Funny, or maybe not, that the book I read right after Normal Peoplewas also about a love affair between two young people. Jardine Libaire’s novel White Fur shares a couple similarities with Sally Rooney’s novel; both books concern couples who are from very different social classes and both pairs of lovers have fraught relationships.
Jamey Hyde is a student at Yale when he meets Elise Perez. She lives next door to Jamey with Robbie, the guy who rescued her from sleeping in a parked car. Jamey and Elise couldn’t be more different, and you know what they say about opposites attracting.
“Is she frightening? Is she pretty?”
That’s what Jamey and his roommate, Matt, think when they first meet Elise and the truth is she is both. She’s run away from a messy home life, and she doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
She didn’t leave home last summer with a plan. Twenty years old, she never finished high school, she was half-white and half-Puerto Rican, childless, employed at the time, not lost and not found, not incarcerated, not beautiful and not ugly and not ordinary. She doesn’t check any box…
In some ways she is almost too tough, but something about her exerts a magnetic pull for Jamey. He’s heir to a vast family fortune and has never really had to work for anything in his life. Instead of making him a spoiled brat, though, he’s actually a decent guy. Before he even meets Elise, his life is sliding sideways. He and Elise shouldn’t work, but they actually make a strange kind of sense.
When the novel opens, Elise is holding a shotgun to Jamey’s chest and from there the novel flashes back to unravel the tale of their meeting, their tremendous sexual attraction, and their crazy summer in New York City. Because you want to know how they ended up in a motel in Wyoming with a gun, it’s easy to turn the pages and Kirkus called this book one of “11 Thrillers for Summer.” But this isn’t really a thriller.
This is a book about love, about making your own way in the world in spite of the odds against you and in spite of the privileges you’ve been given. The writing is beautiful and these are characters you won’t soon forget.
White Fur probably would have meant something different to me if I had read it 40 years ago, back when all my relationships felt a little bit like this one. I could relate, on many levels, to the crazy intensity these two felt for each other. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as a woman of a certain age because I enjoyed it a great deal.
That’s my main take away from Irish writer Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People. The story follows the on again – off again – on again relationship between Marianne and Connell, a couple 18-year-olds (when the novel begins) who strike up a friendship of sorts when Connell arrives at Marianne’s house to pick up his mother, who is the housekeeper there.
The two would never have said a word to each other at school where Connell is “so beautiful” that Marianne liked to imagine “him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anyone. It would be beautiful just to watch him.” Marianne herself is awkward and “has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels.” The two of them just happen to be the smartest kids at school and so somehow their awkwardness (because Connell, despite his beauty, is awkward), the two form a relationship that shapes the next few years of their lives.
The thing with these two, though, is that they never seem to be playing the same game at the same time. Their attraction turns out to be mutual, but Connell suggests they keep their relationship a secret and when he finally betrays her, the two go their separate ways. It doesn’t matter, though, they are drawn to each other – moths to flame – and in that respect, I could so relate to their story. The two meet up again at Trinity College in Dublin, where suddenly Connell is the fish out of water and Marianne seems to have found her people. Rooney deftly handles the strange dance that happens when two young people desperately want to be together, but keep fucking it up.
So, is Normal People a book for an old doll like me? Am I the novel’s intended reader? Probably not, and I have a feeling that the ladies in my book club (for which this was our January 2020 pick) are likely going to pan the book. They’ll take exception to the lack of quotation marks for dialogue (and I knew that was going to bug me – but ended up not being as annoying as I thought it might be) and they’ll probably dislike the melodrama inherent in a story about young love, but I liked this book.
I was always falling in love at that age and I could see myself in both of these characters. Their need for connection, their disillusionment, their constant search for themselves was reminiscent of my own journey, and will likely ring true to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. I found the book eminently readable, elliptical and troubling. When I finished the book – and I whipped through it in just a couple sittings – I found myself really trying to wrap my head around what I’d just read, and I think that’s the sign of something special.
My first finished book of 2020 is Thomas H. Cook’s 2004 novel Peril. Unlike most of the other books I’ve read by Cook, which have generally focused on one narrator, Peril lets the reader see the same set of circumstances through a variety of lenses.
Sara Labriola is hoping to disappear. After nine years of marriage to Tony, she can’t go on and so one day she packs her clothes, leaves her wedding ring and takes the bus into Manhattan.
Tony is devastated when he discovers Sara missing, but his father, Leo, is furious. Leo is a thug who berates everyone around him, including Tony who has never had the nerve to stand up to him. Leo tells his guy Caruso to find Sara and Caruso leverages the help of Mortimer Dodge because he owes Leo money. Dodge works for a guy named Stark, a guy whose job it is to find people.
Need a chart yet? Let’s recap.
Sara runs away from Tony.
Tony wants to find his wife before his father does because he knows that if Leo finds her first the consequences will be grim. He tasks his employee and friend Eddie with helping him.
