The Wildling Sisters – Eve Chase

The four Wilde sisters (Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot) are spending the summer at Applecote, a manor house in the Cotswolds. They have many happy memories of time spent here, but this summer is different. For one thing, their cousin, Audrey, is gone – having disappeared without a trace five years earlier – and their aunt and uncle haven’t quite recovered from the loss. For another, there’s Tom and Harry, the boys from the estate across the river. Their arrival upsets the easy camaraderie between the three oldest sisters as they vie for the boys’ attention.

Eve Chase’s novel The Wildling Sisters is a slow burn gothic novel that slips back and forth between that summer in 1959 and the present day when Jessie and her husband Will, (and their young daughter Romy, and Will’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Bella) buy Applecote in an effort to escape London’s madness and settle into a quieter life. There’s also that thing that happened at Bella’s school. Fresh start and all that.

Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign.

Jessie also hopes that this will be a new beginning for her and Bella. Being a step mother is hard enough without the shadow of Bella’s mom, the perfect and tragically-killed-in-a-car accident super mom, Mandy, hanging over their heads. The idyllic notion Jessie has of what Applecote might do for her family doesn’t quite come to fruition, though. Will spends a great deal of time in the city dealing with a work crisis, and Jessie begins to feel more and more isolated. Plus, there are all sorts of rumours about Applecote and what happened there 50 years ago.

Fifteen-year-old Margot is our narrator in 1959. The middle sister, she is aware of her shortcomings. She doesn’t “turn heads like Flora” or “command attention in a room like Pam through sheer, unembarrassable life force.” She was closest to Audrey, and so she is the most apprehensive about returning to Applecote.

…the sky is as I remember it: blue, warm as a bath, the air transparent. not washing-up-water-tinged as it is in London, alive with butterflies and birds, so many birds. So much is the same that it highlights the one crushing, unbelievable thing that is not: Audrey isn’t about to come belting out of the house, running down the path, excitedly calling my name.

This is a slow burn sort of novel. It’s a mystery: what happened to Audrey? It also begins with the image of the girls dragging a body across the lawn of Applecote. That can’t be good, right? It takes a long time to get anywhere, which isn’t a criticism because the book is well-written and does evoke a specific time and place. It also plumbs the depths of family relationships, not just between the Wilde sisters, but also the longings of daughters for mothers and mothers for daughters.

Definitely worth a read.

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me – Amanda Davis

In the Afterward of Amanda Davis’s novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, Michael Chabon laments the fact that Davis died in a tragic airplane accident at just 32. “It is unfair, as well as cruel, to try to assess the overall literary merit, not to mention the prospects of future greatness, of a young woman who managed to produce…a single short-story collection, the remarkable Circling the Drain, and a lone novel,” he says. According to Chabon, Davis was the real deal, someone who likely could have written just about anything due to her “sharp, sharp mind, her omnivorous interests, and her understanding of human emotion.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is Faith Duckle’s story. She’s returned to school after several months in hospital after a suicide attempt.

I did it on a clear day, just before Christmas. I had thought about it constantly and planned a little, but when it came right down to it, I didn’t wake up that morning with an idea of what would happen or when I would know. I just knew. The light inside me had flickered and gone out.

The impetus for Faith’s suicide attempt is a horrific assault which had taken place under the bleachers at school during homecoming. A group of junior boys had plied Faith with “red punch that tasted like popsicles” and made her feel “normal.” Now, seven months later, she is back at school, forty-eight pounds lighter, but it seemed like “no one had even noticed I was gone.”

Friendless, except for the fat girl who follows her in the hall and sits behind her in class, offering unsolicited commentary, Faith struggles to regain equilibrium. Eventually, as memories of the event start to resurface, and with the fat girl’s constant prodding, Faith commits an act of violence and then hits the road in search of Charlie, the brother of her friend from the psych ward.

