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 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.

 

 

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

F96E7CCB-2F2E-4033-A1CA-9F4483B1F637A friend once told me that I was the most romantic person they’d ever met. I don’t actually think that’s true. Or, if it used to be true, it’s not true anymore. I think I am cynical about romance now and it’s through that cynical lens I read Nina George’s much lauded novel The Little Paris Bookshop which made me cringe on so, so many levels.

Jean Perdu (and as I was pointing out some of the novel’s cringe-ier moments, my son said “Perdu means lost, mom”) is a “literary apothecary”. Basically, he can find the right book for what ails you. Geesh, I can do that out of my classroom library, but whatever. He lives in Paris and sells books out of a barge docked on the Seine.

One day, a new woman moves into his apartment building. She’s left her husband and has nothing, so the concierge of his building asks if he might have a table to loan her. He does; the problem is that this table is in a room that he blocked off with a wall of books twenty years ago. For reasons.

The delivery of the table sets off a whole chain of events. The woman, Catherine, finds a letter in the table and it is this letter (and Perdu’s sudden and unexpected feelings for Catherine) which set the novel’s main narrative in motion. Because suddenly Perdu knows what happened to Manon (simply called ———-, for the first part of the story because, clearly, it’s too painful for Perdu to even say her name), the LOVE of his life. She disappeared twenty years ago and for twenty years Perdu has been healing others with his books, but not healing himself. (INSERT EYEROLL)

When he gets his first erection of the last twenty years, Perdu has no choice but to RUN AWAY. He hops onto his barge, about to make a clean getaway when suddenly he is joined by Max Jordan, a wunderkind writer who is now suffering from crippling writer’s block. So, the two of them float down the Seine – Perdu in an effort to bury the past and Max just because.  Along the way, they pick up one more guy, Cuneo.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a road trip bromance sort of novel filled with pithy observations about the world and set-pieces designed to show these dudes as enlightened beings. The women in the novel are props. Everyone is thoughtful and forgiving and treacly.

I had high hopes for this book. Paris (which I visited for the first time in July 2018), books: what’s not to love? I thought.

Le sigh.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

155356C2-E75D-4FCF-8F1B-CEB6EB1DA2B9Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is not like anyone else you have likely met before. She has worked in the same office for the last nine years, she has no friends and she lives on a diet of vodka and pizza or pasta and pesto. Her life is structured and predictable, right down to her weekly calls from “Mummy.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Eleanor is actually not completely fine. She is pretty much the loneliest person I have ever met. She has no aptitude for social niceties; she says whatever pops into her head. It makes it difficult for her co-workers to warm up to her. Her mother is particularly harsh.   When she wins tickets to a concert and asks one of her office mates to accompany her, she becomes the butt of the joke because as everyone knows “she’s mental.”

Enter Raymond. He’s the new office IT guy. When he comes to fix Eleanor’s computer she notes that “he was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog lying on tops of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly….All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink.”

It’s funny that Eleanor dismisses Raymond as she has, similarly, been dismissed by others. She is aware of her own appearance, her “face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional.” But Raymond doesn’t seem to see Eleanor’s appearance – or care much either way, at least, and is persistent and the two become unlikely friends.

The stuff that comes out of Eleanor’s mouth is often funny. She has no filter and doesn’t seem to take offence to the things she hears, even when she is the subject of ridicule. When an office mate makes a cruel joke at her expense, Eleanor admits that she “laughed at that one, actually.” Her world is very black and white. When she and Raymond stumble upon an elderly man in distress, Eleanor is tasked with keeping him calm.

…don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. You’re a fortunate man, I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation.

Oh, Eleanor.

It is Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond that starts to crack open her insular, dysfunctional life. The more we know of her story, the more amazing she becomes. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you long after you’ve closed the final pages and you will leave her knowing that she will actually be completely (mostly) fine.