A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)


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)


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.


Lonely French Siblings

How to Behave in a Crowd     Camille Bordas     (2017)


Isidore Mazal starts narrating this novel as a beleaguered eleven year old, and he tells us about the next couple of years of his life. He lives in France with five siblings; four of the siblings are in their twenties, working on advanced degrees, and they never come into sharp character focus. We do get a good picture of his sister Simone, who is only eighteen months older than Isidore but far ahead of him in school. Simone, like the rest of the family, calls her brother “Dory” despite his requests to be called “Izzy.”  She insists that he take notes for the biography of her that she assumes he will write once she’s famous. She comes right out and tells him, “I take it for granted that you’re gonna love me no matter what. I don’t do anything for it.” (101)

The five older children in the unusual Mazal family are academic prodigies, while Isidore is merely smart. He does fine in his grade level at school, but he’s also smart in ways that his family members don’t appreciate. He’s very observant of the situations around him. This is especially apparent during his many unsuccessful attempts to run away from home; his family scarcely notices that he’s left the house. When, early in the book, his father dies suddenly of a heart attack while on a business trip, Isidore catalogs the grief patterns of his mother and siblings. He tells us, “Because we never talked about the father—the fact that he was dead, the fact that he’d once been alive—saying the word dad itself felt out of place, or like I might’ve used it wrong.” (120) That’s a lot of alienation for a kid in adolescence.

You may notice in this quote about his parent that Isidore shies away from the term “dad,” using instead “the father.” This Francophone locution, found throughout the book, points up not just the estrangement that Isidore feels from his distant—and then deceased—father but also the mix of French and American language and cultural references  in the novel. I wasn’t bothered by it, but some other reviewers found it jarring. It may help to know that Bordas was born in France and has written two previous novels in French, but now lives in Chicago. She creates a generic France, perhaps from her memories.

Isidore’s observations, and his repeated attempts to offer his family an emotional compass for life, are poignant. Someone needs to help those friendless siblings, those pitiful sloggers in academia. In addition, Isidore does his best to cheer up Denise, a girl at his school who suffers from severe depression. His compassion is remarkable, given the cheerless atmosphere of his home. Simone explains to Isidore: “There’s a big drawback to being smarter than the rest, and I’ll tell you what it is, because I assume it will be in part responsible for the kind of person I’ll become: loneliness.” (50) Truly, most of the Mazal family does not know how to behave in a crowd.

I have a few reservations about this novel. Some of the witty repartee goes on too long, as do didactic components that don’t fit the flow of the narrative. For example, Isidore’s middle-school German class carries on a long discussion of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the Verfremdungseffekt. (Don’t ask! Yawn, skip a page or two!) But novelist Bordas sparks up the story with side plots such as Simone’s unwanted pen pal and the town’s celebration of the oldest woman in the world. Overall, How to Behave in a Crowd is a pleasant little novel with an appealing hero.

A Connecticut Family

The Children     Ann Leary     (2017)

Oh, no, I thought—another fluffy tale of wacky, self-absorbed New England trust-fund kiddies seeking personal gratification at the expense of those around them. I almost sent The Children back to the library. But I kept reading and watched the plot twisting, folding back on itself, and finally turning dark, very dark. The fluff definitely receded.

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You have to pay close attention up front to sort out all the family connections in this novel. Charlotte Maynard, a 29-year-old single, agoraphobic woman, is one of the kiddies and is the narrator of The Children. She lives in a huge Connecticut house named Lakeside with her zany mother, Joan, who exercises excessively and pinches pennies ludicrously. Charlotte is involved intermittently with Everett, the groundskeeper at Lakeside. Charlotte’s sister is Sally, a gifted musician with mental health problems. Stepbrothers Spin and Perry Whitman are offspring from Charlotte’s stepfather’s first marriage, which ended acrimoniously when the stepfather, Whit Whitman, fell for Joan. As the novel opens, Whit has recently died, and the family dynamics are reshuffling. Got all that?

Spin, who teaches and lives at a nearby private school, arrives at Lakeside with a girlfriend, Laurel Atwood, who is preternaturally accomplished in skiing, fiction writing, and life hacks. Laurel’s life hacks veer daringly into illegal territory. Charlotte doesn’t see this as a problem, because she herself runs a profitable internet scam, a fake “mommy blog” with corporate sponsorship. But Sally, who is back at Lakeside from New York after losing her orchestra job, has serious reservations about Laurel.

This is the setup, but I won’t spoil the plot development for you. Author Ann Leary takes the basic framework  in directions you’d never expect, with characters who are believable despite—or maybe because of—their oddities. We see people and events through the eyes of Charlotte, which creates a layer of reportorial unreliability, since Charlotte is an admitted scammer. Through Charlotte, Leary pokes fun at several aspects of contemporary culture, especially internet culture. For example, Charlotte’s wildly successful blog revolves around children whom she’s invented (another reference to the novel’s title), and Leary revels in skewering the blog’s fervent mommy-followers. The technological references, which are up-to-the-minute as of 2017, may soon date this novel, but for now it’s trendy in a good way.

