Mental Illness in the Family

Ask Again, Yes     Mary Beth Keane     (2019)

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Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet in the police academy in New York City in the early 1970s. After they each marry, they end up buying adjoining houses in a leafy suburb, commuting to the city to pursue their cop careers. This could become a pretty idyllic tale, especially when Kate, one of Francis’s three daughters, forms a deep childhood friendship with Peter, Brian’s only child. But mental illness is no respecter of happy endings.

We know from the start that Brian’s wife, Anne, is unconventional and taciturn, and Brian “always seemed to want to defuse things by agreeing with her.” (73) After Anne loses a baby, her mental state becomes dangerously explosive. (A word of warning that Anne’s turn to violence results in a distressing scene, though it’s very brief.) Anne’s actions have long-term consequences for both families: the teenage Kate and Peter are torn apart, and adult careers are shattered.

The novelist gives her story a long arc of many decades and handles it with sensitivity. Anne is not cast as a villain but rather as a suffering soul whose mental illness needs treatment, not contempt. Her actions are hurtful to others, physically and emotionally, but these actions don’t arise out of malice.

Despite the difficult subject matter, the tone of the novel is steady and even, probing family interactions with subtlety, holding the attachment of Kate and Peter as a spark of hope.

What about that title? The phrase “Ask again, yes” is plucked from an exchange, late in the book, between Kate and Peter, and it hints, from the time that you first see the cover, that they may eventually be reunited. Other than that, I didn’t find the title particularly illuminating. Still, my need to learn how life turned out for the members of the Gleeson and Stanhope families kept me moving from chapter to chapter in this immersive, well-wrought novel.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Books in Brief, Part 5

Every Note Played     Lisa Genova     (2018)

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Lisa Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, writes novels that illuminate neurological diseases. Her 2007 offering, Still Alice, told the story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In her 2018 Every Note Played, Genova gives us the fictional Richard Evans, a world-renowned classical pianist who develops ALS (sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which destroys the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Genova takes the reader through the progression of Richard’s ALS over a period of a little more than a year, detailing the difficult medical decisions that he must make along the way. Even more significantly, Richard has to come to terms with the forced ending of his musical career and with his troubled relationships with his ex-wife, Karina; his college-age daughter; and his father, who never valued Richard’s musical talent. As Richard becomes increasingly helpless, Karina ends up, reluctantly, caring for him in her home. Genova depicts the stresses both on the patient and on his family and friends in painful detail, but the novel doesn’t become solely a case study in ALS. It stands on its own merits as a work of fiction about self-awareness, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

In the Midst of Winter     Isabel Allende     (2017)     Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson

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Three people with vastly different life stories come together during a blizzard in New York City in 2016. The car of Richard Bowmaster, a sixty-something American prof, slides into a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, a twenty-something undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. The resulting minor auto damage brings to light a murder and brings into the drama the character of Lucia Maraz, a sixty-something academic from Chile who is teaching in New York for the year. Each of these three has a tumultuous past, which is recounted in flashbacks as the murder mystery unfolds in present time. The narrative here is somewhat disjointed, and the mystery is transparent, but Allende’s mastery of language and dialogue, even in translation, is apparent. For an Allende novel that I consider superior to In the Midst of Winter, try reading The Japanese Lover.

The Only Story     Julian Barnes     (2018)

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This is an elegant, nostalgic, gloomy novel, in three sections. The first section, recounted in first person by the protagonist, Paul, is the story of the early days of a love affair between the 19-year-old Paul and the 48-year-old Susan. They meet at a tennis club in a town south of London in the early 1960s. In the second section, mostly in second person narration, Paul and Susan are living together in London, and their affair is not going well (read: boy, is this depressing). The third section, in third person, is a lengthy retrospective exploration of the nature of love, with a few narrative strands about Paul’s middle and older years. Barnes touches on the debate between inevitability and free will and probes the correlation between strength of feeling and degree of happiness. Throughout, the prose is refined and masterful, as you would expect from the author of the Booker-Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (2011) and many other novels. But if you pick up The Only Story, don’t expect a tidy wrap-up. Oh, and just what is “the only story”? Love. Love is the only story, and it’s infinitely complex.

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.

New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)

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Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The form of her fiction before 2017 was unconventional, so critics seem shocked that Egan was capable of producing, with the publication of Manhattan Beach, a traditional historical novel, especially since such novels are not fashionable at the moment. I had never read anything else by Egan, so I approached Manhattan Beach as a seasoned reviewer of multitudes of historical novels, and it’s a good one.

The setting is New York City, first in the depths of the Great Depression and then in the midst of World War II. Keep your finger on the front or back endpapers of Manhattan Beach so that you can refer to the map of the Brooklyn Naval Yard as it existed during World War II. This may help you locate and picture the scenes of the novel that take place there.

