All the Beautiful Lies – Peter Swanson

Harry Ackerson’s father, Bill, is dead. He’s only just found out and he has to leave college (he’s just about to collect his diploma) and head to Kennewick Village, Maine, where his father lives with his second, much younger wife, Alice.

She was a strange kind of beautiful, her eyes set too far apart, her skin so pale that you could make out the blue veins right near the surface. She reminded Harry of one of those hot alien races from Star Trek, a beautiful female who just happened to have green skin, say, or ridges on her forehead. She was otherworldly. Harry found himself in a state of constant, confused sexual turmoil, guiltily obsessing over Alice.

Harry’s arrival in Maine is fraught. Alice is distraught. Their house, known locally as the Grey Lady, has never been home to Harry. It’s filled with his father’s things. His father owned a rare bookstore in the village, and Alice is hoping Harry will stick around and help John, the store’s lone employee, run the place.

Things get complicated with the arrival of Grace, a young woman Harry’s age who seems to have some connection to his father, and the news that Bill’s death might not be an accident after all. This is the general story line in Peter Swanson’s novel All the Beautiful Lies. Of course, things are a lot more twisty than this.

Alice and her mother moved to Kennewick when she was fourteen. Her mother, Edith, had won a settlement from the Saltonstall Mill for a workplace accident which had nearly killed her. The move is supposed to be a fresh start, but there’s no hitting reset on Edith’s drinking. When Edith meets and marries handsome banker Jake, Alice almost can’t believe her good luck.

Swanson’s novel flips between then (Alice’s story) and now (what exactly happened to Bill), and the way that these two stories coil around each other is one of the novel’s pleasures. When someone else turns up dead, Harry finds himself caught in the a maelstrom of lies. (Whether or not they are beautiful will be up to you to decide.)

This is my second book by Peter Swanson (The Kind Worth Killing) and I am solidly a fan now.

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

Everyone and their dog got really squishy over Casey McQuiston’s frothy romance Red, White & Royal Blue when it came out in 2019. This New Adult debut tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, 21, and Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor, 23. Although they’ve been in each other’s orbit for years, they hate each other; well, at least, Alex hates Henry. It’s problematic because Alex’s mother is the president of the United States, and Henry’s grandmother is the Queen of England. Yes, this is a fantasy. In every category.

When the novel begins, Alex is just wrapping up his final year of university, determined that he is “not going to be the youngest elected congressman in modern history without earning it.” Alex is academically brilliant and politically savvy, but perhaps not quite so clever when it comes to his personal life. He and his older sister, June, spend their free time flipping through the tabloids to see what the world is saying about them, or hanging with their best friend, Nora, the Vice President’s granddaughter. The three of them are known collectively as the White House Trio.

When the Claremont-Diazs are invited to attend the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Philip, it’s clear that there is some rivalry between Alex and Henry.

The tabloids – the world – decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex’s image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen. Henry’s is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas.

When that acrimony lands them on top of the eight-tier wedding cake, it causes an international incident that must be squashed with a carefully constructed ruse: Henry and Alex will act like they are best friends instead of mortal enemies. It’s, of course, a trope as old as time. Turns out, though, that these two have a lot more in common than they thought, and that’s when things get interesting.

Although Red, White & Royal Blue takes a little bit to get going, once it picks up steam there’s, well, plenty of it. Henry is disgustingly handsome. thoughtful, intelligent and kind. And a little bit damaged, too. That’s kind of a given in most romance novels, isn’t it? When Henry finally makes a move, it causes a ripple effect, not the least of which is a sexual crisis for Alex. I mean, he’s straight, right? Um, not so much.

I really enjoyed this book. It was sweet, funny, and romantic. Alex and Henry are adorable, truly. I think the book probably caused such a stir because when it was released Trump was still in office and this book imagines a kinder, gentler and much, much saner post-Obama world. It’s kinda hard to find fault with that. It’s fluffy, for sure, but it’s also a book that promotes the idea that we can live in a world that treats people with respect, that acknowledges and supports their choices, that doesn’t care as much about sexual orientation. When Alex’s mom is running for re-election, her competition is a far-right jerk, and the election comes down to Texas (where the Claremont-Diazs are from). I mean, Texas always votes red, right? See, fantasy.

McQuiston’s book is big-hearted, well-written, smart and optimistic. No wonder it’s the perfect antidote for an imperfect world.

Her Last Death – Susanna Sonnenberg

Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir Her Last Death recounts the author’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. I couldn’t relate. My mother, Bobbie, was perfect. Well, of course she wasn’t perfect, but she was all the things Sonnenberg’s mother wasn’t: pragmatic, steady, selfless, reasonable. I could always count on her counsel and support. Our disagreements were few and far between and I couldn’t have gone months without talking to her. She died in 2006 of lung cancer at the age of 67 and I miss her every day.

I know I was lucky. Lots of women have fraught relationships with their moms. It wasn’t in my mother’s nature to be competitive or confrontational. She wasn’t interested in being center stage. She wanted her children to be happy and I know she probably made many sacrifices to ensure our lives were as good as she could possibly make them.

