Tag Archive | book club pick

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of those writers who can maneuver a huge cast of characters so commonwealthdeftly that you hardly notice the machinations.  Her novel Commonwealth, the story of the intersecting lives of two families, might have crashed and burned in less talented hands, but Patchett moves these people backwards and forwards in time without seeming to  break a sweat.

Fix and Beverly Keating are hosting a christening party for their daughter when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. Of the dozens of people invited to celebrate baby Franny, police officer Fix “struggled to make the connection” when he opened the door to the district attorney. Bert’s arrival was precipitated by the fact that “he hated Sundays.” By Sunday, Bert had had all he could stand of his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa: “he couldn’t play with them and he didn’t want to play with them and didn’t want to get up  and get the baby…”. Trapped in a life he clearly doesn’t want, he latches on to Fix’s party as a momentary escape hatch. By the end of the afternoon – perhaps lubricated by the gin, Bert has kissed Beverly and set off a chain of events that reverberates through the years.

After Beverly and Bert leave their marriages and form a new relationship, the five children (Franny and Caroline Keating and Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins) form a lasting bond. They navigate their lives – sharing confidences and allegiances, tragedies and achievements. Central to this story is Franny, who as an adult begins a love affair with Leon Posen, a celebrated writer looking for his next commercial success. He finds it in Franny’s family and the novel he writes exposes fault lines, mends fences, rights wrongs and assuages guilt.

As happened with her novel Bel Canto, I found myself falling madly in love with these characters and their very human-ness. The novel twists around itself, moving backwards and forwards in time – jumping years and characters. Sometimes we get just a taste of a character and their life, sometimes we are fully immersed. I never felt short-changed because I didn’t know everything about everyone; I didn’t mind the novel’s elliptical narrative. That’s life, isn’t it? Days and days of sameness marked by little heartbeats of pain or sorrow or happiness. Patchett manages to capture those heartbeats beautifully and there are moments in this book that took my breath away.

Commonwealth made me consider how we are our memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And sometimes, as Franny remarks, there are stories we need to keep for ourselves.

Highly recommended.

 

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

Louise is a single mom to six-year-old Adam. She has a penchant for wine, smokes (although not in front of her son) and could stand to lose a few pounds.

My life is a blur of endless routine. I get Adam up and get him to school. If I’m working and want to get in early, he goes to breakfast club. If I’m not working, I may spend an hour or so browsing charity shops for designer castoffs that will fit the clinic’s subtly expensive look. Then it’s just cooking, cleaning, shopping until Adam comes home and then it’s homework, tea, bath, story, bed for him, and wine and bad sleep for me.

Adele is a the wife of David, a doctor. Their marriage is clearly rocky, The new house, David’s new practice, the fact that Adele is beautiful, none of it seems to make any difference.

Why can’t he still love me? Why can’t our life been as I’d hoped, as I’d wanted, after everything I’ve done for him? We have plenty of money. He has the career he’d dreamed of. I have only ever tried to be the perfect wife and give him the perfect life.

Adele and Louise take turns narrating in Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. behindTheir lives intersect when Louise meets David at a bar and they share a ‘moment’ and then she discovers he’s her new boss and then she bumps into Adele (literally) in the street. Louise is charmed by Adele who seems wholly glamorous and somehow innocent. Adele takes Louise on as a project, encouraging her to quit smoking and join the gym. Soon the women are sharing a close friendship which is complicated by the fact that Louise is in love with David and pretty soon the two have moved from the ‘moment’ to a full-on relationship.

Behind Her Eyes is full of conveniences. Louise’s ex-husband takes Adam away to France for a month leaving Louise the freedom to sleep with David and have coffee with Adele. She is bereft of friends except for Sophie, an unemployed actress married to a music exec. Despite the fact that Sophie continually sleeps around on her husband, she turns sanctimonious when discussing Louise’s affair with David, telling her that “having an affair is a big enough secret and not one you’re really cut out for.” Louise and Adele bond over the fact that they both suffer from night terrors.

