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.]

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.

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

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Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

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)

The Surreal Meets the Quotidian in Japan

Killing Commendatore     Haruki Murakami     (2017)

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen      (2018) 

No, this is not a murder mystery. It’s more . . . well, it defies categorization, but maybe it’s an exploration of how our inner lives of thought can transform our external lives of action in puzzling but sometimes pleasing ways.  

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The unnamed narrator of this massive novel is a thirty-something artist, a fairly successful painter of workmanlike portraits, mainly for corporate executives who want their likenesses on the walls of their headquarters. When the narrator’s wife of six years unexpectedly asks for a divorce, he dejectedly takes off on an impromptu tour of northern Japan for several weeks and then settles, alone, into a rental house in the mountains near Odawara, in central Japan. This house is owned by the artist Tomohiko Amada, now in a nursing home with dementia, who garnered fame creating traditional Japanese scenes on his canvases. The odd characters who accrete to the tale include an enigmatic tech entrepreneur (Menshiki), an adolescent girl, the girl’s aunt, and, most startlingly, a two-foot tall “Idea” named Commendatore, who comes to life from out of a painting by Amada. This painting, which the narrator discovers in his rental home, depicts a scene from the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Got all that?  

The characters move through actual places in Japan, and the story progresses primarily through dialogue, which is rendered in idiomatic American English. Western readers can get to feeling comfortable with this dialogue, and even more comfortable because of the many overt and lightly veiled references to European literature, art, and classical music, especially the opera canon. It’s all rooted firmly in realism until—bam—Commendatore appears to the narrator, trying to guide him through his dual crises of marriage and of artistic authenticity. Some examples of Commendatore’s pronouncements:  

  • “There are plenty of things in history that are best left in the shadows. Accurate knowledge does not improve people’s lives. The objective does not necessarily surpass the subjective, you know. Reality does not necessarily extinguish fantasy.” (301)

  • “Cause and effect are hard to separate here. Because I took the form of the Commendatore, a sequence of events was set in motion. But at the same time, my form is the necessary consequence of that very sequence.” (539) 

The character Menshiki may also have been sent to the narrator as a mentor, since he has some revelatory lines: 

  • “The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark” (203) 

  • “Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.” (206) 

Perhaps Killing Commendatore was not the wisest choice for my initial foray into the world of the prolific novelist Murakami, but I was mesmerized for most of its 681 pages, as the narrative drifted one way and then another. I did struggle with some of Murakami’s elements of the supernatural, especially the narrator’s passage across subterranean Stygian rivers and through murky, stifling tunnels, which may or may not be metaphorical. But Murakami always returns to the quotidian, often with graceful language like this: “I went to the fridge and drank some cold mineral water straight from the bottle and managed to chase away the dregs of sleep that remained like scraps of clouds in the corners of my body.” (177) 

If you’re willing to let your mind embrace the inexplicable for a while, Killing Commendatore may provide insights into human relationships as well as into creative processes. As Menshiki proclaims, “’There are some things that can’t be explained in this life . . . and some others that probably shouldn’t be explained. Especially when putting them into words ignores what is most crucial.’” (593)

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. 

 

King Lear in the 21st Century

Dunbar     Edward St Aubyn     (2017)

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The Hogarth Shakespeare Project in London has been commissioning highly regarded novelists to produce new versions of many Shakespeare tales. Edward St Aubyn has tackled Shakespeare’s King Lear with his novel Dunbar.

In St Aubyn’s version, the monarch Lear is now a modern-day oligarch, the billionaire media mogul Henry Dunbar. Like Lear, Dunbar has three adult daughters, and he hands over his kingdom/empire to the elder two, Abby and Megan, cutting out the youngest, Florence, even though he loves her dearly. Abby and Megan are a wicked pair. Even if you don’t find their sadistic sexual practices alarming (yup, these pages are steamy), you’re not likely to sympathize with them as you learn how they’ve had their father drugged and then sequestered in a nursing home in a remote area of England. “These [two elder] Dunbar girls were arrogant, imperious, and tough, but toughness was not strength, imperiousness was not authority, and their arrogance was an unearned pride born of an unearned income.” (73)

Meanwhile, daughter Florence lives with her family in the United States and doesn’t really care if she inherits the family business. She has what she considers a more than adequate bankroll. “She was only capable of being independent because she had been adored in the first place, but a man as possessive as her father could not experience her autonomy as a compliment, or protect himself from mistaking her sisters’ acquisitiveness for love.” (43) Although she doesn’t relish a battle, Florence enters the arena with her two sisters out of concern that her father is being mistreated. What ensues seems scripted for an action movie, complete with suspenseful chase scenes.

