My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is recovering from surgery in a New York City hospital with a view of the Chrysler Building. She’d gone into the hospital to have her appendix removed and ended up staying for nine weeks, fighting an infection that nobody seemed able to identify. During her time in the hospital, her mother comes to stay for a few days and as the two women sit together, parts of Lucy’s childhood float to the surface. This is the premise of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name if Lucy Barton. Last year I read Olive Kitteridge, a book which had been languishing on my tbr shelf for years. I loved it. I really enjoyed this book, too. It’s a quiet book and as the story moved along, it seemed to build in intensity.

Lucy and her mother have a strained relationship; in fact, they have not spoken in several years, but when she shows up at Lucy’s bedside “using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, [it] made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing, and now was not.”

For five days, Lucy’s mother sits with her and the two talk of the past, a past which hadn’t been necessarily kind to them.

We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois, where there were other homes that were run-down and lacking fresh paint or shutters or gardens, no beauty for the eye to rest on. […] We were told on the playground by other children, “Your family stinks,” and they’d run off pinching their noses with their fingers; my sister was told by her second-grade teacher – in front of the class – that being poor was no excuse for having dirt behind the ears, no one was too poor to buy a bar of soap.

Lucy gets out, though. A teacher recognizes Lucy’s love of reading and provides her with lots of books to read. The books make Lucy feel “less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” Despite her insecurities, Lucy takes herself, her studies and her writing very seriously and earns herself a full-ride scholarship to college. This is the beginning of Lucy’s journey of self-discovery and also the beginning of her exile from her family. It is only her mother’s arrival at her bedside which makes her re-examine her roots and she is telling this story from many years in the future when she actually has the perspective necessary to understand.

As Lucy and her mother share stories about the people of Amgash, Lucy also looks more closely at her memories of her family and her own strengths and weaknesses as a person. These observations are the heart and soul of Strout’s novel.

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

I think My Name is Lucy Barton is a book that would benefit from a second read. It really asks the reader to look closely at their own lives, their harsh judgments of others, their estrangements, the second-chances we’re offered and often stupidly refuse. When Lucy and her husband divorce, Lucy’s adult daughter tells her “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”

I think this is a novel that is deceptive, now that I’ve tried to capture my thoughts about it here. Quiet, yes, but powerful in the way that it examines one woman’s story. And that’s what we all have, our own stories.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here – Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

So. Much. Fun.

Ambrosia (Amb) Wellington has just received an invitation to attend the tenth reunion of her Wesleyan graduating class. When the email arrives, Ambrosia deletes it immediately. As she does the second email. Then she gets a note in the mail: “You need to come. We need to talk about what we did that night.” The who and what implied in this message is at the centre of Laurie Elizabeth Flynn’s thriller The Girls Are All So Nice Here. Flynn’s first novel for adults (she has written three novels for young adults) is pretty much un-put-down-able. I started it one night when the book I was reading just wasn’t floating my boat. I read 100 pages and only stopped because it was a school night and I needed to turn off my light.

The novel flips back and forth between now, Amb in the present day, an executive at a NYC PR firm and then, when Amb was an awkward college freshman looking for a way to fit in. She arrives at her college dorm, Butterfields, and meets her new roommate, Flora, and although they’d been emailing back and forth over the summer, Amb seems to bristle when she meets Flora in person. She thinks about what she’ll say about her when she texts her high school bestie, Billie, recalling how they’d studied the pretty girls in high school, peeling “them like overripe fruit in marathon gossip sessions to lessen the sting of not being invited to their parties.”

Flora isn’t a mean girl, though. She’s kind and thoughtful and leaves cheerful, positive post-its on the doors of the other girls in their dorm. Her life at home, despite her wealth, isn’t perfect. Her long-term boyfriend, son of her mother’s best friend, is attending Dartmouth, three hours away. So the friction isn’t instigated or perpetuated by Flora; Amb’s insecurities are the problem. The low-key cool she’d cultivated back home seems misplaced here where “the girls seemed casually beautiful in a way that felt unachievable.” Then she meets Sloane (Sully) Sullivan, a girl with “a face that instantly held everybody’s attention.”

To timid, trying-too-hard Amb, Sully seems fearless. And she is, I guess, if your idea of fearless is someone who drinks, does drugs, and sleeps with just about anyone she crosses paths with. For whatever reason, Amb finds that she will do pretty much anything to get herself on Sully’s radar because when Sully “fixed her gaze on me. It was like being anointed.” Sully’s roommate, Lauren, warns Amb that Sully has “zero attention span”, but Amb is intrigued. Sully isn’t nice though, far from it, and she warps Amb’s insecurities and deep-seated desire to fit in into something toxic.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here, beyond being a page-turning thriller, has lots to say about female relationships. If you were ever on the outside looking in, you’ll relate to these girls. Even when Amb realizes that she’s being manipulated, Sully’s approval means more to her than doing the right thing. And the right thing might have prevented a tragedy which destroys more than one life. The book also has lots to say about a culture that still seems to pit women against each other. Instead of looking out for each other, these girls look for ways to undermine each other. It’s like Mean Girls on steroids.

