Posts Tagged ‘fiction’
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy, Alfred Knopf, 2013, 326 pp.
This is my first Maeve Binchy novel, though I know many who love her. There is an odd pattern between A Week in Winter and A Wedding in December, both about inns and innkeepers in winter, and both unfolding stories of multiple characters centering on their time spent together at the inn. The novels share more subtle similarities too–lovely writing, characters that are charming and entertaining but not gripping, a good story for beach reading (or a snow day!).
A Week in Winter centers on a small inn in the town of Stoneybridge on the west coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr, after years away in New York living what everyone assumed was a happily married life, has returned to Stoneybridge to renovate an old home into an inn, bringing experience running a boardinghouse. Everyone things she is crazy, because no one would want to visit Stoneybridge.
The first chapter belongs to Chicky’s story, and each subsequent chapter adds a new character to the week at the inn, unpacking the journey that got them to that one place and time together. The second and third chapters bring in the employees of the inn. Rigger is a troubled youth sent to family in Stoneybridge to hide out from his life in Dublin, and makes a life for himself there. Orla found success as a young, professional woman living the fancy life in the city, but could not find all she wanted there. She puts her business sense to use at the inn and finds hope.
The guests each get a chapter to tell their story as well. They include an unhappy schoolteacher who leaves soon after making everyone miserable, a movie star trying to escape attention and travel incognito, two young doctors who have been broken by seeing too much death, a mother and her potential daughter-in-law who do not like each other yet refuse to give up on the man they both love, a Swedish young man choosing between what he loves and what his family expects of him, a librarian troubled by visions of the future, and a couple who is disappointed that they won a contest’s second-prize trip to Stoneybridge instead of the first-place trip to Paris.
Each chapter is like a short story of its own, interwoven together by setting and integrating one another as secondary characters. The stories are charming, hopeful and endearing. I was reminded of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which keeps everything nice. While the stories do approach life’s difficulties, they allude more than explore, and most characters find redemption. It’s a feel-good book all around, and I didn’t mind a bit.
Necessary Lies by Diana Chamberlain, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, 372 pp.
Like recent reads What She Left Behind, Orphan Train and Orphan #8, this novel begins in the author’s discovery of a little-known aspect of history, one that focuses on the lived reality of a small subset of people often overlooked. Those books turned on the stories of orphans and mental health patients; Necessary Lies opens the story of forced sterilization among impoverished women in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. The story’s characters are fictional, but the author drew on historical research into the lives of the women impacted by sterilization decisions.
The main characters of the story are Ivy Hart and Jane Forrester. Jane is a college graduate newly married to a pediatrician, Robert, who expects her to align with the lifestyle of a doctor’s wife in 1960–Junior League, bridge club, social events with other doctor’s wives. Jane has her own ideas. She wants to use her degree and serve others, so she takes a job as a social worker for the county welfare. She drives all over fictional Grace County meeting clients, helping tend to their needs and making sure they are not duping the government. She is also charged with making the case for sterilization.
Fifteen year old Ivy Hart is one of her clients. She lives with her grandmother, her older sister, and her nephew as a sharecropper on the Gardiner family farm. She is in a loving romantic relationship with the Gardiner’s son Henry. They share the land with the Jordan family as well, an African-American woman and her five sons.
Jane’s supervisor and co-workers agree that Ivy should be sterilized, and her grandmother is eager to sign the permission form after her older sister’s pregnancy. However, Ivy dreams of a family. As Jane grows to care for Ivy and hear her story, she resists, with dire consequences.
The novel is a plot-driven page-turner. Ivy, Jane and the rest are likable enough characters, but this is not a book in which to find great depth or lasting characters or magnificent writing. It’s a great summer read, vacation read, or escape read. The insight into a unique and painful piece of history was enough to intrigue me, and I enjoyed the story greatly.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, HarperPerennial, 2012, 337 pp.
When NPR’s Fresh Air calls this the best book of the year, you know it’s on my list to read. The book jacket is covered in “best book” endorsements from the New York Times, Boston Globe and many other trusted sources. Beautiful Ruins earned every one of them.
