Wednesday, April 25, 2018

THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE by Elinor Lipman

When the Inn at Lake Devine in Vermont unceremoniously advises the Marx family that they are unwelcome because they are Jewish, young Natalie Marx makes it her mission to get even.  First, she sends nasty missives to the woman who sent the anti-Semitic response to their vacation request.  Not to be denied, she then accompanies her friend Robin’s Gentile family to the Inn on their vacation.  It’s the 1960s, and civil rights are just beginning to gain a toehold.  When Robin decides to marry into the family of the Inn’s owners years later, Natalie attends the wedding and takes over temporarily as their chef, livening up the Inn’s lackluster menu.  After Natalie’s sister marries a Gentile, and Natalie herself falls for the younger son of the Inn’s family, we find that her family has hangups of their own about marriage outside their faith.  Natalie’s parents do everything in their power to thwart the budding relationship.  Despite the weighty theme of bigotry that pervades the conflicts in the story, this novel is still light and airy and just plain fun.  I found it to be a very welcome break from boring historical fiction and bulky family sagas.  Call it chick lit if you must, but it lacks the gut-wrenching, hand-wringing difficulties that so many chick lit authors feel bound to address.  The author obviously champions the sentiment that Natalie emphasizes in one of her letters to the Inn:  she still believes that people are basically good.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

ISABEL'S BED by Elinor Lipman

After having struggled through several books lately that were challenging in either length or format, I enjoyed reading something light and lively for a change.  Harriet’s bagel-baking boyfriend of 12 years has just dumped her, but she has just landed a job as a ghostwriter for a headline-grabbing memoir.  Nan VanVleet shot and killed her husband Guy when she discovered him in bed with his gorgeous and voluptuous mistress, Isabel.  Isabel hires Harriet to write her story, and Harriet moves in with Isabel and Isabel’s estranged-husband-in-residence, Costas, near Provincetown on Cape Cod.  Handyman and general errand boy Pete also lives there.  If this sounds like a soap opera in the making, let me just add that Nan and Guy’s son Perry VanVleet is in fact a soap star.   Nan herself has copped a plea to temporary insanity and wants to write her own tell-all memoir.  This is a juicy confection, but my only complaint is that it’s not really that juicy.  In fact, it’s really very tame, even though Harriet’s writers’ group always demands more sex from one another’s fiction.  One thing I do like about it is that there’s more dialog than narrative, and the dialog is mostly between Harriet and Isabel, as one would expect of a ghostwriter and her client.  The big question is who will be Harriet’s love interest:  the jilting boyfriend Kenny, Ferris from her old writers’ group, Costas, Pete, Perry, or some other interloper. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SHADOW COUNTRY by Peter Matthiessen

Too many characters and too many pages.  That’s my assessment of this ponderous 2008 National Book Award winner.  Each chapter of Book I has a first-person narrator, and I could not keep them or their families or their location in southwest Florida straight, even with the map provided.  The story takes place primarily in an area called the Ten Thousand Islands between the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The main character is Edgar Watson, an imposing but affable man who may also have committed and gotten away with several murders.  He’s a crack shot, and everyone wants to stay on his good side.  I had a hard time just trying to keep up with his wives, mistresses, and offspring.  Book II is a little easier to follow, with third person narration.  Lucius, Watson’s son, is on a mission to set the record straight by penning a biography of his father.  The third and final section is Edgar Watson’s first person narrative in which he defends some of his more heinous actions and shrugs off the rest.  A strange but lethal combination of heartbreak and ambition is his undoing, along with a penchant for hiring known murderers as foremen.  He is unjustly accused of several murders early in life but then seems bent on living up to his undeserved reputation.  He’s smart, resilient, and full of life, but this book is not lively at all.  It paints a bleak picture of life in that area at that time, complete with rampant racism, senseless eradication of wildlife, unbridled violence in the name of progress, and widespread alcoholism.  I appreciate the realism and the writing style, but the novel just crawls along at a snail’s (or alligator’s) pace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Do all teenagers cheat and lie?  In this novel, most of them do, and the parents are not that truthful, either, for that matter.  This book is the story of the collision of two families.  The first is the Richardsons, a very affluent family in the planned community of Shaker Heights, near Cleveland.  Their fragile utopia is disrupted, mostly in a positive way, by the arrival of Mia and her daughter Pearl who move into Richardsons’ rental property nearby.  Mia is a talented artist who works odd jobs to get by, and Pearl’s father is not in the picture.  The Richardsons have 4 teenage children:  Lexie, who is a popular senior hoping for acceptance to Yale; Trip, a handsome but shallow athlete; Moody, one of the few characters who is not dishonest; and Izzy, the misfit.  Hormones are raging, and the kids are pairing off, with the resulting jealousies and teen pregnancies coming as no surprise.  Mia’s backstory, however, is the most interesting section of the book and at the same time reminded me that this book is fiction, because her history is a little far-fetched, in my opinion.  I also didn’t understand why she is estranged from her family.  There’s also a side story about the adoption of a Chinese baby by a third family, and this aspect felt very familiar, as I recently read Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, which dealt with the adoption of a Mexican baby.  In both cases, the birth mother is still alive and wants her child back.  In this novel, the adoption conflict seems unnecessary and is sort of a distraction.  The adopting family has such a small role in the novel that the parents are not fully developed characters.  However, during the custody hearing, the mother’s testimony, which was not entirely helpful to her cause, endeared me to her, as she struggled to describe how she would expose her daughter to Chinese culture.  I just wish that the teenagers in this novel could have been half as honest and worthy of my sympathy.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

THE PATRIOTS by Sana Krasikov

Why would a young American woman move to Russia of her own accord in the 1930s?  For a man, maybe.  Ideals, maybe.  Family heritage, maybe.  Ultimately, it is an adventure of sorts but not a wise move.  Florence refuses to give up, though, and ultimately meets another like-minded man, Leon.  Life in Russia under Stalin, particularly after the war, is no picnic and certainly not a socialism success story.  We know from the beginning that she will land in a labor camp and survive to be reunited with her young son, Julian, who has basically grown up in an institution for children whose parents are political prisoners.  Julian grows up in Russia, but he and Florence will eventually move to the U.S.  Julian returns years later for a business meeting and, more importantly, to try to persuade his son to come home.  The novel has two very intense sections.  The first is before Florence’s arrest when she is doing all she can to get out of Russia and save her family.  The second is during her incarceration when she is acting as a translator for an American POW and attempting to coerce him into sharing technical information about his downed warplane.   Most of us can’t know if we would betray friends or country in the hope of saving ourselves, but this question lies at the heart of this novel.  Julian raises a bigger question as it relates to Florence personally:
“What I could not abide was her unwillingness to condemn the very system that had destroyed our family.”
The answer to that question is still a mystery to me, but I can only surmise that possibly she felt that Russia had the right idea but went about implementing it in the wrong way.  Julian also suggests that her guilt made her feel that she was a party to her own suffering.  Certainly, this novel raises a number of intriguing questions, but the fact of the matter is that it is entirely too long.  The author is not Tolstoy, after all.