Wednesday, June 26, 2013

THE CHAPERONE by Laura Moriarty

Cora Carlisle lives in Wichita, KS, during the 1920s with her handsome attorney husband Alan.  Her twin sons are grown, but still it seems odd that she would volunteer to chaperone Louise Brooks, a beautiful, bratty, manipulative teenaged dance student in New York.  Much to my amazement, Louise Brooks was a real silent film star, and her part of the story is based on fact.  Although a neighbor did accompany Louise on her real-life trip to New York, Cora's story is pure fiction.  As the novel unfolds, we realize that Cora is taking advantage of a golden opportunity to discover her roots, and there's more to her home life than meets the eye.  The trip is a journey of discovery for both women—completely different in age and demeanor but able to glean some pearls of wisdom from one another.  Cora's passage from a prudish, fortyish housewife to a champion of unwed mothers and birth control is perhaps a little too predictable.  The events in between are not so predictable, but neither are they particularly believable, either.  I don't want to divulge too much here, but suffice it to say that her personal life is a complete masquerade, to some degree before the NYC trip but even more so afterwards.  I came to wonder, not only if people were going to find out what was really happening in the Carlisle household, but also whether they might already have their suspicions but respected Cora too much to bring it up.  Her secrets are not the kind that people get away with now, much less back then, when propriety was so much more narrowly defined.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO by Jonathan Tropper

Both of the Jonathan Tropper books I've read have been about men in crises.  In this one, Drew Silver had his moment in the sun as the drummer of a one-hit-wonder rock band.  Their claim to fame is the song "Rest in Pieces," and now, ironically, Silver has opted to let nature take its course rather than have the surgery required to fix his aorta, which may blow up at any moment.  He's a middle-aged doughboy of a screw-up, feels that he's squandered every chance he's had to make something of his life, and deems himself incapable of making the necessary improvements.  His ex-wife is on the verge of marrying a much better man, but his 18-year-old daughter confides in him that she's newly pregnant.  What really causes chaos, though, since his aortic malfunction, is that he unintentionally verbalizes his every thought, exposing secrets and indiscretions at inappropriate times to unsuspecting listeners.  One could argue that this naked honesty is a good thing, but really, some things are better left unsaid.  I love this author, with his snappy dialog and quirky characters, including the other residents of the Versailles, a sort of long-term hotel for divorced men, where nubile college girls inexplicably come to hang out by the pool.  I didn't say it was realistic.  On the other hand, I can well imagine this guy, who has been a rotten father and husband and has let himself go, as still being undeservedly lovable.  Offering a glimpse of redemption is fellow musician Lori, perhaps equally as lonely and unfulfilled as Silver, who sings and plays the guitar for children at the library.  Some may say that the novel hangs on Silver's decision to have or not have the life-saving surgery that he needs.  I say that the real question is will he or will he not ever get the courage to approach Lori. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith

Is this book a modern classic?  Sometimes the critics and I don't see eye to eye.  The ending to this book almost justified the 500 pages I had to read to get there, but not quite.  Archie Jones routinely makes life-and-death decisions by flipping a coin.  As bad decisions go, though, his are equaled by those of his long-time friend Samad Iqbal.  Samad longs to send his twin sons to Bangladesh so that they can become good Muslims and escape decadent Western influences.  Alas, he can afford to send only one and makes the ill-advised decision to send the studious son Magid, rather than the wayward son Millat.  Naturally, Magid embraces science there, eschewing religion, while Millat joins a fundamentalist Islam group here in the good old U.S.A.  The linchpin, though, is the Chalfen family, who host Millat and Archie's daughter Irie, along with their own son Joshua, in a school-imposed detention that reshapes everyone's lives.  Marcus Chalpen is a genetic researcher whose FutureMouse will prove to the world that genetic engineering can overcome the apparent randomness of fatal diseases.  I don't want to give too much away, but the finale brings together a volatile amalgamation:  Millat's jihad, Archie's mother-in-law and her band of Jehovah's Witnesses, the scientific community, and Joshua's animal rights group.  We can expect sparks to fly, but the surprise lies elsewhere.  The author treats the fragility of life in an interesting way, I must admit.  It literally turns on a dime, and a life saved can make a huge, unforeseen impact.  That impact may be positive or it may be negative or it may just stir the pot—or the plot, in this case.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

Julia and Valentina are 20-year-old identical twins, living in the U.S., when their mother's identical twin Elspeth bequeaths her estate to the girls.  One contingency of the will is that they have to move into their aunt's London flat.  The girls become friends with three inhabitants of the building:  Martin, whose beloved wife has left him because of his severe OCD; Robert, who was Elspeth's lover; and Elspeth's ghost, who is trapped in her old flat.  Robert and the girls communicate with Elspeth via a homemade Ouija board, and Valentina discovers that Elspeth has useful powers beyond just moving lightweight objects around.  This is where the novel becomes, not just dark, but downright macabre.  Valentina is anxious to sever her bond with the overbearing Julia so that she can lead the life she chooses.  To that end, she hatches a plan with Elspeth that is more dicey than the situation warrants.  I know that Valentina is supposed to be very na├»ve, but we all know that faking your own death has a tendency to backfire in the worst way.  After all, Juliet did the same thing to be with Romeo, and that didn't turn out so well.  In addition to this dying-and-coming-back-to-life parallel, the ghosts, the double sets of twins, and the swapped identities made the plot seem to me to be an attempted mimicking of  Shakespeare that didn't quite work.  I wanted to care about these people, and the only character who aroused my sympathy was Martin, whose unfounded fears are destroying his life and for whom each step toward a sane existence is major victory.  Oh, yeah, mental illness shows up quite a bit in Shakepeare's works, too.