Two Novels by Quindlen

Anna Quindlen is a bestselling American writer who moved into fiction in the mid-1990s after winning a 1992 Pulitzer for her essays in the New York Times. I recently read two of her novels, Alternate Side (2018) and Miller’s Valley (2016) and found them so dissimilar that I wouldn’t have guessed that they were written by the same person. Here’s a look at each.

 Alternate Side     Anna Quindlen     (2018)

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The surface story in Alternate Side centers on a family living in present-day Manhattan: Nora and Charlie Nolan plus their twin children who are off at college. Nora and Charlie have a reasonably satisfactory marriage, but as they progress through middle age, their attention is increasingly focused on externals in their affluent lives: Charlie’s disappointments at work, the offer of a new job for Nora, Charlie’s obsession with parking spots near their townhouse, Nora’s unremitting revulsion at the neighborhood rats. (By “rats” I do mean the small rodents, not human criminals.) The parking issue comes to the fore with a violent incident on the Nolans’ block, which powers the narrative for most of the novel and draws in the neighbors and the local handyman and his family. Family history is filled in along the way as Nora remembers incidents from the past: “Certain small moments were like billboards forever alongside the highway of your memory.” (184)

The underlying story in Alternate Side is the class divide in New York City. Nora truly enjoys living there, but . . . “even loving New York as she did, Nora sometimes felt it was like loving an old friend, someone who had over the years become different from her former self. Of course, Nora and Charlie had become different, too. It was a though, as the city had prospered and become less dirty, less funky, less hard and harsh, the Nolans and their friends had followed suit, all their rough edges and quirks sanded down into some New York standard of accomplishment. The price they had paid for prosperity was amnesia. They’d forgotten who they once had been.” (79-80)

Though some of Quindlen’s characters are faded stereotypes, others come to life, and the plot carried me along to the end. The title of the book, on first take a reference to parking regulations, actually points up both the family issues and the sociological issues. Quindlen seems to be writing both a paean to a glorious New York and a satire of its more prosperous denizens. “The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart.” (55-56)

For more novels set in, and dominated by, New York, click on the “New York Novels” line in my Archive in the right-hand column. Or, for something totally different, read the following review of another Quindlen novel.

Miller’s Valley     Anna Quindlen     (2016)

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In rural Pennsylvania, Mimi Miller gives a first-person narration of her life, from her childhood in the 1960s through her early adulthood and, in an Epilogue, into her seventh decade. The story is set against the backdrop of a federal program to buy up all the property in Miller’s Valley so that the area can be flooded and turned into a reservoir for a nearby dam. Mimi, herself a well-drawn character, is surrounded by other characters whom Quindlen develops beyond the level of the standard type. Mimi’s mother is a no-nonsense nurse at the local hospital. Her father is a farmer and general repairman for the entire valley. A wacko aunt lives in an adjacent house and refuses ever to leave it. Mimi’s two older brothers are polar opposites of each other, much like the Prodigal Son and his hardworking brother. Her two successive boyfriends are also a study in contrasts. Quindlen excels here in showing the complicated family dynamics at play in even the most mundane of interactions.

I especially liked the Epilogue, in which readers get to see how the whole crew ends up in the present day. But then, I’m a sucker for such Epilogues when I get attached to the fictional folks in the main body of a novel.

 

The Meaningful Life

The Italian Teacher   Tom Rachman     (2018)

You may have run into someone like the fictional painter Bear Bavinksy: talented, brash, egotistical, smart, selfish, mercurial, ribald, cruel, a bear of a man. Unless you’re prepared to spar on his level, it’s best to steer clear of characters like Bear. But if he’s your father, you have to deal.

In this thoughtful novel, Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is the son who lives in Bear Bavinsky’s shadow. Pinch is one of the many children whom Bear fathers by numerous wives and mistresses over a long career in the twentieth century. (The total—and startling—number of children is not revealed until Bear’s funeral.) In Pinch’s childhood, Bear abandons the boy and his mother, a ceramicist named Natalie, in Italy. Pinch puts together a life for himself, going to college in Canada with the financial assistance of his maternal grandmother. He suspects that he may have artistic talent, like both his parents, but Bear quashes his hopes. Pinch ends up teaching Italian in London, always seeing his life as much lesser than that of his father, whom he worships. I don’t think that “worship” is too strong a verb here.

