Retirement in Pittsburgh? Don't Yawn!

Henry, Himself     Stewart O’Nan     (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Oxford Working Class

Tin Man     Sarah Winman     (2017)   

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When you picture Oxford, England, you probably think of the imposing towers of the university, the courtyards with berobed scholars fluttering by, the rowers on the river, maybe a scene in a library. You don’t usually think of the working-class people who provide the support infrastructure for this academically oriented city. In Tin Man, Sarah Winman brings these workers into focus.  

The book opens in 1996, when readers meet the middle-aged Ellis, who works as a “tin man” in an Oxford auto factory, repairing small dents in the cars being built. He’s an unhappy widower who looks back on events of his life as he tries to see a path forward. He remembers the early death of his mother, his close friendship during his teen and young adult years with a fellow named Michael, and his happy marriage to a spirited woman named Annie, who also became friends with Michael. Ellis is sad not only about the losses in his life but also about the path he didn’t follow—training as an artist—because he was forced by his father to leave school and take a blue-collar job.  

The second half of this slim volume is the diary of Ellis’s friend Michael, from the years 1989 and 1990. In this segment we learn why Michael is no longer in Oxford in the 1996 segment: he went to London and ended up caring for a lover dying of AIDS. So, you’ve probably guessed that this is a pretty sad story. But it’s nuanced, not banal, plumbing the waters of friendship and love and companionship while revealing the personalities of Ellis, Michael, and, to some extent, Annie. It’s set against the decline of manufacturing in Britain that has created another level of despair. Here’s a scene with Ellis bicycling home from work:  “Along Cowley Road, orange streetlight scattered across the tar, and ghosts of shops long gone lurked in the mists of recollection.” (16-17) 

In his diary entries, Michael captures a social order, just a few short decades ago, that did not accept his sexual orientation:  “How cruel it was that our plans were out there somewhere. Another version of our future, out there somewhere, in perpetual orbit.” (139) And he reflects on his grief:  “I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.” (177) 

If your soul can’t bear the reading of another AIDS story, I understand. I didn’t know this was an AIDS story when I started, and I stayed to the end, where I got some shreds of hope for Ellis’s future.

Epistolary Relationships

Meet Me at the Museum     Anne Youngson     (2018)

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Way back when—well, in 1970—I loved Helene Hanff’s nonfiction 84, Charing Cross Road, a selection of the letters between the American Hanff and the staff at an antiquarian bookstore in London over two decades. The correspondence touched on many literary debates and recreated an era in Britain that included post-war food shortages and the coronation of Elizabeth II. The epistolary format was perfect.

Anne Youngson’s fictional Meet Me at the Museum also works well in an epistolary format, and indeed needs some such mechanism to connect its two principal characters. Tina Hopgood is the British wife of a farmer in East Anglia; she married young and has three adult children. Anders Larsen, a museum curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, is a widower with two adult children. Tina starts the correspondence with an inquiry about the Tollund Man, a naturally mummified corpse from the Iron Age that was unearthed in 1950 and that is actually preserved in the Silkeborg Museum. Since the archaeologist who discovered the Tollund Man is long deceased, the fictional curator Anders responds to Tina.

The exchange of letters and emails that ensues starts with a mutual fascination with Iron Age life and with the Tollund Man in particular. But within a few months, Tina and Anders are sharing pieces of their personal stories, reflecting on the parts of their lives that are behind them as they head toward old age. Both correspondents are unhappy—Tina because of her loveless marriage and demanding daily tasks, Anders because of the recent death of his beloved but difficult wife.  

Although there’s a cultural and educational gulf between the two, Tina is clearly intelligent and wise. She reads contemporary poetry and puts thought into each letter that she sends. Anders writes to Tina in English, in which he is a fluent but not a native speaker, so he also must consider his words carefully, sometimes asking Tina if he’s phrased a sentence correctly. Tina and Anders are frank with each other in fearing that their lives are spiraling toward sad and lonely endings. Tina writes: 

“We have been talking to each other about where life went, and if the way we each spent it was the way we meant to have spent it or would have chosen to spend it if we had known when we made our choices what the other choices were, but we have not wasted our lives. I insist on that.” (165)  

Toward the end of the novel, Anders writes: 

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us. Paths chosen that define us. Enough time left to change.” (249)  

The pace of much of this novel is languid. Its themes of longing and family ties and seeking a moral and useful life are reminiscent of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith (reviewed previously on this blog). Then some surprising events in the lives of both Tina and Anders bring their relationship onto a different plane.  