“Our reign was short and bloody,” Amb recalls. She’s not lying.

Highly recommended.

Bloodline – Jess Lourey

I read Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things a few months ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to reading Bloodline. It wasn’t quite the same reading experience, but it was a quick, enjoyable read nonetheless.

Joan Harken, a journalist, moves to Lilydale, Minnesota with her boyfriend, Deck. The impetus for trading big city life for small town living was a recent mugging, which left Joan shaken up and afraid, especially since she’s pregnant. Deck assures Joan that “Lilydale was peaceful, friendly. Everyone knows everyone, looked out for one another, The world outside might scream and swirl like a tornado, but Lilydale floated in a bubble, outside of time, as safe as a smile.”

It won’t take readers very long to figure out that Lilydale has some seriously creepy Stepford-vibes. We’re seeing things through Joan’s eyes – and let’s not forget she’s trained to be observant and ask questions. First there are the people who live on Mill Street, the street where Deck and Joan are to live in Deck’s childhood home. The town Mothers and Fathers give off definite cult-vibes. Then there’s the fact that everyone in Lilydale seems to know her business. As Deck’s father tells her “You have to understand how a small town works. We’re a big family here. You don’t keep secrets from family.”

Well, it turns out, you can keep some secrets and there are a lot of them in Lilydale. Some of those secrets have to do with Paulie Aandeg, a little boy who disappeared from his kindergarten class on his first day. Although it happened decades ago, the child was never found and later his mother’s house burned to the ground and she disappeared, too. When someone claiming to be Paulie turns up in Lilydale, Joan feels like she’s landed on the story of a lifetime. Unfortunately, she discovers, people in Lilydale aren’t all that forthcoming with information. As Joan’s investigation heats up, she feels more and more like people are watching her – not watching out for her as you might reasonably expect in a small town, but literally spying on her. When she starts to feel as though her life and the life of her unborn baby might be in danger, she becomes even more paranoid.

It’s interesting reading a story set in the sixties. Joan’s doctor allows for four cigarettes a day and that reminded me of an old Dr. Spock pregnancy book I found years ago. His recommendation: limit drinking to two cocktails a day and cigarettes to half a pack. Imagine. There are jellied salads, crème de menthe and Peter Pan collars galore.

Bloodline is a super-quick read. It’s straight-forward, page-turning fun.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 award-winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is the kind of book you can’t really put down once you pick it up. Partly it’s because the real action takes place over a very short amount of time and is so nerve-wracking I just couldn’t bear to stop reading, and partly it’s because the narrators in the book, Jojo and his mother, Leonie, and Richie, a boy who died years before the action of the story, are just too compelling to turn away from.

Jojo lives with his mother, his little sister, Kayla, and his maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, in rural Mississippi. It’s Jojo’s thirteenth birthday when the novel begins, and Jojo’s first task of the day is to help his grandfather slaughter a goat for his birthday barbecue. Jojo says “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” Oh, he’ll be looking at it straight, all right, and so will the reader. Ward doesn’t shy away of any of the details and so you’ll know pretty much from that opening scene that violence is part of the deal in this book.

This family has its share of troubles. Mam is currently bedridden, ravaged by cancer; Leonie is addicted to drugs; Michael, Jojo’s white father is currently in prison. Jojo depends on himself and his grandfather, who is loving albeit taciturn. Pop demonstrates his affection for Jojo by telling him stories, stories about his childhood and stories about his own incarceration.

Sometimes he’ll tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he’s reached out to me, like he’s rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I’ll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure.

Jojo’s main concern is Kayla, who is only three. He no longer depends on his mother and, in fact, thinks of her as Leonie. “It was a new thing, to look at her rubbing hands and her crooked teeth in her chattering mouth and not hear Mama in my head….”

When Michael is due to be released from prison, Leonie decides that she should make the journey to the prison to pick him up. She also thinks it would be a great idea to bring Jojo and Kayla, and her co-worker, a white woman named Misty whose boyfriend, Bishop, is also serving time. It’s hot, Kayla is almost immediately car sick, and the whole journey just seems fraught with danger.