She ends up with a traveling circus, shoveling elephant shit and dreaming of becoming an aerial artist. Seeing Mina perform for the first time is revelatory for Faith, who must learn how to live in a body that has been changed by trauma. Mina “flew lightly, gracefully, as though it were perfectly natural to trust her entire body to this single thread.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is a beautiful book about misfits, kindness, and our ability to heal. I loved Faith’s time with the circus-folk and I was rooting for her success the whole time.

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

Because I have such a backlog of books on my tbr shelf, I rarely make impulse purchases these days. If I buy a new book, it’s usually because I’ve heard of it somehow and even if I do buy it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will read it straight away. David Nicholls’ (One Day) new book, Sweet Sorrow, was irresistible, though. I bought it and read it immediately.

Charlie Lewis, our narrator, is recounting his post GCSE summer. His life is kind of a mess. His parents have recently split; his mother and younger sister, Billie, have gone off to live with his mom’s new man and Charlie has been left to look after his father, who spends his days in the gloom, listening to jazz albums and drinking or sleeping on the sofa. Of his three best mates from school, Harper, Fox and Lloyd, only Harper seems to understand what a grim time this is for Charlie. When he’s not working his part-time job at a local petrol station, Charlie spends most of his time riding his bike around. That’s how he comes across Fran Fisher.

Fran is part of the theatre troupe Full Fathom Five. They’re rehearsing Romeo and Juliet at Fawley Manor, a country estate owned by senior thespians, Polly and Bernard. The troupe is in desperate need of more males, and so Fran agrees to have coffee with Charlie if he comes back on Monday and participates.

I did go back, because it was inconceivable that I would not see that face again, and if doing so meant a half day of Theatre Sports, then that was the price I’d pay.

Thus begins a summer of Shakespeare and first love for Charlie. “When these stories – love stories – are told, it’s hard not to ascribe meaning and inevitability to entirely innocuous chance events,” Charlie says. But the truth is that Charlie thinks Fran is “lovely” and despite their differences (Fran attended the much posher Chatsborne Academy and is clearly destined for great things; Charlie lives on a council estate with streets named after famous writers and is pretty sure flunked his GCSEs so won’t be going on to college), they fall in love.

The ache of that love – and, trust me, it aches – is heightened because the pair are rehearsing literature’s most famous tragedy, a play Charlie comes to understand and appreciate because he and Fran spend endless lunch hours talking about it, and because Charlie is telling this story twenty years in the future. C’mon – who doesn’t look back at their first love with a certain degree of nostalgia? Y’know, “misty water-coloured memories” and all that.

Not gonna lie, I love Romeo and Juliet. I know what you’re going to say, but I don’t care. I love the language and the heightened emotions and when I first encountered the play, 40 odd years ago, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Do I believe in love at first sight? Kinda.

Nicholls has written a book that is both laugh-out-loud funny and also deeply moving. How we ever survive those fraught teen years, I’ll never know, but somehow we do. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to mature teens in my class, but this is not a YA novel. The tears I shed at the end of the book came from understanding something I could never really know at sixteen: that first love doesn’t last, but it stays with you forever anyway.

Highly recommended.

How To Be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

In 1955, Housekeeping Monthly published an article called “The Good Wife’s Guide.” The article detailed all the ways a wife could keep her husband happy, including such gems as “Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it” and “Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.”

These are the tenets by which Marta Bjornstad, the narrator of Emma Chapman’s debut novel How to Be a Good Wife, lives. Married for many years to the much older, Hector, a school teacher, and mother of one adult son, Kylan, Marta’s life somewhere in a remote Scandinavian village is structured and isolated.

Twelve fifteen. By this time, I am usually working on something in the kitchen. I must prepare supper for this evening, the recipe book propped open on the stand that Hector bought me for an early wedding anniversary. I must make bread: mix the ingredients in a large bowl, knead it on the cold wooden worktop, watch it rise in the oven. Hector likes to have fresh bread in the mornings. Make your home a place of peace and order.

