Keeping Lucy – T. Greenwood

Keeping Lucy by T. Greenwood is not the sort of book I would have ever picked on my own to read. Apparently it was inspired by “incredible true events” and while I don’t doubt the novel’s sincerity, there were just too many schmaltzy or wtf moments for me to invest in any of the characters.

Ginny Richardson and her husband Abbott (Ab because he father is Abbott, too) have just welcomed their second child into the world, a daughter they call Lucy. After the delivery, Ginny is told that Lucy has a “condition [that] comes with many, many challenges” including “Heart defects, hearing and vision problems, Thyroid malfunctions.” Ginny is informed that

She’s mongoloid. Which means severe mental retardation. She’ll be feeble-minded, no more intelligent than a dog. The hardship she will bring to your family – women never realize the impact that raising an imbecile has on a marriage. On the other children. You must think of your son.

Okay, sure, it’s 1969, but it’s as if Ginny has no agency of her own. By the time she recovers from giving birth, Lucy has been sent to Willowridge, a “special” school where her particular problems can be looked after. The party line is that Lucy died during delivery and no one but her closest friend, Marsha, her mother and her in-laws know the truth. Ginny returns to her life as mom to her son and wife to her lawyer husband and long days of deciding what to serve for dinner and making sure the house is sparkling when Ab gets home.

Then, two years after Lucy is born, Marsha drops a bombshell. There’s been an exposé about Willowridge. The reporter visited the facility undercover and discovered

the bathrooms without stalls. The sleeping quarters’ walls smeared with human waste. The kitchen with its cockroaches. As she read about the vats of slop meant to pass as sustenance, as food, her stomach turned. […] Broken elevators filled with dirty laundry. Sewage spills. And the children. God, the children huddled into corners. Alone.

Although Ginny has never once visited her daughter, passive enough to believe her husband when he tells her that Lucy is better off where she is, she is mortified by these articles and she insists that Ab do something. Ab can’t though because his father is representing the school in several class action law suits. Ginny decides, with Marsha’s help, to go see for herself. What she discovers is so appalling that she kidnaps Lucy and they, along with her son Peyton, now six, and Marsha head to Florida to try to come up with a plan.

I know that we are supposed to admire Ginny’s maternal instincts and her overwhelming desire to rescue Lucy from what are clearly deplorable conditions, but I just kept shaking my head. You know how sometimes things take you out of a story – there were several instances of that in this book. For example, they stop for food and Ginny buys hamburgers and milkshakes for her children. Her two year daughter who has Down syndrome and has been institutionalized since birth is going to chow down on a McDouble and a shake? Say what? When they stop at Marsha’s aunt’s house for the night, it is described first as “a big farmhouse with plenty of rooms” and when they drive up the driveway suddenly it’s “a small cabin”, which she’d built herself. Stuff like this drives me crazy and I notice it a lot more when I am not invested in the book.

My brothers and I were all born in the 60s. I can’t imagine my mother ever letting any one of us be taken away and placed in an institution. I know things were different, I get it, but Ginny was such a frustrating character to me. When she and Ab meet they have such big plans and suddenly Ab is working for his dad and Ginny is relegated to the role of haus frau. depending on the allowance Ab gives her to run the household. She doesn’t drive; she doesn’t know how to use a credit card; she seems as innocent of the world as Lucy. Except it doesn’t take long for Lucy to be learning words and calling Ginny “momma”.

Keeping Lucy is treacle-y sweet and, while it was easy to read, I just didn’t like it.

Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell

Very little is actually known about William Shakespeare, the man (I believe is) responsible for writing some of the most beautiful poetry ever committed to paper. His plays are still produced some 400 years after his death. He is a mainstay of English Language Arts curriculums the world over. In fact, I am just beginning to look at Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 classes. It is a play I love to talk about and I can totally trace my love of angst back to my first exposure to it in 1977.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet & Judith tells the story of an unnamed man (clearly Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (more commonly known to us as Anne) from their first meeting, through the birth of their first daughter, Susanna, followed by the arrival of their twins, Hamnet and Judith. The novel bounces forwards and backwards in time, but somehow still manages to move forward to its perfect (yet heartbreaking) conclusion.