Both Leonie and Jojo see ghosts. Literally. Leonie sees the ghost of her brother, Given, who was killed in a hunting accident fifteen years ago. Given was, by all accounts, destined for greatness: a talented athlete, popular and well-liked. Jojo sees Richie, a young boy who was incarcerated with Pop. In some ways Richie and Given are a manifestation of the guilt carried by those still living, but at the very least they are indicative of the way we are shaped by our pasts. Can we blame Leonie’s vices on the loss of her brother? Can we, at least, empathize with her? I’m not sure I did, she was just so negligent, but I was wholly invested in Jojo and found it impossible not to worry about him the entire time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing tackles the prickly topic of racism, too. Michael’s parents are make-no-bones-about-it racists. Leonie has talked to them exactly four times and is well aware that Michael’s father, Big Joseph (after whom Jojo is named) would rather “hang up in my face […] than speak to me, the nigger his son had babies with.” When a white cop pulls them over, my heart was in my throat the whole time. This is a story that carries the weight of hundreds of years of racism on its shoulders. My white privilege, I know, makes me blind to it.

This is a must-read book.

We Begin at the End – Chris Whitaker

Chris Whitaker’s novel We Begin at the End was all over my Twitter feed and the praise was copious, so I did what any booklover does, I ordered the book. Regular readers will know that having possession of a book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to land on my bedside table (which is where my currently-reading books live), but this one called to me. I needed to know what all the fuss was about. I needed to know if it was deserving of the fuss.

Hell, yeah.

Whitaker’s mystery/coming-of-age/noir novel concerns the fates of a whole cast of characters. It starts in the past as the town of Cape Haven, California, including Walk and his best friend Vincent King, are out looking for the body of Sissy Radley, younger sister of Vincent’s girlfriend, Star. Flash forward thirty years: Vincent’s been languishing in prison, Walk is now the town sheriff, and Star’s the messed-up mom of 13-year-old Duchess and 5-year-old, Robin.

Walk has made it his mission to look out for Star and her kids. Star’s a bit of a hot mess. She and her kids live in poverty, and Star spends a lot of time self-medicating with booze and pills. Duchess thinks part of her mom’s difficulty stems from what happened to Sissy all those years ago. “Duchess had got the bones of the story over the years, from Star when she slurred it, from the archive at the library in Salinas.”

When Vincent is released from jail he returns to Cape Haven and sets about restoring his family home, which just happens to be on a prime piece of waterfront. Dickie Darke, the local badass and sometime consort of Star, wants Vincent’s land badly, but Vincent isn’t interested in selling. He mostly just wants to be left alone. Vincent’s freedom is short lived though, and he’s soon back in jail for another crime, and this crime is the mystery which threads itself through the novel. Vincent insists on Martha May, another childhood friend and Walk’s old girlfriend, to represent him even though she’s not a criminal lawyer. That brings Martha back into Walk’s orbit after a long absence.

There are lots of surprises in Whitaker’s novel and some of the best ones are saved for the end, but it isn’t really the mystery that kept me turning the pages, it’s the characters.

Walk is loyal and dogged, and he’s spent his whole life in Cape Haven, where he knows everyone, Cape Haven is a quiet coastal town and he’s never even really had occasion to draw his gun. Vincent is taciturn and patient. Star is a hot mess. Even Dickie Dark is complicated. Minor characters, Milton, the town butcher and head of the local neighbourhood watch, Cuddy, the guard at the prison where Vincent has spent the last thirty years of his life, and Hal, the children’s grandfather, are compelling. But it’s Duchess who draws you in

If Duchess is perhaps a tad too precocious, she’s to be forgiven. She’s been dealt a rotten hand. And when circumstances land her and Robin in Montana with the grandfather they don’t know, her life is upended again. It takes every ounce of energy she has to rein herself in, and she’s really only willing to do that for her little brother. She doesn’t let people get close; it takes patience and perseverance to get past her defenses. Luckily, there are people in her life willing to keep trying. I loved her. She reminded me of Turtle, the protagonist of Gabriel Tallent’s stellar debut My Absolute Darling. This is a compliment, trust me.

There are a lot of moving pieces in Whitaker’s novel, and a lot of characters, too. There has been some criticism of his prose and the short hand he uses. I don’t read westerns and while much of this novel feels like a western, I chalked Duchess’s odd vernacular up to bravado: “I am the outlaw Duchess Day Radley” she tells more than one adversary. Perhaps odd coming from a kid from California, but not necessarily from a smart kid looking to build a protective shield around herself and those she loves. As for the novel’s prose, once I settled into Whitaker’s world, the writing just seemed spare. I think it suited the story, laid it bare.

This is a great book on so many levels. Read it for the mystery. Read it for the characters. Read it for the gut punch at the end. But read it!