Wednesday, September 28, 2016

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

The “lovers” in this novel are three Brooklyn couples:  Zoe and Jane, whose marriage has lost its luster; Elizabeth and Andrew, who were fine (sort of) until Zoe and Jane started having issues; and Ruby and Harry, the teenage offspring of the aforementioned couples.  Elizabeth, Zoe, and Andrew were all in a rock band at one time, along with the now-deceased Lydia, who had a successful solo career.  A biopic of Lydia’s life needs the band’s consent to use their anthem and depict them in the movie.  Andrew is the lone holdout, and later we learn why.  He and Elizabeth have a complicated marriage.  He has family money and has never really brought in any income, while Elizabeth thrives as a real estate agent.  When Andrew becomes involved with a shady new-age guru and his entourage, Elizabeth becomes suspicious about what exactly he’s gotten himself into.  Elizabeth has always had sort of a thing for Zoe and leans on her as a confidante, creating friction with Jane.  Ruby and Harry have known each other their entire lives but start to really connect in an SAT prep class.  Everyone here needs couples therapy, except Ruby and Harry, who simply aren’t very wise, but who was at that age?  Late in the novel Elizabeth and Andrew swap admissions of betrayal, and I found hers to be much more egregious than his.  Basically, the adults in this novel are all well-adjusted on the outside and neurotic on the inside.  If you’re looking for life lessons or substance, you might be disappointed in this book, but I found it very readable, and although I might be in the minority, I liked the ending.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I think most of us look back on the mistakes of our youth and wince with regret and embarrassment.  Evie has more to regret than most, as she was involved with a cult whose members murdered four people.  The Manson murders immediately come to mind, especially since our fictional crime takes place in the summer of 1969 in California.  Little by little we learn how Evie came to be a regular at the “ranch,” as the cult’s compound was called.  Her self-absorbed mother was neglectful, to say the least, of her fourteen-year-old daughter, who was rarely at home, but Mom hardly noticed and just assumed she was with a friend.  Evie was drawn to the ranch by the enigmatic Suzanne more so than the cult’s charismatic leader, Russell.  His ambition to become a recording artist contrasts starkly with the non-conformist lifestyle that he advocated, so that I questioned even further why his hangers-on were so enthralled.  Now that Evie is in her forties and staying at her friend Dan’s house, she is clearly not in prison.  The crux of the novel, then, is what really went down on the day of the murders.  Evie pleads innocence and a clear conscience to Dan’s son and his girlfriend, who are somewhat in awe of her past proximity to such a notoriously gruesome act.  Is Evie as free of guilt as she claims?  Or was she just not caught?  The ending does answer this question, but in many ways the ending is not as satisfying as I would have liked, in that it doesn’t elaborate on the consequences for the other cult members.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Call me old-fashioned, but I like for my books to be written in a mostly narrative style, with the exception of a couple of novels (Vanessa and Her Sister and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) that consist primarily of letters.  I found the format of this novel to be quite off-putting, as it is composed entirely of one snippet after another—some quotes and some musings from an unnamed wife in Brooklyn.  The musings are often whiney, but when the wife finds that her husband has been having an affair, perhaps there is cause to be whiney.  The husband seems like a great guy, except, of course, for his marital infidelity.  The two have a small daughter, who appears to be the primary reason that the husband and wife make an effort at reconciliation.  This isn’t just a marriage that goes through a bad patch; it’s a marriage on the brink of destruction that may not be worth salvaging.  The beginning and ending chapters are first-person (except for the aforementioned quotes) from the wife’s perspective, but the middle, in which the marital strife comes to a head, is in third person, as if the wife has distanced herself from her own thoughts.  To me, this is sort of like imagining yourself in a movie (“she” did this or that), and I have mixed feelings about whether this changing of person works or not.  I certainly did notice and felt some relief when the author switched back to first person, because, for one thing, there are fewer ambiguous pronouns to decipher.  Some reviewers have said that the most well-drawn character is the 5-year-old daughter.  Funny, but I can’t remember a thing about her.  Anyway, this is another fast read, helping me pad my book count for the year.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

GIRL AT WAR by Sara Nović

Ten-year-old Ana and her parents are Croatians who find themselves in the midst of a wholly unexpected civil war.  When infant Rahela becomes ill, the family’s best option is to send Rahela to a foster family in the U.S. for treatment.  What ensues is horrific, and then the narrative fast-forwards 10 years.  Ana is now a college student in New York with secrets from her past that she has never told her boyfriend or her adopted parents.  I certainly appreciated this opportunity to learn about the genocide in the former Yugolslavia, but I did not love this book.  The timeline is jagged, and I gasped at the abruptness of the ending.  Also, the author never completely fills in the 10-year gap, so we just skip over Ana’s adolescent years in the U.S., in which she ignored letters from her best friend, Luka, in Croatia.  Then when she does try to contact him, he doesn’t respond.  This whole dance seemed immature to me.  I get that she was traumatized and probably still fears abandonment, but she apparently never talked about what happened, and surely she couldn’t completely bury such intense grief.  I found her silence to be a bit maddening, and I never had the impression that she considered going back to Croatia until her boyfriend suggested it.  Then suddenly she feels compelled to return to face her demons and seems to be running away from her American boyfriend and family.  The writing is adequate but not stellar, but it was a fast read, and I’m grateful for that, not only because I wasn’t that enamored with the book but also because the subject matter is so disturbing, including the fact that relief aid seldom reached the people for whom it was intended.  Sad but undoubtedly true.