The Headmaster’s Wife – Thomas Christopher Greene

The Headmaster’s Wife is my second outing with Thomas Christoper Green. I read his headmaster's wifenovel Envious Moon almost a decade ago. The Headmaster’s Wife has been on my tbr shelf for quite a while, and I read it in one sitting.

Arthur Winthrop is headmaster/Literature teacher at Lancaster School, an elite boarding school in Vermont. When we first meet him, he’s walking through Central Park reminiscing about a time he’d visited the park with his wife, Elizabeth, and their young son, Ethan. That was years ago, though. Now “standing on the same path…he gives up trying to find this memory.” Instead, he disrobes and starts walking. “All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him.”

Of course he is scooped up by the police, and in the interrogation room he tells the story of Betsy Pappas, a young student in his Russian Literature class. At first, Arthur is attracted to Betsy’s mind, but soon he becomes almost obsessed with her. The novel tracks Arthur’s increasingly desperate attempts to woo and possess Betsy.

At the halfway point – after a wallop of a revelation – the story switches its focus to Elizabeth Winthrop. Her story, about being a student at Lancaster, fills in some backstory and allows a glimpse into her marriage to Arthur. It also allows us to meet, however briefly, the Winthrop’s son, Ethan, whose own story is the catalyst for some of the drama in their marriage.

I don’t want to spoil anything because one of the delights of this books (if you can actually call a novel about grief ‘delightful’) is letting the pieces of this puzzle click together in their own time. This is a book that sort of reads like a mystery, but isn’t that what life is at the end of the day? An unfathomable mystery.

Greene suffered a personal tragedy while writing this book. It’s highly worth reading his acknowledgments if this is something you generally skip when you read.

Highly recommended.

The Family Upstairs – Lisa Jewell

familyupstairsJust when I thought nothing was going to really distract me from this Covid-19 craziness, I dove into Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs. I am a Jewell fan to begin with and I usually have a couple unread books by her on my shelf…you know, in case of a reading emergency. I think this pandemic qualifies and, Holy Smokes, did this book ever deliver.

There are three separate narratives in this novel. There’s Libby, a twenty-five-year-old kitchen designer who lives in St. Albans, a commuter suburb just north of London. On her birthday, she receives notice that she has inherited a house in Chelsea, an extremely desirable London neighbourhood. (And by desirable I mean the house is worth millions…of pounds.) The thing is, the house comes with some baggage…including three dead bodies.

That’s Henry Lamb’s story to tell. He grew up in that house with his parents and younger sister. His father was “the sole beneficiary of his own father’s fortune” and his mother was “a rare beauty.” When Henry is eleven and his sister nine, their lives begin to unravel. First of all, Mr. Lamb has squandered the family fortune and then Birdie Dunlop-Evers and her partner, Justin,  arrive.

It all happened so slowly, yet so extraordinarily quickly, the change to our parents, to our home, to our lives after they arrived. But that first night, when Birdie appeared on our front step with two large suitcases and a cat in a wicker box, we could have never guessed the impact she would have, the other people she would bring into our lives, that it would all end the way it did.

The third story belongs to Lucy, a woman we meet in Cote d’Azure where she is living rough with her two young children, Marco and Stella. With no money, and no passport, Lucy must make a difficult choice to protect her children and save herself.

What do these three very distinct and separate stories have to do with each other? Obviously I am not going to tell you, but let’s just say this…I literally could NOT put this book down. Jewell’s trademark is writing twisty plots filled with secrets dying to be revealed. The added bonus is that she’s a great writer and her characters are always believable. Sometimes with books that depend on plot twists, characters get short shrift. Not when Jewell writes them. I happily followed the three separate story threads, trying to race ahead to see if I could figure out how they all belonged together.

The Family Upstairs has everything I love in a book: great writing, an unreliable narrator, sinister characters, secrets galore and a not-too-tidy ending. Story perfection – pandemic or not.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allegedly – Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedlyFifteen-year-old Mary, the protagonist of Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut YA novel Allegedly, lives in a group home in Brooklyn. She has a tracking device on her ankle, no friends except for her boyfriend, Ted, and a reputation for being ‘psycho.’ How did she earn that reputation? When Mary was nine she killed a three-month-old baby named Alyssa who was in Mary’s mother’s care. Well, she allegedly killed Alyssa.

