Wednesday, June 24, 2009

LE DIVORCE by Diane Johnson

You'd think that a book made into a Kate Hudson movie would be somewhat frivolous. However, Diane Johnson's Le Divorce was actually a National Book Award Finalist, and I can understand why. The wry commentary on the differences between French and American culture make this book worth reading and keep it from settling into overwrought melodrama. The author comes down hard on the French for their nonchalance toward marital infidelity and their treatment of women as somewhat less than equal to their male counterparts. An American woman in Paris gets even less of a fair shake. Roxy is a Californian married to a Frenchman and is pregnant with her second child. When her husband leaves her, Roxy's younger sister Isabel comes to help out. However, Isabel's story soon overshadows Roxy's as she becomes involved with Roxy's uncle-in-law, Edgar, a married statesman in his seventies. Isabel knows that the affair will end badly but broadens her horizons while trying to keep up with Edgar's televised observations on world events. Isabel's odd jobs provide further intrigue—organizing papers for an eminent American writer, babysitting for former CIA agents, walking a Frenchman's dog—and a panorama of characters. When a possibly valuable painting becomes a point of dispute in the property settlement for Roxy's divorce, both families exemplify how greed trumps courtesy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A SPOT OF BOTHER by Mark Haddon

This book is about a family with one of each, as a friend of mine would put it—a homosexual son, a daughter who can't seem to choose the right husband, a mother who's cheating, and a father who's obsessed with his own mortality. George's anxiety over his wife Jean's affair, or perhaps the fact that she might leave him, has led to his being convinced that a patch of eczema is really cancer. George becomes increasingly irrational, while his daughter Katie has second thoughts about her upcoming marriage and his son Jamie realizes that he has lost the love of his life. George's hilarious actions have just the right amount of poignancy as we witness just how pitiful he has become. Still, everyone in the family is wrestling with his/her relationship issues in an offbeat comical manner. Jean ultimately has to choose between her unbalanced husband and her lively lover, who George unwittingly invites to dinner. Jamie has to try to win Tony back and overcompensates for his past inhibitions with regard to his sexual orientation in the presence of his family. Katie weighs her family's disapproval and her own emotional detachment against the knowledge that Ray, her dull fiancĂ©, is a loving and sane partner, contrasting sharply with her charismatic but shallow ex-husband. Here's a family that has definitely put the fun back in dysfunctional.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay

The first half of this book was so gripping and disturbing that I could hardly read it, and yet I could hardly put it down. The author is telling two stories 60 years apart. (She's not as clandestine as some authors, forcing the reader to discern which is which; she alternates chapters and fonts.) The 1942 story is about a Jewish family living in Paris and arrested as part of the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup, in which French police sent French citizens to concentration camps. The horror of this actual event is personalized by the fictitious characters, who seem even more real against the historical backdrop. Sarah, the 10-year-old daughter, not realizing the gravity of the situation and the unlikelihood that she will ever return home, has locked her younger brother Michel in the cupboard and taken the key with her. The 2002 story is about Julia, an American in Paris married to a Frenchman. She is researching the Vel' d'Hiv' for a magazine article and finds that her father-in-law's family moved into an apartment shortly after it was vacated by Sarah's family. My interest started to dwindle in the second half of the book, as it focuses more on Julia's vacillation regarding her pregnancy and her marriage, even as she puts the latter more at risk with her obsession over Sarah's story. The author seems to have a bit of difficulty justifying this obsession as misplaced guilt, and I found this to be somewhat of a flaw in the plot. Still, as historical fiction, it's a piece of history that begs to be told, and the author doesn't try to whitewash or justify the fear and apathy that produced such dire consequences.
Amazon: 4 stars (588 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 4.5 stars (732 reviews)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


This is a rags-to-riches story of a woman with good self-preservation instincts. The daughter of Jewish refugees, she is born in New York harbor so that, as her father says, "You are born here, they will not hurt you." Still, "they" try to hurt her, as she avoids being murdered three times. This might seem excessive in the hands of another author, but our heroine, Rebecca Schwart, leads a life on the fringe. Her father, a former math teacher, struggles to eke out a living maintaining a cemetery in rural New York. Her family never really gains acceptance there, and, after a miserable childhood of taunts and disappointments, real tragedy ensues when Rebecca is 14. As an adult she makes some serious mistakes but learns what's important in the process—her son. She's more furtive than plucky as she completely reinvents herself with new names for both her and her son about halfway through the book. Although I would say that she admirably maintains her integrity and dignity throughout, she does become somewhat manipulative in order to get what she wants financially—again, for the sake of her son, a piano prodigy. The letter exchange at the end changes the tone completely, mixing regret over a lost opportunity with some droll dogged persistence on Rebecca's part.