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 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.

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.