Agnes is really the central character in O’Farrell’s novel. She and her brother Bartholomew (loved him!), have been orphaned by the death of first their mother, and then years later their father. Now they live with their unkind stepmother, Joan, and a gaggle of step siblings. The tutor who is teaching Agnes’s younger brothers, becomes enamoured with Agnes when he sees a figure out walking in the fields with a hawk on her arm.

She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad. He has heard that she wanders the back roads and forests at will, unaccompanied, collecting plants to make dubious potions.

It is said that the stepmother lives in terror of the girl putting hexes on her, especially now the yeoman is dead. Her father must have loved her, though, because he left her a sizable dowry in his will. Not that anyone, of course, would want to wed her. She is said to be too wild for any man.

Hamnet & Judith concerns the relationship between Agnes and the tutor, a relationship that seems quite modern, actually. Agnes soon learns that the tutor needs out from under his father’s controlling hand and she finds a way to give him his freedom, although I think it does come at great personal cost to her. The way they are portrayed in this novel, one could never doubt their love for one another.

It also concerns the relationship between Judith and Hamnet. The novel actually begins when Hamnet, 11, discovers his sister very ill. It is plague times, of course, and O’Farrell even includes a chapter in the book that explains how Judith came to be ill – from a flea that traveled in a container of glass beads all the way from Murano, Italy. Of course, it is not Judith who dies – I hope that’s not a spoiler – and four years after Hamnet’s death, his father writes, perhaps, his most famous play, Hamlet.

Ultimately, this is a novel about family. It’s about grief, and watching Agnes mourn the loss of her son is absolutely heart-wrenching. It is about the minutiae of daily life. Given that we are experiencing a global pandemic, it’s difficult not to see the parallels despite the 400 years that separate our story from this one. Let’s not forget, although O’Farrell’s story is fiction, Shakespeare and his family were very real.

I loved this book. It’s more than worthy of the praise.

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.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I feel like I am probably the last person on the planet to succumb to Daisy Jones & The Six‘s considerable charms, but fall I did. And hard. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel about the rise and fall of Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, two uber-talented musicians in the 1970s, is the PERFECT book for a summer afternoon. I read it straight through, start to finish; I couldn’t have put it down, even if I wanted to.

Told in the style of an oral history, (so basically there’s no real exposition, it’s just people talking, as if they were being recorded and their words then transcribed,) the story follows Jones and Dunne’s separate journeys up until they meet and their musical fortunes become entwined.

This novel is so nostalgic – especially if you were around in the 70s, which I was. I graduated from high school in 1979 and while Billy and Daisy’s experiences certainly bear no resemblance to mine, I nevertheless appreciated some of the allusions. For instance, Daisy is introduced to the hedonistic and drug-fuelled club scene when she is just fourteen by flirting with a roadie at Whiskey a Go Go. The concierge of the Continental Hyatt House (preferred hotel of touring rock bands) remembers that some of the girls who hung around hoping to meet band members were young “but they tried to seem older. Daisy just was, though. Didn’t seem like she was trying to be anything. Except herself.”

Then there’s Billy Dunne. Gifted with a guitar for his fifteenth birthday, Billy and his younger brother Graham start a band while they are still in their teens. Billy is everything a lead singer should be: charismatic, sexy, beautiful and talented. The band’s manager says “Billy Dunne was a rock star. You could just see it. He was very cocksure, knew who to play to in the crowd. There was an emotion that he brought to his stuff.”

Both Billy and Daisy have their demons. In many ways, they are loners and they depend on a variety of substances to get them through the days and nights. Billy, though, has a wife, Camila, and a vested interest in getting his shit together. When Daisy and Billy meet, it catapults the two of them to super-fame. Their chemistry is off-the-charts. They record a song together that leads to a more permanent collaboration.

