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.)

You – Joanna Briscoe

youjoannabriscoeYou, by new-to-me author Joanna Briscoe, is the elliptical story of two families, the Bannans and the Dahls, whose lives first intersect in Dartmoor, England in the 1970s.

Dora and Patrick Bannan have moved into a dilapidated longhouse, Wind Tor House, with their children. The house is in rough shape and soon there are various “men with foxy beards and fluty women in dresses resembling aprons” living in various outbuildings on the property, ostensibly to help with the mortgage or help fix up the property with their labour.

Cecilia, the middle child, is an adult returning to Wind Tor when the novel opens. She and her partner, Ari, and their three daughters have moved back to her childhood home to help Cecilia’s mother recover from breast cancer and to hopefully patch up a rocky relationship. But the move sends her spinning back to when she was seventeen and “slender and omnipotent and powerless.”

That’s when Cecilia first meets James Dahl, an English teacher at the local school, a bohemian place called Haye House. Cecilia feels like a misfit there; she’s a bookish, dreamy girl and “she couldn’t even pretend to relax in a school where class attendance was voluntary and children swarmed naked across the lawns.” Mr. Dahl and his wife Elizabeth have come to teach at Haye House and their arrival changes everything.

At fifteen, Cecilia is almost immediately smitten with Mr. Dahl. He’s beautiful and the two bond over a shared love of literature. Briscoe does a beautiful job of capturing  those impossible feelings of longing  as Mr. Dahl opens first Cecelia’s mind and then her heart.

But James is not the only Dahl making an impression. Dora is also teaching at Haye House (Wind Tor is proving impossible to maintain and she has the marketable skills) and she is as drawn to Elizabeth Dahl as her daughter is to James.

Dora couldn’t tell anyone. It was imperative. Distraction had come upon her and yet she had barely noticed its arrival, its source was so outlandish. Elizabeth Dahl, that wife, mother, new housemistress at the school – above all, that woman – was nagging at her thoughts, staining them, unsettling her.

You hops back and forth in time as the Bannan women navigate their untenable circumstances. Dora is married and her attraction to another woman is, even in the bohemian 70s, unthinkable. James is more than 20 years older than Cecilia and their relationship is fraught. Both mother and daughter keep secrets from each other, but as we all know the truth will out. Cecilia’s return to Wind Tor reveals the fault lines and complicates her already complicated life in unexpected ways.

I loved this book. The poetic writing reminded me of one of my favourite British authors, Helen Dunmore.  It’s a book to savour, even though you desperately want to know how this riveting family drama is going to play out. And the ending….perfection, although it is perhaps slightly too loose-endy for some readers.

Highly recommended.

 

The Saturday Night Ghost Club – Craig Davidson

The ghosts in Craig Davidson’s novel The Saturday Night Ghost Club are not literal saturdaynightghosts. The ghosts haunting 1980s Niagara Falls (and man, did I love this novel’s setting – from the actual seedy city itself to the allusions to super specific Canadian touchstones like The Beachcombers) are personal.

Davidson is probably best known for his 2013 Giller Prize nominated novel Cataract City, but I have never read that book. I have read Davidson’s horror novel The Troop, though, which he wrote using the pseudonym Nick Cutter. That book was super icky, but also really good. This book, The Saturday Night Ghost Club, is not icky at all. It’s a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Stephen King – which is a compliment.

Jake Baker is a loner. He lives with his parents, spends a lot of time with his mother’s brother, Uncle Calvin, and  tries to stay out of the way of the town bully, Percy Elkins. Percy isn’t Jake’s only tormentor, but he is the kid who is, perhaps because they were once friends, relentlessly cruel.

The novel takes place the summer Jake turns 12. That’s when he meets Dove and Billy Yellowbird. When Billy shows up at Uncle Calvin’s occult shop looking for a way to contact his dead grandmother, the boys form a fast friendship.

Jake recounts this summer from the vantage point of adulthood.  Now a successful brain surgeon, Jake is fully aware that “memory is a tricky thing….memories are stories – and sometimes these stories we tell allow us to carry on. Sometimes stories are the best we can hope for. They help us to get by, while deeper levels of our consciousness slap bandages on wounds that hold the power to wreck us.” Memories are, in fact, ghosts.

