The Doctor’s Wife – Elizabeth Brundage

thedoctorswife_325Interesting timing. I finished Elizabeth Brundage’s novel The Doctor’s Wife just a couple days before Dr. Henry Morgentaler passed away at the ripe old age of 90.  What do a novel and a  doctor who changed the laws regarding abortion in Canada have to do with each other? Well, it’s the polarizing subject of abortion which is at the centre of Brundage’s over-written and  uneven novel.

Annie and Michael Knowles live in upstate New York. Michael is an obstetrician who practices in Albany. Annie is a journalist who teaches at the local college. When the novel opens, it is clear that their marriage is rocky: Michael is a workaholic; Annie is dissatisfied with her role as mother and the doctor’s wife.

Then there’s Lydia and Simon Haas. Simon was a renowned artist, but now he’s a bit washed up and he teaches at the same college as Annie. His wife, Lydia, is much younger and clearly unstable. She’s also found Jesus and is hanging out with a bunch of bible thumping right wing conservatives.

When Lydia discovers that Simon and Annie are having an affair and her church friends decide that Michael’s new role at the local abortion clinic is worthy of punishment, The Doctor’s Wife propels the reader into page-turner territory.  But it’s a weird mash-up of social commentary and scorned-wife-gone-wild.

None of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. Usually when people enter into an extramarital affair it’s sort of easy to choose a side. Simon might be sympathetic if you really had a better of understanding of his relationship with Lydia. Does he love her? Is he afraid of her? (If not, he should be!) Does he love Annie?

And Annie’s feelings for her husband are equally ambiguous. She is “no longer the college girl Michael had fallen in love with.” When she and Simon hook up at a faculty party it’s like they hop a fast-moving train that’s not able to stop until it either runs out of fuel or crashes. The fact that Simon is a bit of a doofus makes you question Annie’s sense.

I actually didn’t mind the affair part of the story. And Lydia was bat-shit crazy. Where the story really  veered off the believability path was how Lydia was involved with these crazy church people and how she had the cunning to plan and execute some of these outlandish crimes.

By the end of the book, the whole thing felt a little bit like a made-for-tv-movie. Which is too bad, as there was potential there at the beginning.


The Sky is Everywhere – Jandy Nelson

The Sky is EverywhereJandy Nelson has written a debut novel which will resonate with anyone who has ever lost someone they’ve truly loved.  The Sky is Everywhere is seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker’s journey through the grief of losing her nineteen-year-old sister.

My sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.

The loss of her sister isn’t the first significant loss of Lennie’s young life. She lives with her grandmother and her uncle ‘Big’ (yes, he is indeed) because her mother abandoned her and her sister when Lennie was only one. Despite the fact that Gram and Big are awesome, Lennie is finding it difficult to cope. Lucky for her, Bailey’s boyfriend, Toby, is on hand to share her grief.

“How will we do this? I say under my breath. “Day after day after day without her…”

“Oh, Len.” he turns to me, smooths the hair around my face with his hand.

I look into his sorrowful eyes and he into mine, and I think, He misses her as much as I do, and that’s when he kisses me –

There isn’t a thing I didn’t love about Lennie. She’s lived, thus far, in her sister’s shadow; Bailey was the outgoing, beautiful one.  Now, suddenly, Bailey is gone and Lennie is lost. Perhaps that’s what makes Toby so desirable. They can share their grief, but also their memories of someone they both loved.

But, then it gets complicated.

“Even in the stun of grief, my eyes roam from the black boots, up the miles of legs covered in denim, over the endless torso, and finally settle on a face so animated I wonder if I’ve interrupted a conversation between him and my music stand.

Meet Joe Fontaine, the “gypsy,” “rock star,” “pirate,” who arrived at school while Lennie was away. Suddenly Lennie finds herself in a precarious predicament: she is  impossibly drawn to Toby even as she crushes hard on Joe. Those feelings are compounded by her guilt because she’s supposed to be sad. And she is.

Make no mistake, The Sky is Everywhere is not a romantic comedy; it’s a beautifully written novel about loss, about being left behind and about what it means to be alive. All the characters are fully realized; even the adults have interior lives, a fact Lennie only begins to understand months after her sister’s death. She also comes to understand that grief is a living thing. Lennie thinks, “I don’t know how the heart withstands it.”