The pace of The Children is fast, the dialogue is clever and authentic, and the storyline is well executed. I see the novel as a work of warning about the consequences of seemingly innocuous lies and the seeming innocuousness of consequential lies. The human heart can have unexpectedly sinister depths. That’s the dark part. Yet Charlotte reminds us that we can always count on the stars, which are as stable as it gets in our universe. “Once you find Polaris, you’ve found true north. You can navigate anywhere from there.  Find a landmark . . . You have to find a hill or a house or a tree while it’s still dark; that way you’ll be oriented the next day, when the stars are gone.” (245)

Two Multi-Biographies

The Kelloggs:  The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek     Howard Markel     (2017)


In the small southwestern Michigan city of Battle Creek, two brothers distinguished themselves in separate but related arenas. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a physician and author, established the Battle Creek Sanitarium (“the San”) in 1878, treating thousands of patients and promoting some surprisingly prescient wellness regimens on both dietary and exercise fronts. Will Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (now the Kellogg Company) in 1906, revolutionizing breakfast foods through manipulation of ingredients and industrial mass production.

Both brothers were raised as Seventh-Day Adventists and sought, at least early in their careers, to advance the tenets of this faith, which encourages regular physical exercise and prohibits meat, tobacco, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. John and Will experimented extensively to find food products that would be acceptable to Adventists and that would also encourage “biologic living” in the general population. Two strong-willed characters, they frequently clashed, and Will finally left his position as business manager of the San to go national with corn flakes, the cereal that seems to have been a joint invention. In the 1920s, John became involved with the eugenics movement and set up the Race Betterment Foundation; medical historian Howard Markel treats frankly the brutal racism inherent in eugenics theory, now scientifically discredited. Although John’s Sanitarium buildings were sold off in 1942, Will’s food empire continues to this day, as does the humanitarian WK Kellogg Foundation that he created with his massive profits.

In researching this book, Markel did not have access to the many private documents that Will Kellogg placed in a highly restricted archive at the WK Kellogg Foundation, yet this dual biography is exhaustive, drawing on numerous other archival sources. I was especially taken with Markel’s background information on nineteenth-century dietary, public health, and medical practices and with his explanations of the grain-processing machinery that the Kelloggs invented by trial and error. I decided to overlook occasional outlandish analogies. (One painful example: Will was “slower to pardon than most glaciers used to melt.” 336) The Kelloggs is not only a lively and fair-minded story about two dynamic, flawed men but also an absorbing chronicle of their era.

Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas    Donna M. Lucey     (2017)


If you like Gilded Age gossip, this is a multi-biography that you may want to read. I thought it would be focused primarily John Singer Sargent’s relationship with four of his female subjects, whose portraits are widely known and reproduced:  Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. (That’s Elizabeth Chanler on the cover of the book.) Sargent painted portraits of these wealthy American women between 1888 and 1922, but in fact his contact with them outside his professional role was fairly limited.

So . . . what this book does offer is a view into the excesses that the upper classes indulged in during a period of American industrial expansion and political corruption. Oddly, the chapter that is supposed to be about Sally Fairchild is devoted almost entirely to the biography of her sister, Lucia, whose portrait Sargent did not paint. My favorite section was the one on Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose private art collection became the famed art museum in Boston that bears her name. Do watch out for typos and small errors in this book as well as in the Kellogg book reviewed above.  

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.

Family Sagas: Three Reviews

Review #1

Commonwealth     Ann Patchett (2016)

I can accord all the usual accolades to Patchett, who deftly spins a saga covering fifty years of a family that she admits is somewhat like her own—it doesn’t matter exactly how much. Commonwealth is a set of interconnected novelettes about the affairs, divorces, and remarriages of the older generation and the resultant dysfunctions visited upon them and their children in California and Virginia. The characters are wonderfully crafted, the scene-setting is vivid, and the pacing is energetic. But there’s a serious flaw in this book that I simply cannot get past (spoiler coming). One character, who has a clearly known allergy, dies from anaphylaxis. Patchett repeatedly presents Benedryl tablets as the antidote that the character should have ingested, possibly because these tablets have other roles in her story. In fact, the death could have been prevented only if epinephrine (in an EpiPen) had been administered quickly. This is not a footnote in the novel but rather a defining event. Is Commonwealth still worth reading? Yup. But I’ve warned you.

Review #2

The Turner House     Angela Flournoy (2015)

For a comprehensive examination of the decline of the great city of Detroit, read the classic nonfiction text, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue. For an intimate portrayal of the effects of that crisis, read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I’m pretty familiar with Detroit. Flournoy has captured the city in its gritty bleakness of the early 2000s as well as, through flashbacks, in its manufacturing glory of the mid-twentieth century. Her angle in is the varying fortunes of the African American Turner family, with thirteen children who were born in the better days and are aging in the dying urban landscape. Although the cast of characters is huge, Flournoy keeps the plot manageable by developing primarily the stories of the oldest and youngest of this clan. The house that the Turners grew up in is depicted lovingly, as an organism in decline. The Turners are African Americans, but The Turner House is about working class Detroiters of any race or ethnicity who are trying to maintain family bonds through tough times.