Things in Marta’s life are starting to unravel, though. For one thing, Marta has stopped taking the pills she has been taking for years. The last time she stopped, Kylan was twelve and Marta “wanted something to happen.” Back then, without the medication came “the heavy darkness”; this time is different. Marta starts seeing someone: a little blonde girl.

She stares without blinking, her grey eyes wide and glossy. Her hair is very messy: dirty, almost grey, though the broken ends are blonde. She is wearing grimy white pyjamas, her thin arms wrapped loosely around her bony knees.

There’s no question that something is off in the Bjornstad house and Chapman does a terrific job of unsettling the reader. Marta makes a compelling narrator because although she might seem unreliable, (is she a woman suffering from empty-nest syndrome, menopause, a mental break-down? These are all plausible scenarios.) as the mist lifts things take a decided turn in a horrifying direction.

I read How to Be a Good Wife in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys won Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize. (He also won for The nickelUnderground Railway in 2017.) And now I pause because I am afraid of this review.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I generally don’t have any trouble sharing my feelings about books, but I am nervous about this one. Why? Is it because it won the Pulitzer. No. I had no trouble talking about Olive Kitteridge or The Goldfinch. Or is it because it speaks very specifically about an experience that I can never truly understand as a white, middle-aged woman living in Canada? Um, no. I have no personal experience with the horrors of concentration camps (Lilac Girls) or  dealing with the supernatural (any Stephen King book ever).

I started reading, and I kept thinking, what if I don’t love it, what if I just think it’s okay, will people accuse me of being racist? But here’s the thing that my very smart newly adult children have taught me: I probably am racist in all sorts of little ways that I don’t even realize, ways that come from being born into the white middle class. Sure, as a woman, I have my own row to hoe, but my experiences as I’ve gone through this life have been mostly positive. Now comes the question of how those experiences inform my reading of Whitehead’s novel.

The Nickel Boys  is inspired by a real place, the Dozier School for Boys located in Marianna, Florida. The reform  school operated from 1900 until 2011, despite being investigated for allegations of abuse many times during its 111-year history. There are many excellent articles about the school online, including this one  published in The Washington Post in 2019.

In Whitehead’s fictionalized account, Elwood Curtis, a bright, scholarly young man ends up at the Nickel Academy because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elwood is an idealist. He believes in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose words are sprinkled throughout the novel.) Elwood is going to change the world and the first step is getting an education. His life is upended when he is sent to Nickel and at first he is optimistic.

He got a look at the school and thought maybe Franklin was right – Nickel wasn’t that bad. He expected tall stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two – and three-story buildings of red brick. The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest looking property Elwood had ever seen – a real school, a good one, not the forbidding reformatory he’d conjured the last few weeks.

Of course, Elwood’s optimism is misplaced. Nickel is a horror-show and it doesn’t take long for Elwood to find himself the target of abuse. It would be almost impossible for any reader not to read this book without a knot of dread in their stomach. And I did care about Elwood, but I also found that there was an element of didacticism in this novel which prevented me from wholly investing in Elwood’s awful journey.

I need the lesson. I need ALL the lessons because of my privileged position. I am becoming more and more aware of my blind spots and I think literature is a wonderful way for me to have experiences which are far removed from my own. I think of Angie Thomas’s YA novel The Hate U Give which made me think all sorts of thinky thoughts and also moved me to tears. I was wholly invested in Starr’s journey because it forced me to look at myself and also gave me a window into a life which is very much not my own.

I want to be a more thoughtful person, a more woke individual. It’s my duty as an educator and as a human being. I look to stories to help me on my journey, to help me see around those blind corners I know I have. I am not saying The Nickel Boys  will not have a part to play. Three times as many black boys died at Dozier compared to white boys (Smithsonian Magazine) and you only need to look at what’s happening in the world to know that people of colour are mistreated in ways that are, frankly, shocking. We need to do better. If Whitehead’s novel helps push us forward because we read it and  start to understand the inequity that exists, then that’s a win.

