The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan

paintedgirlsCathy Marie Buchanan has taken French Impressionist Edgar Degas’  famous statue, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and spun it into a piece of historical fiction that will probably really appeal to some people, but with which I had a love/hate relationship. The Painted Girls is the story of sisters Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, who live with their widowed, absinthe addicted mother and younger sister, Charlotte, in Paris in 1878.

The novel alternates between elder sister Antoinette’s story and Marie’s as they struggle to survive extreme poverty and a mother who just doesn’t seem capable of taking care of them. The only way out of their dire situation is if Marie makes it into the Paris Opera (Antoinette tried, but didn’t have the talent) as a ballet dancer.

With the news that Maman is sending us to the dance school, Charlotte threads her fingers together, knuckles whitening as she works to hide her joy. I keep my face still, my dismay to myself. The petit rats – the scrawny, hopeful girls, vying for the quickest feet, the lightest leap, the prettiest arms – are babies, like Charlotte, some as young as six. It puts my nerves jumping, the idea of me – a thirteen-year-old –  lost among them at the barre, rats who earn their name by scurrying along the Opera corridors, hungry and dirty and sniffing out crumbs of charity.

It is here that she comes to the attention of Mr. Degas, who hires her to model for him. Marie wants something more for her life and she is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. That is not to say that she consistently makes wise choices, only that the desire for a better life is what drives her.

Antoinette’s journey is slightly more bumpy. She has already been turned out of the ballet as she is too old and not talented enough. She understands Marie’s talents, though, and works to ensure she has the lessons she needs to progress and food in her belly. Then she meets Emile Abadie, a shifty boy who  “is not much to look at …with that scrub-brushy hair of his creeping low on his forehead and his black eyes sinking too deep beneath the weighty ridge of his brow and his jaw looking like the sort of those on dogs it is best to steer away from in the streets.” Emile is a charmer though and even when he abuses Antoinette, she stays by his side.

The Painted Girls evokes the Belle Époque  period in Paris, a period which is, ironically, characterized by optimism. Art, music, literature and scientific discoveries all flourished during the period and Buchanan makes the most of them including bringing Zola’s masterpiece L’Assommoir to the stage.

Despite the novel’s merits (and there are many) I found the book overwritten. Not badly written, the language is often quite beautiful, just over-written. The sisters’ journey was intriguing, I am a fan of both the ballet and Degas, but at times I have to admit that it was a bit of a slog.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.

A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England.  Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.

When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.

The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.

A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.

I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going.  The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.


Room – Emma Donoghue

Today I am five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I woke up in Bed in the dark I am changed to five abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

Jack is the narrator of Emma Donoghue’s stunning novel, Room. (Yes, I am late to the bandwagon; everyone and their dog was talking about this book when it first came out. But you all know I buy more books than it will ever be possible for me to read, right?)

From the book’s opening scene until I closed the novel a few hours later I was totally mesmerized by Jack and his Ma and the eleven by eleven world they lived in, their ‘Room.’  Jack and Ma live in this Room because of Old Nick, a predator who kidnapped Ma when she was 19 and has held her captive for seven years. Room is a prison, but it’s also the only home Jack has ever known. He doesn’t understand Outside, but he’s curious and  Ma knows that time is running out. They must find a way to escape.

Jack is a mesmerizing character and although it was risky to allow the story be told entirely through him, it’s a risk that pays off.  His worldview is so naive. He has no real concept of time (his sixth birthday will happen next week, his birthday cake takes hours and hours to make) and he believes that the people in TV “are made just of colors.”  His world is structured: sleep, eat, exercise, watch TV, read. His only playmate is his mother, but even through his innocent eyes he can see that Ma is struggling. Sometimes she spends entire days “Gone.” Sometimes she displays emotions Jack is unable to understand.

What wakes me up is a noise over and over. Ma’s not in bed. There’s a bit of light, the air’s still icy. I look over the edge, she’s in the middle of Floor going thump thump thump with her hand. “What did Floor do?”

Ma stops, she puffs out a long breath. “I need to hit something,” she says, but I don’t want to break anything.”

“Why not?”

“Actually, I’d love to break something. I’d love to break everything.”