Just listen to this opening line, which won me over immediately:
April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy
The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.
I mean, already we have a beautiful writing and a story about a dying actress and an Italian man in a remote Italian village in the early 1960s. I was hooked.
Very quickly, we come to know that the man in the story is Pasquale Tursi, a native of tiny Porto Vergogna who has inherited his father’s small inn and his passion for making it (and the town) a tourist destination. The dying actress is Dee Moray, who is in Italy to play a lady-in-waiting in the movie Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A doctor tells her she has stomach cancer, and the movie’s publicist, Michael Deane, ships her off to Porto Vergogna and leaves her there. She is the inn’s only guest, apart from an American, Alvis Bender, who ostensibly spends a few weeks there every year to write his novel, but really just drinks the days away.
The story then jumps to “recently” in Hollywood, California. We meet Claire Silver, a young woman interested in film as literature and currently working as an assistant to Michael Deane. Between 1962 and “recently,” Deane became one of the most powerful, innovative producers in Hollywood, but has fallen from success and is now a washed-up has-been, making bad reality TV shows. We also meet Shane Wheeler, an aspiring filmmaker who is coming to make a pitch to Michael Deane.
On the day Shane shows up to make his pitch, met by Claire, Pasquale Tursi also appears–and the past secrets all begin to pour out. The novel moves back and forth between the events of 1962 and “recently;” between Porto Vergogna, Cleopatra and today’s United States; between Pasquale, Claire, Alvis Bender, Shane, Dee Moray, and Michael Deane, with major doses of Richard Burton thrown in for fun. Their lives become intertwined, chance encounters become lasting relationships or missed opportunities, and the story keeps the reader wondering how it will all work out in the end. I cared about all of the characters, and wanted to find out if they would get what was coming to them–whether love or healing or punishment or justice.
Beautiful Ruins sometimes made me shake my head in shame at the human condition, then made me weep at the beauty, then made me laugh out loud. I couldn’t put it down, and it was beautiful from beginning to end. I can’t wait to read Jess Walter’s next book. Find Beautiful Ruins. Read it. You won’t regret it.
Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.
I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.
This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.
The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.
There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.
Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, Random House, 2013, 347 pp.
This book was such a disappointment. If I hadn’t been stranded on a trip with nothing else, I don’t know if I would have finished it. While it wasn’t boring, it was also not particularly interesting. All the richness, novelty and questionable behavior of the characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has been replaced by two-dimensional characters and predictable plot developments and outcomes. Even more, the book’s perspective on identity felt dated and even tinged with a level of prejudice and stereotype that made me uncomfortable.
The central character is Sookie Poole, a Southern housewife rapidly approaching age 60 and experiencing an empty nest. Her life is dominated by her mother Lenore Simmons, who has delusions of grandeur about her family heritage, personal talents and Sookie’s potential. While Flagg writes with a lightness and humor, the decision to name Sookie’s children Dee-Dee, CeCe and LeLe was just too much sugar. Their characters were about as mature and developed as their names, and Sookie is about as deep as hers.
One day, Sookie gets an elusive message that she is “not who she thinks she is,” and discovers she is adopted. The domineering Lenore and her Simmons legacy are not actually hers by blood. For me, Sookie’s reaction made her ridiculous and unlikeable. She believed she was a fraud who owed apologies and resignations to all her Southern organizations. She goes through major contortions to hide her visits to a therapist, as though such a thing would cause her whole community to crumble. Her birth mother’s Polish last name inspires her to indulge in stereotypes about Polish people to see which ones might apply to her. Seriously, Fannie Flagg–do you think someone would be that genteelly horrified to discover they are Polish? If they are, they are not a character I would want to get to know. Sookie felt both unbelievable and unlikable.
