Wednesday, April 22, 2015

THE PERFUME COLLECTOR by Kathleen Tessaro

At about the same time that Grace discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, she finds that she is heir to a recently deceased woman named Eva whom Grace has never heard of.  The novel bounces back and forth between Eva’s life and Grace’s quest to unearth her benefactor’s story.  Eva forges some fortuitous connections while working as a hotel cleaning woman, finds that she has a knack for counting cards, and becomes involved in perfume making when she impresses a guest with a fragrant homemade cleaning solution.  All in all, Eva leads a pretty exotic, if highly unlikely, existence, and does pretty well for herself, particularly considering that she has a drinking problem.  Grace, on the other hand, plunges into Eva’s history, meets Madame Zed, who created the formula for the perfume My Sin, and picks Madame Zed’s brain to find out why Eva has bequeathed her such a fortune.  Grace’s husband does her a big favor by giving her an excuse to explore a relationship with the attorney handling Eva’s estate.  This novel holds no real surprises and no real conflict, but the book is a pleasant enough read, albeit a little overly tame.  I kept hoping for some big revelation or battle, but none came.  Certainly the descriptions of fragrances, such as wool, hair, wood, rain, and, of course, flowers, that are combined into perfumes are mildly enlightening, but the subject of scents is just not something that really appeals to me.  I can’t say that I can identify the smell of snow, for example.  This book falls squarely in the genre of women’s fiction, and it’s just a tad too frilly for me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

Rachel pseudo-commutes to London every day to give her pathetic life some structure and to live vicariously through a beautiful couple whose home she passes on the train.  When the wife, Megan, goes missing, Rachel recognizes her photo and inserts herself into the investigation, because she saw Megan kissing a man that was not her husband Scott.  The man Megan was kissing turns out to have been her therapist Kamal.  Rachel formerly lived in Megan’s neighborhood, and Rachel’s ex, Tom, still lives in their old house with his new wife Anna and their infant daughter.  So we have 3 women and 3 men as main characters, and they are all unlikeable.  Anna was Tom’s mistress while he was still married to Rachel; Tom is a manipulative adulterer; Megan is a nymphomaniac with a creepy past; Scott is possessive and overbearing; and Kamal obviously crosses a line with his patient that he shouldn’t have.  Rachel is the worst train wreck of all.  She is an alcoholic busybody who repeatedly drunk-dials Tom and has had more blackouts than she can count, including one the night Megan disappeared, when she happened to be in the neighborhood to harass her ex.  She takes self-loathing to new heights and struck me as a sort of completely dysfunctional Bridget Jones.  If you’re expecting a twist on a par with that of Gone Girl, I think you’ll be disappointed.  The identity of Megan’s abductor came as no surprise to me, but the author does a good job of building suspense, while leading us down numerous deadend paths.  The biggest mystery to me, though, is why this book has generated so much hype without delivering much in the way of gasp-inducing thrills.  This is nothing more than a whodunit without many choices as to who the culprit is.  A better literary thriller is You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who pretty much skewered The Girl on the Train for the New York Times Book Review.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas

Eileen becomes a nurse and finds that she is good at it.  After all, she is basically a nursemaid for her entire life.  First, she rises prematurely to adulthood in order to cope with two hard-drinking parents.  Then she marries Ed, who is a brilliant scientist whose only aspiration is to teach.  In his early fifties, he starts to lose his faculties, so to speak, and thus begins Eileen’s most taxing job yet.  Finally, their son Connell has inherited his father’s smarts but is an easy mark for troublemaking peers.  The bottom line is that, at over 600 pages, this book is too long.  I know that caring for an adult who is sinking into early Alzheimer’s is a lengthy and thankless task, but, honestly, I was so ready for this book to end.  I get that the author wanted to give us a sense of how draining this disease is for the victim’s family, but this is not how I want to spend my leisure time.  I also understand that the author wants to educate us, but I just don’t think he needed to drag it out for so long.  Plus, as is often the case with stories of Alzheimer’s patients, the wife, who should certainly recognize that her husband’s struggle in recording end-of-term grades is not normal, is in denial while her husband is holding on to reality by a mere thread.  The most heartbreaking example of this denial is that Eileen wants to move to the suburbs into a fixer-upper whose price is beyond their means.  Ed wants to stay put, obviously because change is scary for someone who is barely functioning on familiar turf.  Even their son, who accompanies his father to class one day, realizes that stress is not a sufficient explanation for his father’s problems.  Ed, who is more aware than anyone that he’s losing his grip, chooses not to discuss the issue with anyone, in stereotypical male “I-can-handle-this-myself” fashion.  All three characters have more than enough guilt to  go around:  Ed, for having to relinquish his role as patriarch; Connell, for failing to provide any relief or assistance to his mother; and Eileen, for eventually having to seek outside help, even though, as a nurse, she feels that she should be able to do the job alone.  My favorite character, by far, is Sergei, the last of Eileen’s hired caretakers, who somehow manages to calm the chaos and give us readers, as well as Eileen, an uplifting break.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Grace Reinhart is a marriage therapist in Manhattan who has written a book called You Should Have Known.  Her book, directed primarily at women, implores them to pay more attention to the warning signs of a bad match, because a leopard cannot change its spots.  Grace, on the other hand, has it all—a precocious son, a loving husband, and a tony lifestyle.  Then the unthinkable happens when Grace begins to suspect that her beloved husband Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist with a very compassionate bedside manner, has intentionally vanished.  Coincidentally, a female acquaintance has been murdered, but Grace buries her head firmly in the sand until the police force her to accept that the two events may be related.  Secrets spill out from family and friends, but Grace remains essentially in denial, rationalizing her husband’s actions, so that as a reader I wondered if maybe the warning signs were all red herrings.  In any case, Grace is certainly an obvious target for the advice in her own book.  She is not only completely distraught about the upending of her contented life but also wholly demoralized about how she could make such an inconceivable error in judgment, ignoring the proverbial handwriting on the wall.  The first half of the novel is totally enthralling, as we wait for Grace to recognize the obvious implications of her husband’s disappearance.  Then the book loses steam as she finally takes charge of her own life and starts making an effort to rebuild it, with rather predictable results.  I liked the ending, but I had hoped to gain a little more insight into what makes Jonathan tick, but this is strictly Grace’s story, and her journey is one that I enjoyed sharing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR by Joshua Ferris