Meet Me at the Museum is an appealing tale, enlivened by the backstory of the Tollund Man. Hey, write a letter. You never know what might happen.  

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. 

Adventures in 1956 Italy

The Italian Party     Christina Lynch     (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kids in 1930s Australia

The Strays     Emily Bitto     (2014/2017)

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This mesmerizing novel from Emily Bitto, first published in Australia in 2014, is now available in the United States. Set in Melbourne, The Strays is the first-person narrative of Lily, who finds a fast friend in Eva when they meet as children in third grade. It’s 1930, and the worldwide Great Depression has led to downward economic mobility for Lily’s family. She’s a friendless only child of conventional parents, so she jumps at the chance to become one of “the strays” taken in by Eva’s parents, Evan and Helena Trentham.

Lily’s parents don’t have a clue what they are exposing their daughter to when they allow Lily to spend increasing amounts of time with Eva and her two sisters. The Trentham household is unusual, to put it mildly. Evan Trentham is a modernist painter in a society that prizes more traditional art. He breaks with convention in other ways, too, for example by walking around the house nude and by squatting to defecate on the patio in full view of his family and Lily. Helena is a frustrated artist whose inherited wealth keeps the Trenthams afloat. Evan and Helena are terrible parents, by any standards, seldom attending to the basic needs of their three daughters. The young girls have to scrounge in the kitchen to find minimal food to eat, but they have ready access to alcohol and marijuana.

Yet Lily is entranced by the Trenthams, their huge old house, and their overgrown gardens. She’s especially besotted with Eva, in what she calls “that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” (55) Novelist Bitto’s descriptions of the girls’ closeness are striking: “I felt giddy as we walked arm in arm to the train station, playing our usual game, involving one of us attempting to walk in time with the other, while the other tried to avoid being walked in time with. This led to such a strange, hopping, arrhythmic gait that we always ended up laughing hysterically, pulling on each other for support and lurching all over the pavement. Some of the other girls in our class aimed disdaining glances at us as they passed on their way to the station, but this pleased us.” (81)

Alas, the situation gets out of hand when Evan and Helena invite several young modernist artists to move in with them, creating a kind of commune. The sexual liaisons of the artists are not described in detail, because we’re hearing the story from Lily, who is a young innocent. “There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumors of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.” (102) Several shocking crises ensue, and Lily leaves the Trentham household permanently at the age of fifteen.

The Strays is set up in four sections, with the first and last sections set in 1985 and the middle two sections set in the 1930s, as Lily’s memoir, after a fashion. The language in these two middle sections is particularly rich in imagery: “The light in the foggy kitchen window was a deep blue. The jagged leaves of geranium pressed against the glass were coral, and we were staring out into deep water from some sunken domestic bathysphere.” (155)

I have a couple of very minor complaints about this novel. The ages of the characters don’t quite square with the timeframes (1930s and 1985). And the transitions in the last section of the book are somewhat ragged, as Lily goes back and forth in time, filling us in on the years between her childhood and her late middle age. But this piercingly moving story about loneliness and friendship and the choices we make is a winner.

For other historical novels set in Australia, try The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman and The Golden Age by Joan London.

 

Bonus Post: A Woman in the Chem Lab

Chemistry     Weike Wang     (2017)

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Don’t let this book fool you. The simple declarative sentences and frequent thematic tangents might lead you to believe that it’s the work of an unsophisticated novelist. Not so. Weike Wang makes her readers think hard about the role of immigrants in American society, about the difficulties that women (of any race) face in choosing careers in the sciences, and about the tensions between the personal and the professional in the lives of talented people.