Uncle Calvin suggests that the he and the boys, and Lex, Calvin’s best friend who owns the video store next door, form a sort of ghost hunting club. Calvin knows all the haunted spots in town and on Saturday nights they meet at graveyards and lakes and burned out buildings, where Calvin tells the story of whatever might have happened there. Although there are certainly some creepy moments, that’s not really what The Saturday Night Ghost Ghost Club is all about.

I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved how Canadian it was. (I know, that’s probably a weird thing.) I loved that this is a story about growing up, which is exactly what Jake does that eventful summer. He goes from being a friendless kid afraid of the monsters in his closet to being someone who is deeply empathetic. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

 

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 “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 left 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 Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani

nannyLeila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny was one of The New York Times  Top 10 books of 2018. Hmmm. It was also the winner of the Goncourt Prize. (Yeah, I’d never heard of that one, either, but apparently it’s “a prize in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Wikipedia) To me, I thought it was going to be a quick little thriller with a pedigree that was perhaps a cut above. Because go into any bookstore these days and there are about a zillion thrillers out there. How are you supposed to know what’s good?

I’ll save you the trouble: not The Perfect Nanny.

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, and Paul, her husband who is a music producer,  need someone to look after their two small children, Mila and Adam. They live in a small apartment in Paris and Myriam has recently decided to go back to work. They interview a few potential nannies, and then they meet Louise.

She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light-filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.

To Myriam, Louise is “a miracle worker.” Not only does she transform their living space, she “sews buttons back on to jackets…hems skirts…washes curtains…changes sheets…she is like Mary Poppins.”

She works her magic with the children, too and “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place.”

But of course, not all is as perfect as it seems and we know that from The Perfect Nanny‘s opening line “The baby is dead.”

Slimani weaves Louise’s backstory throughout the novel, snippets of information about her dead husband, the horrible Jacques, her MIA daughter, Stephanie, other homes and families she has worked with. Simmering just below the surface, Louise is fragile. It seems she has buried all her own needs in service to others. She lives in a shithole; she has no friends; she has no money. Without someone else to look over, Louise is a non-person.

The Perfect Nanny has been compared to  Gone Girl  but I don’t think it’s an apt comparison. This book is a slow-moving, naval-gazing look at motherhood and surrogacy. It’s about how we treat people in subservient positions, about privilege. Yes, that opening line might make you think you’re about to read a thriller, but there’s never any question of whodunit and so all that remains is the why. At the end of the day, I didn’t care about any of these characters, so the why hardly mattered.

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was our May book club pick and it really moscowdivided our group. It’s the long-winded story of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocratic Russian in Moscow, who is sentenced to house arrest for writing the long poem Where Is It Now? which is deemed by the authorities as “a call to action”. The tribunal determines that Rostov has “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused.”

Instead of being executed, though, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest. Since he currently lives at the luxurious Metropol Hotel, that hardly seems like a hardship, but Rostov is told that if he “should ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, [he] will be shot.”

Turns out that Rostov will not be returning to his luxurious apartment on the third floor. He is moved to a small space in the attic, which was

“originally built to house the butlers and ladies’ maids of the Metropol’s guests; but when the practice of traveling with servants fell out of fashion, the unused rooms had been claimed by the caprices of casual urgency – therefore warehousing scraps of lumber, broken furniture, and other assorted debris.

Rostov, as is his nature, finds a way to make the best of his new circumstances. He coasts along over the next several decades, making friends with the hotels guests and employees with ease. That’s because, we are to understand, he is charming, self-effacing and genuine. People – most people anyway – gravitate towards him.

I was in the group of people who didn’t enjoy A Gentleman in Moscow. My friend, Michelle, chose the book and she thought it was the best book she’d read in the last decade.  She thought the novel was filled with meaningful observations about life; I thought the novel was an elliptical, superficial ride to nowhere. I kinda love that about literature, how it can mean different things to different people.

It’s necessarily character-driven because except for flashbacks to his childhood, Rostov is trapped in the Metropol. The novel depends on other characters to give the plot momentum. The characters are, therefore, suitably colourful: a precocious little girl, a college friend who visits, the seamstress and barber, the chef. There’s a lot of talk of food and wine.

For me, A Gentleman in Moscow is like a souffle. All show, no real substance.