The plot? I hesitate to reveal much, since one of the pleasures of this novel is the intricacy of the entangled story lines, which the reader unravels with every turn of the page. The central character is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet as a child in 1934, when she accompanies her down-at-the-heels father, Eddie, on a visit to a mobster’s home, which overlooks Manhattan Beach. Both this locale and the title of the book point to the prominence of bodies of water as recurrent images in Egan’s writing. The mobster is Dexter Styles, whose back story we’ll learn. We’ll follow Eddie, too, as well as Anna’s severely disabled younger sister, Lydia. The characters in Manhattan Beach have to confront organized crime, Wall Street bankers, Park Avenue doctors, and Nazi submarines. It ain’t dull!

The main line of interest, however, is Anna, who reaches the age of 19 during World War II and is able, like many women of the period, to secure war-related employment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She hates the tedium of taking quality control measurements of small parts and escapes on her lunchtimes to the piers that jut out into the East River. Gazing at the water, she sees a diver in a bulky canvas suit slipping below the surface, and she has an epiphany. “Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. . . she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied.” (62-3) Anna single-mindedly and aggressively pursues her quest to become a diver, repairing the underwater portions of vessels heading out to war. Although Rosie-the-Riveter was welcomed in factories that turned out bombers, Anna-the-Diver has a tougher time convincing the male authorities at the ship yard to connect her to an air hose and let her clamber down the ladder into the depths.  

As Egan has explained in several author profiles (and as her acknowledgements at the end of the novel reveal), she exhaustively researched all the arcane detail in Manhattan Beach, learning not only about diving but also about the New York waterfront,  nightclubs, Irish Americans, gangsters, and merchant marine ships. At times, Egan seems so anxious to assure her readers of the historical authenticity of her novel that she piles on the data, listing, for instance, too many product brand names or too many seafaring terms. This is a small complaint, as is my sense that some turns of plot are clichéd and that the denouement of Manhattan Beach is somewhat abrupt. Still, I was left with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the later lives of the characters, and that’s always a sign that the novelist has done a very good job of constructing those characters.

Manhattan Beach has been touted as one of the great novels of the decade. I wouldn’t go that far in my praise, but I did find it very well-crafted and solidly entertaining. Check it out! And for more New York mystery/adventure, read my reviews of Brendan Mathews's The World of Tomorrow and of Colin Harrison's You Belong to Me.

Irishmen at the 1939 World's Fair

The World of Tomorrow     Brendan Mathews     (2017)

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The cover of this novel depicts the key setting: New York in 1939, site of the World’s Fair, with its theme and slogan “The World of Tomorrow.” When you open the book, the endpapers offer a map of the fairgrounds, with the iconic trylon and perisphere structures, which are also on the back cover.

Brendan Mathews compresses almost all the action of his novel into one week in New York City in early June of 1939, a time when the Great Depression had eased, when the future in America seemed bright, when World War II was still unimaginable to most Americans, despite the actions of Hitler in Europe. Three Irish brothers are at the center of a large cast of characters. Francis Dempsey has fled Ireland after a prison break and a run-in with the Irish Republican Army that left him, unexpectedly, with a bundle of cash. With Francis is his brother Michael, a disenchanted seminarian who has been severely injured by an IRA bomb. Francis and Michael assume fake identities when they arrive in New York, but they do seek out the third brother, Martin, who is married to Rosemary and has two daughters. We learn about Rosemary’s complicated family history in New York, and we also pick up the stories of other characters who will cross paths with the Dempseys. Irish expatriate Tom Cronin is a retired hit man who is called back to the city to retrieve the cash that Francis lifted from the IRA. Lilly Bloch is a Jewish street photographer from Czechoslovakia who’s on a limited visa in New York but is hesitant to return to her home and her fiancé given the Nazi presence in Prague.

The plot can be as rollicking as a slapstick Laurel and Hardy movie of the period, and when Mathews is in this mode, the pages turn themselves, especially in the climatic final scenes at the World’s Fair. However, I did find Mathews’s supernatural elements sometimes hard to swallow. The shell-shocked Michael has long conversations with the ghost of the poet William Butler Yeats. This is a way for readers to know what Michael, who cannot speak, is thinking, but it can get tedious.