No one in Chemistry except the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, is given a name, which emphasizes the universality of this tale. The first-person narrator is a young woman who should be heading into her final year of a doctoral program in chemistry at a prestigious university—never named but presumably Harvard. She’s Chinese American, brought to the United States as a young child and raised by parents who would make Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame seem tame. Boyfriend Eric is a paragon, a white guy who has had spectacular success in pursuing science degrees and who is just embarking on what will undoubtedly be a rewarding academic career. He wants to marry the narrator, but she demurs, worried about forfeiting her intellectual capacity. Added to this tension is a side plot about the narrator’s best friend, a physician in New York, who talks to the narrator frequently on the phone. On the edges of the novel are also students whom the narrator tutors in math and science topics.

Readers glimpse about two years of the narrator’s life, as she gets counseling to help with her decisions, eats a great deal of carryout pizza, drinks too much wine, and muses about scientific topics ranging from the details of electrical circuitry to the discovery of radium. Should she plow on with the doctorate even though the highly competitive lab work no longer gives her any joy? Should she marry Eric, a man very well suited to her personality and intelligence, even though he can never fully understand her family’s culture and language? If she doesn’t pursue chemistry, what should she do with her life? And if she moves to the Midwest to follow Eric, should she take her comical, untrainable dog with her?

The narrator touches on these questions, wanders off, and then circles back to them. Chemistry doesn’t give readers all the answers, but that’s it’s charm. And Weike Wang is an author to watch.

Two from the Bascombe Tetralogy

The Lay of the Land     Richard Ford     (2006)

Let Me Be Frank With You     Richard Ford     (2014)

These books are the third and fourth in Richard Ford’s tetralogy that follows the adult life of the character Frank Bascombe. Some background:

  • In the first novel of the series, The Sportswriter (1986), Frank is deep in grief over the death of his young son and his subsequent divorce from his wife. Although he had wanted to write fiction, he’s turned to writing about sports to support himself.
  • In Ford’s second offering, Independence Day (1995), Frank has changed careers and is selling real estate in New Jersey. This novel, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is set at the titular American holiday.
  • Holiday celebrations, which often cause simmering family tensions to boil over, figure prominently in all four books about Frank. An Easter dinner is a key scene in The Sportswriter, and the two books that I’m reviewing here are set at Thanksgiving (The Lay of the Land) and during the Christmas season (Let Me Be Frank With You).
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In The Lay of the Land, the political backdrop is the contested presidential election of 2000, which was still not decided by Thanksgiving of that year, so tension and accusation and fear are in the air. As always, Ford’s focus is on Frank Bascombe’s inner life, narrated in first person. Speaking to his adult daughter, Clarissa, Frank says, “I’ll commit suicide before I keep a fucking diary. Diaries are for weaklings and old queer professors. Which I’m not.” (240) And yet this entire novel is like a very detailed, highly reflective diary. Frank is now fifty-five and married to his second wife, Sally Caldwell. He’s recently been treated for prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic. You might find Frank’s trips to the toilet tiresome, but his need to empty his bladder frequently is a constant reminder of the threat of death that hangs over him.

He calls this phase of his life “the Permanent Period—no fear of future, life not ruinable, the past generalized to a pleasant pinkish blur.” (249) There’s a fatalism to Frank’s categorization of late middle age in this way. He’s still selling real estate, though he does have occasional regrets about giving up his dream of writing fiction. He rationalizes: “Realtors share a basic industry with novelists, who make up importance from life-run-rampant just by choosing, changing and telling. Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist’s deal and probably not as hard to do well.” (84)

The Lay of the Land is expansive, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. It’s the work of an accomplished prose stylist who gives us a view into an ordinary life on ordinary and non-so-ordinary days. The exquisite specificity with which Frank describes his surroundings contrasts with his inability to connect with some people. These people are sometimes fairly conventional—like Sally—and sometimes quite unusual—like the Tibetan Buddhist with the Americanized name, Mike Mahoney, “a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo” (14) who works for Frank’s real estate office on the Jersey Shore.                                 

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The theme of Frank’s relationships is developed further in the most recent volume of the tetralogy, Let Me Be Frank With You, four linked short stories in which Frank Bascombe meets with four different people from his past. The year 2012 is coming to an end, and New Jersey is reeling from the October onslaught of Hurricane Sandy. All around him is destruction, but Frank has survived that cancer diagnosis so far, and in retirement he’s withdrawn more into himself. “For months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness.” (187) He provides a summation of how he sees his own character: “. . . a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.” (140-41) Well, Frank may think he’s always “nice,” but readers can catch him in some unkind deeds.