The novel drops a breadcrumb trail of then, which allows the reader a glimpse into Adele’s murky past – parents killed a fire that destroyed part of the estate where she grew up, a stint in some sort of care facility, a close friendship with a fellow patient, Rob. In the now, Adele is less transparent. She is clearly duplicitous, we’re just not sure how or why.

Behind Her Eyes was a book club pick and although some of the women in my group enjoyed reading the book – even I did to a point – I don’t think any of us would say we loved it. I definitely didn’t. Perhaps you could argue that the clues were there all along and I know all the BIG NAME  readers out there loved the novel’s twist, but for me – I just felt cheated. Way too deus ex machina for me.

That said – I am in the minority for sure and if nothing else, Behind Her Eyes will get you turning the pages.

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

kindworthI have been in a bit of a reading slump this year – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering we are only two months in. The first couple of books I read at the start of 2017 were lackluster at best, and I just haven’t been able to find my reading groove. Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing may have actually changed all that.

Lily Kintner and Ted Severson meet in a bar at Heathrow. Over martinis,  Ted discloses a few details about his life including the fact that he thinks his wife, Miranda, is having an affair with Brad,  the contractor that is building their dream home in a coastal town in Maine.

Ted admits to Lily that he wants to kill his wife. Perhaps even more unusual, Lily offers to help. It might take a teensy bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that a cuckolded husband would meet a beautiful woman in a bar in a foreign country who expresses a desire to help him plan his wife’s murder, but stranger things have surely happened.

Once on the plane, Lily suggests that “…since we’re on a plane, and it’s a long flight, and we’re never going to see each other again, let’s tell each other the absolute truth. About everything.” During the trans-Atlantic flight, the two reveal tidbits both mundane and philosophical. Lily remarks: “…everyone is going to die eventually. If you killed your wife you would only be doing to her what would happen anyway. And you’d save other people from her. She’s a negative.”

Lily isn’t quite as forthcoming about her life as Ted is about his. Her story is revealed in alternating chapters. The daughter of  bohemian academics, Lily is an intelligent, thoughtful child. Through her eyes, we learn about growing up in “Monk’s House,” a Victorian mansion  deep in the Connecticut woods, about an hour from New York City.

There was never only one guest at Monk’s House, especially in the summertime when my parents’ teaching duties died down and they could focus on what they truly loved –  drinking and adultery. I don’t say that in order to make some sort of tragedy of my childhood. I say it because it’s the truth.

Lily has a skewed morality, but it’s the very thing that makes her such a fascinating character. She’s a charming psychopath, and it’s almost impossible not to like her, to root for her, even. She’s  – by far –  the most interesting of cast of characters in Swanson’s novel. She reminded me a little bit of Alice Morgan, a character in the brilliant BBC crime series, Luther. (If you haven’t ever seen the show, you must watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix.)

There are twists and turns aplenty in The Kind Worth Killing. The plot did unravel slightly for me towards the end, but that in no way undermined my enjoyment of the shenanigans these people got up to.

The Kind Worth Killing was a whim purchase for me. I needed a book for my book club and this one was popular on Litsy. I am pleased to report that everyone in my group really enjoyed the book, even though it was definitely a departure from the sort of stuff we normally read.

This is a page-turner.

The Last September – Nina de Gramont

Brett loves Charlie. He’s the older brother of lastsepther best friend, Eli. She and Eli are students in Colorado and one stormy night they attend a party and Charlie is there, too, his flight delayed because of the storm.

That day, the first day I ever saw him, he had three days’ worth of stubble. He wore a thin black thread around his neck, beaded with a smooth lapis stone that matched the color of his eyes.  When I looked at him, his lips slid up at the corners. My heart lurched. I don’t know why. It lurched toward him and refused – stubbornly – to ever lurch away.

Nina De Gramont’s book The Last September takes zero time to hook you by the throat and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. I really couldn’t put this book down. On the surface it’s a love story. But it’s a love story that goes horribly wrong because by the end of the first sentence we learn that Charlie is dead. Brett tells us “Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle.” By the end of the first page we’ll know that Charlie has been murdered.

