Wednesday, October 31, 2012

THE UNCOUPLING by Meg Wolitzer

Lysistrata is an ancient Greek play in which the female lead organizes a sex strike against the Peloponnesian War.  The new drama teacher in Stella Plains, NJ, has chosen this for the high school's annual theatrical production.  Subsequently, a chilly breeze sweeps through the lives of various women in town, causing them to have an aversion to sex.  I can handle a bit of the supernatural in a book, but I can't remember the last time I read a novel that had an enchantment like this, and it seemed a little fairy-tale-ish.  Dory and Robby Lang are married English teachers, and Dory's sudden lack of interest in sex threatens to unravel their marriage.  Dory's single friend Leanne abruptly ends her three romantic liaisons, including one with the married school principal, after his wife suddenly bounces back from chronic fatigue syndrome.  This schism seems to be a good thing, but most are not.  Most poignant is the break-up of Dory and Robby Lang's daughter, Willa, with the drama teacher's son, Eli.  The drama teacher herself is somewhat immune to the mystical spell that has swept the community, since her husband lives in Michigan, so that sex is a rarity anyway.  Since most couples don't discuss their sex lives, the denizens of this community don't realize that they are part of a wave of abstinence.  Several reviewers have mentioned the humor in this novel, but mostly I didn't get it.  One woman's husband comments to his wife, as she is looking in the mirror, that she has let herself go.  Is this supposed to be funny?  I did enjoy one inside joke of sorts, in which Robby makes a sarcastic comment about a grammatical mistake his daughter makes.  I like that the author doesn't point out what the mistake is, nor does she have Robby correct it, so that the grammatically challenged will just say "Huh?" and read on.  The rest of us can smirk along with the author.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CLOSE YOUR EYES by Amanda Eyre Ward

Alex and Lauren are siblings whose father is in prison for killing their mother when they were children.  Alex has steadfastly believed in his father's innocence, while Lauren is resigned to the fact that their father is a murderer.  Lauren's boyfriend Gerry is ready to marry, but Lauren has commitment issues because of her family history.  Now Alex is on his way to Iraq for Doctors Without Borders, and Lauren has become unglued.   When Alex goes missing after an explosion, she becomes even more unstable but makes a feeble effort to take up where Alex left off in his quest to exonerate their father.  Lauren discovers that a jade earring, traced to a woman name Pauline Hall, was found at the scene, but there were no signs of forced entry, and no one else was there.  Then the narrative changes to that of Sylvia Hall, Pauline's daughter, fathered by Alex and Lauren's father.  Sylvia knows about her two half siblings, but Alex and Lauren are totally unaware of Sylvia's existence.  The book is mainly about the two women's struggles to come to terms with their pasts.  Lauren, a real estate agent in Austin, certainly has a shot at overcoming her anxieties, especially with support from Gerry.  Meanwhile, Sylvia is unwed and pregnant and hoping to reconnect with her childhood pal, Victoria, whose life is now a total shambles.  Lauren and Sylvia, though, have more in common than just the same biological father.  Both grew up without him, and both lose their mothers at a young age as well.  It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out, but how the author goes about unveiling the truth is the real draw here.  As they say, the truth can set you free, and it certainly frees the struggling characters in this book.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

FALLING TOGETHER by Marisa de los Santos

Pen (short for Penelope), Cat, and Will were inseparable in college.  Now it's time for their college reunion (10 years?), and the three have not seen one another in six years.  Pen has a 5-year-old daughter, Augusta, by her on-again off-again married boyfriend and has no intention of going to the reunion, until she receives an email from Cat, imploring her to attend.  Will has received the exact same email, but Jason, Cat's husband and the real author of the emails, approaches Will and Pen at the reunion with the news that Cat has disappeared.  Now we have a different threesome, with Will, Pen, and Jason becoming a team as they head to the Philippines, the home of Cat's deceased father, in pursuit of Cat, who may not want to be found.  Jason is a big, annoying lunk, who's not sharing everything he knows, but he does really love Cat, although the extent to which she returns this love is in serious doubt, given that she's left him, without any explanation.  Will apparently has been carrying a torch for Pen since college, and the anticipation of seeing this relationship finally blossom was what kept me interested.  What happened to Cat is the big mystery, I guess, but, since she's absent through most of the book, I didn't feel that vested in her story.  Marrying Jason in the first place seemed particularly unwise, but more importantly, Cat is an epileptic who takes her meds sporadically, at best.  Her seizures mark two pivotal events in the plot, and I guess we wouldn't have much of a novel otherwise.  All the characters have good intentions, with malice toward none, but the author makes a somewhat lame attempt at injecting some conflict, in the form of a spat at the end between Will and Pen, which amounted to nothing more than a serious case of over-reaction on Pen's part.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ROBOPOCALPYSE by Daniel H. Wilson

A war against robots is as ludicrous to me as time travel.  The Terminator had both, and for some reason that appealed to me, but there's no Schwarzenegger equivalent here.  The juggernaut-robot in this novel is buried in Alaska and has no personality.  The humans seem pretty vanilla also, and I had some difficulty keeping them straight.  Each chapter is a video transcript, diary entry, or other document from the war, and I wasn't wild about this format, either, which reminds me of the Star Trek captain's log voiceover. Three characters, however, did stand out.  One is Cormac Wallace, who has assembled all these snippets and ultimately has an argument with his brother that bears consideration:  How much like the machines do we have to become in order to survive?  In other words, do we have to sacrifice our humanity?  Another key character is Mathilda, a child whose eyes the machines have replaced so that she can see into the machines themselves.  This experiment seems ill-advised on the part of the machines, since she uses her power against them.  My favorite, though, is a Japanese man whose "wife" is a robot.  When she turns on him during the robot uprising, he has to take her offline and then misses her terribly.  I get that.  I also like the fact that the humans are not warring with each other and are united in their efforts against a common foe.  Why are the machines waging war?  Here's my favorite line in the book:  "It is not enough to live together in peace with one race on its knees."  Doesn't that succinctly describe the cause of most of history's rebellions?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

After bouncing around among assorted unpleasant foster homes since infancy, Victoria Jones is now being thrust out into the world ("emancipated") on her 18th birthday.    Victoria is an angry young woman who flinches at being touched and who believes that she is unable to sustain any sort of bond with another person.  We learn about Victoria's past through alternating chapters that reflect mainly on the year she spent with Elizabeth, a vintner who taught Victoria the language of flowers.  Elizabeth was saintly in her forgiveness of 10-year-old Victoria's many transgressions, which were not slip-ups but intentional acts of meanness.  Victoria outdid herself in the malice that caused her to leave Elizabeth's care, and now, 8 years later, she strikes up a friendship of sorts with Elizabeth's nephew, Grant, who grows flowers to sell to florists like Renata.  Elizabeth's knowledge of flowers and the emotions they are supposed to evoke (jealousy, love, regret, etc.) have landed her some occasional work for Renata.  As she struggles to limit her emotional attachments, Victoria encounters a slew of encouraging and caring people, including Renata, who help guide her through a transition to a woman who can thrive in the real world.  This smattering of friends and mentors seemed a little unlikely, and the storyline is a little too typical for my tastes.  I found Elizabeth's unconditional love of Victoria a bit unbelievable, too, but the author has more experience with foster children than I do, and I'm sure she has the ability to tolerate misbehavior more patiently than I ever could.  Despite these minor drawbacks, the novel is charming.  The most obvious consequence of having read it is that now I'll want to consult a flower dictionary before sending anyone a floral arrangement.