model housewife, supporting him.

Italy is a major character here, as Scottie meets the locals and comes to adore the small shops, the camaraderie, and even the gossip. “Everything about it fascinated her—the way food was revered, treasured rather than seen as an inconvenience to be packaged in a way that made it as easy as possible to prepare and consume. Nothing in Italy was ‘instant’ or ‘new and improved.’” (86) An excellent aural learner, Scottie quickly learns to speak Italian. “Here in Italy she felt like a different person altogether—more expressive, more curious, more open.” (58)

Michael, on the other hand, sees Italy as backward, greatly in need of an infusion of American-style mechanization and democracy. And he has a view of his new wife that was common in the 1950s: "She had no mission other than to keep house for him. He envied her naïveté, her unsullied innocence, her lack of secrets. She was the American ideal he was sent there to promote. She was like Dale Evans, he thought: a beautiful, pure, faithful, true cowgirl. She was the only one not there with an ulterior motive.” (55)

Well, not so much. Little by little, the sunny picture darkens as we learn that many secrets lie beneath the surface of this marriage and of this sojourn in Italy. I won’t spoil the revelations for you, but you can know that treacherous international espionage is involved. Still, the sun shines a lot in Siena, and novelist Christina Lynch keeps us bubbling along with glorious meals of pasta and prosciutto and panini and Prosecco. As one character tells Michael, “‘The world is your oyster, my boy. You should suck it down in one gulp and be happy. A beautiful wife, a good job, and an Italian assignment . . . Life here is a party. Join the fun.’” (265)

Yes, this is an Italian party. The title of the novel is certainly referring to the glamorous lifestyle that Scottie and Michael can afford to live in Italy. But it also refers to the political parties that the plot revolves around, and even to the representation of Italy globally. Lynch sets up the view of American exceptionalism that dominated the Cold War era, and then she pokes at its underpinnings, especially through Scottie’s love of Italy. Yet even Scottie relies on a multitude of American beauty products to put together her stunning appearance. In a scene describing Scottie’s daily beauty routine, Lynch itemizes Helene Curtis Spray Net, Lady Gillette razors, Peggy Sage Spice Pink nail polish, Revlon Creamy Ivory liquid foundation, Michel flesh-colored powder, Max Factor eye shadow, Maybelline mascara, Coty Dahlia Pink creamy lipstick, Joy by Jean Patou eau de toilette, Taylor-Woods fifty-four-gauge stockings, and Warner’s garters. (182-3)

The Italian Party is as effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly in streetside cafés. The tone is similar to that of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, another frothy confection with seriousness underlying its brisk plot. I highly recommend both novels.

Two Novels by Quindlen

Anna Quindlen is a bestselling American writer who moved into fiction in the mid-1990s after winning a 1992 Pulitzer for her essays in the New York Times. I recently read two of her novels, Alternate Side (2018) and Miller’s Valley (2016) and found them so dissimilar that I wouldn’t have guessed that they were written by the same person. Here’s a look at each.

 Alternate Side     Anna Quindlen     (2018)

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The surface story in Alternate Side centers on a family living in present-day Manhattan: Nora and Charlie Nolan plus their twin children who are off at college. Nora and Charlie have a reasonably satisfactory marriage, but as they progress through middle age, their attention is increasingly focused on externals in their affluent lives: Charlie’s disappointments at work, the offer of a new job for Nora, Charlie’s obsession with parking spots near their townhouse, Nora’s unremitting revulsion at the neighborhood rats. (By “rats” I do mean the small rodents, not human criminals.) The parking issue comes to the fore with a violent incident on the Nolans’ block, which powers the narrative for most of the novel and draws in the neighbors and the local handyman and his family. Family history is filled in along the way as Nora remembers incidents from the past: “Certain small moments were like billboards forever alongside the highway of your memory.” (184)

