Bonus Post: A Woman in the Chem Lab

Chemistry     Weike Wang     (2017)


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.

20th-Century British Women

Freya     Anthony Quinn     (2017)


My household has a treasured old photo of my husband’s parents in a restaurant on VE Day. My father-in-law is in Navy uniform, and a newspaper proclaiming “Victory in Europe” in World War II is on the table in front of the smiling couple. Roving photographers across the United States probably captured many scenes like this.

May 8, 1945, must have been even more joyous for the people of Great Britain, who had endured six years of war, including widespread bombings of civilian targets and the constant threat of German invasion. Anthony Quinn captures the exuberance of VE Day in London with the opening scenes of his novel Freya. In the celebratory crowd, the title character, Freya Wyley, meets Nancy Holdaway, and this meeting sets in motion a long and fraught friendship.

Freya is already a military veteran at age 20, having served for three years in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, as a radar plotter. This background is key to understanding her career motivations. She was entrusted with highly classified and complex tasks to further Britain’s war effort, often putting in fifteen-hour shifts, but at the end of the war, the need for women to perform such work evaporated. Civilian jobs went to male soldiers returning from battle. Freya had gotten a taste of high-powered career possibilities and had engaged in several brief affairs, so the prospect of attending tradition-steeped Oxford University, which had been holding a place for her, seems, in her words, “trivial.” (22)

“To her the undergraduate routine felt becalmed after the frenetic rhythms of wartime; she missed the perilous excitement of being always on-call in the Wrens. . . It was not the war she wanted back but the sense of a shared endeavor, of knowing her own role in the grander scheme and being good at it . . . It also disheartened her to realise that the age-old accommodations of male chauvinism had not been eradicated by war—merely displaced.” (108)

On that fateful VE Day in 1945, Nancy, at age 18, is fresh out of secondary school in the north of England and is thrilled to be headed to Oxford. To Freya, Nancy at first seems hopelessly naïve and introverted, but as the story unfolds, it’s clear that Nancy has a depth and solidity of character that Freya lacks. Freya is strong-willed and ambitious, priding herself on her verbal banter and profanity, traits that sometimes made me want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to shut her sassy mouth. Both young women aspire to be writers—Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist.  

In three segments, this novel traces the relationship between Freya and Nancy:  at Oxford right after the war, in London in the late 1950s, and again in London in the early 1960s. The power dynamic between the two women shifts back and forth as each builds her career. Freya senses this early on, as Quinn notes: “It was an enlivening sense of being admired, perhaps even adored, and in consequence a desire to justify that admiration by becoming a cleverer and wiser person than she actually was. She supposed this striving for a better self was rather like being in love.” (77)

Larger-than-life supporting characters enliven the tale, including the louche actor/writer Nate Fane, the dissolute photographer Jerry Dicks, and the befuddled young model Chrissie Effingham. The names of these characters alone will point you to their personalities—“fane” quite close to “fame”  and so on. Freya, Nancy, and the crew get involved in fictionalized versions of the British events of the era, including political sex scandals and criminal prosecutions of gay men. (Some of these events could have been lifted right out of the 1983 biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, made into the film The Imitation Game in 2014.) All along, Quinn dissects the roles of women in post-World War II Britain with surprising insight.

Freya is oversized in many ways, including its length (556 pages) and theatricality, so I consumed it in great gulps. Although the novel is dialogue driven, Quinn’s prose descriptors are arresting. Here’s one example:  “He was wearing an undershirt and grey trousers with thin braces pooling about his waist like the dropped strings of a marionette.” (258-9) The cover photograph, which does not at all resemble the Freya described in the text, is a disappointment. The publisher, Europa, tends to use vintage photos for its covers, usually with more success.

In recent years, several excellent BBC television series have been set in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Grantchester, The Hour, and Call the Midwife. If you’re a fan of any of these, you will likely enjoy the novel Freya as much as I did.

New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)


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.

Manhattan 1952/2016

The Dollhouse     Fiona Davis     (2016)

By chance, I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of novels set in New York City lately. If you’re weary of fictional trips to Manhattan, you may want to skip to another blog post. If you’re up for one more saunter down those fabled sidewalks, here we go.

In The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis jumps back and forth between the years 1952 and 2016 to draw fictional portraits of women who live in the same building in New York City, separated by sixty-four years. The building, depicted on the book’s cover, is real. The Barbizon Hotel for Women, built on the Upper East Side in 1927, was home to generations of young females pursuing careers as editors, models, and secretaries. After the hotel was converted to condos in 2005, one floor was set aside as rent-controlled apartments for long-time residents, and this is where 1952 meets 2016.