“I don’t like her like this. “What’s for breakfast?”

Room is a remarkable achievement. It reads like a thriller; I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. But it is also a beautiful testament to the power of love. What wouldn’t Ma do for Jack? Even more amazing, is what Jack is willing and able to do for Ma. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.

Highly recommended.

Rape: A Love Story – Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates wastes no time cutting to the chase in her novella, Rape: A Love Story.

After she was gang – raped, kicked and beaten and left to die on the floor of the filthy boathouse at Rocky Point Park. After she was dragged into the boathouse by the five drunken guys – unless there were six, or seven – and her twelve-year-old daughter with her screaming Let us go! Don’t hurt us! Please don’t hurt us!

Teena  Maguire and her 12 – year – old daughter, Bethie, leave a July 4th party after midnight and cut through Rocky Point Park.  They take a short-cut through the woods and encounter the group of drunken men – many of whom are known to Teena from around her Niagara Falls neighbourhood.

Although Bethie is beaten, she manages to escape and hide under a boat. She listens as her mother is raped and savagely beaten and left for dead. The reader is not spared from the horror of this crime, but Oates – skillful writer that she is – never crosses the line into gratuitous.

Bethie manages to attract the attention of a police officer and it happens to be Officer Dromoor, a man who knows Teena because of an encounter they’d had one night at a local bar. Dromoor is a good man –  a married father-to-be with a finely attuned sense of justice.

Teena survives the attack, but her life is forever altered. Rape: A Love Story sets about examining the ways in which this horrific incident changes her and Bethie and Dromoor and even three of the perpetrators and their families. It asks questions like was Teena dressed inappropriately and thus ‘asking for it’? Oates doesn’t offer any answers, though.

I have a love/hate relationship with Oates. There’s no denying her considerable talent, but sometimes I find her hard work. It’s not style over substance – although, no question she has some stylistic tics which take some getting used to. In Rape, she employs second person narrative (always a risky choice, imho, although clearly well-handled here), choppy sentences, and a narrative that jumps around. But, let’s face it, she’s Joyce Carol Oates.

I always want to like her more than I actually do.

So Much Pretty – Cara Hoffman

I rarely pick up a book randomly anymore, but So Much Pretty was calling my name. Not only was it calling my name, it actually jumped the pile instead of languishing on my bookshelf for months and months. Still, despite the endless glowing praise I had a hard time settling into the book. Perhaps it was the time of year I started to read it – late June, when school is busy. I took the book with me on a family holiday and while the kids were swimming, I sat on a beautiful screened porch and lost myself in Cara Hoffman’s small-town drama.

Told from multiple perspectives, So Much Pretty flips over the small town of Haeden, NY and exposes its creepy underbelly. When the body of a missing teenager, Wendy White, is discovered in Tern Woods, it kick starts an examination of several lives particularly Flynn, the brittle newspaper reporter and  Claire and Gene and their daughter, Alice, transplants from NYC. The book also includes police reports and interviews. In this way, the book is difficult to navigate at first. It really deserves to be read in one sitting because once I made time for it, it really wouldn’t let me go.

Although there is a horrific crime at the center of this book, the real crime has more to do with the ways in which people are often complicit.  Parents misreading their children; neighbours turning away from each other; individuals looking for the spotlight. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, making sure the reader understands all the players and their connections, but I feel like I missed a lot of clues – no, not even clues – signs that things were not quite right in Haeden because my mind was occupied trying to figure out how Alice was connected to Wendy. I got it horribly wrong, btw.

There are questions to be answered here, but Hoffman’s  feelings are opaque. She masterfully navigates all the pieces, but I never got the preachy feeling I often get with, say, a Jodi Picoult novel. The bulk of what happens to Wendy is left to the reader’s imagination, and her fate is far worse because of it. This would be a fantastic book club pick because of the inherent opportunities  for discussion. So, while it took me a bit to get into, I ended up loving So Much Pretty. Its copious praise is well-deserved.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

I didn’t get a chance to write my thoughts about Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, back when I actually finished it – which was in June.  The book deserves a much more thoughtful review than I am likely to give it here.