Everyone in the house knows what I did. Or thinks they know what I did. No one asks though, because no one really wants to hear how I killed a baby. They don’t even want to know why I killed a baby. They just want to pretend they know for knowing’s sake.

Before she came to live in the group home, she was in a state facility with adults. She was mostly mute and mostly locked up in solitary confinement. Now, with a little more freedom, she is desperate to make something of herself. She wants to write the SAT, not as ridiculous as it sounds because she is extremely clever – everyone says so. Although she doesn’t really have any positive adults in her life (the two women who look after the group home are awful, as are the other girls who live there; her mother is self-centered zealot and has mental health issues; the court appointed counselor who visits once a week is ineffective ), Mary is determined to get an education.

This is a novel that looks at all the ways that the system fails young people who might find themselves on the fringes of society. Mary tells her own story (one of physical, emotional and sexual abuse)  without self-pity. Too young to articulate what might have actually happened on the night Alyssa died, Mary did as her mother instructed and kept her mouth shut. When she finds herself pregnant, and realizes that there is no way that the state will allow her to keep her baby, she has something to fight for.

When Mary finally finds a couple champions for her corner including a lawyer willing to investigate her claims that she’s not guilty and a teacher willing to help her prepare for the SATs, it’s hard not to root for Mary. And it’ll be hard not to turn the pages either despite the often gruesome subject matter.

Allegedly is my second novel by Tiffany D. Jackson. I read and enjoyed her book Monday’s Not Coming last year. Her work is definitely worth checking out.

Miss You – Kate Eberlen

Well, one positive side effect of  Covid-19 (or ‘the ‘rona’ as we call it in my house) is that I missingyouactually have the time to tackle some of my longer books – you know, the ones that you keep putting off reading because it feels like such a time commitment and time is definitely at a premium during the school year. And, really, what do we have right now besides loads of time?

Miss You  is British writer Kate Eberlen’s debut novel and it tells the stories, in two first person narratives, of Tess and Gus. The novel opens in  Florence; Tess is with her best friend, Doll, and Gus with his parents. They are both 18. They have a couple teensy encounters, but the sort of casual meetings you would have with a stranger. Their paths do not cross again for sixteen years. The story is really about what happens in those sixteen years.

Tess returns from her holiday excited to attend university in London. A family tragedy prevents this, and she has to ditch her plans to look after her fourteen-years-younger sister, Hope. Gus returns from his holiday and does, in fact, head off to university in London. He looks at the opportunity to escape the crushing weight of his parents’ expectations (they want him to be a doctor) and grief (Gus’s older brother, Ross, had died in a skiing accident at Christmas.)

Miss You is really a book about all the little things that can happen to you over the course of a lifetime (or part of a lifetime, at least.) We watch Tess and Gus morph from slightly awkward teens to adults in their twenties. They make mistakes in their personal lives and relationships that have consequences, and in that way they are incredibly relatable. I actually really liked both of them and spending time in their worlds was a true pleasure.

And that makes the next bit hard to say: I wasn’t a real fan of the ending. I mean, we know all along that Gus and Tess are meant to end up together – even though their initial meeting didn’t even allow them to exchange names or seem all that significant. Perhaps we are expected to buy into the notion that Gus and Tess weren’t ready for each other at eighteen. Fair enough. Their individual experiences over the next sixteen years shape them into stronger, more compassionate people, sure. My issue doesn’t really have anything to do with that. Nor does it have to do with the fact that it’s essentially fate that brings them back into each other’s orbit in, you guessed it, Italy. I think my problem was that from the moment they figure out who the other is, they’re both ALL IN. And, of course, if it’s fate, it’s fate. There’s no fighting it. And I have a romantic’s bleeding heart, trust me. It’s just, Eberlen took such care with their individual stories that their reunion should have been  – I don’t know  – something more than it was.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I love Italy, and time spent there was a delight. I loved these characters. They were human and impulsive and delightful. Probably everyone else on the planet would find their eventual union deserved and perfect. Not disagreeing. I just wish it had been allowed a little bit more breathing room.