Within the narrative of The Italian Teacher, centered on this fraught father-son relationship, Rachman is pursuing the theme of how to have a meaningful life. For decades, Pinch views his life and his work as insignificant because he’s not an internationally renowned artist. “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single life span. What a person Dad was! Pinch decided that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient. He lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him.” (273-4)

Pinch mourns his mother’s lack of fame also: “She was disregarded, and will remain forever so, among the billions whose inner lives clamor, then expire, never to earn the slightest notice.” (151) Can persons with great talent, in any field of endeavor, be fulfilled even if they don’t receive the acclaim of the establishment in that field? What if they don’t have the stomach for the political machinations necessary for career building? Can they construct rewarding lives solely through quiet, solitary pursuit of their artistic or intellectual goals, with internal gratification? Rachman considers these questions from many angles, and he allows his character Pinch to struggle to find answers, as Pinch also struggles to free himself from the domination of his father’s personality and reputation.

Toward the end of the book, Pinch takes up painting after years of artistic inactivity. "Pinch raises  his brush, leans forward on the balls of his feet, floorboards creaking. From the corner of his eye: all these painterly tools, a kaleidoscope of colors, his companions. Is that tragedy? That the peaks of my life are entirely inside? Other people—those I so craved—mattered far less than it seemed. Or is this what I pretend?" (309-310)

Read this novel with care, savoring the development of Rachman’s characters and his attention to identifying those “peaks” in life.

A Very Long Marriage

 Midwinter Break     Bernard MacLaverty     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Upper-Middle-Class Façade

Little Fires Everywhere     Celeste Ng     (2017)

Ah, adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The first chapter of Little Fires Everywhere lures the reader in with a blazing house, then backtracks about a year to paint portraits of the four teenaged Richardson children who resided in that house (Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy)--plus the new 15-year-old in town, Pearl Warren. The Richardson family lives the American Dream, with trendy clothes and cars, luxurious vacations, and bright career prospects for the kids. Most of the Richardsons are also selfish and self-centered. Pearl, in contrast, is a smart but naïve vagabond who roams the country in an old VW Rabbit with her single mother, Mia, who’s an accomplished photographic artist. Pearl and Mia rent an apartment in a Shaker Heights duplex owned by Mrs Richardson and furnish it sparsely with castoffs, in distinct contrast to the elegant six-bedroom Richardson mansion. Tellingly, Ng refers to most adults as “Mrs” and “Mr,” but Mia Warren is always “Mia.”

The social commentary on economic inequality and lifestyle choices inherent in this setup would be enough to fuel a novel—and a spectacular house fire. But novelist Celeste Ng plunges far, far deeper into the problems in Shaker Heights, where she herself has lived. This suburb of Cleveland was established early in the 20th century as a planned community, with rigid rules about all aspects of outward appearance and organization. Near the end of the book, Izzy Richardson thinks about “life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what a mess lay within.” (323)

The “mess” behind the gorgeous façade of Shaker Heights includes unplanned pregnancy, controversial interracial adoption, prejudice against immigrants, unethical journalism, and parents who pay little attention to their wayward kids. Ng’s narrative is complex, with multiple strands tightly interwoven, and all her characters, no matter how peripheral, are drawn with exquisite care. The reading becomes unstoppable as the novel barrels along toward the fire that will inevitably consume the Richardson home.

The “little fires” of the title are the blazes on the gasoline-soaked beds that the arsonist lights. But these fires are also the incendiary issues shoved under the beds of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. Ng doesn’t preach; she shows.

Vermont Secession?