This novel is the bomb. I don’t claim to be an aficionado, but I do love music. Billy and Daisy start writing songs together and their creative partnership is both a blessing and a curse. Every song is fraught (Jenkins Reid has written all these songs and they are found at the back of the novel) and reminds us how incredibly powerful music (and art in general) can be in tapping into our souls.

…what we all want from art…When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you? It’s like they are introducing you to a part of yourself.

The creative partnership between Daisy and Billy cannot be sustained, for reasons that will be readily apparent. The push-pull between these two damaged, yet wholly likeable characters is so full of longing and angst, I just couldn’t bear it. (Truthfully, the angst is off the charts and I loved every wretched minute of it.)

Daisy Jones & The Six is pure entertainment. It’s beautiful, funny, human, nostalgic, heart-breaking awesomeness. I can’t WAIT for Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation.

Highly recommended.

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

Delia Owens’s debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing has the distinction of being the where+the+crawdads+singbook we discussed at my book club’s first ever virtual meeting. It was chosen for our March meeting, but of course those plans were canceled due to Covid 19. I had started the book and then put it aside. When we decided to meet virtually, I picked up the book again and read it straight through. It’s kinda un-put-downable.

The novel opens in 1969 with the death of Chase Andrews beloved son of one of the town’s most influential families, and although this death (was there foul play?) is significant, this is really Kya’s story, which begins in 1952.

Kya Clark is the ‘Marsh Girl’. She lives in a rundown shack outside of Barkley Cove, a small town on North Carolina’s coast. Kya, just six when the novel opens, lives with her older siblings and her parents. Hers is a life filled with the wonders of the natural world, a joy she shares with her brother Jodie, who is 13. One day “she saw her mother in a long brown skirt, kick pleats nipping at her ankles, as she walked down the sandy lane in high heels.” Her mother has left the marsh before “But she never wore gator heels, never took a case.”  Her mother doesn’t return, and “over the next few weeks, Kya’s oldest brother and two sisters drifted away too, as if by example.”  Then Jodie, her closest companion, unable to endure their father’s drunken rages any longer, leaves, too.

From a very young age, out of necessity, she learns how to live in harmony with the world around her and the isolation doesn’t bother her until one day she meets Tate Walker out on the water. Tate proves to be a balm to her loneliness and over the years, as he teaches Kya to read and they explore the coastline, they fall in love. Even though it might not seem realistic because Kya lives alone in a shack without running water or electricity – she is, in fact, a wild child in every sense of the world – it’s actually a relationship that makes sense. Tate, too, cares deeply about the natural world, and sincerely cares about Kya.

Kya proves herself to be a resilient, resourceful and incredibly sympathetic character. Owens takes her time with Kya, allowing us to understand her life. Tate, too, is well drawn. Chase is little more than a caricature, which I suppose doesn’t really matter in the whole scheme of things.

Owens writes beautifully about the natural world, which makes sense considering she is a wildlife scientist. It’s impossible not to be totally immersed in Kya’s secret world. Kya understands that “Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.” Her observations about nature and her place in it are downright beautiful.

Some readers will likely be thrilled by the novel’s final twist. I wasn’t so fussy about it, but who cares, really. There’s a reason everyone and their dog has been talking about this novel. It’s pretty damn awesome.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Only Story – Julian Barnes

I very much enjoyed Julian Barnes’ novella The Sense of an Ending when my book clubonly read it eight years ago. (Yikes!)  I can’t say that my experience with The Only Story  was quite as enjoyable; however, we had a fantastic chat about it at book club.

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

It’s the 1960s. Paul is an only child and has a relatively distant relationship with his parents who are solidly middle-class.  Home from university, Paul is “visibly and unrepentantly bored.” His mother looks for a diversion for him and hopes Paul might find a “nice blonde Christine, or a sparky, black-ringleted Virginia” at the tennis club. Instead he meets Susan Macleod, a middle-aged, unhappily married mother of two daughters who are older than our protagonist. Paul recalls “Who would have thought it might begin there?” The whole novel is a rambling recollection of their affair and the way such relationships are framed by memory, which is a theme Barnes visited in The Sense of an Ending.

