Posts Tagged ‘Novel’
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.
A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 325 pp.
As we prepare to move, it has been overwhelmingly busy. My normal brisk pace of reading has suffered, but I needed to get lost in a book just to escape. I also needed to read through some books that I want to read but not pack. This one has been on my shelf for a long time, but never caught my fancy. It was too light, too simple–until now. It was just the breezy read I needed.
The story takes place at an inn in western Massachusetts, where a group of high school friends have gathered for a wedding reunion more than 25 years after graduation. Two of the classmates, Bridget and Bill, had been high school sweethearts who broke up suddenly in college when Bill met (and eventually married) someone else. They have gotten back together, and the classmates are celebrating their wedding. It is their first reunion since graduation, which was marred by the tragic death of Stephen Otis, one of their circle. They carry the guilt and grief of that day into their adulthood.
Nora, Stephen’s girlfriend, owns the inn, having made her life as the wife and helpmeet of a famous poet before his death and her new life on her own as an innkeeper. Harrison, Stephen’s roommate and best friend, was in love with Nora, but is now married with a family of his own. Jerry, the loud one, brings a younger wife and conspicuous displays of wealth. Agnes, the quiet one, has been carrying on a secret affair for years.
The story unfolds the unfinished business between the various classmates, both in their relationships with one another and their guilt over not having been able to save Stephen. It wasn’t a great story, but it was a good one. The writing is lovely and understated. The characters and story will not be seared into my memory, but I enjoyed journeying with them for awhile.
A Wedding in December is a striking portrait of middle age, an era I find myself entering as well. In preparation for our move, I am revisiting old things from high school, notes and letters from my younger self. Through the power of Facebook, I am able to reconnect with some of those old friends and tend to some unfinished business. Much like the characters in the novel, we are able to move beyond our 17 year old versions of ourselves and see one another as fully-formed adults. Again like the story, sometimes this lifts old regrets, eases old tensions and heals old wounds. Other times, it opens new dimensions and reveals that we are forever locked into the choices we made a long time ago.
I was finally ready to appreciate A Wedding in December at the time I read it. Perhaps you will be too.
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.
Comfort and Joy by Kristin Hannah, Ballentine Books, 2005, 237 pp.
Comfort and Joy is pure fun. I grabbed it from the pile to read on an airplane, and it was simply perfect. Nothing too deep, but a fabulous story told well, with likable characters that you want to find happiness and they do. There’s heartbreak and redemption and heartbreak again, and a bit of magic thrown in too.
The central character is narrator Joy Faith Candellaro, a simple school librarian from Bakersfield whose whole life falls apart when she discovers her husband and her sister are having an affair. The story begins as she anticipates her first Christmas alone. On a whim, unable to face the bleakness of a holiday with no family, she buys a ticket on a charter flight to the Pacific Northwest without telling anyone where she was going or even that she was leaving town.
Things don’t go as expected, and Joy finds herself the only guest at a closed inn. Her only companions are a boy, Bobby, and his father, Daniel. The boy’s mother has recently died, and his father has returned after their separation to close down the inn and move Bobby to Boston to live with him. Joy and Bobby become companions in their separate griefs, and they help one another heal through the holidays.
However, all is not as it seems, and just when Joy believes she has found a new and happy life, everything falls apart and she must return home to make peace with her life in Bakersfield. I can’t say more without giving away too much, but do not despair–the book lives up to its name. There is Comfort and Joy at the end of the story.
This book is a light and quick read, perfect for an airplane or a snowy afternoon. Get yourself some cocoa or hot tea and snuggle in for the smiles.
The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon, Three Rivers Press, 2006, 346 pp.
The Alchemist’s Daughter is a beautiful historical novel set in England in the early 18th century. McMahon writes wonderfully, with a rich prose in the narrative voice of her central character and a unwinding revelation of the story in both the narrator and in the reader.
The story is told to us by Emilie Selden, the alchemist’s daughter herself. Since her mother died in childbirth, she has never left the family estate, and known only her father, a cook and gardener (Mr. and Mrs. Gill) as her daily companions. She has had occasional interaction with villagers or the parish priest, but her reclusive father has endeavored to keep her isolated. She has spent every day with him and his experiments, learning the depths of science and natural philosophy available at the time. Loneliness pervades the narrator’s voice, though her lifetime of isolation barely gives her language to understand it.
The main story begins when she is 18. Her father is away and a handsome, wealthy fop (Aislabie) comes riding into the estate. Having never learned to navigate relationships with anyone, much less a flirtatious suitor, she falls for the gentleman and ends up entangled in a binding relationship. Due to the law of the time, her father’s estate also falls into the hands of Aislabie, and she risks losing everything she has ever known.