Review #3

The House at the Edge of Night     Catherine Banner (2016)

Like Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest, Catherine Banner’s island of Castellamare is a tiny Mediterranean refuge for shipwrecked souls, a place of implausible coincidences and occasional magic. Banner follows a family on Castellamare throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting each section with a local legend that sets the tone for her archetypal, folkloric characters. The titular House at the Edge of Night is a bar and gathering place for the island community. Readers watch as the succeeding generations of Amadeo Esposito’s family take on the management of the bar, through periods of prosperity and depression, war in the surrounding world, and conflict in the village. Although the novel has a dreamlike, wistful quality, Banner treats serious issues such as clan loyalty, sibling discord, political clashes, and the rival demands of career and family. 

Those New York Novels

The Ramblers     Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016)

(plus brief notes on novels by Adelle Waldman and Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney)

First, a sidebar.

Maybe I should stop reading these inbred New York City novels. Maybe only New Yorkers can sense where the satire starts. But I read a lot of fiction, and I’ve taught fiction to a lot of college students, so I should be able to discern satire, right? Even if I’m a Midwesterner?

I look back at a couple of other New York novels. I’m pretty certain that Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013) is sardonically mocking the callous, self-satisfied male New Yorkers who wreak havoc on the psyches of brilliant, sensitive female New Yorkers. Waldman’s view into this world is morbidly fascinating but morbid nonetheless.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest (2016) is less clear on the satire front. Four siblings fight over their inheritance, which has been greatly depleted by a payout to cover up a crime by one of the brothers. Should I care about the quarrels of these disagreeable, money-grubbing characters, even if the plot is a tight one? Am I supposed to care, or am I supposed to recoil in horror?

This issue is not settled, but let’s move on to the main review.

The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016), brings us three more New Yorkers who have too much money and too many drinks. Admittedly, Clio Marsh was born middle class, but she’s pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to earn a PhD in ornithology. And she lives nearly rent-free as roommate to Smith Anderson, a daughter of the 1% who declutters the Manhattan apartments of her private clients. The third profiled character is Tate Pennington, who has accidentally made a fortune in the tech world and retired to New York to take street photographs and escape his estranged wife in California.

All three are in their mid-30s, yet they prate endlessly about their undergraduate days together at Yale and enter into petty squabbles about the relative advantages of Princeton. Really? So you’ve read Foucault. I’m not impressed, though I think that the author, herself a Yalie, expects her readers to be.

Because the three protagonists are in their mid-thirties, they all long to be in committed relationships. This is a standard feature of the modern New York novel, though it’s usually only the women or the gay men who crave a long-lasting, monogamous marriage. The entire plot of The Ramblers revolves around the achievement of perfect domestic partnerships, but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for these three privileged strivers. They’re stock characters in a flat drama. Clio worries that the revelation of her mother’s mental illness and suicide will derail her affair with a wealthy bachelor fifteen years her senior. Smith won’t distance herself from her malicious father, even though this creepy father browbeat her fiancé into breaking up with her. And Tate salves the wounds made by his unfaithful wife with excessive amounts of alcohol, but he still shoots stunning photos.

The dialogue of the thirty-something women in The Ramblers does have sparkle, but when I hit some scenes with older women or with men (older or not), I found myself stopped mid-page by the inaptness of tone and the cliché-ridden sentences. Wait, I thought, is the author satirizing this character? We’re back to that issue of inadvertent satire again.

If I’m so irritated by these self-aggrandizing characters and their $30 bottles of organic hair conditioner, why do I keep reading New York novels? Why did I ever get past page 50 of The Ramblers? Simple: I have a weakness for the New York part.

For instance, the title of The Ramblers refers to an area in Central Park called The Ramble, a semi-wild nature area in the middle of Manhattan, popular for those seeking outdoor gay sex, which has also become a favored site for birdwatchers. The character Clio leads public birding tours through The Ramble on Sunday mornings and gets written up in the local press. Tate, meanwhile, is a walking guide book to the poetic and architectural history of the city, seeking out the haunts of Stanley Kunitz and Dylan Thomas. Smith’s sister gets married in the cavernous, barrel-vaulted St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, with the reception at the ultra-glamorous Waldorf. The action of the novel takes place during the week of Thanksgiving, so the author can call up glorious late autumn days as well as the edge of silver-bell cheeriness for the upcoming Christmas season. In sum, the NYC of The Ramblers is more vividly portrayed than its inhabitants.

True, for heavy New York atmosphere, you can’t beat author Jay McInerney, and I’ve acknowledged this in a recent blog post reviewing his 2016 novel Bright, Precious Days. I detect satire in some of McInerney’s characters, but he fleshes them out so well and surrounds them with so much New York detail that I tumble right into their lives nonetheless.

And for a weekly dose of New York, I turn to the New Yorker. I can imagine myself at the openings of art exhibits and plays listed at the front and then settle in for some serious journalism, not necessarily about New York, by writers like Adam Gopnik, Joan Acocella, Jill Lepore, Hilton Als, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Kolbert, Kalefa Sanneh, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza. Gotta love it.