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

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

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

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

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

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)

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Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

Lonely French Siblings

How to Behave in a Crowd     Camille Bordas     (2017)

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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)

Bonus Post: 2 International Novels

Spring Garden     Tomoka Shibasaki    (2014)

Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton     (2017)

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In bustling present-day Tokyo, Taro is a loner. He’s in his thirties, divorced, and living in an apartment building that will be torn down as soon as the leases of the last few tenants expire. Taro’s entire neighborhood is undergoing change, with other buildings slated for demolition and with constant construction work at the commuter train stations. As people in his building move out, the only remaining inhabitants besides Taro are a comic-book artist named Nishi and a retired woman whom Taro calls “Mrs. Snake,” after the zodiacal designation on her apartment door. Despite Taro’s resistance to social interaction, the three neighbors get to know each other, exchanging small gifts in the Japanese custom. Nishi reveals to Taro her obsession with a large sky-blue house nearby, and she gives him a copy of a photography book, called Spring Garden, that was published many years previously about the house. Very gradually, Taro also becomes interested in the house and its current residents. That’s the basic story, and every element of the plot’s unfolding is delicately and purposefully executed. 

The lovely house serves the purpose of getting Taro out of his isolation to some degree. Writer Tomoka Shibasaki is finding a way to tell us about Taro’s deep unhappiness. His beloved father has died, his marriage has collapsed, and even his physical surroundings are disintegrating. He’s so sad that he doesn’t realize that he’s sad. Even if you live in one of the world’s most exciting cities, even if you have a decent professional job and friendly colleagues and neighbors, you can feel alienated and depressed.

This wisp of a book—a novella really—won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan. It’s been artfully translated by Polly Barton, retaining the spare feel of a Japanese garden but rendering the dialogue in idiomatic English. You can read it in a couple of hours, but it will stay with you for a long time.

Three Floors Up     Eshkol Nevo     (2015)

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston     (2017)

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From the suburbs of Toyko in the book reviewed above, we go to the suburbs of Tel Aviv for Three Floors Up, a trio of linked novellas about the residents of another apartment building. This is an upper-middle class neighborhood, mockingly called “Bourgeoisville” by some.

Arnon, on the first floor, is a businessman who is obsessed with the possibility that an elderly neighbor who often babysits for the family has sexually assaulted his young daughter. This obsession gets tangled up with Arnon’s relationship with his wife and his sexual attraction to the neighbor’s teenaged granddaughter.

Hani, on the second floor, worked as a graphic designer until her two children were born. Now she’s a stay-at-home mother who is stifled by the role, especially because her husband travels internationally for his work and is frequently away. The defining event for Hani is the appearance of her husband’s brother at her door, on the run from creditors and the police.

Devora, on the third floor, has recently been widowed and is estranged from her son. A retired judge, she’s casting about to find meaning for the remaining years of her life, so she marches in a political demonstration and meets characters who lead her in directions that she never anticipated. Devora has been reading Freud, and (speaking, of course, for the author) she gives us a Freudian interpretation of Three Floors Up:  “The first floor, which he [Freud] called the id, contains all our impulses and urges. The middle floor is the ego, which tries to mediate between our desires and reality. And the uppermost level, the third floor, is the domain of His Majesty, the superego, which calls us to order sternly and demands that we take into account the effects of our actions on society.” (211)

Each story in Three Floors Up is told in first person, with the person speaking to someone else—Arnon to an old Army buddy at a restaurant, Hani to a childhood friend in a long letter, and Devora to her late husband through an old answering machine. I found this approach somewhat contrived until I read the explanation, which is contained in Devora’s further analysis of Freud:  “I thought that he made one mistake. The three floors of the psyche do not exist inside us at all! Absolutely not! They exist in the air between us and someone else, in the space between our mouths and the ears we are telling our story to. And if there is no one there to listen—there is no story. . . . alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on, and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch.” (281)

I recommend that you read each segment of Three Floors Up in one sitting; ideally, read the entire book in one sitting so that you catch all the tiny links. Novelist Eshkol Nevo deftly probes the profound and yet tenuous connections between family members, neighbors, friends, and total strangers. At the end of the book, you may question how honest the three speakers were in telling their stories, you may think about what their next steps will be, and you may wonder how you would handle their predicaments.

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.