Their love story unfolds in flashback. When the novel opens, Charlie, Brett and their toddler daughter, Sarah, are living in Charlie’s family cottage at Cape Cod Bay. Brett is finishing her PhD dissertation; Charlie is doing odd jobs.  On this particular day, Brett is frustrated with Charlie, a feeling not at all out of place in most marriages. When Charlie mentions that Eli had called and that he wanted to come for a visit, Brett is reluctant to see her old friend because “the last time we saw Charlie’s brother he’d dropped an enormous amount of weight and begun scribbling notes on his jeans and forearms.”

I have guilty reading pleasure buttons and, I have to say, The Last September hit every single one of them. Angsty love affair. Check. Unbearable suspense. Check. Heartbreak. Check. Check.

What happened to Eli? What happened to Charlie? What happens when Ladd, Brett’s former fiancé arrives back in town? If this sounds suspiciously like Peyton Place, you’re not wrong. But, omg, The Last September is so much fun to read. The writing is luminous and so even when I didn’t 100% buy the plot twists, it didn’t matter because I just wanted to find out what had happened to Charlie and I wanted to know that Brett was going to survive the grief.

Highly recommended.

 

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls, the debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly,  is the first novel for my book club’s 2016-17 reading year. When it was chosen I can’t say that I was all that interested in reading it. We have all summer to read the book chosen for our first meeting of the new reading year, but I tend to like to read fast, snappy thrillers/mysteries in the summer – with the occasional YA or lit fic thrown into the mix. Also – not a tremendous fan of historical fiction. But I always read the book club selection because our get-togethers are a lot more fun when I’ve read the book. All this to say that I started this novel with a relatively negative attitude.

Lilac book jacketKelly’s novel tells the story of three very different women: New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, Polish teenager, Kasia Kuzmerick and German doctor Herta Oberheuser. It is 1939 and the one thing these women have in common is Adolf Hitler.

Caroline is 37 when the story opens. She’s a retired actress who volunteers at the French consulate. Kasia is just 16 when Germany invades Poland and changes her life forever. She is working as a courier for the underground resistance movement when she and her older sister, Zuzanna, and their mother are arrested and shipped off to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. It is there that she encounters Herta, a young doctor who has taken a post at the camp because it is difficult for women in the medical field to find work.

The novel is told in three separate first person narratives and once the book gets going it’s almost impossible not to be carried along by the horrors of Ravensbruck and Kasia’s desperate attempts to survive. There’s also a little angsty love story between Caroline and famous French actor Paul Rodierre.  I read the first 200 pages in one sitting.

Caroline and Herta are real people, as Kelly explains in her notes. Kazia and her sister are

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Caroline Ferriday

“loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her physician sister, Krystyna, both operated on in the camps.”

It is almost impossible not to invest in these characters, and the sections concerning Kasia in Ravensbruck are particularly harrowing. There, she and her sister are among hundreds of women used as real-life guinea pigs (or “rabbits” as they are called) for the Ravensbruck doctors to experiment on. Herta’s participation in these horrific experiments,  crimes that are against every aspect of the Hippocratic oath, seal her fate as a villain.

The book is long and the ending seemed a little rushed to me and I could never figure out the title or the dumb book cover- which makes it seem like three girls are the best of friends. I also wasn’t fussy about Kasia and Herta’s showdown, but ultimately Lilac Girls was a good read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the story of sisters Euphemia (Esme) and Kitty and while the novel’s first line announces that the story begins “with two girls at a dance”, the story really begins in India, where Kitty and Esme live with their parents. There, one hot afternoon, Esme, aged four and a half,  recalls an insect getting caught in her ear and letting “out another piercing shriek.” She staggers around the lawn until the insect crawls out of her ear. “Could this be her earliest memory?” she wonders. “It might be. A beginning of sorts – the only one she remembers.”

250729This is also the story of Iris, Kitty’s granddaughter, owner of a small vintage clothing store, and half-heartedly involved with a married man.

