Wednesday, September 21, 2016

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I think most of us look back on the mistakes of our youth and wince with regret and embarrassment.  Evie has more to regret than most, as she was involved with a cult whose members murdered four people.  The Manson murders immediately come to mind, especially since our fictional crime takes place in the summer of 1969 in California.  Little by little we learn how Evie came to be a regular at the “ranch,” as the cult’s compound was called.  Her self-absorbed mother was neglectful, to say the least, of her fourteen-year-old daughter, who was rarely at home, but Mom hardly noticed and just assumed she was with a friend.  Evie was drawn to the ranch by the enigmatic Suzanne more so than the cult’s charismatic leader, Russell.  His ambition to become a recording artist contrasts starkly with the non-conformist lifestyle that he advocated, so that I questioned even further why his hangers-on were so enthralled.  Now that Evie is in her forties and staying at her friend Dan’s house, she is clearly not in prison.  The crux of the novel, then, is what really went down on the day of the murders.  Evie pleads innocence and a clear conscience to Dan’s son and his girlfriend, who are somewhat in awe of her past proximity to such a notoriously gruesome act.  Is Evie as free of guilt as she claims?  Or was she just not caught?  The ending does answer this question, but in many ways the ending is not as satisfying as I would have liked, in that it doesn’t elaborate on the consequences for the other cult members.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill

Call me old-fashioned, but I like for my books to be written in a mostly narrative style, with the exception of a couple of novels (Vanessa and Her Sister and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) that consist primarily of letters.  I found the format of this novel to be quite off-putting, as it is composed entirely of one snippet after another—some quotes and some musings from an unnamed wife in Brooklyn.  The musings are often whiney, but when the wife finds that her husband has been having an affair, perhaps there is cause to be whiney.  The husband seems like a great guy, except, of course, for his marital infidelity.  The two have a small daughter, who appears to be the primary reason that the husband and wife make an effort at reconciliation.  This isn’t just a marriage that goes through a bad patch; it’s a marriage on the brink of destruction that may not be worth salvaging.  The beginning and ending chapters are first-person (except for the aforementioned quotes) from the wife’s perspective, but the middle, in which the marital strife comes to a head, is in third person, as if the wife has distanced herself from her own thoughts.  To me, this is sort of like imagining yourself in a movie (“she” did this or that), and I have mixed feelings about whether this changing of person works or not.  I certainly did notice and felt some relief when the author switched back to first person, because, for one thing, there are fewer ambiguous pronouns to decipher.  Some reviewers have said that the most well-drawn character is the 5-year-old daughter.  Funny, but I can’t remember a thing about her.  Anyway, this is another fast read, helping me pad my book count for the year.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

GIRL AT WAR by Sara Nović

Ten-year-old Ana and her parents are Croatians who find themselves in the midst of a wholly unexpected civil war.  When infant Rahela becomes ill, the family’s best option is to send Rahela to a foster family in the U.S. for treatment.  What ensues is horrific, and then the narrative fast-forwards 10 years.  Ana is now a college student in New York with secrets from her past that she has never told her boyfriend or her adopted parents.  I certainly appreciated this opportunity to learn about the genocide in the former Yugolslavia, but I did not love this book.  The timeline is jagged, and I gasped at the abruptness of the ending.  Also, the author never completely fills in the 10-year gap, so we just skip over Ana’s adolescent years in the U.S., in which she ignored letters from her best friend, Luka, in Croatia.  Then when she does try to contact him, he doesn’t respond.  This whole dance seemed immature to me.  I get that she was traumatized and probably still fears abandonment, but she apparently never talked about what happened, and surely she couldn’t completely bury such intense grief.  I found her silence to be a bit maddening, and I never had the impression that she considered going back to Croatia until her boyfriend suggested it.  Then suddenly she feels compelled to return to face her demons and seems to be running away from her American boyfriend and family.  The writing is adequate but not stellar, but it was a fast read, and I’m grateful for that, not only because I wasn’t that enamored with the book but also because the subject matter is so disturbing, including the fact that relief aid seldom reached the people for whom it was intended.  Sad but undoubtedly true.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

LUCKY US by Amy Bloom

It’s the 1940s, and Eva’s father Edgar has two families.  When his legal wife dies, Eva lands in Edgar’s household, along with a teenage half-sister, Iris, whom Eva has never met.  Iris could have been downright nasty to Eva, but she’s not.  When Iris decides to sneak off to California to pursue acting, she lets Eva tag along.  Iris’s budding career is cut short, however, when paparazzi catch her in a lesbian love affair.  Edgar’s timely arrival on the scene affords the girls an opportunity to head back east, along with Francisco, Iris’s friend and makeup artist.  At this point the novel becomes a little silly, despite a grave tragedy, as Eva finds her calling temporarily as a fake fortuneteller.  With Edgar, Eva, Iris, Iris’s girlfriend, Edgar’s girlfriend, and a young boy that the girls pluck out of an orphanage, we have a strangely functional family.  Eva and Iris both do some devilish, childish things that would be funny if they didn’t have such dire consequences.  Of course, characters without flaws are not that interesting.  My favorite passages are in letters from Gus, a man who, due to some very unfortunate shenanigans, now lives in Germany, after being buffeted from one bad situation to another.  He makes some sweeping, mind-blowing, post-war observations and generalizations about the Poles, the Ukrainians, and the Brits that I’m afraid I will never forget, whether they’re valid or not.  Gus, who I think is really the conscience of the novel, and Eva are the true actors here, both building a life using false credentials.  They are both poster children for redefining one’s self.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