Quibbling aside, The World of Tomorrow is serious and well written historical fiction, weaving in the funding of IRA terrorism by Irish Americans, the role of women in the mid-twentieth century, the political corruption of New York, and the competitive jazz scene of the city. Here is Martin, dragging home at dawn from a jazz gig: “. . . the early-morning hours were his favorite. Walking a nearly vacant street, with only a couple slouched against each other in the distance, steam drifting lazily from a manhole, a splash of neon thrown into a puddle, an after-hours bar whose last diligent drinkers hunched over their highball glasses—this was the New York he had come seeking.” (45-46)

Hanging over all the narrative is the reader’s knowledge of what is to come:  “The World of Tomorrow” will be postponed until after a long, devastating war that stretched around the globe. In the closing pages of the novel, Mathews spells this out: “. . . the story of the months and years ahead would be broadcast in boldface headlines and urgent radio bulletins. It would be told in V-Mail and telegrams from the War Department and in prayers offered in church. More than they could know, it would be written in silences, absences, and empty spaces. But the story of those years would also be told in love letters saved and bundled in ribbon, and in songs dreamed up during nights in the barracks, and in the warmth of the spotlight before the first note was sung, and in sunlit hours when it was possible to believe that everyone you had lost was only late, and would be home soon enough.” (546)

An Embezzler in Brooklyn

The Misfortune of Marion Palm     Emily Culliton     (2017)

When I tell you that this novel is set in contemporary New York, you may be thinking, “Not another story about bored rich people and their sad affairs!” Well, this one is different.

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Marion Palm, the central character in Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is not a New Yorker you’d find in a Jay McInerney novel. She’s a college dropout who’s overweight, not very attractive, and keen on embezzlement. Yes, she lives in a pricey Brooklyn brownstone, but that’s only because she married Nathan, a clueless poet. His trust fund turns out to be smaller than Marion assumed, so Marion embezzles to bring the place up to standard and maintain their lifestyle. She has access to money because she’s a development officer, raising funds at the private school that her two daughters attend. Marion is very good at embezzling, but this school is run so haphazardly that stealing from the till is a piece of cake.

As the book opens, however, an IRS audit of the school is looming. So Marion takes off with a backpack full of cash, leaving Nathan and the young daughters. Marion is not as adept at running away as she is at embezzling, which leads to her involvement with Russian gangsters. Nathan, meanwhile, can barely order pizza delivery and get the girls out the door to the school bus.

Marion’s motivation for fleeing is not only the audit. She has a useless husband and no friends. As we learn in flashbacks, she’s had some raw deals in life. She’s disenchanted with her fake upper-middle-class life and the disdain with which she’s treated by the other parents at the school. She can see how wealthy New Yorkers squander their superfluous dollars, and she views her thefts as helping to correct financial inequality, Robin-Hood style. These issues outweigh Marion’s devotion to her children.  

Novelist Culliton’s prose is economical, her dialogue is rapid-fire, and her chapters are brief. Don’t assume that this means that her underlying themes aren’t serious. The plot moves along so speedily that I recommend reading The Misfortune of Marion Palm in one sitting, to get the full effect.

If you like The Misfortune of Marion Palm, you might want to pick up another mold-breaking Brooklyn novel, Lucinda Rosenfeld’s satiric Class, reviewed here. Novelist Maria Semple’s offerings also have a similar feel. Check out my review of Semple’s Today Will Be Different, set in Seattle, here. Like Culliton’s novel, these two also puncture the pretentiousness of the monied set. 

Asperger's in Manhattan

Standard Deviation     Katherine Heiny     (2017)

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You probably know someone like Standard Deviation’s Audra, a stream-of-consciousness, nonstop chatterer who talks to strangers on the bus and in the elevator, freely associating from one topic to all adjacent topics. You might find her endearing, or you might find her highly irritating and intrusive. Graham, her husband, finds her endearing most of the time, even when she proposes pretty outrageous activities, such as striking up a friendship with Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, whom he hasn’t seen in twelve years. In case you’re wondering, yup, Graham left Elspeth for the much younger Audra.

Katherine Heiny’s episodic novel takes us up and down the streets of Manhattan for the adventures of Graham and Audra; their ten-year-old son, Matthew; and Elspeth. Audra leads the way with hilarious monologues. For example, at an origami convention to which Graham and Audra have taken Matthew, Audra exclaims impatiently while waiting in a queue,  “‘What I don’t understand about origami . . . is why can’t anyone like it a little bit? Why aren’t there nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of origami, the way there are nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of bondage?’”(110) Wherever Audra treads, innocent bystanders reel in shock.

But hidden in plain sight in this book is a serious examination of the difficulties of raising a child with autism spectrum disorder. The doctor diagnosing Matthew tells the parents, “’Matthew’s score on the questionnaires for oversensitivity to stimulation ranked more than a full standard deviation above the range for children his age.’” (232) This passage is where we finally find out what the title of the novel means. Heiny presents the case of young Matthew with clear-eyed, unsparing detail, and she presents his parents as devoted unreservedly to helping him become an independent adult. The plot of Standard Deviation trails off in about the final third of the book, but that may be to give the impression of how the lives of Graham and Audra and Matthew will continue in the same vein.