The underlying story in Alternate Side is the class divide in New York City. Nora truly enjoys living there, but . . . “even loving New York as she did, Nora sometimes felt it was like loving an old friend, someone who had over the years become different from her former self. Of course, Nora and Charlie had become different, too. It was a though, as the city had prospered and become less dirty, less funky, less hard and harsh, the Nolans and their friends had followed suit, all their rough edges and quirks sanded down into some New York standard of accomplishment. The price they had paid for prosperity was amnesia. They’d forgotten who they once had been.” (79-80)

Though some of Quindlen’s characters are faded stereotypes, others come to life, and the plot carried me along to the end. The title of the book, on first take a reference to parking regulations, actually points up both the family issues and the sociological issues. Quindlen seems to be writing both a paean to a glorious New York and a satire of its more prosperous denizens. “The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart.” (55-56)

For more novels set in, and dominated by, New York, click on the “New York Novels” line in my Archive in the right-hand column. Or, for something totally different, read the following review of another Quindlen novel.

Miller’s Valley     Anna Quindlen     (2016)

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In rural Pennsylvania, Mimi Miller gives a first-person narration of her life, from her childhood in the 1960s through her early adulthood and, in an Epilogue, into her seventh decade. The story is set against the backdrop of a federal program to buy up all the property in Miller’s Valley so that the area can be flooded and turned into a reservoir for a nearby dam. Mimi, herself a well-drawn character, is surrounded by other characters whom Quindlen develops beyond the level of the standard type. Mimi’s mother is a no-nonsense nurse at the local hospital. Her father is a farmer and general repairman for the entire valley. A wacko aunt lives in an adjacent house and refuses ever to leave it. Mimi’s two older brothers are polar opposites of each other, much like the Prodigal Son and his hardworking brother. Her two successive boyfriends are also a study in contrasts. Quindlen excels here in showing the complicated family dynamics at play in even the most mundane of interactions.

I especially liked the Epilogue, in which readers get to see how the whole crew ends up in the present day. But then, I’m a sucker for such Epilogues when I get attached to the fictional folks in the main body of a novel.

 

Newport, RI, through the Centuries

The Maze at Windermere     Gregory Blake Smith     (2018)

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Get ready for a historical fiction jamboree in this century-hopping novel set in Newport, Rhode Island, with five different sets of characters playing out their scenes in alternation.

Year 2011:  Sandy Alison is a tennis pro, once ranked #47 in the world but now nursing a weak knee and giving lessons to the Newport summer elite. He’s a good-looking guy who does his share of bed hopping as he tries to figure out his next career moves. He circulates on the edges of the wealthy Newport crowd, with Alice du Pont, the owner of the Windermere estate; with her sister-in-law; and with her best friend, an African American jewelry maker.

Year 1896: Franklin Drexel hangs on at this same Windermere estate in the Gilded Age. An urbane closeted gay man of modest means, Franklin plans to marry a wealthy woman as a cover and then escape periodically to the demi-monde in New York to satisfy his sexual needs. With the help of a couple of Newport matrons, Franklin fixes his sights on widow Ellen Newcombe, and the chase begins.

Year 1863:  In the depths of the Civil War, a 20-year–old Henry James (yup, that one) has managed to avoid military service and is practicing his writing craft.  Although Henry’s family resides year-round in Newport, he haunts the hotels where the summer people gather, people-watching and jotting notes constantly. He strikes up a friendship with Alice Taylor, thinking he may base a character in a novel on her. She gets a different impression.

Year 1778:  Stepping back farther in American history, we land in the Revolutionary War, with a British officer, Major Ballard, stationed in Newport. He’s obsessed with Judith Da Silva, the 16-year-old daughter of a Jewish merchant, and determined to seduce and then discard her. Subplots ensue.

Year 1692:  Prudence Selwyn is a Quaker teenager who loses her mother and father in quick succession and is left, with no ongoing income, to manage a household, a toddler sister, and a resident house slave. She ponders what her path should be as she treads through prickly situations.

