Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ANGELICA by Arthur Phillips

Things are not always what they seem. Angelica is the four-year-old daughter of Constance and Joseph and still sleeps in her parents' bedroom. When Joseph demands that Angelica be moved to her own room, Constance starts seeing a belligerent ghost who seems to threaten her and her daughter. She consults a spiritualist, Anne Montague, to eradicate the ghost. First, we get the entire tale from Constance's perspective, then Anne's, then Joseph's, and finally Angelica's. Perspective is obviously key, as the first three accounts differ wildly from each other, with each subsequent account making the previous one seem ludicrous. Constance's fears and suspicions are tainted by a tormented childhood, and Anne draws her own conclusions, based on what she observes and hears from Constance. Joseph's story is the most tragic, as he describes his bewilderment at his wife's actions and tries to gain some sort of grip on a household in disarray. Angelica is like a pendulum, contributing to the general sense of distrust between her parents, swinging her affections from one parent to another. In this case, truth is in the eye of the beholder. I wonder if my sense of what happened would be altered if I had read the sections in a different order.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Renee is the frumpy 54-year-old concierge in a posh Paris residential high-rise. Paloma is an ultra-precocious 12-year-old who resides in the building with her wealthy, educated, superficial family. These two narrators ultimately find themselves kindred spirits, joined by new resident Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese gentleman who has aroused the curiosity of everyone else in the building. Both Renee and Paloma are leading a clandestine life, but Monsieur Ozu recognizes almost immediately that Renee, despite her impoverished upbringing, is a closet intellectual with a finely-honed appreciation for the arts. She quotes Proust and Kant, recognizes Mozart's Reqiuem when it is blasted from Ozu's bathroom, and prefers Dutch painters over French. Paloma's chapters are journal entries of "Profound Thoughts." She is the top student in her school but keeps her smarts in check so as not to draw too much attention to herself. She is also matter-of-factly planning suicide, unless something to live for appears in the meantime. At times, both Renee and Paloma wax philosophical, making the book a bit of a snoozer in the beginning. However, after the three main characters discover each other, I became hooked. Will Renee overcome her reticence and break out of the shackles of her class and position? Will her new friendships give Paloma the raison d'etre that she's seeking? Renee is the Cinderella character that we're hoping has found her prince, and Paloma provides her own brand of cynical humor. Her mother immediately carts her off to the family psychiatrist when Paloma tells the family that she hears voices, just to get them off her case. The scene where she cuts a deal with the shrink is priceless.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

LARK & TERMITE by Jayne Anne Phillips

I had to read the first ten pages of this book three times, but after that it grew on me, to the point that the characters became people I could hardly let go of. The book takes place over four days in 1959 in Winfield, WV, and gives the perspective of three characters. A fourth character, Corporal Robert Leavitt, is in Korea during the same four days in 1950. Back in WV, though, we have half-siblings Termite, a disabled nine-year-old, and Lark, a beautiful teenage girl whose top priority is Termite's care. They live with their aunt Nonie, who has raised both her sister Lola's children since they were toddlers. Lola was married to Leavitt, and Termite is his son. It becomes obvious to the reader who Lark's father is, but she doesn't find out until the end. I'm not sure why his identity is hidden from her or why her mother's fate is a secret. Lark's narration is the only one in first person, and her voice is certainly the heart of the novel. A peripheral character is the mysterious albino Robert Stamble, the new rep from Social Services, who seems to connect with Termite and doesn't seem bent on removing him to a group home. (Hint: His name is significant.) The pivotal event is a flood, during which Lark makes some discoveries about her family and realizes that their lives are all going to change. Perhaps the flood is a metaphor for washing away the past, but tunnels seem to be a bigger symbol. Leavitt and a crowd of refugees crowd together in a tunnel, seeking cover from American fire. There's also a tunnel in the train yard where Lark frequently takes Termite, because he enjoys the noise and vibration. The train represents escape for Lark, with light at the end of the tunnel, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Jacob, a Union soldier during the Civil War, receives two unusual commands from his superior officers. The first is to murder his uncle in New Orleans, a Confederate slave-owner, who is plotting to assassinate Lincoln. The second is to marry Eugenia, the daughter of a Virginia businessman, who is an associate of Jacob's father. Eugenia, or Jeannie, as her family calls her, is suspected of passing Union secrets to the Confederacy, and Jacob will ostensibly put a stop to that activity once she becomes his wife. What's unusual here is that all of these characters are Jews, as is the Secretary of State for the Confederacy, Judah Benjamin, who also plays a role in the story. One of the most ironic scenes in the novel is during the Passover Seder where Jacob plans to poison his uncle. Slaves prepare and serve the dinner, even as the uncle is reading from the Haggadah about the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Another theme is that of family loyalty versus patriotic duty, and Horn is a little heavy-handed in pointing this out. I don't really mind, though, because I'm not that proficient at reading between the lines. I especially enjoyed the intrigue—wondering who sympathizes with which side in the war, who's dead and who's not, and if Jacob the guilt-ridden spy will be found out. I also enjoyed reading about the coding of messages and hiding them inside baked goods. Jeannie's sister Rose speaks almost exclusively in palindromes, and that's cute at first but tiresome later for both the reader and Jacob. There's also the occasional anagram. I like puzzles, but this aspect of the book was a little too much like The Poisonwood Bible, or even The Da Vinci Code, for me. The book rides high on a good plot, though, and there is lots of plotting by the characters as well, especially those of the Booth variety.