But as a piece of ‘fiction’ I guess it was just okay for me. It seemed as though the book was more interested in telling the story rather than Elwood’s  story and maybe that was a deliberate choice. As a reader, though, I needed an emotional centre and although there is a little twist that I didn’t see coming, I finished the book feeling rather underwhelmed.

 

The Raising – Laura Kasischke

I have a soft spot for books that take place on college campuses. Maybe it’s the nostalgia. Maybe it’s a hangover from Donna Tartt’s masterpiece The Secret History. I don’t know. Laura Kasischke’s novel The Raising ticks a lot of those college campus narrative boxes for me, but I can’t say that it was a thoroughly satisfying read despite the fact that it is well-written and intriguing.

“The scene of the accident was bloodless, and beautiful” is how Kasischke begins thisraising story of students and faculty on a small (unnamed?) campus. The accident in question kills Nicole Werner: beautiful, intelligent, desired-by-all freshman. Her boyfriend, Craig Clements-Rabbitts, was driving the car and he walks away from the accident unharmed, which makes him a sort of campus parihah.

The details of the accident are sketchy. First on the scene is Shelly Lockes. After the accident is reported in the paper, she calls the paper to tell them that the story is “full of inaccuracies […] and although the reporter to whom her call was forwarded assured her that he would “set the record straight on the details of the accident as reported in our paper right away,” no corrections ever appeared.”

Craig returns to college for his sophomore year and moves into an apartment with Perry, his first-year roomie, who also happens to be from Nicole’s hometown, Bad Axe. Everyone on the campus still seems to be shell shocked about Nicole’s death. And then people start seeing her around campus.

Perry decides to take matters into his own hands, seeking out Professor Mira Polson, who teaches a seminar called “death, Dying and the Undead.” Although her personal life is spinning out of control (two-year-old twins at home; a bitter, unemployed husband) Mira is fascinated with Perry’s story and the two start looking into the rumours.

College is a time for trying to figure out who you are. I remember that, and I remember – almost fondly now – all the mistakes I made on my path to adulthood. In some ways The Raising  is this story, the one about how young adults stumble along trying to figure their stuff out,  as much as it is a ‘ghost’ story. (And whether it’s even a ghost story is up for debate.)

I was definitely invested in the story. I liked Perry a lot and felt sorry for other characters who had their own dramas (Mira’s flailing marriage; Shelly’s entanglement with a student). Perhaps the reason I wasn’t wholly satisfied is because …well, I was going to say that it’s because the mystery aspect of the story isn’t resolved, but that isn’t true. Maybe it’s just right book, wrong time, because truthfully it has everything I like in a novel.

It’s certainly worth your time.

 

Hello Goodbye – Emily Chenoweth

helloEmily Chenoweth’s debut novel Hello Goodbye was inspired by the author’s life. Her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour when Chenoweth was in her first year of college. Instead of writing a memoir, though, the author decided to use her experiences as fodder for a work of fiction because she could “explore the feelings and experiences that I did remember, but I could also craft a story that had a different arc than my own.”

And what a story it is.

The novel begins with Helen Hansen returning from a run and collapsing on the kitchen floor. Fast forward a few months and Elliott has arranged a holiday armed with the knowledge that Helen, due to the “astrocytoma in her frontal lobe”  hasn’t much time left.  Eighteen-year-old Abby has accompanied her parents to The Presidential Hotel (think Dirty Dancing‘s Kellerman’s, complete with dance lessons and liveried staff) in New Hampshire.  Elliott wants to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary, but also invites the couples’ dearest friends as a farewell of sorts.

He’s made the decision not to tell Helen because he wants her to keep fighting but has also decided that this holiday will be his opportunity to break the news to his daughter and their oldest friends.

Abby is mildly annoyed by the whole affair, but she is also hoping that this change of scenery will do them all some good.