You can, of course, buzz by all this conflict in your reading and busy yourself mentally by pairing up the characters in Dunbar with their Shakespearean counterparts. (As I read, I had always in the back of my brain the famed plot of the drama.) Dunbar’s lawyer Wilson is pretty clearly King Lear’s Kent, for example, and Dunbar’s physician, Dr. Bob, is Edmund. I liked the transformation of King Lear’s Fool into the retired comedian Peter, a sidekick to Dunbar in nursing-home imprisonment. Peter is funny in a grim way, but Shakespeare’s Fool has a lot better lines.

Face it: rewriting Shakespeare is a daunting task. Anne Tyler tried it with Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold in 2016, and disappointed me, though Tyler is usually formidable as a novelist. With King Lear, a modern writer has to summon the extraordinary pathos of familial disloyalty as well as the ultimate futility of earthly life. St Aubyn doesn’t quite do that for me, though his Dunbar would be a serviceable standalone novel about the excesses of today’s moneyed classes—perhaps even a commentary on Donald Trump. While Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter inspires constant awe, St Aubyn’s prose soars only occasionally, as in this passage: “Nothing in his [Dunbar’s] ascent to power had prepared him for the experience of the last weeks and in particular of the last few days, which seemed to have overrun his mind with a kind of knowledge that he was unable to make sense of. Like a deluge rushing onto a flat, rocky plain, with no slope to direct it or soil to absorb it, it had obliterated all familiar landmarks without bringing any new life in return. How could she [Florence] reach him in the middle of that sterile flood?” (177)

I recommend reading Dunbar as simply a contemporary novel. If, however, you want a truly great retelling of King Lear, read Jane Smiley’s 1991 masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

 

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. 

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.

 

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.

A Very Long Marriage

 Midwinter Break     Bernard MacLaverty     (2017)

Irish author Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, is a masterful study of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage.

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Gerry and Stella are in their seventies. They grew up in Northern Ireland during the hidebound 1950s and then experienced the Troubles, that period of Catholic/Protestant terrorism and guerrilla warfare on the island that began in the late 1960s. As adults, they moved to Scotland to escape violence and pursue their careers, Gerry in architecture and Stella in teaching. They’re retired now, financially comfortable, and their grown son lives in Canada with his family, so their lives have emptied out, in a sense. To fill the void, Stella, who has always been a devout Catholic, is trying to develop her spiritual life further. Non-believer Gerry, on the other hand, has upped his alcohol consumption to a dangerous level.

It’s January, and Stella has organized a short vacation to Amsterdam for the two of them. If trading one cold, dreary winter site (Scotland) for another that’s equally cold and dreary (the Netherlands) seems odd, well, it is. Readers eventually learn Stella’s hidden agenda for the trip, just as readers come to understand Gerry’s obsession with alcohol, which he tries to hide.

MacLaverty manages his prose in such a way that he makes the minutiae of daily life truly fascinating. I do not know how he does this. At the level of the sentence, the actions of his characters are trivial, but the overall effect of his paragraphs and chapters is riveting, even when he’s describing such mind-numbing details as negotiating suitcases and shampoo bottles and security checks in an airport. Part of his technique must be rooted in his dialogue, which is so perfectly tuned that I feel certain I’ve heard some of the lines verbatim in real life.

Stella and Gerry are at heart quite compatible and affectionate toward each other, although she does carp a bit about his drinking, and he engages in some gentle mockery of her religiosity. Gerry automatically steers Stella by the elbow at busy street corners, knowing her fear of traffic. Stella indulges Gerry’s long tarrying at certain art works in the Rijksmuseum. They both have physical ailments that are common for their ages, but they don’t let these dominate their lives; instead they have “the Ailment Hour,” a limited time period each day when they tell each other about their aches and pains.

All is not connubial bliss, however. Shadows from a horrible past event hang over the couple, and the full power of this event is not revealed until late in the narrative. The stereotypical issues of many Irish tales, religion and drink, are key to the conflicts between Stella and Gerry, but in MacLaverty’s capable hands they are never trite. Stella’s religious beliefs, for example, are treated respectfully. But MacLaverty does go full Irish in invoking James Joyce in the final chapters of Midwinter Break, as Stella and Gerry deal with a snowstorm. MacLaverty’s characters live in Scotland, and he sends them vacationing in the Netherlands, but the pull of the old Ireland of “The Dead” from The Dubliners is still strong. Midwinter Break is a book that you’ll mull over for many days after you close the covers.

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.

Vermont Secession?

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance     Bill McKibben     (2017)

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This novel . . . wait! Bill McKibben doesn’t write novels, does he? Isn’t he the one who produced that groundbreaking book about climate change, The End of Nature, way back in 1989? Isn’t this the guy who founded the climate activism group 350.org? Yup, same guy! And now he’s broadening his scope to generalized civic resistance and expanding his genres to include prose fiction. And can Bill McKibben write a respectable novel? Absolutely.