The third-person narrative of the novel is told mainly from Graham’s point of view, and Heiny offers us plenty of Graham’s musings on his family situation:

  • “Who was this doctor to say that because of standard deviation, Matthew stood firmly on the stark cracked-earth desert of Asperger’s, that he would never feel the long cool green shade of normal?” (232)
  • “Graham had been developing a theory lately that the parents of kids with Asperger’s also had Asperger’s only less pronounced. A milder Asperger’s. The seeds of Asperger’s . . . Of all the dozens of special-needs kids’ parents he knew, one parent of every couple always seemed a bit odd, a bit eccentric, a bit Aspergery.” (212)

Indeed, one wonders how Matthew’s mother, Audra, would be diagnosed.

After writing a draft of this review, I read some other major reviews. I was surprised that the reviewers focused on the relationship triangle of Graham, Audra (his current wife), and Elspeth (his ex-wife). That was certainly a sub-plot in the novel, but I found the relationship between Matthew and his parents (Graham and Audra) much more significant. Neither the highly amusing dialogue nor the Manhattan scenery detracts from this book’s thoughtful treatment of the issue of autism.

Fiction with a Christmas Setting

Whether Christmas for you is a religious observance, a civic holiday, or just another day of the week, you can’t avoid the hype in modern American culture. Fiction titles set at Christmastime abound.

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In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming, is the 2002 novel that inaugurated an excellent series of contemporary murder mysteries set in upstate New York. Since this book takes place in December, you can get a good dose of drifting snow and icy winds to put you in a wintry mood. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town of Miller’s Kill. (A “kill” is a small river in Dutch, but there’s that double meaning.) Clare Fergusson is an Episcopal priest who just started her first job at a local church. On a bitterly cold night, Clare finds an abandoned baby in a box on the church doorstep. She accompanies the baby to the hospital in an ambulance, where she meets Russ, who’s investigating the case. The plot, as twisty as the mountain roads of the Adirondacks, includes multiple murders, red herrings, and scenes of sheer terror. I don’t usually like to read thrillers (because of the sheer terror), but this novel has so much more. Spencer-Fleming makes her characters’ struggles of conscience totally believable and in no way sentimental. Clare has a deep faith that is impressive even to the agnostic Russ. And the sizzling attraction between married Russ and single Clare, evident from chapter 1, grows as the plot develops, pulled along by snappy and intelligent dialogue. Get yourself a copy of In the Bleak Midwinter and plan for some non-stop reading.

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For an easy read by the fireplace after a day of feasting, try one of Anne Perry’s gentle Christmas mysteries. Perry is the bestselling author of full-length historical mysteries set in the Victorian era and in World War I. Every year since 2003, she’s also published a novella-length mystery set during the Christmas season, usually in the nineteenth-century England that she knows so well. These short Christmas mysteries are not complex in their plots like Perry’s full-length novels, but they do display Perry’s signature approach of recording her characters’ brooding introspection. The sleuth of the novella may be a professional or an amateur, but the Christmas festivities are always poignant. A Christmas Garland (2012), set in India during the British colonial rule there, was to me the least successful of these books, but I recommend the series overall. I especially liked A Christmas Secret (2006), about newlyweds moving into a vicarage in rural England and facing a murder. In A New York Christmas (2014) Perry ventures across the Atlantic in 1904. Yes, I do have a weakness for fiction set in New York City!

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For the ultimate in British classic-era Christmas mystery, pick up the 1934 Nine Tailors  by Dorothy L. Sayers. This novel requires that the reader acquire some background knowledge of two subjects: the Fens and the change ringing of church bells. The Fens are low-lying marshy areas in the eastern part of England that were made into arable lands centuries ago by an extensive system of drainage channels. Change ringing is the practice of pulling ropes to sound tuned bells in a tower in a particular and complex order, not for the production of a discernible melody but for the precision of the sequence. Okay, okay, it’s esoteric. But Nine Tailors is worth this price of admission to an adventure of Lord Peter Wimsey that begins on one New Year’s Eve and concludes at Christmastime a year later.  

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The twist in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us (2017) is that a British family is forced to stay quarantined in their rural home for a week at Christmas because one daughter, a physician, has just returned from Africa, where she was treating victims of a deadly virus. Their mandatory togetherness evokes the traditional English-country-house mystery novel, though this is not a mystery. Novelist Hornak brings out some well-worn plot elements, such as the concealment of a medical diagnosis and the arrival of an adult son whose existence was previously unknown. The story is updated to the twenty-first century with emails, text messages, Twitter hashtags, and a bit of gay sex, but the characters are recognizable British types: the grumpy and self-centered paterfamilias, the frivolous young woman, the dense rugby player, the noble doctor. This is pretty good quality chick lit, suitable for light reading over the winter holidays.