The book’s one redeeming element was the unfolding back story of Sookie’s birth family, a group of immigrants raising four girls and a boy by running a Phillips 66 Filling Station. When World War II breaks out, the son leaves for the war, the father grows ill, and the young women take over the business. Eventually, several of them become pilots and join the WASPs. The lead sister is Fritzi Jurdabralinski, an independent, strong-willed woman who eventually becomes a stunt pilot and wing walker, opening the door for the rest of the family to learn how to fly. Her story of life and love in the war is interesting, but she didn’t have a great force of personal character and dynamism. She and all the other family members never emerged from their flat stereotypes. I had the feeling that, though the setting was compelling, I’d met them all in sitcoms already.
I felt no drama or tension or suspense for any of the characters. All the plot twists were predictable. Fritzi and Sookie lacked all the complexity and novelty of Idgie and Evelyn, and Sookie’s transformation has no “towanda” excitement anywhere. Reading the novel all at once, I felt like I’d eaten way too much sugar and candy and now I was queasy. While I’m sure Flagg was trying to open us to the complexity of women’s lives in World War II and make Sookie and Lenore interesting and complicated women, this effort falls flat. It feels like something from another era, when identity was far more rooted in blood relationships, adoption was somehow scandalous, Polish immigrants exotic, and women in men’s jobs unconventional. I couldn’t believe it was written in 2013. What a disappointment.
The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane by Kelly Harms, Thomas Dunne Books, 2013, 290 pp.
Time for book number three in the “light summer reading” category. I’ve been doing some traveling lately, and grabbing these for quick 24-hour reads. This was another one that I flew through when I had some free time on my hands. Again, nothing rich or profound, a story that was fairly predictable in its outcome (although with some nice twists along the way), but entertaining throughout.
The premise of the story is that there are two Janine Browns in Cedar Falls, Iowa. One, Janey, is obsessed with cooking. Every night, she comes home alone and prepares enormous, elaborate recipes, because it is the only thing that gives her joy. She has an elderly aunt, Midge, who urges her to leave her apartment and go out in the world, but she refuses. The other, Nean, is a scrappy former foster kid with nothing, homeless apart from a no-good boyfriend.
A television program is giving away a beautiful, enormous home on the Maine seacoast. Nean enters and then has a dream that the house is hers. She is certain she will win. Aunt Midge enters Janey’s name along with her own, in an attempt to secure a new future for them both. When the winner is announced as “Janine Brown of Cedar Falls, Iowa,” all three women travel to Maine preparing to start a new life.
As you can predict, what begins in hostility eventually becomes solidarity and even family. There is love to be found along the way for all, and some fun adventures as the story unfolds. The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane would make a great vacation book, beach book or airplane book. I got an extra kick out of it because I actually know a Janine Brown. Do you know one too? Enjoy the book either way.
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, 228 pp.
The title drew me in. (Also, I’ll admit, the Booker Prize Finalist sticker on the cover.) The title made me think this book would have some rich theological insight hidden inside, even if it never mentioned God. Fasting and feasting are such rich concepts for contemplation. The book did follow its title with interwoven threads of deprivation and abundance, although it did not capture my heart and mind as much as I had hoped.
The story is told in two parts, from two central characters. The first part takes place in India, and focuses on Uma, the eldest sister of an aspiring middle-class family. Uma is a bit slow-witted and physically clumsy, but she has dreams for her life. However, at every turn, her parents thwart her aspirations and turn her into a servant in the household. Her prospects for marriage crumble, and she is denied even the simplest pleasures. She is not alone. Nearly all the women in the story are bound in service to men, their own dreams unsupported and unsustained.
The second part takes place in the United States, and focuses on Arun, the youngest child and only boy in the family. The family (especially Uma) sacrifices everything so that Arun can succeed, achieve and prosper. While it seems that he has everything, he longs desperately for affection. During his time in the United States, the land of plenty, he sees the elements of physical and emotional deprivation in American family life, even as he himself goes hungry rather than eat meat with the host family.
The novel is beautiful, intricate and run through with allusions to various kinds of fasting and feasting. At times, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me, like it was a morality tale or parable about abundance and deprivation, rather than a novel. Uma felt more like a real character about whom I cared than Arun did. I yearned for redemption in the story, but hunger won out over satisfaction for both Arun and Uma.
This is a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed, recognizing its merits while never quite falling under its spell.