A Brief Lunacy – Cynthia Thayer

Jessie and Carl have been married for many years, happy years from the sounds of things. They are spending some time at their isolated cottage in the woods in Maine. Their lives together have fallen into a rhythm that will be recognizable to most people; they have a shorthand. But things for the pair are about to become complicated.

Cynthia Thayer’s novel A Brief Lunacy examines the fault lines in a marriage. 15CE5884-6960-432B-8415-E41334905966Sometimes those cracks don’t appear until something remarkable happens and the catalyst in this novel is the arrival of  Jonah, a mysterious young man who turns up at their cottage, claiming to have had all his camping gear stolen. Carl insists Jonah head up the road to the highway, but Jonah finagles his way into a dinner invitation and crashing on the couch for the night. In the morning, all hell breaks loose.

It turns out that Jonah isn’t exactly who he says he is. In fact, he’s Jessie and Carl’s daughter Sylvie’s boyfriend. Earlier that day, they’d received a call from the care facility where Sylvia has been living as a psychiatric patient to inform them that she’d gone missing. Jonah’s arrival is no coincidence. He’s come to get to know Carl and Jessie and his arrival forces them to reveal things about themselves to each other that they never expected to divulge. Carl, in particular, has been harbouring a dark secret for decades.

Despite the fact that I found the way that Carl and Jessie spoke to each other rather stilted, I still found A Brief Lunacy a compelling book. The whole encounter between the couple and Jonah lasts under 24 hours, but it’s pretty intense. Bad things happen. Jonah, it won’t take readers long to figure out, is completely unhinged.

A Brief Lunacy has lots to say about survival and what we are willing to do to save ourselves and those we love.

 

White Fur – Jardine Libaire

2A9B3047-F747-494D-9D63-8CA23DE73869Funny, or maybe not, that the book I read right after Normal People was also about a love affair between two young people. Jardine Libaire’s novel White Fur shares a couple similarities with Sally Rooney’s novel; both books concern couples who are from very different social classes and both pairs of lovers have fraught relationships.

Jamey Hyde is a student at Yale when he meets Elise Perez. She lives next door to Jamey with Robbie, the guy who rescued her from sleeping in a parked car. Jamey and Elise couldn’t be more different, and you know what they say about opposites attracting.

“Is she frightening? Is she pretty?”

That’s what Jamey and his roommate, Matt, think when they first meet Elise and the truth is she is both. She’s run away from a messy home life, and she doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

She didn’t leave home last summer with a plan. Twenty years old, she never finished high school, she was half-white and half-Puerto Rican, childless, employed at the time, not lost and not found, not incarcerated, not beautiful and not ugly and not ordinary. She doesn’t check any box…

In some ways she is almost too tough, but something about her exerts a magnetic pull for Jamey. He’s heir to a vast family fortune and has never really had to work for anything in his life. Instead of making him a spoiled brat, though, he’s actually a decent guy. Before he even meets Elise, his life is sliding sideways. He and Elise shouldn’t work, but they actually make a strange kind of sense.

When the novel opens, Elise is holding a shotgun to Jamey’s chest and from there the novel flashes back to unravel the tale of their meeting, their tremendous sexual attraction, and their crazy summer in New York City.  Because you want to know how they ended up in a motel in Wyoming with a gun, it’s easy to turn the pages and Kirkus called this book one of “11 Thrillers for Summer.” But this isn’t really a thriller.

This is a book about love, about making your own way in the world in spite of the odds against you and in spite  of the privileges you’ve been given. The writing is beautiful and these are characters you won’t soon forget.

White Fur probably would have meant something different to me if I had read it 40 years ago, back when all my relationships felt a little bit like this one. I could relate, on many levels, to the crazy intensity these two felt for each other. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as a woman of a certain age because I enjoyed it a great deal.

 

 

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 Dutch House – Ann Patchett

dutchI think some authors could write about paint drying and it would be worth reading. Ann Patchett is one of those authors. The Dutch House  is the third book I’ve read by Patchett (Bel Canto, Commonwealth),  and it did not disappoint.

Danny and Maeve grow up in the Dutch House, a gorgeous jewel-box of a house in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. The house seems to “float several inches above the hill it sat on.”  Danny and Maeve’s father, Cyril,  had bought the house as a surprise for their mother, Elna, but she didn’t like the house – or so the story goes – and left the family for parts unknown. When the novel opens, Danny and Maeve are 8 and 15 respectively, and being introduced to their father’s ‘friend’, Andrea and her two young daughters Norma and Bright. The arrival of Andrea into their lives changes everything for the siblings.

The Dutch House is not a linear story. It bounces back and forth through time, covering roughly fifty years. Not every writer could manage this sort of narrative as easily as Patchett does. Although the perspective is Danny’s, readers will come to know and love (or hate) many other characters, most notably Maeve, who is the centre of Danny’s world.

She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework  and kissed me every morning before we went our separate  ways to school and again at night  before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.

When Andrea turfs them from their house, their lives are thrown into chaos. They find themselves parking in front of the Dutch House over the years, reminiscing about and redacting their past, never quite able to let go. In some ways, their lives are halted by this connection to a place.