An 18th-Century Romp in NYC

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York     Francis Spufford     (2017)

When the English prose novel debuted as a genre in the eighteenth century, it was usually characterized by realism, episodic structure, and the adventures of a hero. With Golden Hill, Francis Spufford replicates many aspects of the early novel while producing more sprightly and less rambling text. Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City and stars Richard Smith, a Briton on a mysterious mission in the pre-Revolution American colonies.

Smith lands in Manhattan on the rainy evening of November 1, carrying a sort of money order for the enormous sum of a thousand pounds. When he attempts to collect his cash at a firm affiliated with the London firm on which the order is drawn, he understandably comes under suspicion. This may be ancient New York, but it’s still New York, and bankers seek verification. Besides, cash is in short supply in the colonies, where barter and paper money of fluctuating value serve instead.

During a waiting period of sixty days to receive—or not receive—the funds, Smith becomes intimately acquainted with the city of seven thousand souls that already has a “Broad Way” and a “Breuckelen.” He breakfasts at a coffee house and dines with the power brokers of the city. He celebrates “Pope Day” (Guy Fawkes Day, November 5) with the British inhabitants and “Sinterklaasavond” (St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5) with the Dutch. Novelist Spufford vividly describes the local customs of colonial New York as his character Smith gets into all sorts of scrapes, acts in an amateur theater production, and falls in love with an independent-minded woman.

Sections of Golden Hill do have the ring of eighteenth-century prose, but in other sections Spufford  takes off with paragraphs that sound more contemporary. Here he is describing falling snow:

“. . .the powdery fall was already furring the cobbles with a thin grey nap like velvet, and rimming them white along all the crooked lines between. Everything seemed slowed to the speed of the descending snow. A holy expectation reigned in the thickening air, and passers-by walked as if they did not want to disturb it. Only a small party . . . made any noise. They were singing something, and carrying a small lantern on a pole which lit the flakes to swarming gold in a small globe around itself, and touched the edges of their faces—the line of a hat, the scroll of an ear, the filaments of a beard—with shadowy gilding, like statues in an ancient shrine.” (182)

Spufford’s similes can be striking:

“The awkwardness between them that danger and hilarity had dissolved was drifting back into place, like a sediment in a briskly-shaken bottle that, when shaking ceases, begins to float down again.” (89)

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye. So it was when the news of Smith’s disgraceful liaison was suddenly released into the town.” (225)

Spufford conceals the purpose of Smith’s trip to New York until the close of the novel. I usually downrate a mystery if the author does not abide by the fair-play rule, which dictates that facts known to the protagonist cannot be  hidden from the reader. I gave Spufford a pass on this one, however, since Golden Hill is much more than a mystery. It’s an eighteenth-century romp with a serious message about justice at the end—and a coda from that independent-minded woman whom Smith met in New York.

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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Somehow I missed the word “thriller” in the blurbs about this book. Thrillers give me nightmares, so I rarely read them. I thought that You Belong to Me was a literary novel about a map collector. Hah!

Paul Reeves, a 50-year-old collector of old maps of New York City, is indeed a central character, but his quest to acquire rare and pricey specimens is only one of several plot lines that novelist Harrison leads his readers through. Paul’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a little scheme of her own. Then there’s the story of Billy, a tough former Army Ranger from Texas navigating contemporary New York as he tries to win back his gorgeous girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s now married to someone else. That someone else is Ahmed, a prominent Iranian-American financier with relatives who came through the 1979 revolution in Iran with plenty of guerilla survival skills. And guerilla tactics are part of the arsenal of Mexican bodybuilder and hitman Hector, who also gets involved. All of these plots play out on the streets of New York, as we elbow through the lunchtime crowds in Rockefeller Center to reach Christie’s for a map auction, as we creep down a squalid back street behind a grimy weight-lifting gym, as we careen along the Belt Parkway with a murderer in pursuit.

Yes, several gruesome murders take place in the noir New York of You Belong to Me. I tried to zip through those passages quickly, lingering more over paragraphs such as this one, describing a map from 1776: “The large map showed, in stunning detail, the charming young city of New York set amid farm fields, swamps, ponds, streams, and woods, complete with harbor soundings in fathoms. Only months later, in September of that year, much of the southern tip of the city would be consumed in a ghastly fire that broke out in a bordello frequented by British sailors . . . The map also depicted the quaint little village of Brooklyn, spelled ‘Brookland’, and nearby the marshy water of Wallabout Bay . . . The map’s lines were crisp, the detail so magnificent that actual wisps of smoke from individual houses were depicted. Such beauty and precision and provenance made the map fantastically important.” (78)

The title of the novel reveals the theme that unites the narrative: possession. Paul wants to own precious maps of his beloved city. Rachel decides that Paul should belong to her and her alone. Billy and Ahmed both want to possess Jennifer. Hitman Hector wants to acquire the money that is owed to him. Watch out for that greed, New Yorkers! Colin Harrison has your number, and he punches it with impudence and sass. You Belong to Me is the proverbial page-turner, with rapid-fire action and snappy dialogue, but the characters, with all their failings and evil deeds, are strangely endearing. Read this one even if, like me, you don’t usually care for thrillers.