I found Let Me Be Frank With You less masterful than The Lay of the Land, and I noted a few discontinuities, such as Sally’s birthday moving from summer to near Christmas. Still, Ford’s trademark particularization pulls you in, letting you gape at the damage wrought by the hurricane (and by the previous collapse of the real estate market in 2008), letting you linger on the inevitable wrinkles in the aging faces of the characters.

The Frank Bascombe tetralogy is by turns hilarious and devastatingly serious, honest and deceptive, reflecting the life of one American man—and a slice of American history.

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.

Ties that Bind

Ties     Domenico Starnone     (in Italian, 2014)

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri     (in English, 2016)

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The marriage of Vanda and Aldo is the centerpiece of Ties, and novelist Domenico Starnone offers us multiple perspectives on that relationship without coming to any definitive conclusions about it. First, we have the texts of letters that Vanda wrote to Aldo in the 1970s, when he left her and their two young children to live with a much younger woman. Vanda rants and raves about Aldo’s departure, and her voice is totally believable. The next section of the novel is narrated by Aldo in the present day, some forty years later, with glances back to earlier phases of his life. In the final section, we hear from Vanda and Aldo’s adult daughter, Anna, who recounts conversations with her brother, Sandro, in the present day. As readers, we have to assess the reliability of these differing viewpoints, with their differing views of the marriage of Vanda and Aldo.

Aldo, speaking as an elderly man, tells us, “At my age, it’s easy to turn a suspicion into a valid hypothesis, a valid hypothesis into an absolute certainty, an absolute certainty into an obsession.” (114) This could be a warning for the reader of Ties: watch what you accept from the narrators, from Vanda and Aldo and Anna. All is not as it seems, and pure truth is elusive.

In her translator’s introduction to Ties, Jhumpa Lahiri, herself an accomplished author of fiction, writes about the complexity of Starnone’s themes: “The entire structure of this novel, in fact, seems to me a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next. There is no hole in the construction, no fissure.” (12)

There are physical boxes in Ties, including the “box” that is the apartment in Rome where Vanda and Aldo live. On a shelf in that apartment is a shiny blue decorative cube that Aldo bought in Prague. It has a hidden compartment that holds secrets. Other boxes turn up, such as the box that contains a medical device for Vanda. Starnone also seems to point to metaphorical boxes that people construct around themselves, such as marriage, family, job.

The cover of Ties has a picture, which you can see in the inset to this review, of tangled shoelaces on the shoes that a man is wearing. The drawing, selected by the author, points to another major metaphor of the novel: the ties between people. For instance, speaking to Sandro, Anna comments, “The only ties that counted for our parents were the ones they’ve tortured each other with their whole lives.” (135)

Our translator tells us that the Italian title for this novel, Lacci, is literally “shoelaces” but also has the connotation of “a means of bridling, of capturing something.” (17) Most literally, the title connects to the unconventional way that Aldo ties his shoelaces. Aldo taught his son, Sandro, to tie shoelaces in this way when Sandro was very young. Anna has always noticed this, and she comments, “It’s true, only the two of you tie your shoes like that.” (98)  Perhaps, like shoelaces, some of the ties between people are universal and others are unique.

I caught a few typos, but Lahiri’s translation is sparkling—idiomatic and accessible, unlike translations of some other Italian novels that I’ve tried. I don’t want to wade into the controversy about how autobiographical Ties might be. Domenico Starnone is married to Anita Raja, who is allegedly the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, the author of the four-volume Neapolitan Novels that are wildly popular all over the world. Like Starnone, Ferrante treats issues of marital infidelity and of the ties that bind families and friends together. But Starnone’s Ties stands on its own and is a delight to read.

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. 

