Love Falls by Esther Freud

Esther Freud (Sigmund’s great-granddaughter) has written a compelling, if slightly unsatisfying,  coming-of-age tale with her novel, Love Falls. When 17 year old Lara heads to Tuscany with her father (a man who is practically a stranger to her) for a summer holiday, she isn’t quite sure of what to expect. Her father, a slightly distant intellectual historian called Lambert, has been invited to visit an old friend and wants Lara to accompany him. Lara is well-traveled: she and her bohemian mother, Cathy, have been all over together, but Lara has never been to Italy, so she’s excited at the prospect of leaving London for a few weeks.

Italy is transformative for Lara. She has the opportunity to observe her father, his relationship with the woman they are visiting, the elegant and slightly snobbish, Caroline, and observe the complicated and fraught relationships of the adults around her.

At a nearby villa, Lara meets Willoughbys. There are a lot of names and relationships to keep track of but the most important Willoughby is Kip – a boy about Lara’s age who is irreverant and beautiful.

Lara spends her weeks swimming and visiting with the Willoughbys and the days unfold in a sort of dreamy, hot haze. It’s as you imagine a summer in Italy might be…or, at any rate, as I imagine it.

There’s menace, though, in Lara’s world and it’s this menace that speeds the reader along. Even though it doesn’t amount to much in the end, Lara is certainly changed by the events which she experiences. I think Freud does a terrific job of suspending Lara in that particular space between youth and adulthood. Lara is as much an observor as a participant in what happens during those long, hot days. And because we see things only from Lara’s point of view, many of the tangled relationships are never untied; animosities are never explained and wrongs never quite righted.

As a coming-of-age tale, though, it is compelling and well-written.

The Mercy Killers – Lisa Reardon

I first discovered Reardon a few years back when I read Billy Dead, a novel that continues to haunt me. The Mercy Killers has been on my tbr shelf for ages but I kept putting off reading it because its subject matter didn’t really appeal to me. Once I started it, though, I couldn’t put it down.

Lisa Reardon writes about characters who live in a world vastly different from my own. They are broken-down people whose lives are messy – filled with violence and alcohol and drugs and hopelessness.

The Mercy Killers concerns the fortunes (and misfortunes) of a group of people who hang out at Gil McGurk’s bar. When the novel opens, one of the regulars, Old Jerry, is complaining about his inability to take a bath. He wants to die.  It’s his birthday.

PT is one of Old Jerry’s grandsons. He’s nineteen and developmentally delayed after suffering one too many beatings at the hands of his father. Charlie, PT’s younger brother, is a petty criminal. He hangs out with Gino whose “bottle blue eyes and falling black hair” make him attractive to Gil’s daughter, Katie. Thing is, Gino’s not interested in women.

When PT decides to grant his grandfather’s wish and smothers him with a pillow, Charlie and Gino decide to cover up the crime. This propels the novel forward; Charlie ends up in Vietnam. Gino, too.

Although these characters weren’t familiar to me – the bonds of family and friendship, the small acts of kindness  in unexpected places certainly were. Charlie is fiercely protective of his older brother, the brother who had put himself in harm’s way to protect him against their violent father as children. Although Charlie is not without his flaws, he has the potential to be decent and it is this inherent goodness on which other characters (Gino in particular) hang their hopes.

Reardon’s writing is propulsive. As with Billy Dead I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I wanted one of these characters to break the cycle of violence and addiction. While there’s no question that Vietnam has a role to play in this book – and that the psychological aftermath of that horrific war adds another layer of despair to the lives of the characters – it is clear that sometimes our own choices cause just as much pain.

As I was surfing around the web looking for a picture of the book, I came across a few stories about Reardon’s personal life. In August 2009, she shot her father. She didn’t kill him, but apparently she meant to. From what I have read, it seems like there was some bad blood between them. When asked whether he knew of any reason Lisa would want to harm him he said “yes,” but wouldn’t elaborate.

Perhaps the marginalized and damaged characters Reardon writes about are cut from personal cloth. I feel badly that she’s had some  trouble. I think she’s an amazing writer.

The Sister by Poppy Adams

It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of almost fifty years.

