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.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go – David Joy

alllightI was invested in Jacob McNeely, the narrator of David Joy’s novel Where All Light Tends to Go,  by the end of the first chapter. The eighteen-year-old high school drop out has climbed to the top of the water tower to smoke a joint and watch what should have been his graduating class leave the school. From his perch, he can see Maggie, the girl he has loved for as long as he can remember.

…Maggie was different. Even early on I remember being amazed by her. She’d always been something slippery that I never could seem to grasp, something buried deep in her that never let anything outside of herself decide what she would become. I’d always loved that about her. I’d always loved her.

Jacob knows that once Maggie breaks free of their backwater Appalachia town, she’ll make something magnificent of her life. He also knows that his fate is set. His mother is  addicted to crack; his father makes his living selling it. All Jacob has ever known is a life of violence and hardship.

The senior McNeely is a scary dude. He’s got eyes everywhere in town, including with the police. He’d kicked Jacob’s mother out years before, but kept her in a shack on his property, a house that “was truly unfit for any sort of long-term living.” Jacob visits her sometimes, mostly when he “just needed a place to kill a few hours and a safe spot to dodge the law while [he] got stoned.”

When Jacob’s father instructs him to murder an informant, and Jacob botches the job, it sets in motion a violent chain of events. His father thinks he’s soft and it is perhaps only the fact that Jacob is his son that he doesn’t kill him.

The only light in the darkness is Maggie, and Jacob wonders if perhaps there might not be a way to escape the only life he’s ever known. Maggie is going to leave and maybe he can go with her.

I could not put this book down. It is a chilling and violent and yet there is something tender about Jacob. It is this tenderness that causes him to push Maggie away, but it is that same softness that allows him to see a glimmer of the life he might have if only he were able to crawl out from under the rock of his father. I literally read the last 50 pages with my heart in my throat.

None of Jacob’s experience is my experience. I don’t know anyone who lives the way he lives, and yet that universal yearning for something better is something anyone can relate to. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to reach through the pages and just yank a character to safety. Jacob joins a list of other characters I will never forget including My Absolute Darling‘s Turtle and Our Daily Bread‘s Albert Erskine.

Highly recommended.

Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson

When August returns to Brooklyn after the death of her father, she is catapulted back in time to her childhood and it is these memories which fuel Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Another Brooklyn.

Twenty years have passed since my childhood. This morning, we buried my father. My brother and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the grave-site, willows weeping down around us, nearly bare-branched against the snow.

Riding the subway, she spots an old friend, Sylvia, and it reminds her of when they (along with Gigi and Angela) “were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone.”

Woodson’s novel is an elliptical, poetic examination of what it is to be a young, black woman growing up in the 70s. I also came of age in the 70s, and I suppose in that regard I have something in common with August. Not only does August find herself in an unfamiliar world, one that she watches from a window for the first few months she lives there, but she is also grappling with a missing mother, the shifting landscape of friendships, poverty, and her own growing awareness of the power of her body.

But as she says “This is memory.”

Another Brooklyn isn’t really a novel with a plot. That doesn’t mean that nothing happens. It’s just that the story unfurls like a long, dreamy reminiscence. August remembers her childhood in Tennessee; she remembers the trio of girls she befriends before they were hers.

They called to each other across the yard. They linked arms and laughed. They curled into each other to whisper when the teacher’s back was turned. Before I knew their names, I knew the tiny bones at the back of their necks, the tender curve of their hairlines.

She remembers the “kind of poverty we lived in.” She remembers the music they listened to, the summer the lights went out in New York and Jerome, the boy who, when she was nine “Looked up at my window and winked at me from where he and his friends were playing in the streets.”

This is a beautiful coming-of-age novel, that is very specific but feels universal.

The House at Midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

housemidnightLucie Whitehouse’s debut novel The House at Midnight tells the story of Joanna and her close-knit circle of friends who spend weekends at Stoneborough Manor in Oxfordshire. Her dearest friend, Lucas, has recently inherited Stoneborough from his uncle Patrick, a well-known art dealer. On their first visit there, Joanna observes that the house is “Three storeys high, [and] it reared up out of the night as if it were facing the darkness down.” The house gives Joanna a “pang of anxiety.” She wonders “How could it not change things between us.”

Whitehouse’s story works on a variety of different levels. First of all, the house is, at least to Joanna, menacing. To her, it feels like a malevolent entity, intent on causing harm. Despite the fact that she and her friends Martha (an American ex-pat and Jo’s roommate), Rachel and her new boyfriend Greg, Michael, Danny and, of course, Lucas, gather here to drink and dance and try,  in some ways, to recapture the headiness of their college days, there is something about the house that unsettles her.

I had the sudden sense that there were eyes on me…My skin prickled. The sound of my voice played in my ear. I took a breath and forced myself to stand still for a moment and look into the unlit corners away from the lamps and up above my head to the landings. I half expected to see someone there, leaning over the banisters watching me. There was nothing. And yet there was.  It seemed to me that there was something lurking, something that was not benevolent.