This novel chronicles a year in the life of 22-year-old Tess, whose name is not revealed until she is voted by her fellow employees as the person you’d most like to get stuck in an elevator with.  Without even enough cash to pay highway tolls, Tess arrives in New York and lands a job as a backwaiter at a tony restaurant.  As the “new girl,” she struggles to find her niche there among the more seasoned staff and develops a crush on Jake, the handsome and elusive bartender, whose relationship with Tess’s mentor, Simone, dates back to childhood and may or may not be sexual.  Burning the candle at both ends, Tess finds herself in a vicious cycle of drugs and alcohol, and I’m not sure how she is alert enough at work to learn about French wine regions.  This is what I would call an ensemble novel, and it’s the first one I’ve read since Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End in which the characters all work together.  It’s not about family per se, but then sometimes the workplace becomes a surrogate family.  From the beginning we know that Tess does not have a plan for her future.  She’s basically treading water, but then the author makes the point that restaurant workers are mostly young and eventually move on.  Simone is particularly an enigma.  She’s in her 30s, for one thing, but she takes Tess under her wing while warning her to stay away from Jake.  Tess is naïve but a quick study, except when it comes to matters of the heart.  Tess grew up without a mother, and Simone fills that void to a degree.  Simone may have already honed her maternal skills with Jake, but she becomes Henry Higgins to Tess’s Eliza Doolittle, and then the question is whether the student’s skills will surpass those of the professor.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE LIFE WE BURY by Allen Eskens

Joe Talbert is a struggling college student with an alcoholic mother and an autistic brother, Jeremy.  For a writing assignment, Joe interviews Carl Iverson, convicted years ago of murdering a teenage girl but now living out his last days in a nursing home with pancreatic cancer.  Of course, Carl claims to be innocent, but his story is corroborated by an old friend and fellow soldier in Vietnam, prompting Joe to delve into the crime.  Joe’s cute neighbor, Lila Nash, becomes involved in the decoding of the victim’s diary, and now we have a pair of amateur sleuths who don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.  Joe works part-time as a bouncer, so he at least has some pretty solid self-defense moves, and he can even go on the offense when there’s a damsel in distress.  Lila may have skeletons in her closet, but Joe especially feels that he can atone for a tragic mistake he made as a child by seeing that Carl is exonerated before he dies.  Carl also has his reasons for not participating more fully in his own defense at his trial.  I’m giving this novel 5 stars because I found it to be well-written and riveting, and it gallops along at breakneck speed.  It is not without its flaws, though.  Joe is conveniently lucky a few times too many, and why he trusts his alcoholic mother to look after his autistic brother is beyond my comprehension.  I get it that Joe’s education is important to him, but Jeremy would have been better off with almost anyone else.  The pacing of this novel is so fantastic that I chose to overlook the somewhat predictable plot and outcome.  My favorite scene is where Joe is recovering from hypothermia in a deserted hunting cabin and fashions an outfit from the curtains.  Scarlett O’Hara would be proud.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES by Alice Hoffman

I have enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s magical realism novels for years, but her historical novels, like this and The Dovekeepers, did not hold my attention at all.  This book mostly takes place in a Jewish community in St. Thomas in the 1800s.  The main character is Rachel, who, at a very young age, marries an older man with three children.  The purpose of this union is to cement a liaison with a man who can potentially save her family’s business.  When the husband dies, his nephew Frederic comes from France to take over his uncle’s role in the business.  He further steps into his uncle’s shoes when he falls in love with Rachel.  However, the Jewish community objects to a marriage between these two, based on the fact that they are “family members,” but Rachel and Frederic refuse to split up.  Their son Camille Pissarro eventually paves the way for a reconciliation between his parents and the Jewish community, and he goes on to become a famous artist of the Impressionist movement in France.  There are other forbidden romances in the novel, some with tragic consequences involving the progeny of these romances.  Even with all of the secrets and intrigue, this book dragged for me.  When Frederic enters the picture, the plot gets a little more juicy, but then the feud with the Jewish community occupies way too many pages, as do descriptions of flowers and of Camille’s unsuitability for the family business.  More annoying is Rachel’s transformation from being somewhat of a poster-child for women’s rights to a mother who is bent on stifling her son’s artistic aspirations.  Later, her disapproval of his choice of servant girl as his wife brands her a total hypocrite in my book.  I get it that she objects to her son’s marriage outside the faith more so than his marrying someone of lower social status. Still, when I look back not just on her own fight to marry the person of her choice but also her friend Jestine’s heartbreaking separation from the man and daughter she loved, I just don’t understand how she can suddenly be so obstinate when her son wants to follow his heart.  And one more complaint:  What happened to Rachel’s stepsons, David and Samuel?  At some point, the author abandons them and never fills us in about their fates.