The narrative jumps around a lot: present day, India,  Edinburgh in the 1930s after Esme and Kitty and their parents return from India. To confuse matters even more, Kitty now suffers from dementia and her fragmented thoughts are part of O’Farrell’s narrative. If it sounds complicated, it’s actually not.

The main part of the story is Esme’s. The psychiatric hospital where she has spent the last sixty years of her life is closing and she needs to be moved. Kitty clearly can’t care for her – she’s in a nursing home herself. It falls to Iris to look after a woman she’s never met and knows nothing about. When Iris finally meets her great aunt, she seems quite sane.

Iris had, she realises, been expecting someone frail or infirm, a tiny geriatric, a witch from a fairy tale. But this woman is tall, with an angular face and searching eyes. She has an air of slight hauteur, the expression arch, the eyebrows raised.

Esme is a fascinating character and her story is both heartbreaking and compelling. She is a victim of the time, of family tragedy and the will of others, yet she remains somehow sane. She wanted an education, but her parents wanted her to make a good marriage.  The circumstances of her incarceration are revealed to the reader through the novel’s layered narrative and it’s more than enough to keep you turning the pages.

However, I do feel there was more to be said. I was particularly drawn to Iris’s story and her relationship with her brother, Alex, and that felt (in some ways) like another book entirely. Some people probably won’t like the way The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox finishes, but I didn’t mind how it ended. I think my overall reaction to the book was that it was lightweight despite the novel’s more serious themes. Easy to read, sad, but somehow sort of superficial.

The Paris Wife – Paula McLain

I wouldn’t consider myself an Ernest Hemingway fan by any stretch. Perhaps I read him when I was too young to appreciate his spare and muscular prose. For some reason I always thought of him as a misogynist, although I couldn’t say how I came to that conclusion. He has been criticized for his portrayal of women in his work, so my opinion has clearly been borrowed from something else I’ve read. I do know, however, that he is a significant figure in American literature even if neither the man nor the myth was all that interesting to me as a reader.

parisNow, after reading Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife I have to admit to being quite curious about Hemingway and his writing. I think I might come at it a little differently now compared to the way I approached him as a young university student.

The Paris Wife is a fictional account of the relationship between a young Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The pair meet through mutual friends in Chicago in 1920. “The very first thing he does,” Hadley says, “is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes…”

Hadley is 28 and has come to Chicago from St. Louis after the death of her mother. Hemingway is just 20 and “seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn’t any fear in him…just intensity and aliveness.” For Hadley, who says that her life was “stuck” long before her mother’s death, Hemingway is a revelation. When Hemingway announces that he intends on being an important writer, Hadley remarks “I thought poets were quiet and shrinking and afraid of sunlight.” Hemingway is a force and Hadley has no choice but to be swept along with him.

After Hadley returns to St. Louis, the two begin a correspondence which ends in a wedding proposal.  Once they are married, the two return to Chicago briefly before setting sail for Paris. Why Paris? Sherwood

Hadley and Ernest on their wedding day Sept 3, 1921.

Hadley and Ernest on their wedding day Sept 3, 1921.

Anderson (author of the book Winesburg, Ohio, which I’ve never heard of but apparently both the writer and the book were a big deal back in the day) tells Hemingway “…if you want to do any serious work, Paris is the place to be. That’s where the real writers are now.”

Anderson was right, of course. Paris in the 20’s was a mecca for writers and artists, a literary (and artistic) who’s who. Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald,  and Archibald MacLeish are just a few of the celebs who enter the Hemingways’ orbit once they find themselves in the City of Light at the end of 1921. This collection of literati came to be known as “The Lost Generation,” a term coined by Stein but made popular in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. The term refers to those who came of age after the First Word War.

McLain’s novel does an exceptional job of capturing the literary scene of the time – its parties and squabbles, jealousies and intrigues – but also the relationship between Ernest and Hadley. There is no question they loved each other deeply and in Hemingway’s own memoir about his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, he writes “I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her.”

I may have to rethink my position on Hemingway. I may have to read A Moveable Feast. I certainly recommend The Paris Wife especially if you love literary name dropping and Paris. Even if you don’t love those things, McLain’s novel is a delight.