The novelist weaves in a great many small links between these stories, especially with respect to landmarks in Newport. For example, the name of one of the characters in the 1692 story resurfaces as a place name in a later century, and Newport’s Quaker Meeting House and Jewish cemetery are significant in several of the stories. These links are clever and entertaining, but I was more taken with the thematic unity of Smith’s depiction of gender roles. Two of the five stories are told by men in first-person narration, and two others are in close third person narration focused on a male character. (Only the 1692 story is told by a female, in diary format.) In all five stories males target females with selfish objectives, whether sexual or literary or financial. Yet the females are feisty, sometimes protected by family members, sometimes making independent decisions about their reactions to male wishes.

Smith casts each component of his novel in the language of its era, and I think he captures the period idioms, especially the voice of Henry James, pretty well, even though he gets “who” and “whom” mixed up sometimes. Give this novel a few chapters and you may be hooked for the duration.

The Meaningful Life

The Italian Teacher   Tom Rachman     (2018)

You may have run into someone like the fictional painter Bear Bavinksy: talented, brash, egotistical, smart, selfish, mercurial, ribald, cruel, a bear of a man. Unless you’re prepared to spar on his level, it’s best to steer clear of characters like Bear. But if he’s your father, you have to deal.

In this thoughtful novel, Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is the son who lives in Bear Bavinsky’s shadow. Pinch is one of the many children whom Bear fathers by numerous wives and mistresses over a long career in the twentieth century. (The total—and startling—number of children is not revealed until Bear’s funeral.) In Pinch’s childhood, Bear abandons the boy and his mother, a ceramicist named Natalie, in Italy. Pinch puts together a life for himself, going to college in Canada with the financial assistance of his maternal grandmother. He suspects that he may have artistic talent, like both his parents, but Bear quashes his hopes. Pinch ends up teaching Italian in London, always seeing his life as much lesser than that of his father, whom he worships. I don’t think that “worship” is too strong a verb here.

Within the narrative of The Italian Teacher, centered on this fraught father-son relationship, Rachman is pursuing the theme of how to have a meaningful life. For decades, Pinch views his life and his work as insignificant because he’s not an internationally renowned artist. “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single life span. What a person Dad was! Pinch decided that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient. He lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him.” (273-4)

Pinch mourns his mother’s lack of fame also: “She was disregarded, and will remain forever so, among the billions whose inner lives clamor, then expire, never to earn the slightest notice.” (151) Can persons with great talent, in any field of endeavor, be fulfilled even if they don’t receive the acclaim of the establishment in that field? What if they don’t have the stomach for the political machinations necessary for career building? Can they construct rewarding lives solely through quiet, solitary pursuit of their artistic or intellectual goals, with internal gratification? Rachman considers these questions from many angles, and he allows his character Pinch to struggle to find answers, as Pinch also struggles to free himself from the domination of his father’s personality and reputation.

Toward the end of the book, Pinch takes up painting after years of artistic inactivity. "Pinch raises  his brush, leans forward on the balls of his feet, floorboards creaking. From the corner of his eye: all these painterly tools, a kaleidoscope of colors, his companions. Is that tragedy? That the peaks of my life are entirely inside? Other people—those I so craved—mattered far less than it seemed. Or is this what I pretend?" (309-310)

Read this novel with care, savoring the development of Rachman’s characters and his attention to identifying those “peaks” in life.

The Upper-Middle-Class Façade

Little Fires Everywhere     Celeste Ng     (2017)

Ah, adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The first chapter of Little Fires Everywhere lures the reader in with a blazing house, then backtracks about a year to paint portraits of the four teenaged Richardson children who resided in that house (Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy)--plus the new 15-year-old in town, Pearl Warren. The Richardson family lives the American Dream, with trendy clothes and cars, luxurious vacations, and bright career prospects for the kids. Most of the Richardsons are also selfish and self-centered. Pearl, in contrast, is a smart but naïve vagabond who roams the country in an old VW Rabbit with her single mother, Mia, who’s an accomplished photographic artist. Pearl and Mia rent an apartment in a Shaker Heights duplex owned by Mrs Richardson and furnish it sparsely with castoffs, in distinct contrast to the elegant six-bedroom Richardson mansion. Tellingly, Ng refers to most adults as “Mrs” and “Mr,” but Mia Warren is always “Mia.”