Barnes wants the reader to believe, perhaps because Paul does, that this relationship is one for the ages. “Most of us only have one story to tell,” Paul tells us. “This is mine.”

I didn’t really like anything about this book and it pains me to say it because on the surface it seems like this book would be 100% up my angsty alley. Instead, I had a hard time connecting with either of these rather dull characters, who fumble their way through sex, and living together, and life in general. In the beginning, Paul spends a lot of time at Susan’s house; sometimes his university friends stay over, too. Paul is so self-involved that he doesn’t understand why Susan’s husband, Gordon, doesn’t seem to like him. Um, you’re sleeping with his wife! Under his own roof! Not that Gordon is at all sympathetic and he and Susan haven’t done the deed pretty much since the birth of their daughters.

Once they move in together – into a little house Susan buys in London – she (I thought) out-of-the-blue becomes a raging alcoholic, and things between the lovers start to deteriorate.

At first, Paul tells their story in the first person, but as things between him and Susan start to fall apart, he switches to the second person and then, finally, the third person. I liked this because I know how I view things from my past: sometimes it feels as though they’ve happened to someone else.

But for a story about love, the ‘only’ story – this one just didn’t work for me. No question Barnes is a master craftsman, and others in book club really liked it, but I found it a bit of a slog.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

normalpeopleYou know you’re getting old when…

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, despite 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.

 

The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer

What does it mean to be a feminist? At its core, feminism is about equality, right, femalemeaning that women are afforded the same privileges as men: personal, economic, social, and political equality. It’s hard to look at the state of the world and think that we’re actually there, though.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Female Persuasion is the story of Greer  Kadetsky. When we meet Greer, she’s a freshman at Ryland College. She’s like many other naive college students – well, okay, she’s not naive exactly, but she hasn’t found her voice. At a college party, she’s inappropriately groped by the loathsome Darren Tinzler. She doesn’t know exactly how to cope with this until she meets super-famous feminist Faith Frank in the woman’s washroom after a lecture. Faith gives Greer permission to use her outside voice, but also warns her to “forget him” because “There’s plenty more for you to do.”

This impromptu meeting fuels Greer because Faith is an icon, someone Greer looks up to and wants to emulate. After she graduates from college, she finds her way to NYC and a job with Greer at a foundation meant to lift women up by way of symposiums and workshops. Or something. None of it was particularly interesting to me.

Strangely enough, the most interesting character in the novel is Cory Pinto, son of Portuguese immigrants and Greer’s boyfriend.  Cory doesn’t attend Ryland; he got into an Ivy League school. He is faithful (mostly) and kind and smart and way more interesting than Greer, who spends most of her time slavishly devoted to her own journey. When personal tragedy strikes close to home, it ultimately causes a rift between Cory and Greer. Any time spent with Cory, however, is time well spent.

Faith is, to me, a caricature. She’s meant to be all about the gals, but not every decision she makes would demonstrate care and concern for the sisters. I’m not saying that perfection is realistic, but when Faith and Greer finally part company, the way it happens is so  – well – ridiculous really. So much for having each other’s back.

The Female Persuasion  was easy to read. I didn’t dread my time with these characters, but the irony wasn’t lost on me that the most feminist character in the novel was a guy.

The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

Broken GirlsAlthough I don’t usually trust author endorsements on book covers (except for Stephen King’s praise; he’s a pretty reliable reader), Simone St. James’s novel The Broken Girls  had an equal number of positive reviews from places like Kirkus, Library Journal and Booklist. I felt pretty confident when I chose it as my book club pick back in March.