Narrated by Tony Webster, a divorced father with a grown daughter, The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on youth and the ways in which our memories are often skewed by our desire to remember ourselves differently from how we actually were.

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well,” Tony says. He also tells the reader that he is “not very interested in his schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began…”

It is at school that Tony and his friends meet Adrian Finn, “a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself.” Adrian is bright, clearly smarter than Tony and his friends – or perhaps just more thoughtful, more willing to question the subjects (particularly history) that he is being taught.

History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

At the end of school, the four boys go their separate ways.  Tony  meets a girl, Veronica Ford, and it is this relationship which sets  the story in motion. Things with Veronica end badly and when she ends up dating Adrian, Tony is hurt and angry.

How this threesome plays out makes up the bulk of the story, but it isn’t a traditional love triangle. This is really a story about who we were, who we become and how we alter our memories to accommodate our own version of ourselves.

The Sense of an Ending is one of those books which would certainly benefit from repeat readings – and trust me, it wouldn’t be a hardship. Barnes’ prose is precise and devastating. The book reads like a mystery and in a way it is – we are often mysteries to ourselves and it is only when our memories are challenged that we see the person we have been.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

If you are not easily offended, The Slap is one hell of a book. I just now randomly opened it and counted half a dozen raunchy references to sex and another half dozen expletives. Tsiolkas throws around the ‘c’ word like he’s talking about making a cup of tea. Yet, The Slap is a very human story, albeit one filled with polarizing characters.

At our book club discussion, our moderator (that’s the person who chooses the book) asked us to write the name of the most reprehensible character on a slip of paper. Then she asked us to name the most sympathetic character. She wanted our thoughts on paper before we began talking and were swayed by opposing opinions. Then we began to discuss the book – the premise of which is simple enough. A group of disparate characters gather at the Melbourne home of Hector and Aisha for a barbeque. Hector is a gorgeous Greek man and Aisha is from India and owns her own veterinary clinic. They have a couple young kids. There are cousins and parents and friends and co-workers in attendance. One of the guests slaps the face of four-year-old, Hugo, who was going to – so the slapper thought – bash his son with a cricket bat. Hugo’s parents press charges.

But The Slap isn’t really a book about what becomes of Hugo and his parents or how the trial plays out. Tsiolkas drops in and out of the lives of various characters (one at a time a la Jodi Picoult only WAY more sophisticated and profane), giving us snapshots of their lives and insight into their feelings about the slap. We don’t hear from every character at the bbq and, interestingly enough, some of the characters we do hear from seem like unusual choices. The beauty of the book, though, is that we do get to know the characters well, feeling empathy, admiration and repulsion in equal measure – sometimes all at once for the same character.

The Slap, as another member of our group pointed out, is quite unlike anything else our group has ever read…and that’s saying something considering we’ve been meeting for 13 years. It isn’t just the language – which takes some getting used to even for someone like me who has been known to drop the occasional ‘f-bomb.’ Several of us agreed that we had a visceral reaction to the book and the characters: hard drinking, racist, violent, irreverent and funny drug users – the whole lot.  The Slap is thrumming with energy. It is almost impossible to put down.

Tsiolkas has important things to say about love, though – not just the love between a man and a woman, but the love between friends,  and parents and children.

This, finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together. In this way, in love, she could secure a familiar happiness.

The Slap is an excellent novel.

The Housekeeper – Melanie Wallace

Melanie Wallace’s novel, The Housekeeper, was longlisted for The Orange Prize. For about the first 100 pages, I couldn’t figure out why. The story itself – if the synopsis is to be believed – sounded intriguing: When Jamie Hall finds a boy tied to a tree and cuts him loose, she can have no idea of the desperate chain of events her act of humanity will trigger.

Jamie is 17. When her mother dies of cancer, she leaves home with her dog and heads for Dyers Corner – the only place she has any connection to; a place her grandmother, while alive, lived. She has nothing and she seems to want nothing. She falls into a strange relationship with Damon, a married man who eventually returns to his pregnant wife. She becomes housekeeper for an elderly photographer, Margaret. Galen, a trapper, pines for her. It is winter and the stark landscape adds to Jamie’s isolation.