Sonnenberg was born into a family of wealth and privilege. Her parents, Ben and Wendy Adler (known in the book as Nat and Daphne) were movers and shakers in NYC. Her father was something of a literary legend on Grand Street in the 1980s. Her parents divorced when Sonnenberg was three, and Sonnenberg’s relationship with him seems rather sporadic until she’s older and makes a concerted effort to spend time with him.

Her mother is a larger-than-life character. From a very young age, her mother confides in her, depends on her, schools her in the skewed way she sees the world. When Sonnenberg is just a little girl her mother tells her “”You must never let a man remove your knickers unless you intend to sleep with him.”” Daphne parades an endless string of men into their apartment; she seems only to have to crook her finger. As Sonnenberg gets older, some of these men happen to be her classmates. On her sixteenth birthday, Daphne presents Sonnenberg with a Montblanc fountain pen, “…the finest pen ever made…for your writing” and a gram of okay, which she proudly announces she cut herself. She cautions her daughter: “Please, please, darling, don’t ever do someone else’s coke. You never know what it’s cut with. Promise?”

Daphne is clearly mentally ill, but somehow that doesn’t make her sympathetic. Sonnenberg isn’t particularly sympathetic, either, but at least you can understand how she ends up so screwed up. And she is: she’s selfish and self-absorbed. She sleeps with pretty much every guy she crosses paths with. It takes her a long time to figure out who she is and what she wants. The last third of the memoir is pretty much un-put-downable.

Being a mother requires a great deal of sacrifice. In her way, Daphne loved her children, but that love was predicated on her own desires. She always came first. For many years, Sonnenberg lives by that same creed. It’s not until she really falls in love and has her own children that she understands how much must be given of oneself.

I lift my children from the water and rub them warm with the towel. I bind them tight, hold them against me, whisper into their hair. I know this is love. It’s the single moment of parenting in which I am certain I am doing the right thing, in which, without review, I yield to an instinct.

My mother had good parenting instincts. She knew how to say the right things. She protected us when we needed it, and pushed us out into the world when we needed that, too. Parenting is hard work. It’s frustrating and exhausting and scary. Sometimes it’s no fun. But then, sometimes, it’s everything.

White Ivy – Susie Yang

My first book of 2021 is White Ivy which was marketed as a coming-of-age thriller of sorts with plot twists that “will leave readers breathless” (according to Library Journal, at least). It concerns the fate of Ivy Lin, born in China, but left behind when her parents move to America. Then, “when Ivy turned five, Nan and Shen Lin had finally saved enough money to send for the daughter.” She joins her parents and baby brother, Austin, in Massachusetts.

Ivy is “average and nondescript” and grows up dreaming of about looking different.

Ivy’s only source of vanity was her eyes. They were pleasingly round, symmetrically situated, cocoa brown in color, with crescent corners dipped in like the ends of a stuffed dumpling. Her grandmother had trimmed her lashes when she was a baby to “stimulate growth,” and it seemed to have worked, for now she was blessed with a flurry of thick, black lashes

You know what they say about eyes being the windows to the soul, right? I’m not gong to go so far as to say that Ivy is soulless, only that she never seems quite sure about what she wants and even when she is, she seems to think that the only way to get it is through cheating. She’s a narcissist and given her early childhood, it’s no wonder.

Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. Maybe that was the problem. No one ever suspected – and that made her reckless.

What does Ivy steal? Little things at first, things her strict immigrant parents don’t want her to have: tampons, cassette tapes, a walkman. Then she tries to steal her way into another life, a life inhabited by the object of her teenage desire: Gideon Speyer. For just one moment, when she is invited to Gideon’s birthday party at his “handsome glass and stone manor”, Ivy imagines what it might be like to belong. It’s a short-lived dream because when her parents find out that she lied to them to attend the party, they humiliate her by picking her up, send her to China for the summer and then move to New Jersey. It’s not until many years later that Ivy crosses paths with Gideon once again.

White Ivy is a strange book. I read it in a couple of sittings, but I never really felt as though I understood Ivy’s motivation. Does she lie out of habit? What is it about Gideon that she desires, really? They have zero chemistry. And then there’s Roux, a childhood friend who resurfaces right around the time Ivy’s relationship with Gideon is going to next level (aka meet – or in this case, re-meet – the parents).

Roux is rough around the edges. He cares little what anyone thinks of him. He’s made something of himself, although whether or not his success is strictly legal is up for debate. In many ways, he would make a much better partner for Ivy, but he’s not the waspish dream. He does complicate Ivy’s life, and then he offers an ultimatum which pushes the novel into thriller-esque territory.

I am not really sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t call it a coming-of-age novel because there is no moment of epiphany for Ivy. It’s not a thriller. It’s definitely character driven and Ivy isn’t necessarily a character you will warm to. Not that that matters. Did I want her to succeed? ::shrugs:: I felt sort of as if there were some missed opportunities in this novel, but it wasn’t a waste of reading time.