Not much happens in the novel, but at the same time everything happens. Danny and Maeve’s  lives and relationship are the story,  which makes sense, really. As we’re waiting for our own plots to unfold, life is actually happening all around us. The bitter feelings Maeve clings to derail her life, but we don’t really understand that until her mother turns up out of the blue. Or we see what ends up happening to Andrea.

Patchett has written characters you will absolutely come to care about and given them lives which should remind us to care more deeply about our own, and the people we share them with.

Highly recommended.

The Current – Tim Johnston

the currentI was so excited to get my hands on Tim Johnston’s novel The Current. I gazed longingly at the hardcover every time I went to the book store, but I rarely spring for a hardcover unless they’re on sale. Then one day: paperback. I dropped everything that I was reading to deep dive into it.

I read Johnston’s novel Descent three years ago and I loved it. I often recommend it to others because it is the perfect combination of page-turning-thriller and thoughtful family drama. The Current examines some of the same themes but is, in some ways, even more ambitious.

College students Caroline and Audrey are on their way to Audrey’s hometown in Minnesota. Audrey’s father, former sheriff,  is dying of cancer and Audrey wants to spend some time with him. They are almost there when they have an ‘accident’ and their vehicle is plunged into the icy river. Only Audrey survives. That seems spoiler-y. I know, but that much information is provided for the reader on the back of the book.

As Audrey recovers, her father, Tom,  sets out to discover just what happened to the girls because, well, this wasn’t quite an accident. And this wasn’t the only time the river had claimed a life. Ten years ago, Holly Burke, 19, had turned up dead in the river. Her father, Gordon, shows up at the hospital to remind Audrey’s father about the fact that his daughter’s murder was never solved.

…I just kept asking myself: What would Sheriff Sutter do differently now, if it was his girl instead of that other one who didn’t make it? What would he do for himself that he didn’t do for me?

Holly’s murder has haunted Tom Sutter and as Audrey recovers, it begins to haunt her as well, although she was only a child when Holly was killed. Their stories, though, begin to twine around each other, and many other people are swept along in that current.

Unlike Descent, which is very tightly focused on the Courtland family, The Current, drifts in and out of the lives of other characters, specifically Rachel Young and her sons Mark and Danny. Danny was a prime suspect in Holly’s murder, but there’d never been enough evidence to convict him. Gordon and Rachel had been close, but of course that friendship had ended.

Danny and Mark are characters that will really stay with me. Danny’s whole life is changed by the accusations made against him and even when he returns to visit his mother, the past is always nipping at his heels. Mark is somewhere on the spectrum and is tasked with filling in for his brother when he leaves. I worried about these guys. A lot. That’s saying something since in some ways they are peripheral to Audrey’s story. Still, I loved them.

Johnston is gifted when it comes to characterization. These people seem wholly human: frail and foolish, damaged and determined. The whole town seems stuck, somehow; no one has recovered from Holly’s murder. The novel is filled with moments of heartbreaking kindness, bravery and selflessness. And the town they live in: secrets galore.

And yes, you’ll want to know whodunit, but that’s actually the least interesting part of this masterful book.

If Tim Johnston is not yet on your reading radar, he should be. Highly recommended.

 

Out of Sight – Isabelle Grey

Out of Sight, by British writer Isabelle Grey, is the story of  Patrickoutofsight Hinde, a homeopath who, when the novel opens, lives with his wife, Belinda, and young son, Daniel, in Brighton. He has a happy life, for the most part, except for the stress brought on when his parents visit. He seems to be a bottled up sort of fellow and although he is capable of offering impartial advice to his patients, I wonder if he wouldn’t benefit from his own advice. As the novel goes on, readers will become aware of Patrick’s own emotional trauma, a condition he describes as “An inherited predisposition…something that leaves a residue which has a negative impact on the vital force.”

Flash forward five years and meet Patrice (aka Patrick) who is now living in the house his grandmother Josette left him in France. Leonie, another Brit who is working in the same small town as a letting agent for holiday properties, meets Patrice and is immediately smitten. Patrice proves to be a bit cagey, but despite his reticence to share feelings or disclose too much about his life, Leonie sets her romantic sights on him.

Leonie, for her part, is still recovering from a recent break-up. You’d think she’d know better than to put all her romantic eggs into Patrice’s clearly flawed basket, but she’s keen on him. The heart wants what it wants, that sort of thing, even though Patrice tells her he doesn’t “want [her] thinking he’s a good bet when [he’s] not.”

Patrice’s reluctance to get too involved with Leonie is legitimate. There’s nothing sinister about it, though, although you might be mislead by the novel’s tagline “A moment of madness. A family changed forever.” For some reason I was under the impression that Out of Sight  was going to be sort of a thriller and it’s really not.

I didn’t dislike Out of Sight, but I didn’t love it either. I found Leonie tiresome and although I don’t dispute the fact that Patrick’s trauma is worthy of sympathy, at the end of the day the book lacked any real emotional heft for me.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)