In a grand place like this, it seemed possible that everything might get a little bit better. She could imagine her father relaxing, her mother feeling stronger, and herself becoming kinder and more attentive,

She is also hoping that she might meet someone…anyone, really and when someone slips a note under her door Abby feels like “there might be something to look forward to.” She does meet two someones: Alex and Vic. Vic, by a strange twist of fate, is from her hometown back in Ohio. He was a student at the school where her father is headmaster, a delinquent plucked from the system by her mother, a counsellor. He also happens to be the first person Abby ever kissed, and it is a moment she remembers vividly.

Elliott is watching his daughter almost as closely as he is watching his wife. Abby is “unfamiliar to him in a new way.” He acknowledges that Abby has always been closer to her mother than she has been to him; “She looked just like her mother — everyone said so.”

Over the course of the week, each of the members of the family grapple with the future and Chenoweth manages to make every single moment ache with …well, life, really. Here are the Hansens remembering all the good times they had with their friends. Here is Helen regarding the body that is now failing her.

Why hadn’t she celebrated those big strong thighs instead of trying all the time to shrink them? Why hadn’t she found her feet beautiful, or her sturdy ankles. Why hadn’t she loved her coarse, graying hair? Why had she not praised every perfect square inch of herself? She feels an almost unbearable ache of longing for all that doesn’t belong to her anymore.

Here is Abby filled with a combination of dread and embarrassment and unarticulated love.  Here is Elliott traveling back and forth over the twenty  years he’s shared with Helen.

I can’t begin to express how moving this novel is. I don’t think it’s necessary to have lost someone in your life to appreciate the journey these characters are on. This is a glorious, beautifully written testament to family, friendship and the inherent joys and sorrows to be found in the minutia of a life. Just glorious.

Highly times a thousand recommended.

 

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

shoppingbuzz1I don’t know how much readers actually care about the awards books win, but Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer in 2009 and the book has been languishing on my tbr shelf since about then. It was June’s #bookspin choice on Litsy and I just managed to get it finished. Well, I shouldn’t say “managed” – that sounds like it was a book I had to force myself to read and it most certainly was not.

Truthfully, though, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the titular character or the novel’s structure when I first started reading. The novel is written as a collection of short stories in which Olive Kitteridge often figures only peripherally. In the first story “Pharmacy” we meet her husband, Henry, a kind and patient man who owns the pharmacy of the title. He seems quite capable of managing Olive’s prickly personality.  When he suggests they invite his new employee Denise to dinner Olive responds that she is “Not keen on it.”

Olive’s relationship with her son, Christopher, is also strained.  She loves him, but she is not, it seems, a mother given to the warm fuzzies. When adult Christopher, a podiatrist, marries Suzanne, Olive fights “the sensation of moving underwater – a panicky, dismal feeling…”. When she overhears Suzanne making unkind remarks about her, she exacts a small revenge.

…there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can’t occasionally take a little of this, a little of that – just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give her a little burst. Because Christopher doesn’t need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything.

Olive comes across as rigid and unsympathetic. As a former school teacher she was feared. One of her former students, whom we meet in the story “Incoming Tide”  says that “He’d been scared of her, even while liking her.” It turns out, though, that our initial assessment of Mrs. Kitteridge couldn’t be further from the truth. The humanity bursts out of her in ways that are, quite frankly, breathtaking.

In “Starving” a chance encounter with a young girl suffering from anorexia shows us one of the first cracks in Olive’s steely exterior.

Olive Kitteridge was crying. If there was anyone in town Harmon believed he would never see cry, Olive was that person. But there she sat, large and big-wristed, her mouth quivering, tears coming from her eyes. She shook her head slightly, as though the girl needn’t apologize.

[…]

Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina, and said quietly, “I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.”

This is just one instance of Olive demonstrating a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy. There are many more in this novel, and the cumulative effect of all these elliptical moments in a life is stunning. Each story is perfection and each character is fully realized. There are moments of tragedy and hope, of humour and despair; that is, there all the moments that make up a life.

Although I am sorry that I waited so long to read this novel, I am also thrilled that I got to discover it for the first time. I loved it and highly recommend it.

