Monday, September 1, 2014

LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES by Emma Straub

Elsa Emerson is the youngest daughter in a family of thespians in rural Wisconsin in the 1920s.  After her beautiful older sister’s romance with a charismatic actor in the family’s theatre company ends in tragedy, the family goes into a tailspin.  Elsa grabs the first opportunity to escape to Hollywood, in the form of yet another charismatic actor, Gordon Pitts.  Gordon manages to land a studio contract with a steady income, while Laura puts her movie star ambitions on hold.  Pregnant with her second child, she catches the eye of Irving Green, a studio executive, who renames her Laura Lamont.  As Gordon’s career starts to wane, Laura’s takes off, and the two part ways, as Gordon becomes more and more seedy.  Irving begins to squire Laura around Hollywood, and soon the two are married.  Irving is basically a saint, and Laura loves him dearly.  Theirs is a storybook marriage—unusual by Hollywood standards.  Laura’s life as a celebrity, however, has its ups (an Academy Award) and downs (more family tragedies), and Laura’s coping mechanism is an addiction to barbiturates.  (Doesn’t this sound a little too familiar?)  Plus, the roles for women her age are not as plentiful as they were when she was younger, and she turns down a role as a mother, despite the fact that she has three children by now.  She reaches an all-time low when her best friend has to fire her from a ridiculous game show.  I enjoyed this book, with Laura and all of her foibles, but her journey is not all that uncommon:  Small town girl is discovered, marries a big shot, and then has to find her way back to who she really is.  She finds strength in her family, and I don’t mean the one in Wisconsin.  (Her mother has no complaint about her running off with Gordon but cannot forgive her for changing her name and marrying a Jew.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan

In the late 1800s in Paris, an impoverished teenage girl could earn a small wage in a variety of occupations:  as a ballet dancer, as an artist’s model, as a washerwoman, and, of course, in a brothel.  In this tale of three fatherless sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte manage to scrape by, while their mother finds solace in drink.  Antoinette washes out as a dancer, while Marie and Charlotte show promise and advance to the stage.  Marie is the only one of the three who can read, and when the newspaper publishes an article about how a person’s facial features can predict their behavior, Marie feels that her monkey-like face has doomed her.  Antoinette, on the other hand, becomes infatuated with Emile, who, along with a cruel friend, is arrested for murder.  If Emile can escape the guillotine, he will be banished to New Caledonia, and Antoinette begins scheming to join him there.  One reviewer wrote that this book is part love story, but I don’t see it as that at all.  It is a story of the bond of sisters, united in their struggle to survive, and the rift that a boy can create.  In this case, Antoinette is blind to Emile’s flaws, while Marie sees nothing else.  I feared for these girls throughout the book.  They have no adult supervision or role models, and they do as they please:  visiting convicts in jail, modeling in the nude, going to bars, attending theatre productions, going to work at 4:00 am.  They’re like mini-adults but without the good judgment that comes with maturity and experience.  Ultimately, Marie makes a decision that widens the gap between her and Antoinette and has unforeseen consequences.  I love how, near the end, the author matches the frenetic pace of the story with paragraph-long chapters, alternating narrators, as she has all along.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry receives a note from a former work associate, Queenie Hennessy, who writes that she is dying of cancer.  His walk to post a reply soon becomes a journey to the hospice where Queenie resides—over 600 miles away.  He clings to the belief that Queenie will not die until he gets there, while his baffled wife Maureen waits at home.  Two parallel stories unfold.   One is that of the pilgrimage itself.  Harold refuses to outfit himself with suitable walking gear, has no cell phone, and eventually sends his wallet back to Maureen so that he can proceed without money.  Now he’s totally dependent on the kindness of strangers, and he encounters quite a few during his journey, acquiring a burgeoning entourage, who become somewhat of an argumentative albatross.  The backstory is that of a marriage gone stale and a son whom Harold believes he failed.  All of his family relationships are complicated, as is his relationship with Queenie, and the closer Harold gets to his destination, the more he reveals to the reader about his history.  He’s made some crucial mistakes in life, but as you might guess, his pilgrimage helps rectify some of those, but some have consequences that cannot be undone.  His rendezvous with Queenie does not unfold as I would have guessed, and the author cleverly conceals his son’s fate until the end.  Yes, this is a heartwarming story, but I didn’t find it to be particularly special.  Memorable?  Maybe.  I was also not fond of the writing style, which I found to be a little choppy, as if it were written for a somewhat unsophisticated audience.  Perhaps this “ordinary” style is intended to help connote the ordinary man that Harold is—at least before his extraordinary pilgrimage.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