 

Thus begins Poppy Adams’ strange debut novel, The Sister.  Narrated by the incredibly brilliant Ginny, The Sister tells the story of the sisters and their parents, Maud and Clive. They share  a crumbling English estate known as The Red House because of the Virginia Creeper. Whole areas of the house have been shut down because Clive, a moth expert, and Maud can’t afford the estate.

Ginny takes the reader back in time, to the moment that her mother brought Vivi home from the hospital “her fluffy hair sticking up and her big round eyes gazing at me”. She recounts the time Vivi fell off the bell tower, an injury which very nearly cost her her life, but which did make it impossible for her to bear children. Ginny is the keeper of the memories and is in sole possession of the secrets, too.

Why did Vivi leave, never to return? It will be left to the reader to decide whether her homecoming is worth the hype. For me, the book falls short of the opening line’s promise. I was expecting something altogether more suspenseful. Instead, Adams spends a great deal of time instructing the reader on the nature of moths – a subject that holds absolutely no interest for me- and not nearly enough time examining just what keeps two sisters apart for fifty years.

The novel is well-written, certainly, but it moved too slowly and didn’t deliver on its early promise.

Moth lovers will likely be delighted.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

When I was in grade seven, a million years ago, we watched The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  on television. I have a clear memory of it.  I distinctly remember  Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the slightly aristocratic, strangely compelling school teacher, Jean Brodie. She’s remained in my memory just as the character herself remained in the memories of the students she taught, the creme de la creme.

Miss Jean Brodie’s class of twelve year olds are impressionable, inquisitive and sensitive.  The ‘Brodie set’ as they are known to the other students at the Marcia Blaine School are enjoying their final year with Miss Brodie before they move to the senior school. Miss Brodie is ‘shaping them’ and her notion of the curriculum isn’t exactly approved of by the other teachers of the school.

If anyone comes along in the course of the following lesson, remember that it is the hour of English grammar. Meantime I will tell you a little of my life when I was younger than I am now…

 Muriel Spark’s novella is interesting because Miss Brodie herself in interesting. Her girls were discovered to have

heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water…

Of course, one begins to suspect that Miss Brodie might be a little bit of a fake and it is her complcated relationship with the girls who adore her and mock her in equal measure that makes up the bulk of this not altogether easy to read novella.

Happily Ever After Marriage – Sarah Hampson

If your marriage is way past the point of no return (aka those save-your-marriage books in the self-help section of your local bookstore aren’t going to cut it), Sarah Hampson’s memoir Happily Ever After Marriage might just be the book for you.  The book’s sub-title is “A reinvention in mid-life” and if the book had nothing else to recommend it – that would probably be enough. I was, however, standing in Hampson’s shoes.

After 18 years of marriage and with three sons, Hampson and her husband called it quits. I wasn’t actually ever convinced that they were a good match to begin with, but then it’s nearly impossible to judge standing on the outside. I know this for a fact. 

I liked Hampson immediately because she and I shared (albeit at different times, but not by much) a university and a degree. (We both studied English Literature at UNB.) What I appreciated about Hampson’s story wasn’t so much that it mirrored my own because unlike Hampson I never dreamed of being a bride and I married relatively late, at age 32, not young like she was. Hampson’s situation is different from mine in another important way, too: she was the leaver and I was the leavee.

I liked  Hampson self-deprecating humour, her willingness to indulge in the occasional sulk and her honest accounting of her own part in her marriage’s demise.

Hampson offers her own pithy wisdom on aging and dating post-40, on colouring your hair, on the demise of the body, on letting go. It’s not going to be easy – being over 40 and along, but there are rewards to be had you just have to be open to them. That’s Hampson’s advice anyway.

When she reflects on the institution, her vision is clear not jaded.

I have lived in a marriage. I have passed through what they are now entering. I would never warn them of its dangers. Why? Its promise is so beautiful, and for many, it is fulfilled.

Reading Happily Ever After Marriage for someone who is in those self-reflective post married days is the equivalent of a cup of tea on a blustery day. Hampson’s book offers a quiet respite from the emotional storm….without milky sentamentality or bitter lemon.