The social commentary on economic inequality and lifestyle choices inherent in this setup would be enough to fuel a novel—and a spectacular house fire. But novelist Celeste Ng plunges far, far deeper into the problems in Shaker Heights, where she herself has lived. This suburb of Cleveland was established early in the 20th century as a planned community, with rigid rules about all aspects of outward appearance and organization. Near the end of the book, Izzy Richardson thinks about “life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what a mess lay within.” (323)

The “mess” behind the gorgeous façade of Shaker Heights includes unplanned pregnancy, controversial interracial adoption, prejudice against immigrants, unethical journalism, and parents who pay little attention to their wayward kids. Ng’s narrative is complex, with multiple strands tightly interwoven, and all her characters, no matter how peripheral, are drawn with exquisite care. The reading becomes unstoppable as the novel barrels along toward the fire that will inevitably consume the Richardson home.

The “little fires” of the title are the blazes on the gasoline-soaked beds that the arsonist lights. But these fires are also the incendiary issues shoved under the beds of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. Ng doesn’t preach; she shows.

Being Catholic in Brooklyn

The Ninth Hour     Alice McDermott     (2017)

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Being Catholic in early-20th-century Brooklyn wasn’t easy. If your loved one committed suicide because of untreated depression, he or she could not have a funeral or be buried in consecrated ground. If your spouse became severely incapacitated, mentally or physically, you could not get a divorce and remarry, even if you were committed to caring for that first spouse. If you were involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, your eternal soul was in extreme peril.

Alice McDermott doesn’t dance around these situations in The Ninth Hour. She presents them forthrightly, and she also presents some of the potential advantages of being Catholic in early-20th-century Brooklyn. If you were widowed by the suicide of your husband, the local nuns might take you in, give you a job in their laundry room, and help you raise your daughter. If you were trying to care for a disabled spouse, the “nursing sisters” might come to your tenement every day to perform the most menial and repulsive of tasks. If you were committing mortal sin in a consensual adult relationship, the nuns might look the other way and just suggest that you do penance.

The Ninth Hour looks frankly at all these cases, balancing the pros and cons. Many modern novels stereotype nuns as either cruel harridans or genial saints. The nuns in The Ninth Hour instead come to life beautifully and individually, as women who have entered religious life for widely differing reasons, as pragmatists who approach their vocations with varying levels of compliance. And the parish priest, who makes a brief appearance, is indeed proud and officious, but when one of the nuns calls on him, he agrees to intercede in a case of sexual abuse. The lay people that McDermott portrays also avoid easy categorization. The young widow, Annie, does not wallow in her grief. The neighborhood milkman is attentive to his disabled wife but does not sacrifice all to her care.

Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998, is a major American writer. I find McDermott’s language wonderfully resonant—her descriptions of weather are particularly fine—and her evocations of historical period are offered with a delicate touch. I never felt that the historicity of The Ninth Hour was being shoved at me. For example, the title of the book refers to the nuns’ afternoon prayers, but actual scenes involving liturgical observances are minimal.

McDermott is especially revered by many progressive Catholics for her clear-sighted depictions of people of faith in all their varieties. Her approach to religion is very different from, and superior to, that of other contemporary writers. By chance, I read The Ninth Hour in the same week that I read Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, which is another book about moral decisions by people of faith. In Quatro’s novel, a married woman spends endless hours in guilt-ridden examination of conscience about a brief affair. I do not recommend Quatro’s self indulgent and occasionally sickening book.

If you are interested in the intersections of morality, religion, and culture, read McDermott’s The Ninth Hour instead. And if you like novels about New York, click on that category in the Archive of Book Reviews, in the right-hand column.