Darby McLaughlin is the main 1952 character, fresh out of high school and freshly arrived at the Barbizon from Defiance, Ohio, to attend the famed Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, with tuition paid by her deceased father’s life insurance proceeds. The innocent and awkward Darby gets caught up in a plot of sex, drugs, and bebop, centering around a sleazy jazz club.

Rose Lewin is the main 2016 character, a former local television news star in her mid-thirties, now working for an Internet news startup. At the beginning of the novel, the sophisticated and savvy Rose is living in her boyfriend’s condo in the Barbizon. She’s soon facing both personal and professional crises, as she decides to research and write about the octogenarian women in the Barbizon, who came of age in a distant, almost mythical, era.

The narrative of The Dollhouse is slow to accelerate. I looked forward to the 2016 chapters as I cringed my way through the 1952 chapters, in which Darby is ridiculed and deceived by her hallmates at the Barbizon. The pace picks up when the modern-day Rose becomes obsessed with the events of 1952 and unlayers a key mystery, using reportorial tactics that she knows are unethical.

Darby and Rose are convincing characters, as are several of the supporting cast. The descriptions of Rose’s boorish young boss, Tyler, are trenchant. In one meeting with Rose, “he held a pen under his nose as if it were a mustache, curled up his lip to support it without any hands.” Tyler performs this maneuver while making misogynist comments about Rose’s writing project. Less successful is the depiction of Jason Wolf, a potential love interest for Rose. Jason appears in the story too fortuitously and is too much of a hunk.

Sylvia Plath keeps popping up in The Dollhouse, too. She actually lived at the Barbizon during the summer of 1953 when she was an intern in New York City, and she refers to the hotel in The Bell Jar. This association becomes a running joke in The Dollhouse, as Rose assures one interviewee after another that she is not writing another story about Plath.

The Barbizon itself has a central role in The Dollhouse, titled for the name that young men in New York presumably gave the building back in the day. It’s possible that Fiona Davis chose her title also as an echo of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, the controversial 1879 drama about the place of women in the home and in society. Davis wades in to the continuing controversy. Is Rose too dependent on the approval of the men in her life? Does Darby make too many sacrifices for the men (and women) in hers? Are teenaged girls always a little crazy? Can their fathers rescue them with (a) kindness or (b) tough love? Are 2016 women different from 1952 women in substance or only in terminology? And is their place in American society really much different?

A Smart Mom in Seattle

Today Will Be Different     Maria Semple     (2016) 

She’s sassy, she’s manic, she’s self-absorbed. Eleanor Flood is a hot mess as Today Will Be Different opens. She’s resolving that she’ll do better, but the reader knows by about paragraph six that the day coming up will be different in ways that Eleanor does not expect.

I didn’t much like the personality of Eleanor, who’s a fifty-year-old animation artist living the dream in Seattle. Eleanor's supporting cast, however, is appealing. Her surgeon husband is a truly good guy, aptly named Joe. Their eight-year-old son is earnest and caring. The academic whom Eleanor hires to give her private poetry appreciation lessons has his own wacky and touching sub-plot. Even the dog is lovable in a we-put-up-with-his-foibles kind of way.

But Eleanor doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Maybe it’s because she’d prefer to live in Manhattan and is affecting Manhattan introspection and angst. 

The action does adhere pretty well to the Aristotelian unities that the author, Maria Semple, implicitly sets up by starting the novel with Eleanor’s resolutions for this one day in her life. We careen through the streets of Seattle, by car and on foot, as Eleanor abandons her self-improvement quest to instead solve a mystery about her husband. Semple weaves red herrings into this plot and fills in Eleanor’s family story with large sections of flashbacks, some set in New Orleans.  

The color drawings (done by Eric Chase Anderson) in the chapter called “The Flood Girls” are part of this slowly revealed backstory. These illustrations, presented as part of the fictional Eleanor’s art portfolio, fascinated me. I kept turning back to them as Eleanor referred in the text to the people depicted.  Because the character of Eleanor is an artist, this set of drawings didn’t come off as gimmicky.

I had some quibbles with the narrative voice in Today Will Be Different. Most of the book is in first person, with Eleanor narrating. Semple should stick with that so that the reader shares Eleanor’s lack of all the facts as she tries to solve the mystery. But toward the end of the book Semple veers off for scenes with Joe that Eleanor is not privy to. I consider this plot-cheating. I also found the ending of the book a let down, even though I enjoyed much of the ride to get there.

Today Will Be Different has some echoes of Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both books satirize Seattle, specifically mocking the rich parents who send their children to elite private schools. Both take on the serious topic of how talented women married to talented men struggle to produce creative work when they also have to raise the children. Even if the husbands and the children are charming and supportive, it’s tough.