The Immigrant Experience

The Leavers     Lisa Ko     (2017)

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Adoption has been the subject of several books I’ve reviewed recently, including Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Celine, Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. The yearning of some adopted children to find their birth mothers—or of birth mothers to find their biological children—can be a powerful theme for a novel. Lisa Ko takes a slightly different approach to adoption, and in the process she illuminates the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The immigrants in this story work long hours in difficult jobs to provide food and shelter for their loved ones. They have to make heart-rending decisions in their struggle to survive. As the dust jacket tells us, “The Leavers won the 2016 PEN Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.”

In The Leavers, Deming Guo was born in the United States, but his mother, Polly/Peilan, is an undocumented immigrant from Fujian province in China. She owes large sums to the loan shark who brought her to New York. One day when Deming is in fifth grade in the Bronx, Polly fails to return from her job at a nail salon and disappears from his life. Deming is fostered and then adopted by a well-meaning but misguided white couple in upstate New York and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. Deming/Daniel is the only Asian kid in the quiet community where he spends his teen years, and he constantly longs for his old city neighborhood and for any information about what happened to his birth mother. As novelist Lisa Ko encapsulates the problem, “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.” (270)

As Daniel moves into his twenties, he becomes involved in the music scene in New York City, as a composer and performer.  He routinely experiences synesthesia: “Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t included violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.” (71) And music keeps him going when he sees no other future for himself:  “A song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.” (258)

Polly and Daniel both have their flaws—Polly is often self-centered, Daniel develops a gambling addiction. I think that these characteristics help to keep the novel from falling into clichés. The Leavers alternates between Daniel’s side of the story and Polly’s, between New York and China, gradually revealing what happened on that day when Polly vanished. Did she take the bus to Florida, where she’d talked about relocating? Did the loan shark send her back to China? Did she leave her son (as well as her kindly boyfriend) for a new lover? Did she get hit by a truck? I won’t spoil the ending. I will say that, although the reason for Polly’s disappearance makes sense, the reason for her long-term absence from Daniel’s life doesn’t ring true for me.

However, as usual, I loved the parts of The Leavers that were set in New York City, which is beloved by Daniel:  “Daniel saw the Manhattan skyline, recognized the sketched spire of the Empire State Building, the sparkle of bridges, and from this vantage point the city appeared vulnerable and twinkling, the last strands of sunshine swept across the arches as if lulling them to sleep, painting shadows against the tops of buildings. No matter how many times he saw the city’s outline he pitched inside.” (110)

There are many kinds of “leaving” in this novel. Polly leaves China, and then she leaves her son. Daniel leaves the Bronx, but then he leaves upstate New York to return to the city. In a way, all of us are “leavers,” since we make choices in life that involve leaving other options behind.

Procreational Shenanigans

The Heirs     Susan Rieger     (2017)

Five sons are the beneficiaries of the estate of Rupert Falkes, who dies in the first chapter of The Heirs. Or maybe there are seven sons, since it comes to light after Rupert’s death that he may have had a mistress and family on the side. But then again, maybe he didn’t.

This witty novel has a large cast of characters who populate its complex plot, which lurches back and forth in time. Novelist Susan Rieger fleshes out the personalities of the five sons quite well, but it’s the mother, Eleanor, widow of Rupert Falkes, whom readers come to know best.  “Rupert married Eleanor because she was the girl of the year in 1960, because all the other men he knew wanted her, because she knew the difference between sarcasm and irony, because she was a knockout, because she’d read George Orwell, because she was sexually electrifying, because he could talk to her.” (13) Later in the novel we learn that “she was a MILF before there was a word for it.” (205) Okay, then, you should get the drift: sexual adventuring is a theme in The Heirs.

The family doesn’t need the money that Rupert leaves. They’re all filthy rich in their own right. It’s the inheritance of uncertainty about Rupert’s past that dominates their discussions and Rieger’s analyses of their discussions. Rupert was a self-made man, an orphan who was left as an infant on a church doorstep in England in 1934 and rose to be a prominent New York lawyer. His family thought they knew him. Eleanor was from well-established American bloodlines and brought wealth to the marriage. She’s more inscrutable, but she’s fully adept at social graces, like knowing not to wear white shoes after Labor Day.