A Friend of the Family – Lauren Grodstein

friendfamilyThe Washington Post named Lauren Grodstein’s novel A Friend of the Family one of the best books of 2009. In fact, just about every major media outlet lauded this tale of  Dr. Pete Dizinoff who lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife, Elaine and their son, Alec.

Dr. Pete tells his story  – and I have to admit that it wasn’t at all the story I thought he was going to tell – from some point in the future.  If people ask him how he’s doing these days his reply is “Listen, life goes on.” And I’m not just feeding them formula, pap. Life really does go on. That’s what I’ve learned. It goes. You’d be surprised.”

Dr. Pete’s life is pretty perfect, although he is certainly not immune to life’s trials and tribulations. He loves his wife. He adores and is frustrated by his son in equal measure, especially since Alec recently dropped out of college “after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem.” Now Alec is living at home and creating art in the studio his parents have built above the garage. Well, that’s not exactly true, since the studio above the garage is where Dr. Pete is currently sleeping. The reasons for this are alluded to but never really revealed until much later in the book.

Pete and Elaine’s best friends Joe (also a doctor) and Iris live in the same neighbourhood, and the two families spend lots of time together. In the past, their close bond is tested when Joe and Iris’s daughter, Laura, commits a horrible crime, and when Laura reappears many years later the residual feelings of horror colour  Pete’s feelings towards her.

I hadn’t seen her since the week they took her to Gateway House thirteen years ago, and Christ, the girl had changed in a million beautiful ways. Back then she had been hollow-eyed, eviscerated by the trial and the confinement and everything that had preceded it. A criminal, a teenager, depressed and hidden in oversized shirts. But now-

For Pete, Laura’s arrival back in their lives reminds him of the latent feelings he has for her mother and also draws his son further away from him. A Friend of the Family is a domestic drama at its finest: well-written, fraught with tension and ultimately devastating.

 

College Girl – Patricia Weitz

There’s a scene in Patricia Weitz’s debut novel College Girl, when the protagonist, 20-year-old college senior Natalie Bloom cuts off all her hair. I don’t know if the scene was inspired by J.J. Abram’s character, Felicity, but it was the first thing I thought of when I read it.

Natalie makes the decision to cut off her hair after she loses her virginity.

…I wanted my reflection to be as ugly as I felt, but it wasn’t and it angered me. I was vile. Base. Life was traveling in a direction I had never wanted it to go in. I hd to stop it. I had to regain control. It scared me where this slippery slope might lead.

I am probably not the demographic for Weitz’s novel or Abraham’s show (which I love collegeand have watched straight through on more than one occasion.) Still, Natalie Bloom’s story resonated on so many levels for me. It shot me straight back to my university days; not the rose-coloured view I have now, but the awkard, muddled, feeling-my-way experiences I actually lived.

Natalie is the youngest of six; she has five older brothers, one of whom killed himself when she was just ten. On top of navigating her final year of college, it seems like the residual grief over her brother’s suicide is just now catching up to her. She has questions, but the answers are not forthcoming. Her older brothers mostly make fun of her; her father is a taciturn man; her mother, kind but flustered by talk of feelings.

Her family life definitely contributes to Natalie’s personality. She has difficulty articulating what she wants and people tend to walk over her. At school, she rooms with Faith, a “twenty-five-year-old college senior who looked like an eighties chick straight out of a Poison video.” The only person she is nominally friendly with is Linda who “liked everyone […] because she took it for granted that people were generally nice.”

Then Natalie meets Patrick Dunne. He figures larger-than-life in Natalie’s fantasies, but the reality of him is far less appetizing. This tentative first-relationship pushes Natalie firmly away from the shores of adolescence. It was frustrating to watch Patrick capitalize on her insecurities from this vantage point, but it also reminded me so much of my own experiences in my early 20s. I wanted to be liked, but I didn’t always know whose attention was sincere. I never trusted my own instincts.

I would certainly recommend this book to any young woman in her early 20s, but I also enjoyed this book. If nothing else, it made me happy that that part of my life is but a distant memory.