Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Marie-Laure LeBlanc and her father travel by foot from Paris to Saint-Malo, France, to escape Nazi aggression during WWII.  Marie-Laure, however, is blind and must familiarize herself with her new surroundings with the help of an intricate model of the town that her father builds for her.  Werner Pfennig is a German boy, living in an orphanage with his sister Jutta.  Facing a miserable future in the mines, Werner plies his skills as a radio technician into an appointment to a Nazi training school.  Conflicted about the horrific hazing of weaker boys that he witnesses in school, he still is grateful for the opportunity to avoid the same fate as his father’s—death in the mines.  Jutta serves as his conscience, trying to coax him back from the influences of evil, but he knows that the consequences will be dire if he tries to leave his military training.  The author flits forward and backward in time—sometimes years and sometimes just a few months—so that we know that Werner will be trapped in rubble, and Marie-Laure will be alone and frightened—both in Saint-Malo.  Of course, even without this advance knowledge, we can assume that these two characters will converge at some point, and the author entices us to follow them back and forth in time.  I am not fond of this technique of telling the reader what is going to happen and then telling us what has already happened, but this book in particular seems to treat the timeline in a rather haphazard way.  As a reader, I would prefer to be challenged in other ways than in an effort to keep track of where I am in the sequence of events.  Each time the author heads a chapter with a date, I should have made a written note, but what a pain in the you-know-what.  Overall, I liked the book.  Almost all of the characters are kind and courageous, especially the townspeople of Saint-Malo.  One heinous villain is dying of cancer, and we can only hope that he fades away before doing any more real damage.  The author does a stellar job of creating Marie-Laure’s visionless world for us, especially during her loneliest and most desperate hours.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


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.