A Refugee Fable

Exit West     Mohsin Hamid     (2017)

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Author Mohsin Hamid is known for his experimental prose: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His latest novel, Exit West, can appear to be a more conventional novel—that is, until you hit the magical doors. These doors whisk Hamid’s characters to another country, with some similarities to the door through which CS Lewis takes his characters to Narnia. But Hamid’s characters definitely do not end up in Narnia. They’re refugees, fleeing their native country, where “militants” cause increasing upheaval and danger.

Nadia and Saeed are middle-class, college-educated professionals, working for an insurance company and an advertising agency, respectively, and living in an unnamed large city in an unnamed country that seems to be in the Middle East. The story opens as these two are just getting to know each other romantically. In the background, terrorism gradually encroaches on their lives and the lives of their families. Buildings are bombed and militants haul away people considered to be dissidents. Nadia and Saeed try to maintain a semblance of routine at first. They continue to go to work, attend their evening class, meet for coffee. Eventually, as electricity and water are cut off and their places of employment are shuttered, they hunker down with hoarded supplies. They truly do not want to leave their country, the place of their birth, but if they want to stay alive, it becomes clear that they must flee.

Nadia and Saeed seek basic survival in three successive refugee encampments, in Greece, England, and then the United States. Even though these nations are named, Hamid transforms them into dystopias. The narrator of Exit West tells us that “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end.” (245)

The frequent dislocation of their lives as refugees takes a toll on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” (212)

Saeed, in particular, misses his home: “He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  (213)

Mohsin Hamid was writing Exit West as the global refugee crisis was escalating, but he could not have foreseen world events of the year 2017, such as the travel bans instituted in the United States or the uptick in terrorist attacks in his native Pakistan. His prescient novel personalizes the plight of refugees—ordinary people who through no fault of their own are caught up in war and terrorism, who flee with great reluctance, leaving behind virtually all their possessions, clinging to the few family members who have not perished.

Near the end of Exit West, we hear from an “old woman” who has lived her entire life in Palo Alto, California:  “. . . it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (237)

There’s a very good reason why Exit West was on so many lists of the best books of the year 2017.

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.

An Irish Cozy Mystery

Holding     Graham Norton     (2017)

A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery novel. Holding is indeed that, but it goes beyond the genre.

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In Holding, Graham Norton has produced some noteworthy character studies of mature people who are at turning points in their lives. He has readers sympathizing with the middle-aged police sergeant, PJ Collins, who is overweight, underutilized, and desperately lonely. Norton also pulls us into the plight of middle-aged Brid Riordan, who loves her kids but often gets drunk to forget how unhappy her marriage is. Another character is Evelyn Ross, who’s stuck in the past, lamenting a failed romance from twenty-odd years ago. There’s also PJ’s elderly housekeeper, Lizzie Meany, whose background is revealed in a heartbreaking and surprisingly violent segment of the novel.

The mystery plot is not that tricky for readers who read a lot of cozies—I guessed the identity of the bones early on and had a good idea who buried them by the midpoint of the book. Still, the climax of the book, with the solution of the mystery, was suitably tense for me. It’s the unraveling of the story, with the appropriate red herrings, that gives the author scope for more interactions of his characters. PJ, for example, compromises his professionalism in his dealings with two of the murder suspects, and Brid makes some major changes in her family situation.

Holding has such a classic-1930s-mystery vibe to it that modern elements like DNA testing and mobile phones seemed slightly odd at first, but Norton skillfully integrates twenty-first-century technology into a rural Ireland that in some ways has not changed for a century—the pubs on the main street, the church fete, the outlying farms and hedgerows. He does allow, of course, for occasional lapses in phone reception that will advance his plot!  

Although I had never heard of him before, Irish-born Graham Norton is a well-known television personality and cultural commentator in Britain. This status might have gained him some book sales in the European market, but it clearly didn’t influence my decision to pick up Holding at my local library and stick with it to the end. (I have a “50-page test.”  I assess each title that I start reading at the 50-page mark to decide if I want to invest more time it in. I abandon many, many books even before page 50. Holding easily passed this test.)

The epilogue of Holding contains suggestions that more adventures of Sergeant PJ Collins may be forthcoming. I hope Norton takes time from his television career to produce another PJ mystery. I’ll be on the lookout!

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."