As a parent, I saw The Alchemist’s Daughter as a cautionary tale about the folly of isolating our children from the world instead of preparing them to encounter it. It’s also the story of Emilie discovering the truth of her life and her world, and how she claims her place in it. She is the alchemist’s daughter, rich in knowledge few men and likely no women shared at the time.
One of the most interesting characters in Emilie’s small world is Rev. Shales, the new parish priest and also a naturalist. While she and her father are engaged in alchemy experiments to bring forth life from death, the priest objects on moral grounds. His words captured a beautiful resonance for me as a pastor.
In my work, I meet the dying and bereaved every day. I have seen young children fail, and women and their new born infants die in childbirth. I would do everything in my power to restore them, but in the history of mankind only Jesus Christ had that gift. There is much we could do to improve life–decent food, medicine, clean air, warm homes. Let’s concentrate on what sustains life, not on some fruitless attempt to bring it back. (27)
Again later, in a conversation with Emilie after her relationship with Aislabie proves problematic, Shales expresses thoughts about prayer and the afterlife that could have spoken for me.
Emilie: “I feel punished.”
Shales: “No. No. I do not believe in a mechanism for punishment and reward.”
Emilie: “So your prayer is not entreaty.”
Shales: “For what? For favors? For an assured place in heaven? I have tried all kinds of asking and am never satisfied. What I know is that the expectation of heaven can be no substitute for what happens here. It can’t be an excuse for inflicting misery on others. But sometimes I can’t help hoping that heaven will contain a few shocks for those of us who are complacent or cruel.” (156-157)
The Alchemist’s Daughter is a rich and wonderful story, beautifully written, transporting the reader into a tiny, isolated estate and the mind of a young woman who knows nothing else in the world. Read and enjoy.
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.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 477 pp.
This book defies category. It is an epic novel, across continents and decades. It is a political commentary, full of astute observations and cultural critique, especially around issues of race and immigration. It is a good story, beautifully written, compelling and challenging. The quality of the writing and fiction are not diminished by the insertion of straight cultural commentary, nor does the narrative serve to lighten the impact of the author’s searing observations. It is masterful, and an important read both as a novel and cultural critique. All the better: it’s a great story, a love story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a book that shows us all the power of the novel as a genre, the way an extended perspective and intimate connection with a character can create new forms of empathy, understanding and a window on the human condition.
The two at the center of the story are Ifemelu and Obinze. They seem destined for one another, made perfectly suited to match one another’s wits and habits, and they fall in love while in secondary school in Nigeria. Adichie tells the story of their individual upbringings and their school years against the backdrop of military uprisings in Nigeria. After graduation, Ifemelu departs to study in the United States. Her experience of immigration changes her, and she separates from Obinze, a heartbreak to them both. The novel explores how, and if, their relationship can be recovered. Obinze may have stayed in Nigeria, but he has changed as well. Will their love persist? Can it? Should it? This is no starry-eyed romance. This is a real and deep exploration about what it means to love, to grow with another imperfect human being, and the power of conflicting commitments.
One of the central themes is the question of home and exile. To be an “Americanah” is to be a Nigerian that has spent so much time abroad that they no longer fit well in Nigeria. The novel is set after Ifemelu has spent 15 years in the U.S. before deciding to move back, and she wonders if she will be able to readjust.
One of the key experiences is Ifemelu’s introduction to the American concept of race, and the necessity for her to learn how to navigate the unspoken, subtle and not-so-subtle privilege and discrimination that attend it. She eventually begins to write a blog about it, entitled, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The novel contains several complete blog entries, but those are not the only sources of cultural critique. The story itself navigates Ifemelu’s difficult relationships with American men, both black and white, as she learns the social cues and racial dynamics. The novel is peppered with these observations, and they are powerful.
For example, after her blog becomes popular, Ifemelu is hired to lead diversity training workshops. After one workshop in which she is honest about the reality of racism and its unshakable hold, she receives an angry e-mail and observes:
The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves. They did not want the content of her ideas; they merely wanted to gesture of her presence. … During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
The italics are original, but I love that line.
There is a self-referential playfulness in the novel’s conversations about race. For example, Ifemelu is engaged in a conversation with a group of academics from Princeton, and the conversation goes like this:
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t eve know it’s about race.” …
“Or just find a white writer. White writers can be blunt about race and get all activist because their anger isn’t threatening.” (337)
Of course, Americanah is just that kind of work of literary fiction. I hope people pay attention.