Meet an Iranian Poet

Song of a Captive Bird     Jazmin Darznik     (2018)

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If you’ve never heard of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), get ready to be introduced to the startling voice of a woman who writes viscerally about the emotions of repression, alienation, and love. In Song of a Captive Bird, Iranian-American writer Jazmin Darznik has fictionalized the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, who is known primarily as “Forugh.” Inserted throughout Darznik’s prose text are excerpts from English translations of Forugh’s poetry, which provide a taste of her style and illuminate the events of the novel.

Song of a Captive Bird gave me insights into a culture that I knew very little about. The Persian literature of Iran goes back at least two and a half millennia, with a strong tradition of love poetry, and Forugh steeped herself in this literature as she wrote her own poems. Here, in first-person narrative, novelist Darznik imagines Forugh’s struggles with writing candidly, as a woman, about sexuality in mid-twentieth-century Iran:

“Mine was a country where they said a woman’s nature is riddled with sin, where they claimed that women’s voices had the power to drive men to lust and distract them from matters of both heaven and earth. Yet, when I leafed through magazines and opened volumes of poetry, I found that men has always described their love and their lovers with utter frankness and freedom. For thousands of years men had compared their beloveds to whatever they pleased, voiced all manner of amorous petitions and pleas, and described all the states to which love delivered them. And people read this poetry with complete equanimity. No one screamed out in protest. No one cried, ‘Oh God, the foundations of morality have been shaken!’" (170)

Reviewers of Forugh’s poetry sometimes compare her to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who was her contemporary, though there is no evidence that the two knew of each other’s work. I see similarities, in that both expressed women’s emotions in a raw style that was often criticized during their lives as unwomanly or otherwise inappropriate.

Readers should be cautious not to accept as fact all the incidents in this novelized version of Forugh’s life. As Darznik explains in her “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, she extrapolated, because biographical information about Forugh is sparse. In the novel, Forugh characterizes herself as a difficult girl-child in a highly patriarchal society: “My willfulness was my mother’s torment. An Iranian daughter is taught to be quiet and meek, but from earliest childhood I was stubborn, noisy, and brash. A good Iranian daughter should be pious, modest, and tidy; I was impulsive, argumentative, and messy. I thought of myself as no less than my brothers, with wit and daring to match theirs.” (367) Darznik’s portrayal of Forugh continues her brashness and daring into adulthood, as she publishes what is viewed as scandalously explicit verse under her own name and as she takes on lovers. Forugh specifically defies and undermines the strong cultural emphasis on female virginity.

Darznik’s casting of the novel in first-person narrative lends an immediacy and also creates tension for the reader: Does the story extend through Forugh’s entire life? If so, how will Forugh explain her own death?  I found the last 75 pages (out of 401 pages) of Song of a Captive Bird to be weaker than the rest of the book, with many years of Forugh’s life skipped over and with the cause of Forugh’s death left ambiguous. But these critiques do not significantly diminish the power of the story.

From a twenty-first-century standpoint, we know what was going to happen in Iran after Forugh’s death. In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty of monarchs was overthrown, and an Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Many Iranians who could afford to leave the country emigrated, including Jazmin Darznik’s own family. In the two suitcases that her family was able to take with them when they fled, Darznik’s mother brought a slim volume of Forugh’s poetry. This act speaks to the influence of Forugh.

Near the end of Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik puts into Forugh’s mouth a prophetic statement, lamenting Iran’s adherence to patriarchal traditions and its reliance on its vast oil reserves:  “I feared an age that had lost its heart, and I was terrified at the thought of so many crippled hands. Our traditions were our pacifiers, and we sang ourselves to sleep with the lullaby of a once-great civilization and culture. Ours was the land of poetry, flowers, and nightingales—and poets searching for rhymes in history’s junkyards. The lottery was our faith and greed our fortune.” (373-4)