Still, a perfect book to settle into.

 

 

My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell

vanessaI finished Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa a couple days ago, but I had to let it sit with me before I made any attempt to write about it. It tells the story of a relationship that develops between fifteen-year-old Vanessa and her English teacher, Jacob Strane, who is 42.

Jacob Strane is an imposing teacher at Browick, a boarding school in Maine, “gleaming white clapboard and brick.” When the novel opens, Vanessa is returning to Browick for her sophomore year. Her freshman year was a it of a disaster, ending in a shattered relationship with her best friend and roommate, Jenny.

A bit of a loner, Vanessa is immediately taken with Mr. Strane. It’s kind of hard to miss him.

He has wavy black hair and a black beard, glasses that reflect a glare so you can’t see his eyes, but the first thing I notice about him – the first thing anyone must notice – is his size. He’s not fat but big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space.

Encouraged by her faculty adviser, Vanessa joins the creative writing club and starts spending more and more time with Strane. He encourages her writing, talks to her like an adult, shares books and poetry with her (including, unsurprisingly, Lolita) and begins the slow and careful grooming process, which ultimately leads to their sexual relationship.

My Dark Vanessa is a difficult book to read on a lot of levels. For one, I am a teacher and Strane’s abuse of Vanessa’s trust is despicable. He manipulates her in ways that are apparent to us, but not to her. At one point he tells her “I want to be a positive presence in your life…Someone you can look back on and remember fondly, the funny old teacher who was pathetically in love with you but kept his hands to himself and was a good boy in the end.”

In some ways, Vanessa is aware of her own power over Strane. After this admission she “becomes someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I’m worthy of his love.” But even this seeming self-awareness is coloured by the fact that he has groomed her; it would take a very mature and confident person to see through Strane’s flattery and gaslighting.

The novel jumps back in forth covering the period of time when Vanessa is at Browick, in 2000, and then seven years later and seventeen years later. Vanessa revisits her relationship in light of allegations that Strane had been inappropriate (to put it mildly) with another student, possibly more than one.  It’s the beginning of the #MeToo movement, after all. The book captures how this relationship has completely derailed her life and coloured all her subsequent relationships. Even though Strane is repulsive, Vanessa seems unable to disconnect.

I wouldn’t say My Dark Vanessa was an enjoyable read, but it is compelling. It’ll make you feel squicky,  and it will frustrate you, but I don’t think you will be able to stop turning the pages. I think it’s a very accomplished debut.

There is some controversy surrounding the book. This article in The Guardian offers a comprehensive look at some of it.

 

 

 

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

One of my all-time favourite childhood movies is The Railway Children.  I don’t remember the-railway-children-26specifically when I first watched it, but it came out in 1970 and I probably saw it shortly after that. I have it on VHS somewhere, but no longer have a VHS machine. I did, however, have the book.

E. Nesbit’s story, first published in 1906, tells the story of siblings Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis who live with their well-to-do parents “in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa.” Their father works in government and their mother was always “ready to play with the children, and read to them, and help them to do their home-lessons.”

One evening, out of the blue, two men arrive at the villa and the father is “called away on business.” Afterwards, the children and their mother leave London and head out to the countryside where they will live in a “ducky dear little white house.” Although they seem to be destitute they get by. The mother is a writer and when she sells a story, the children get a treat of buns.

The children occupy their days with adventures, including making friends with the porter at the local railway station and an old gentleman who waves at them from the window of the 9:15 train they nickname the Green Dragon. There is pretty much nothing sweeter than what these three kids get up to. They are thoughtful, resilient, and kind. Revisiting their story was like being wrapped in a warm hug and Bobbie’s sentiments seemed particularly poignant given the circumstances in which we find ourselves at this point in history:

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be un – friends.