The boy Jamie cuts loose is wrong. “He thought of nothing in words and so gave no thought to those things he saw before him…” Jamie’s act of kindness begins a series of violent acts that culminate in a tragedy that seemed inevitable, but still left my mouth hanging open.

It took me a while to warm up to Wallace’s story and the way it was written, but once I fell into its rhythms, I loved Jamie. She is a smart and resilient character who seems to accept her lot in life without complaint. But her life is grim. And so is Wallace’s story. Spring never comes for these characters, even those who deserve it most.

The Sister by Poppy Adams

It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of almost fifty years.


Thus begins Poppy Adams’ strange debut novel, The Sister.  Narrated by the incredibly brilliant Ginny, The Sister tells the story of the sisters and their parents, Maud and Clive. They share  a crumbling English estate known as The Red House because of the Virginia Creeper. Whole areas of the house have been shut down because Clive, a moth expert, and Maud can’t afford the estate.

Ginny takes the reader back in time, to the moment that her mother brought Vivi home from the hospital “her fluffy hair sticking up and her big round eyes gazing at me”. She recounts the time Vivi fell off the bell tower, an injury which very nearly cost her her life, but which did make it impossible for her to bear children. Ginny is the keeper of the memories and is in sole possession of the secrets, too.

Why did Vivi leave, never to return? It will be left to the reader to decide whether her homecoming is worth the hype. For me, the book falls short of the opening line’s promise. I was expecting something altogether more suspenseful. Instead, Adams spends a great deal of time instructing the reader on the nature of moths – a subject that holds absolutely no interest for me- and not nearly enough time examining just what keeps two sisters apart for fifty years.

The novel is well-written, certainly, but it moved too slowly and didn’t deliver on its early promise.

Moth lovers will likely be delighted.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Almost 20 years ago I stumbled upon Donna Tartt’s fantastic novel The Secret History, a novel which has stayed with me all these years. Having recently finished her second novel (and I believe there was almost ten years between the two books), I now have an overwelming desire to re-read The Secret History to see if it’s as good as I remember. I wonder if I’ll be saying the same thing about The Little Friend in 20 years?

There’s no doubt, Tartt is a talented writer. The Little Friend is a gorgeous book, certainly a book to linger over. (It’s over 600 pages long.) It concerns 12 year old Harriet Dufresnes. On Mother’s Day, when Harriet is just an infant, her older brother, Robin, is found hanging from a tree in the yard. His murderer is never found. Harriet has decided that she will discover who has killed her brother because  while she is neither pretty or sweet, Harriet is smart.

The Little Friend is a densely-written, slow-moving novel. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s,  the novel evokes the period (without bothering to fuss with specific details) and sets a tone which it sustains throughout. Harriet is surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters including her grandmother, Edie and Edie’s unmarried sisters. Harriet’s mother, Charlotte, has never fully recovered from the loss of her son. Harriet’s father, Dix, has long since removed himself to Nashville. Harriet’s best friend, Hely, is her constant companion. Harriet’s family once had money, but they don’t any longer. They all have ‘negro’ help, though. The maid/cook/surrogate mother in Harriet’s household is Ida Rhew and Harriet loves her fiercely.

On the other side of town live the Ratliff’s: Farish, Eugene, Danny and Curtis. Farish runs a meth lab out of a trailer on the property. Eugene is a self-proclaimed preacher and Danny is addicted to the drug his brother produces. Curtis is Harriet’s age and a little on the slow side. Harriet decides that Danny is responsible for her brother’s death – something Ida told her reinforces her belief that Danny hated Robin. She and Hely set out to prove his guilt and exact their revenge.

The Little Friend isn’t really about Harriet’s quest to find a murderer, though. It is about Harriet on the cusp of adulthood; about that long, hot summer between innocence and experience. This is a novel about loss. Harriet has more to lose than she might have thought and what she learns about herself and others surely shapes the woman she will become.

This is a novel to savor. It evokes a time and place that is both familiar and exotic. I have to say, though,  that when the end came I didn’t feel all together rewarded for my time and effort. But maybe that’s exactly what it feels like to leave childhood behind.