This novel makes dentistry seem like the grossest profession on the planet, and maybe it is.  Paul O’Rourke’s practice has no internet presence, until some unknown entity creates a fairly comprehensive website for him.  The only problem is that Paul did not instigate the creation of this site and certainly does not approve of it.  This is not a book of action so much as it is a book of conversation and contemplation, as O’Rourke makes it his mission to uncover the identity and the purpose of the organization or person who has become his unwelcome avatar.   Before you know it, someone is tweeting on Paul’s behalf and even emailing him.  The novelty of this unlikely identity theft (who would go to this much trouble?) begins to wear thin as Paul become increasingly obsessed with unearthing the culprit.  Paul soon discovers that his heritage is not Irish, as his last name would imply, but in fact he is possibly one of the few descendants of a persecuted ethnic group, the Ulms, whose “religion” was to doubt the existence of God.  I liked this novel, but I became a little weary of the history of the Ulms, and I think his first novel, Then We Came to the End, is superior.  Paul is basically a loner, with no life beyond work and watching the Red Sox on TV, so that this unwanted internet activity at least gives him something else to do.  The women in his office—his assistant Abby, his hygienist Mrs. Convoy, and his office manager and former girlfriend Connie—make for a colorful trio, alongside Paul’s dreary personality.   The book is laugh-out-loud funny from time to time, especially in the beginning, but the author’s descriptions of the insides of people’s mouths are often yucky.  Paul has some pretty quirky patients, but my favorite is the guy who declines to have his cavities filled because he just doesn’t feel like he needs to.  There’s also the very successful guy, who comes in at the behest of his boss and coworkers, because his dental health has become so repugnant that his breath has become offensive.   Eeew.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THE PAINTER by Peter Heller

Jim Stegner is an artist with an anger management problem.  He’s already served time for shooting a man who threatened his daughter, and now he has a beef with a man who brutalizes a horse.  Stegner is a guy who leaves mayhem in his wake, especially when he’s trying to make the world a better place by eliminating a few bad guys.  As artists go, he’s fairly well-known, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the public starts to really take notice when Stegner gains a reputation as somewhat of an outlaw. Stegner is appalled by his own behavior and the inflationary impact it has on his work.  His agent, on the other hand, is well aware of Stegner’s volatile nature and certainly doesn’t encourage Stegner’s altercations, but he’s not going to waste an opportunity to capitalize on Stegner’s notoriety.  A former alcoholic, Stegner winds down by painting, obviously, and by fly fishing, and the author devotes a fairly substantial number of words to describing the sport and the beautiful western streams and rivers that Stegner favors.  I found myself skimming these sections so that I could find out what boneheaded or brilliant move our vigilante would make in his efforts to stay alive, stay sober, and stay one step ahead of the law by covering his tracks.  As for his art, I have to say that painting birds on the tops of the heads of two little girls in a commissioned portrait seems outlandish, but then such whimsy is partly what propels Stegner into a hot commodity.  His work, however, becomes darker as he grapples with guilt and indecision over whether he should turn himself in to the local authorities.  Lastly, I love that Heller’s outdoorsman protagonist shares a last name with the conservationist and artist (writer, actually) Wallace Stegner, whose Pultizer-Prize winning novel Angle of Repose is one of my favorites.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller

Pomeroy, NH, is a summer retreat for New Englanders who can afford a second home.  Sylvia and Alfie, both college professors, have decided to retire to their vacation home, especially now that Alfie is showing definite signs of Alzheimer’s.  Frankie, their forty-something daughter, is taking a break from her aid work in Africa to visit her parents and figure out what she wants to do next.  She meets Bud, a transplant to the area, who has taken ownership of the weekly newspaper.  He has plenty on his plate at the moment, because an arsonist, probably a local, has been torching summer mansions before the occupants arrive for the season.  We have then three major engrossing and intertwined plots:  Alfie’s decline, Frankie and Bud’s romance, and the mystery of the arsonist.  My only complaint really is that I didn’t particularly like how all of these situations got resolved, but such is life, I suppose.  Frankie is the main character, and she’s a bit elusive both to me as the reader and to Bud as well.  She makes it clear that she has no intention of settling permanently in Pomeroy, but then where will she go?  To a desk job in NYC?  Back to Africa?  She has become increasingly jaded about her work, as she has come to feel that everything she is doing in Africa is futile and that life for many Kenyans is a vicious circle.  In fact, some of the Africans starve their families in order to appear more in need of food supplies from Frankie’s group.  Her life in a compound in Nairobi makes her feel hypocritical, though, about how much better off she is than the people she is serving, and that dichotomy mirrors the tension between the locals and the summer people in Pomeroy.  Another theme in the book is that we often guiltily enjoy other people’s hardships.  Bud can barely curb his enthusiasm for the arson news, and Frankie is aware of the superiority she feels over everyone in the U.S. for her do-gooder lifestyle.  Sylvia is ecstatic when a physician confirms Alfie’s dementia, because now she can stop wondering if her suspicions are justified.  Now I feel a bit as though Sue Miller has granted me permission to take pleasure in someone else’s plight from time to time, but that’s probably not a good thing.