I’m not a fan of eReaders, but I can’t imagine reading this book on one would offer as satisfying an experience as reading the book the traditional way. The novel is filled with poetry written on scraps of paper and found in various places which are named on the back of the found object.  How they came to be collected is revealed at the end of the story. The poetry itself is beautiful (Nelson herself is a poet) and I loved its inclusion in the book.

This is a novel I will really look forward to passing on to and talking about with my students.

The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan

paintedgirlsCathy Marie Buchanan has taken French Impressionist Edgar Degas’  famous statue, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and spun it into a piece of historical fiction that will probably really appeal to some people, but with which I had a love/hate relationship. The Painted Girls is the story of sisters Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, who live with their widowed, absinthe addicted mother and younger sister, Charlotte, in Paris in 1878.

The novel alternates between elder sister Antoinette’s story and Marie’s as they struggle to survive extreme poverty and a mother who just doesn’t seem capable of taking care of them. The only way out of their dire situation is if Marie makes it into the Paris Opera (Antoinette tried, but didn’t have the talent) as a ballet dancer.

With the news that Maman is sending us to the dance school, Charlotte threads her fingers together, knuckles whitening as she works to hide her joy. I keep my face still, my dismay to myself. The petit rats – the scrawny, hopeful girls, vying for the quickest feet, the lightest leap, the prettiest arms – are babies, like Charlotte, some as young as six. It puts my nerves jumping, the idea of me – a thirteen-year-old –  lost among them at the barre, rats who earn their name by scurrying along the Opera corridors, hungry and dirty and sniffing out crumbs of charity.

It is here that she comes to the attention of Mr. Degas, who hires her to model for him. Marie wants something more for her life and she is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. That is not to say that she consistently makes wise choices, only that the desire for a better life is what drives her.

Antoinette’s journey is slightly more bumpy. She has already been turned out of the ballet as she is too old and not talented enough. She understands Marie’s talents, though, and works to ensure she has the lessons she needs to progress and food in her belly. Then she meets Emile Abadie, a shifty boy who  “is not much to look at …with that scrub-brushy hair of his creeping low on his forehead and his black eyes sinking too deep beneath the weighty ridge of his brow and his jaw looking like the sort of those on dogs it is best to steer away from in the streets.” Emile is a charmer though and even when he abuses Antoinette, she stays by his side.

The Painted Girls evokes the Belle Époque  period in Paris, a period which is, ironically, characterized by optimism. Art, music, literature and scientific discoveries all flourished during the period and Buchanan makes the most of them including bringing Zola’s masterpiece L’Assommoir to the stage.

Despite the novel’s merits (and there are many) I found the book overwritten. Not badly written, the language is often quite beautiful, just over-written. The sisters’ journey was intriguing, I am a fan of both the ballet and Degas, but at times I have to admit that it was a bit of a slog.

You – Charles Benoit

youKyle Chase, the 15-year-old protagonist of Charles Benoit’s novel You, isn’t much different from a lot of boys his age. He doesn’t get along with his parents, he’s crazy about a girl who just thinks of him as a buddy and he has a habit of getting into trouble.

Every day you get up, go to school, fake your way through your classes, come home, get hounded about your homework, go online, fake your way through your homework, go to bed – and the next day you get to do it all over again.

This is Kyle’s life. He’s not a bad kid, really. He’s not particularly motivated, but he’s also not as dumb as he pretends to be. Still, his life isn’t really going anywhere…and then Zack arrives.

Zack is clever and charismatic and suddenly Kyle finds himself doing things he never imagined he’d be doing. In some ways, on the surface at least, it would seem that Zack is looking out for Kyle. It turns out, though, that there is nothing magnanimous about Zack at all. Kyle (you) moves through his days in a sort of  anesthetized daze, a sort of listless funk that will perhaps be familiar to teens. When Zack starts to shake things up, at first seemingly benignly, the reader might get the impression that Kyle will make something of himself. Zack is nobody’s friend, however.

Charles Benoit has chosen to write You in the second person, a point of view that will likely be unfamiliar to many young readers unless they are exceptionally well-read. Let’s face it, not many novels are written in the second person. It’s a distancing point of view, somehow, but it serves this story very well because it drops the reader into Kyle’s skin.

When Kyle’s association with Zack starts to spin out of control, the reader knows it will end badly because of the book’s opening line: “You’re surprised at all of the blood.”

You is an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and I suspect many readers would find the book enjoyable..