Rupert’s sideline in sons isn’t the only procreational plot in The Heirs. For instance, Rupert’s gay son, Sam, longs desperately for a child of his own. And the wife of an early boyfriend of Eleanor’s wonders if her husband might be the father of at least some of Eleanor’s kids. The liaisons get mighty tangled.

Like her characters, Rieger is acerbic and sophisticated, willing to insert barbs no matter how sharp and providing a glimpse into the lives of the elitist ultra-wealthy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the furious pace and the elements of retroactive continuity, The Heirs is deliciously entertaining. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a sucker for novels set in New York. Check out other reviews in the New York Novels category from the Archive of Book Reviews in the right column.

Novels about Paintings, Part 2

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos     Dominic Smith     (2016)

As I read this novel, I assumed that the title painting, the last painting of Sara de Vos, was At the Edge of a Wood. The creation of this fictional work of art is placed in 1636, as de Vos is grieving the death of her only child, a daughter, from the plague. The painting shows a dark-haired girl in the foreground, barefoot in the snow, watching a group of skaters on the frozen river beyond. It’s dusk in winter in the Netherlands, so the quality of light is otherworldly.

According to novelist Dominic Smith’s complex story, At the Edge of a Wood has been owned by the de Groot family for more than three hundred years, and it’s considered by some to have caused bad luck for the owners. Marty de Groot, the owner we meet in Manhattan in 1957, certainly hasn’t suffered financially, but Marty’s law career is stalled, and he and his wife are unable to have children.

Also in 1957 but in Brooklyn, the novelist introduces us to Ellie Shipley, an Australian graduate student in art history at Columbia University. She’s trying to finish her PhD dissertation about female painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and she does art restoration work to support herself. Along comes a commission, not to restore but to copy a painting by (wait for it) a female painter of the Dutch Golden Age: At the Edge of a Wood. Ellie wades in, not so much for the money as for the technical and artistic challenge of reproducing a stunning painting. This is, of course, forgery.

Forty-odd years later, in 2000, Ellie is an esteemed art historian and curator in Sydney, Australia. As she’s gathering paintings on loan from around the world for an exhibit, it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and the copy she painted will be arriving in Sydney. The forgery will be revealed, and since Ellie is the only person who could have painted the copy, she sees her comfortable life crumbling before her.  

The book moves back and forth effortlessly among three settings:  The Netherlands 1636-1649 (dark, burgher-ruled); New York, 1957-1958 (shiny, jazz-filled); and Sydney, 2000 (sunny, cosmopolitan). The characters of Sara de Vos, Marty de Groot, and Ellie Shipley—all drawn convincingly—move through these settings and through their interconnected lives.  

Novelist Smith does an excellent job of rendering visual art in words, and not only in the passages where he describes paintings. References to the light in a scene come in frequently. For example, here is Ellie on the subway in New York City: “She always has the sensation of being swallowed by the roaring dark of the first tunnel, her ears popping and the sudden appearance of her reflection on the blackened windowpane like some hangdog daguerreotype from another century.“ (208) And here is Marty, in his office at night after committing a terrible deed: “He’s never been up here at night and there’s a sensation of being fortified behind glass, of something solid between him and the mercantile canyons of the city. The office buildings are phosphorescent through the darkness, effulgent with a smoky light that reminds him of dry ice.” (249).

By the end of the novel, you’ll know what the last painting of Sara de Vos actually was. I’ll leave you with this summation of the plot: “You carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like graveside vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again.” (262)

An Unlikely Marriage

This Must Be the Place     Maggie O’Farrell     (2016)

Maggie O’Farrell trusts her readers to catch on to what’s she’s doing with her oblique plot lines. She trusts that readers won’t jump ship when she suddenly shifts the setting to another hemisphere. She especially trusts that readers will take note of her chapter titles, which include the name of the person whose point of view is adopted for that chapter, as well as the city and year in which that chapter takes place. It’s dizzying at first, but once you get used to it, there’s a bit of a reader buzz at the beginning of each chapter. Oh, now you’re in Donegal, Ireland, in 2010, with Daniel narrating in first person. Then, hello, Brooklyn 1944! It’s a third-person narrative about Teresa, who turns out to be Daniel’s mother. And welcome to Goa, India, in 1996, with a third-person narrative about Claudette, Daniel’s second wife. Decades and continents whizz past as you put the pieces of the plot together.