Then there’s Lucas. Joanna meets him during her first week at college and the two form a strong bond. For a minute it seemed like their friendship might morph into something more romantic, but the moment passed. Now, ten years later, Jo is wondering whether she and Lucas might have a chance.

The House at Midnight captures that fraught period post college when you might be wondering what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Lucas is a lawyer; Danny is in advertising. Jo works as a junior writer for a small weekly newspaper. None of them is particularly satisfied with their lives.

Then comes the romantic entanglements, which in a small, close-knit group often seem almost incestuous. As the novel moves along, it draws and redraws lines in the romantic sand, and some of the shifts cause irreparable damage to the group.

There were moments in the novel whether I wondered if Jo was a reliable narrator. Could I trust what she was telling me? Were her feelings about the house the result of an over-active imagination or something else? I liked that I didn’t quite trust her.

This book is SO good. The house itself is a character, full of shadowy corners and dark secrets.  There’s something claustrophobic about it and about these friends as they try to sort themselves out. Ultimately, the most sinister thing about the book is the length people will go to get what they want and the damage they are willing to cause in the name of love.

This is my second novel by Whitehouse. I read and loved Before We Met at the beginning of the year.

I can highly recommend both of these books.

The Lost Daughter – Lucy Ferriss

The whole time I was reading Lucy Ferriss’s novel The Lost Daughter  I was trying tolostdaughter figure out whether I liked it – not the book, exactly, the whole family drama thing. Am I really interested in life’s ups and downs? Do I care about people’s children and marriages? Well, if every book was as good as this one, the answer would be yes.

When the novel opens high school seniors Brooke and Alex have taken refuge in a hotel where Brooke is about to give birth. It’s a harrowing beginning to their stories. Brooke was bound for Tufts in the fall, and Alex was going off to college on a soccer scholarship.

Fast forward fifteen years and Brooke is married to Sean. They have a six-year-old daughter called Meghan. Their marriage is solid, but Sean is pressing for another baby; in his big Irish Catholic clan, a single child is blasphemy. Brooke is reluctant; she has her reasons although it’s difficult for her to articulate them. Sean doesn’t understand Brook’s reticence and her

excuses bewildered him. His love for her harbored no doubts, and he had seen the joy she took in Meghan. Every time they talked about another pregnancy it went this way, but he loved her too much to stop.

Then Alex blows through town. He’d been living in Japan with his wife and young son, but his life has fallen apart. “I’d like to see you from time to time…If that’s okay. I’m not going to, you know,  invade your life or anything,” Alex tells her. Their reunion causes a ripple effect and sets them both on a path from which there is no turning back.

There are no bad guys in The Lost Daughter. This is a novel that asks you to examine the choices people make, the consequences of those choices and how sometimes life throws you an unexpected curve ball. Ferriss’s characters seem like real people. Sean’s bewilderment over Brooke’s behaviour and his own disappointments make him a dynamic character, rather than just a foil against which Alex and Brooke’s story plays out. Brooke and Alex are equally authentic. It didn’t really matter whose part of the journey I was following, it was all compelling. That’s a credit to Ferriss’s writing. I’ve never read anything by her before this, but I would definitely like to read more of her work.

While The Lost Daughter is ultimately hopeful, it does recognize that “…life itself, in the end, [is] a tragic journey…”. This journey, however, is well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

 

Goldengrove – Francine Prose

goldengroveNico is just thirteen when her seventeen-year-old sister Margaret drowns. Nico tells us “We lived on the shore of Mirror Lake, and for many years our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters.” Margaret is the poet in the family, the beautiful daughter about to graduate from high school and head off to study music. She was named for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.”

Nico is “Debbie Downer.” She doesn’t resent her older sister; she admires her. Her beauty, her talent, her relationship with Aaron.

Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove follows the summer immediately following Margaret’s death and it is a masterful meditation on grief. Margaret’s death is “like a domino falling and setting off a collapse that snakes out toward the horizon and spills over into the future.”

Nico and her parents struggle to make sense of Margaret’s drowning, and they retreat into their own lives. For Nico’s mother Daisy, it’s a cocktail of pain-killers; for her father, it’s working on his book about how different cultures viewed end-of-days. For Nico, it’s Aaron, the beautiful boyfriend Margaret left behind. Over the course of the long, hot summer she and Aaron drift perilously close to each other in an effort to mend their broken hearts.

I didn’t care that he was a boy. An older guy. A relative stranger. At that moment, he was the person who knew me best in the world.

And she and Aaron do feel the same about the loss of Margaret. Aaron tells Nico

…the strangest part is that she was alive and now she isn’t. That’s the thing I can’t get past. I can’t get my head around it. The absence. How someone can be here one minute, and the next minute they’re gone. You tell them everything in your life and then they…can’t be reached. Unlisted number forever.