Leo gets Caruso on the job. Caruso gets Mortimer on the job. Mortimer gets Stark on the job.
Sara is in NY and thinks she has found a job singing in a night club owned by Abe, who happens to know Mortimer.
It all sounds way more complicated than it is and it’s actually way more compelling than this, too, and that’s because, well, Thomas H. Cook wrote it.
You know how you can read some thrillers or mysteries and they’re just straight ahead books that are driven by plot but not much else? Yeah, that’s not Cook. There is not a character in this novel who doesn’t have a totally believable backstory that makes them, even when they are not particularly likeable, sympathetic. (The exception here is Leo Labriola, who is a misogynistic asshat.) And I mean every character, even characters we only meet a couple times, like the mother of Sara’s neighbour, Della.
And if you think all this backstory is going to bog down the plot – which would be bad, too – forget about it. You’ll turn the pages lickety-split because, well, Thomas H. Cook. He balances character and story and even if some of what happens here seems a tad too coincidental, you won’t care. At all.
There’s something old school about Peril. It’s like a noir film, peopled with shadowy gangsters in crumpled hats, a beautiful, fragile heroine who earns the good will of the men she meets, and a bunch of guys who ultimately, turn out to be loyal and decent.
You will NEVER be wasting your time reading a Cook book. (Couldn’t resist.)
For the past several years I’ve completed a little reading survey, a sort of look back at the reading year that was. I normally spend a few hours reflecting on my year, choosing most favourite and least favourite books and talking about other bookish things that happened to me, but I usually do that in advance of January 1st. This year I had to return my daughter to university and then I spent a couple days with my best friend and her family out of the city…so no time to get that post ready in advance. I do like to think about my reading year, though, so here are some random thoughts.
Goodreads provides a handy overview of your reading year at the end of their challenge. This is mine. I think I had a pretty good year. I read nine more books than I did in 2018, and I hope to up that number again this year by spending WAY less time on the Internet. My reading goal for 2020 is 70 books, but I would love to surpass that.
Of the books I read in 2019, a couple really stand out. Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling was a difficult book to read, but the protagonist, Turtle, has stayed with me. As I said in my review, this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea; however, if you can stomach the subject matter (sexual abuse, violence), it is so worth the read because of the incredible beauty of Tallent’s writing and the novel’s stunning main character.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera – smart, thoughtful, heartbreaking and – not a spoiler – they do both die at the end. LOVED it.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – twisty, gothic, beautifully written… a page-turner with a beating heart
I read some mediocre books this year, too…and many of them were really popular books. These are books that were just okay for me – certainly not, imho, worth the hype.
Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane landed me in a little mini Twitter shitstorm. First time EVER I had an author and her minions come at me, even though I didn’t think (and still don’t think) my review of her book was all that critical. The book just didn’t do it for me.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is a serviceable thriller and I had no trouble reading it, but I just didn’t think it was worthy of all the fuss. For me.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer was one of last year’s book club picks and it just didn’t float my boat because I didn’t really care too much for the main female characters, which is a problem in a book about women.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani – was it the translation? I dunno. I just found this book about a nanny who kills the children she is charged to care for S-L-O-W
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James – this was my book club pick last year and it just had too much going on
This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – captures the zeitgeist of gender identity and, overall, does it well, but I still had some issues and couldn’t give it a hearty thumbs up
Other bookish things that were exciting this year:
I stumbled upon, purely by chance, Sherree Fitch’s magical bookstore, Mable Murple’sBook Shoppe and Dreamery in River John, Nova Scotia.
Fitch’s children’s books were on permanent rotation in my house when my kids were little, so it was pretty exciting to find the store and then find the author herself chatting to patrons.
I purchased my copy of A Velocity of Being here and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you love books, this is a MUST read.
I also had the opportunity to meet Lauren B. Davis, author of one of my favourite books, Our Daily Bread, when she read from her newest novel, The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Davis and I have interacted a little bit on social media, and in fact back when my book club read Our Daily Bread, she graciously offered to answer any questions we had in real time via Twitter.
I intend to make going to author readings more of a regular habit in 2020, as I do love to see them in person. I am so sorry I missed my opportunity to hear Craig Davidson read from his book The Saturday Night Ghost Club, which I read in 2019 and really liked a lot.
One other thing I did in 2019 that I have never done before was to make a vlog. I had a crazy busy few weeks and let my read books pile up and knew I would never get around to writing reviews about them, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll talk about them instead. Not that easy, people. If you want to waste 20 minutes, you can watch that here.
Overall, it’s been a great reading year and I look forward to discovering new favourites in 2020. I hope you’ll visit often and stay a while.
Catherine West wants a family – which is sort of funny once you get to know her. The narrator of Swan Huntley’s novel We Could Be Beautiful is vain, spoiled and selfish. It’s hard to imagine she’d ever be selfless enough to have kids. Plus, she’s pushing the biological envelope: Catherine’s 43.