The story:  Vern Barclay is a 72-year-old Vermonter who for decades has hosted a radio show on which he interviews local folks, plays a few tracks of music, and covers events like store openings. He stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States, as the US is currently being led by President Trump, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. To Vern’s surprise, the secession movement snowballs, and he goes into hiding on an isolated farm, since he’s being hunted by both state and federal law enforcement officers for his involvement in an act of civic resistance that got him into a pile of shit.

Vern’s sidekicks in his adventure are a teenaged computer geek, a survival camp instructor, and an Olympic athlete. Vern records podcasts for Radio Free Vermont—“underground, underpowered, and underfoot”—as his team plots comical, nonviolent subversive capers. By including in the novel some of Vern’s ad-libbed broadcasts, McKibben can expound for a couple of pages on topics such as the corporatization of America, the value of Vermont’s town-hall decision-making process, and the problems with agricultural subsidies. McKibben does get in a few environmental points, as Vern laments the warming of Vermont’s winters and rejoices over the return of moose to the wild. But this is not primarily a book about the environment. Instead, the time-honored phrase “All politics is local” is extended to its logical conclusion as Vern rehearses the long history of community activism in Vermont, which was originally established in 1777 as an independent republic and only joined the United States in 1791. Throughout the book, the many small, owner-operated breweries in Vermont are promoted by name, as are other products for which the state is famous (hello, Ben and Jerry’s).

I read this book in one sitting, and I laughed out loud at several points. McKibben’s sarcasm ranges from gentle mockery of uptalk (speech that ends every sentence with an interrogative tone) to outright scorn for the private military companies that are employed by the feds—the bumbling operations of “Whitestream” in Radio Free Vermont evoke the infamous Blackwater activities in Iraq. The narrative spirals into incredible territory toward the end, but that’s part of the appeal of this novel. It’s a fable. In an “Author’s Note” at the back of the book, McKibben acknowledges that secession is not really a viable option. That isn’t what Radio Free Vermont is about. Instead, I think McKibben wants to show us how an appeal to reasonableness, combined with deft use of the internet and the media, can encourage the American populace to rise up against policies that undermine ethics, morality, and the rule of law. He may be speaking only to the converted, but his voice is loud.

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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On the southern coast of England, across from the Isle of Wight, the sea is a relentless presence. If you’ve had swimming lessons, you might venture out into the frigid waters, to contest with the treacherous currents. Two of the characters in this novel feel an inexorable pull to the sea, and they’re both strong swimmers.

One is Ingrid Coleman, wife to Gil and mother to Nan and Flora. She disappeared twelve years before the main action of the novel, presumably drowned despite her expertise at swimming. In the month before she disappeared in 1992, she wrote long letters to Gil, recalling how they met in London in 1976, married, and moved into a ramshackle house on the beach. Ingrid’s letters form about half of the text of Swimming Lessons, though where the letters are to be found is mysterious. Ingrid slipped each one into a book that linked thematically to that segment of her story, but Gil owns so very many books that the letters would be hard to locate.

Flora is the second strong swimmer of the novel. She’s never recovered from Ingrid’s disappearance when she was a child, and she displays her anger and grief in her adult relationships. Flora’s point of view is represented in the non-epistolary portions of Swimming Lessons, taking place in the present day. She clings to the belief that her mother is still alive, and she swims on the same beach where Ingrid vanished. “The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough, her mother’s voice sounded amidst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.” (162)

The present-day crisis that brings Flora, her sorta-boyfriend Richard, and her sister back to the family home is Gil’s hospitalization from a bad fall that he takes while chasing after a woman he thinks is Ingrid. Whether the woman actually is Ingrid or whether Gil is hallucinating is another of the mysteries in this novel, which is not officially billed as a mystery.

Despite the richness of the writing, I wanted author Claire Fuller to develop the characters of Nan and Gil more fully. From the evidence presented, Gil is a reprehensible fellow—a middling writer and a manipulative womanizer who lies obnoxiously to cover his tracks. The clutter of his life is reflected in the stacks of books that fill his house to overflowing: “Hardbacks about space and time, paperbacks about love affairs, tumbling together with poetry pamphlets and novella, knocked the top off another stack and then another, like a line of dominos.” (312)

Although I didn’t get enough of a sense of Nan and Gil, the forward movement of the narrative is kept brisk by unanswered plot questions, with twists and turns right up to the end. Meanwhile, Fuller tosses out sumptuous descriptions like this one: “She . . . took the uphill footpath through the small beech wood, the trees stained by streaks of copper where the rain dripped in slippery runnels. She slapped their trunks with the palm of her hand as she passed, as if she were whacking the meaty rumps of giant horses.” (261)

The moral of the story, if that might be allowed, may be that when people are not honest with each other they can be swept away from those they love. Claire Fuller is an author to keep an eye on.

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series     Alexander McCall Smith

Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.

McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog:  the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

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The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language:  “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”)  but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”). 

Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of  JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.

Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.

McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
  • Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  • Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  • The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  • Precious and Grace (2016)
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)

Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a  television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books.