I loved Goldengrove.  If Nico sounds perhaps too worldly for a kid, it’s because she is telling this story from a place far in the future. From this vantage point, she understands that “time layered over everything, cementing in the gaps, repairing or covering over what was cracked and broken, pressing it down into the earth and building on top, and on top of that.”

Goldengrove is a coming-of-age story, and a story about grief that it is beautifully written and crackles with energy.

Highly recommended.

The Savage Garden – Mark Mills

savagegardenIt’s 1958 and 22-year-old British student Adam Strickland has been given the opportunity to study a Renaissance garden at the Villa Docci in Tuscany. Of course, he jumps at the chance. Signora Docci will soon be leaving her home in the care of her son, Maurizio, but until she goes she knows the garden has some secrets to give up.

Mark Mills’ historical mystery The Savage Garden  is a slow, thoughtful and complex puzzle of a book that begs you to pay attention. Adam arrives in Tuscany and “In almost no time he had fallen under Villa Docci’s spell.” The garden in question was built as a memorial to Flora Bonfadio. Her husband Frederico Docci had built the estate and then added the garden after her premature death at just 25.

The memorial garden at Villa Docci sat firmly within this tradition, and although it couldn’t match its eminent counterparts at Villa di Castello, Villa Gamberaia and Villa Campi for sheer size and grandiosity, it stood out for its human dimensions, its purity of purpose, the haunting message of love and loss enshrined in its buildings, inscriptions, and groupings of statues buried in the woods.

It is hard not to be caught up in Adam’s story, especially if you have spent any time at all in Italy. Interactions with the locals and with Signora Docci’s family, including her lovely granddaughter, Antonella, offer Adam both distraction and cause for concern: not all the pieces of the family’s history quite add up.

Although The Savage Garden isn’t a ‘page-turner’ in the strictest sense of the word (the novel’s pace is relatively slow and the nods to Greek mythology and Italian history were probably mostly lost on me), I still felt wholly invested in Adam’s story. Signora Docci is delightful and I enjoyed their relationship. I also really liked Adam’s older brother, Harry. He’s a sort of irreverent character, someone at odds with Adam’s more scholarly personality and while Harry certainly seems to rub Adam the wrong way, his arrival in Italy breathes fresh air into Adam’s hot and insular  life. There are two mysteries at Villa Docci, and Adam is keen on solving them both.

It’s  worth the effort to tag along.

 

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel

Sometimes I can’t resist the three for $10 bargains at Indigo. Just because a book finds its way onto the bargain shelves doesn’t mean it’s a dud. Case in point: My Sunshine Away  I managed to snag a handful of bargain copies for my classroom library and I was thrilled to be able to offer it as a choice for my grade 12 students this year. That is an amazing book.

RoanokeAnd then there’s The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Can’t remember when I bought it or how long it’s been languishing on my tbr shelf, but I started reading it and finished reading it in just a few hours because it has ALL THE THINGS I love in a book.  (Lots of other reviewers loved all the things, too, because this book received lots of well-deserved praise.)

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when a terrible tragedy brings her to small-town Kansas to live with her grandparents, Yates and Lillian, and her cousin, Allegra, who is also fifteen.  She knows very little about these people. Her mother left the family home as a teenager and never returned because her life there was a “nightmare.”

Lane is mesmerized by the family home

Roanoke had clearly started out as something resembling a traditional farmhouse – white clapboard, wraparound porch, peaked dormers. But someone had tacked on crazy additions over the years, a brick turret on one side, what looked like an entirely new stone house extending from the back, more white clapboard, newer and higher on the other side. It was like a handful of giant houses all smashed together with no regard for aesthetics or conformity. It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.

The house is symbolic of the labyrinthine Roanoke secrets.

Her cousin Allegra is alternately  moody and loving, and Lane is never quite sure which version she’s going to get. Her grandmother is mostly distant. Her grandfather “was fiercely handsome. …If charisma was power, my grandfather was king.”

The Roanoke family has a long history of loss. Yates’s two sisters are gone, so are his daughters. Until Lane returns to Kansas, Allegra has been the only Roanoke girl. It is a special designation, Lane comes to discover.

The novel toggles back and forth between ‘Then’ (Lane’s fifteenth summer) and ‘Now’, which happens eleven years later when Lane gets the call that Allegra is missing. Yates begs Lane to return to Roanoke. Despite her reservations, the pull of family is strong and Lane finds herself back in Kansas. Her return puts her back in contact with Tommy, Allegra’s on again – off again teenage boyfriend, now a cop, and Cooper, “still the most beautiful person” Lane has ever seen. It’s a toxic mix and makes for absolutely riveting reading.

What happened to Allegra? What happened to all the Roanoke girls? That’s the central mystery in the book. Actually, you’ll learn  the what pretty early on and it’s an explosive family secret.

This book had all the things I loved: great writing, a compelling main character who is damaged, but fierce and smart, a never-ending air of menace and unease, a hot, broken guy and a lot of twists.

LOVED it.