THE OTHER TYPIST by Suzanne Rindell

Rose is a stenographer and typist for a New York City police precinct in the 1920s.  When the Prohibition Era dawns, her workload increases, and a new typist, Odalie, captures everyone’s attention, especially Rose’s.  Odalie is everything that Rose is not—daring, beautiful, and rich.  Soon Rose moves in with Odalie in her opulent hotel suite, but theirs is a very one-sided relationship, with Odalie paying all the bills and introducing Rose to hidden speakeasies and chic house parties.  Like Nora in Claire Messud’s The WomanUpstairs, Rose becomes totally bedazzled by her new friend.  She abandons all of her scruples in order to impress and satisfy Odalie.  The source of Odalie’s wealth could be a sugar daddy or family money or bootleg income.  When a young man claims to recognize Odalie from Newport, Odalie becomes visibly agitated.  The author frequently reminds us that Rose’s world is about to explode, because we know that she’s recounting all this from an institution, under the care of a psychiatrist.  I found this constant foreshadowing to be a little annoying and unnecessary.  I realize that the author uses this device to build suspense, but the plot is suspenseful enough, as we try to figure out who Odalie really is.  The ending, however, raises a bigger question:  Who is Rose?  Is she really so malleable, or does something darker lurk inside her?  I would rate this book with 5 stars if the ending were not completely undecipherable.  I would call it ambiguous, but that word implies two possibilities, and the ending of this book has at least three.  I imagine that this novel makes for an excellent book club discussion, with everyone sharing and defending his/her interpretation of what really happened.  I’m afraid that I don’t have a staunch opinion, as all scenarios seem to have their contradictions.  Reviewers have compared this novel to several others, but Rindell has taken the idea of an unreliable narrator to an extreme unmatched since Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Since he wrote adventure novels, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, I had pictured Robert Louis Stevenson as a robust, energetic man, but he was, in fact, in poor health for much of his life.  This novel focuses its attention mainly on his American wife, Fanny, who served as both his sounding board and his nurse.  The two meet while Fanny and her children are in France for art instruction, as a means of escaping her philandering husband Sam Osbourne.  Her youngest child dies while they are in Europe, and Fanny, wracked with grief and guilt that will haunt her for the rest of her life, returns to the States to try to patch up her marriage.  When Louis, as Stevenson is known to friends, receives a letter that Fanny has “brain fever,” he jeopardizes his own health to travel by boat and then overland train to California to see her.  After her divorce from Sam and marriage to Louis, Fanny, who suffers from seasickness on every ocean-going vessel, soon realizes that Louis thrives at sea.  They eventually settle down in Samoa, along with an entourage of family members, and at this point, the book loses steam.  Louis’s health becomes less precarious, and Fanny buries, at least for a while, her frustration with how Louis’s friends and admirers perceive her.  Throughout their lives, both of these characters wage personal battles.  Louis produces some of his most acclaimed work, including The StrangeCase of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while bedridden.  Fanny, on the other hand, feels that she has sacrificed her own creative ambitions in order to support Louis’s career.  She, more than anyone else, is responsible for keeping Louis healthy enough to keep writing, and her suggestions completely reshape Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into Stevenson’s seminal work.  She’s a strong woman, living in a time in which the literary world is largely closed to women.  This novel gives us good reason to appreciate her influence on Stevenson and to share in her personal dissatisfaction in not gleaning some of the accolades for herself.

Monday, August 4, 2014

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson

When we refer to a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, everyone knows what we mean.  The impact of this book is immeasurable, and it’s more of a novella in length.  I’ve just read it for the first time, as sort of a companion piece to Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky about Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny.  I have no idea how historically accurate Horan’s novel is, but in her book Stevenson rips up the original manuscript and completely reworks this novel to incorporate his wife’s suggestions.  Stevenson tells the tale with 3 narrators, the last of which is Jekyll himself.  What I found most telling about this last narrative is that Dr. Jekyll does not really consider himself a good man.  In fact, he much prefers being the cruel but freer Mr. Hyde, who has no conscience and no concern for the well-being of others.  As Dr. Jekyll he has to bury (and “hyde”) his baser desires and sees this effort as a sort of bondage to convention.  In other words, Jekyll comes off as a sociopath who chooses to act like a person with real empathy for his fellow human beings, even though in reality he has none.  As Mr. Hyde, he undergoes a sort of hypnosis, and hypnotists tell us that they cannot override our consciences.   Stevenson chooses not to challenge our trust that a truly good person cannot be persuaded to do evil deeds.  I couldn’t help wondering, if the character enjoys being Hyde so much, how he motivates himself to revert to his Jekyll persona.  Since his physical appearance changes, I suppose he has to become Jekyll to avoid being captured by the police for his actions as Hyde.  Anyway, I can think of all sorts of alternate scenarios, such as Hyde being in jail for his evil deeds and asking his attorney to bring him the potion that will restore Dr. Jekyll.  It’s no wonder this iconic book has spawned TV shows, movies, and other novels that put a different slant on this timeless and intriguing story.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

I know that most great books have a degree of sadness, but the first half of this novel was so depressing that I just wanted to get it over with.  Molly is a teenager in foster care in Maine.  When she gets caught stealing a worn-out paperback copy of Jane Eyre from the library, she cuts a deal to do her 50 hours of community service cleaning out a ninety-one-year-old woman’s attic.  (As I’m writing this, it sounds a little silly.)  The elderly woman is Vivian, who came to the Midwest as a young Irish girl on a train filled with orphan children from the East.  At first, Vivian is taken in by a family that runs a sweatshop, but when the depression sets in, women start mending their old clothes instead of buying new ones.  After that, she lands in a dirt poor family that can barely feed their own children.  When a school assignment requires that Molly interview an adult about a journey in which they had to leave some possessions behind, she asks Vivian, who shares her early tribulations with Molly, who is experiencing problems of her own at home.  Soon Molly and Vivian forge a friendship, as they find that they have parallel histories, and Molly uses her internet savvy to track down some of Vivian’s family members.  After I got past all the misery in Vivian’s childhood, I began to enjoy this novel, even with all of its coincidences and predictability.  I’m sure the author is not exaggerating the fate that many of the children from the orphan trains suffered.  They became servants and farmhands and functioned basically as white slaves.  This book reminded me of Black Beauty, which I haven’t read since I was a child, but Vivian, like Beauty, moves from one cruel situation to another.  Since she’s now in her nineties and wealthy, we know that she survives and even prospers.  Tragic beginnings can sometimes morph into happy endings, and Vivian’s journey with all of its bumps along the road is one worth following.