This Must Be the Place ends up being a character study of two people who both have immense talents and big hearts but also serious flaws. Their lives are messy, peopled by previous lovers and by children with problems of their own. Daniel Sullivan is an American linguistics professor who has lost custody of his children in a contentious divorce from his first wife. On a trip to Ireland to retrieve his grandfather’s ashes, Daniel comes across a young boy on the roadside in Donegal. This is how he meets Claudette Wells, the boy’s mother, who is a recluse in the mountains, having fled a life of international stardom and infernal paparazzi. Daniel and Claudette fall in love.

Readers get the life histories of both Daniel and Claudette through those chapters that flash back and forth in time. Some of the chapters border on gimmicky, especially the one that’s a catalog of Claudette’s personal objects that are put up for auction, complete with inset photos. Some of the plot assumptions are wobbly. I doubt that Claudette could really have kept her presence in Ireland a secret for years—in rural Africa or South America, perhaps, but not in Ireland. And I can’t see how Daniel could get work permits for whatever country he was in. None of that matters, however, as O’Farrell reveals more and more about Daniel and Claudette, drawing readers into their struggles.

Along the way, O’Farrell’s descriptive passages work well. Here is Daniel narrating: “Winter is the best season to see Paris, I’ve always thought, when the pavements are sheer with frost, when the sun in low in the sky, when the Seine is swollen and brown, twisting fibrously beneath the bridges.” (266)

And here is Daniel being described when he is in a depressive state: “He is watching the red digital numbers of his alarm clock mutate into their successors: 5 gains an extra descender on its lower-left corner to become 6; to become 7, the 6 must lose almost all of itself, all its left-hand side, all its lower and middle strokes; the only consolation, he tells the 6-soon-to-be-7, is that you’ll get them all back for the full house that is 8. He watches the numbers tot themselves up, then spill over into another hour . . .” (295)

This Must Be the Place offers particularly excellent insights into the interdependence of partners in a marriage, and the portrayals of Daniel's and Claudette’s children are moving and believable. Overall, it’s a satisfying read. I plan to watch for future offerings from O’Farrell.

Two Views of a Marriage

Fates and Furies     Lauren Groff     (2015)

The characters Lotto and Mathilde, the protagonists in Fates and Furies, are not endearing to me. They are very tall and way too beautiful—a glamorous couple right from the day that they meet in 1991, when both are about to graduate from Vassar. I kept reading Fates and Furies out of weird fascination, or perhaps voyeurism, wanting to know what happens to these exceptionally gifted but egotistical and exploitative people.

The first 206 pages of the 390-page novel constitute the “fates” section, telling the story of Lotto’s early life and then his married life with Mathilde. Lotto’s given name is Lancelot, his father is Gawain, and his mother is Antoinette. Right there novelist Lauren Groff has set us her readers for high drama in the manner of Arthurian legend or French history. Lotto is born to wealth, but he’s disinherited upon his marriage to Mathilde, whom his mother disapproves of. He assumes the struggling actor role in New York, dependent upon Mathilde for sustenance, until, in a drunken stupor, he dashes off the first draft of a play. Behold! Lotto becomes an internationally acclaimed playwright. Mathilde continues to serve Lotto’s needs, handling the business side of his amazing career.

With the shift to the “furies” section of the novel, readers get the seamier side of the couple’s story. We learn that Mathilde was born in France and named Aurélie. At age four, she was involved in an accident that killed her baby brother, so she was sent away to live with relatives, ending up in Pennsylvania with an uncle who is some sort of gangster. Many additional secrets about Mathilde are revealed in this half of the novel, putting her marriage to Lotto in a totally different light. I would note that the entire novel is written in third person, not first person, so it isn’t as if Groff is presenting the personal viewpoint of Lotto (“fates”) and then the personal viewpoint of Mathilde (“furies”).

I found the revelations in the second half of the novel oddly disconcerting, feeling that I’d been cheated of information when I was reading the first half of the novel. I did keep reading, however, to the end, drawn in by Groff’s intensity of language, astonishing metaphors, and brisk narrative pace. A couple of examples:

“The women around her were phantom people. Skin taut on their faces. Taking three nibbles of the chef’s fine food and declaring themselves full. Jangling with platinum and diamonds. Abscesses of self.” (341)

“It occurred to her then that life was conical in shape, the past broadening beyond the sharp point of the lived moment. The more life you had, the more the base expanded, so that the wounds and treasons that were nearly imperceptible when they happened stretched like tiny dots on a balloons lowly blown up. A speck on the slender child grows into a gross deformity in the adult, inescapable, ragged at the edges.” (354)

Fates and Furies was the book that President Obama named as his favorite novel of 2015. I speculate that the novel provided him some insights into how an intelligent, supportive spouse can help the career of a similarly intelligent person, as the two marital partners navigate the difficult shoals of power and fame. But I do hope that Obama’s marriage is working better than the one that this novel depicts!