She thinks she has everything it would take to be a mother, but when she categorizes her success, it feels like having a baby would be just one more accessory.
I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was tones enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.
The only problem is that Catherine’s single. She’s had lots of boyfriends (and a girlfriend), and two broken engagements, but now she’s alone. Her most significant relationship is with Dan, the massage therapist who comes to her house to rub her neurosis away.
Then she meets William Stockton, a “stunning, square-jawed man with gentle eyes and elegant gray hair, full and parted to the side.” There’s something familiar about him, and as it turns out William’s parents and Catherine’s parents used to be great friends. Catherine is several years younger than William, so her memories of him are vague.
Almost immediately, Catherine is smitten and too-good-to-be-true William is moving in. On paper, he seems like a great guy (he’s educated, has a good job in banking, he’s charming and attentive), but readers will clue in that there’s something not quite right. Catherine isn’t so swift on the uptake.
We Could Be Beautiful is billed as a thriller, and it certainly reads like one. I mean, you’ll certainly figure out pretty quickly that William is up to something, even if you’re not sure what it is. When Catherine mentions William to her mother, who is suffering from dementia, Mrs. West’s reaction is visceral. Then Catherine finds a box of old ephemera, including a letter from a long-ago nanny which alludes to some event that she hadn’t protected Catherine from.
Probably the more interesting aspect of this book, though, is Catherine’s journey. I found her vapid at the beginning of the book. She doesn’t need to work because her father left her and her sister a pile of money. She owns the West Village house she lives in. She owns a little store called Leaf, which sells – tellingly – beautiful art cards, with nothing printed inside. Her one friend, Susan, is as superficial as she is. She has a strained relationship with her only sibling, Caroline. On the surface it’s a beautiful life, sure, but it’s style over substance. Her relationship with William forces Catherine to do some recalibrating, and that’s interesting to watch.
I enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, the pages turn themselves, and even if it’s less ‘thriller’ and more ‘drama’, it’s still entertaining.
Marion Zetland lives with her older brother, John, in a house that’s seen better days in a coastal town in Northern England. The siblings, now in their 50s, have never been especially close, but now that both their parents have died, they have to rely on each other and their relationship is a sort of co-dependent nightmare. There is something very odd going on in their house, a house filled with the bric-a-brac of a childhood spent in some luxury (the Zetlands owned a textile mill), and now the domain of a couple hoarders.
Catherine Burns’s debut novel The Visitors focuses the story on Marion. She is mostly friendless, surrounds herself with stuffed animals, and spends her days watching sappy television movies, remembering events from her past, and imagining a future which she surely never had access to. She’d learned at a young age that she was plain, and spent most of her life living in John’s considerable shadow. He, after all, had gone off the Oxford, and she had limped through school, barely able to understand the most basic things.
When the novel opens, Marion has just been awakened by a scream, a sound that “flapped its wings against the inside of her skull.” She knows where the scream is coming from, and she even knows, although perhaps only subconsciously, why someone might be screaming inside her house, but she tamps down the feeling by calling forth her mother’s voice, which she knows would tell her that “John is doing the very best for them; you have to trust him – he is your brother and a very clever person.”
Slipping easily between the past and the present, we learn about the extremely dysfunctional Zetland family, about how Marion was bullied by her peers, and John’s own perverse personality, which is alluded to many times. The only time we aren’t closely watching Marion, we are reading emails to someone called Adrian. The first time they appeared, I thought there’d been some sort of printing error, but it’ll all make sense in the end.
I really enjoyed TheVisitors. I found Marion to be quite a sympathetic character, someone who clearly had been dealt a crappy hand in the family department, but was also dealing with some mental illness, too. Turns out, though, the lens through which the story is told is just a tad unreliable. Although this story is not told in the first person, we are really only privy to Marion’s thoughts, and there’s no question – she’s an odd duck.
Although I wasn’t 100% sold on the ending, I still recommend giving this one a go. It’s well written and you’ll totally keep turning the pages.
I was invited to talk about books at this year’s Harbour Lights show held in the Saint John City Market. Five minutes goes super fast, so I thought that I would put links to the full reviews for all the books I spoke about here. Please consider making a donation to the cause. You can do that here
Now that it’s all said and done – I have to say that was a nerve-wracking experience. When you’re in the studio, it’s quiet and there’s just you. Not so much at the City Market. Still, I love talking about books, so it was fun!
What books will you be giving to your loved ones this year?
Instead of telling you that – because what if they’re listening – I think everyone should follow Iceland’s terrific tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve. This is known as the “Christmas Book Flood” or Jolabokaflod (yo-la-bok-a-flot), and Iceland, if you don’t know, has more writers, more books published and more books read than anywhere else in the world. I think they’re on to something.