Family Drama in the Florida Heat

Heart of Palm     Laura Lee Smith     (2013)

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I wanted to read Laura Lee Smith’s 2017 novel, The Ice House, but my local library hasn’t bought it yet. So I checked out Smith’s 2013 novel, Heart of Palm, to see what her writing is like. I was confused at first by the cover of Heart of Palm, which looks like the front of a cheesy romance novel, but I decided to dip in anyway. Then, right off the bat, I encountered a horrific accident in the Prologue. Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t care for scenes of horror, and the grisliness of this episode almost kept me from continuing. But I’m very glad that I stuck with Heart of Palm.  

This is a novel of the American South, populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—but stopping short of stereotypes. In 1964, the wealthy and sophisticated Arla Bolton up and marries penniless bad boy Dean Bravo in the fictional Utina, a backwater town near St. Augustine, in northeastern Florida. There’s our set-up for marital difficulties, sibling rivalries, and various brawls. As we move from the 1960s to the present day for the main action, the adult children of Arla and Dean are faced with the extraordinary appreciation of their real estate, which happens to be situated on the Intracoastal Waterway. Being a Midwesterner, I was unfamiliar with this important shipping route along the Atlantic Coast, made up of both natural rivers and artificial canals. The Bravo clan is accustomed to living amidst the swampy tangle of vegetation that lies along the Atlantic and the Intracoastal, and they struggle with whether to sell to the real estate developers who want their parcels of land.

In addition to this main plot about real estate, each of the Bravos has a subplot, and several of the other quirky characters in Utina also get subplots. Novelist Smith develops all the storylines with a deftness that invites immersion in the text. She supports her narrative with descriptions that plop you right under the drooping fronds of palmettos, wiping your brow and sipping a cold brew. With Smith’s pervasive portrayal of the Florida heat, I could feel the suffocating air that makes your clothes stick and your head spin. No wonder the Southerners in Heart of Palm are a bit crazed. They need better air conditioning equipment!

Smith treats her characters—even the scoundrels—with empathy as they make the best of their situations, and she works their tales to a satisfying conclusion. So, will I still be looking to check out Smith’s The Ice House when it arrives at my library? You bet.

A Marriage in Nigeria

Stay with Me     Ayobami Adebayo     (2017)

In some traditional cultures, a wife who doesn’t produce male offspring for her husband can be supplanted by an additional wife who might be more fertile. Polygamy and paternalism are accepted.

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In the contemporary Nigerian novel Stay With Me, Akin and Yejide are a modern couple. Theirs is a love match, not an arranged marriage. When they meet at university in the 1980s, they discover their immediate attraction to each other as well as their compatibility—sharing, for example, a keen interest in the Nigerian and international political scene. After several years of marriage, however, they remain childless. Akin is devoted to Yejide and doesn’t want a second wife, but he’s prodded relentlessly by his family until he takes on wife #2, Funmi, and installs her in an apartment separate from the home he shares with Yejide. They can afford this apartment because Akin is a successful accountant, and Yejide is the owner of a thriving hairdressing salon. Funmi is an especially stinging insult to Yejide because her own mother died giving birth to her, leaving her to be brought up by multiple cruel stepmothers. 

That’s the plot setup, which gets complicated by infidelities, deceptions, outright lies, and  sickle cell disease. The narrative alternates between the 1980s and 2008 and between first-person accounts by Yejide and Akin. Another seesawing is between folk practices (some of them downright dangerous) and modern medical procedures (some of them emotionally unsettling). Traditional Nigerian tales exist side-by-side with discussion of recent Nigerian political affairs. The women in Stay with Me assert influence within the family circle, and some women, like Yejide, attend university or own businesses. Yet that pressure on wives to produce male heirs is intense. As Yejide reflects: “The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone.” (119)

Through context I navigated the many honorifics that Nigerians employ to express respect for their neighbors, business associates, and relatives, particularly their elders. The dialogue here is resonant and revealing of character. A few of novelist Adebayo’s plot twists are awkward, but she gives us a view into her rich culture, peopled by men and women who strive to make the best of the lot they are dealt.

I leave you with some questions: Is the title STAY with Me or Stay with ME?  Is Akin asking Yejide to stick with him despite all their infertility problems? Or is Yejide asking Akin to be her exclusive marital partner? Or is it both?

Stay with Me was selected by the New York Times as one of the "100 Notable Books of 2017."

 

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.