The Broken Girls tells two stories. In one, we follow four friends (Katie, CeCe, Roberta and Sonia) who are attending Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for troubled young ladies. It’s 1950. Idlewild Hall is an unforgiving place, and while none of the girls is a delinquent by any stretch, they each have their own troubles. And the school has troubles of its own, in the shape of Mary Hand, a ghost many girls have seen on the school grounds.

Flash forward to 2014 and meet Fiona Sheridan. She’s a local journalist, still struggling with the death of her older sister, Deb, whose body was found in an overgrown field on the grounds of the now ruined Idlewild. When Fiona hears that someone has bought the derelict school with plans to renovate and re-open it, Fiona is determined to get the scoop. The blurb on the back of the book announces a “shocking discovery” during the renovations, but I am just going to tell you now {{{{SPOILER ALERT}}}} that another body is found, one that connects the past to the present.

Fiona races around to try to connect all the dots, and that’s one of the problems I had with this book: there was a lot going on. There’s the back stories of all four of the 1950s girls; there’s the ghost; there’s Fiona and her boyfriend, Jamie, a local cop; there’s the death of Fiona’s sister, which although Deb’s boyfriend is currently in prison for the crime, still niggles in the back of Fiona’s mind, even though twenty years have passed. It’s not that it’s all that difficult to keep track of all these threads, it’s just that it felt like there were too many of them to make a coherent story. There’s a boatload of red herrings, but again, I think St.James just attempted too much here because by the end, I felt all the pieces clicked together just a teensy bit too neatly.

On the plus side, Fiona is a likable character, and so is Jamie. The four girls from the past are also sympathetic. The writing is straightforward and there were a couple of truly creepy moments.

Was it a popular choice with my book club? Nope. Only one of my friends gave it a thumbs up. Luckily for me, dinner was fantastic.

This Is How It Always Is – Laurie Frankel

Laurie Frankel tackles some compelling and timely questions in her widely-praised novel This is How It Always Is. It’s one of those “issues” novels that makes it, as the Globe and Mail suggests, “a must for your next book club discussion.”

Penn and Rosie live a somewhat charmed life in rural Wisconsin. Rosie is an ER doctor; this is how Penn is a writer-cum-stay-at-home- dad. They have five sons: Roo, Ben, the unfortunately named twins, Rigel and Orion, and finally, Claude. In almost every way the Walsh-Adamses seem to have life figured out.

As almost everyone with children knows, parenting is hard. Harder still when life throws you a curve ball and the curve ball for this family comes when, at three, Claude announces that along with being

a chef, a cat, a vet, a dinosaur, a train, a farmer, a record player, a scientist, an ice-cream cone, a first baseman, or maybe the inventor of a new kind of food that tasted like chocolate ice cream but nourished like something his mother would say yes to for breakfast. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be a girl.

Rosie tries to put Claude’s proclamation into context. He is, after all, only three; precocious, sure, but still only three. As time goes on, though,  Rosie and Penn discover that his playing ‘dress-up’ is not a passing phase. Claude tells his parents “I’m not usually.”

Like any good parents, Rosie and Penn want their son to be happy and it turns out that what would make Claude happy is not to be Claude, but to be Poppy. Eventually that necessitates a move (to Seattle), some secret-keeping and the first real bump in the matrimonial road for the couple.

I had a few little issues with this book. Not with Claude/Poppy’s story, really. And not with the writing, which was excellent, (although I did find that the book was over-written and often bogged the story down).

I really wished that Frankel had spent a little bit more time demonstrating how Poppy’s reality impacted her brothers. Clearly, Roo struggled a little, but somehow it seemed as though we were expected to believe that all his issues were resolved…by magic? good parenting? I dunno.

I also took issue with the end of the book. Rosie runs away with Poppy to a place where ladymen are no big deal, and somehow this experience rights everyone’s ship. By the time they return to the States, people who had been mean to Poppy have seen the error of their ways in a manner far beyond what might be expected of ten-year-olds.

It’s all a little too happily-ever-after for me.

All of this aside, though, I think This Is How It Always Is  is a big-hearted book about a topic that is both timely and important. It’s worth a look.