Where’d You Go, Bernadette?–Maria Semple

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I heard Maria Semple on Fresh Air with Terri Gross talking about her newest novel, Today Will Be Different.  I downloaded it on Audible and created reasons to listen until I reached the end.  I loved Semple’s direct but sarcastic voice.  I remember hearing buzz about Where’d You Go, Bernadette when it was first published, but I wasn’t motivated to add it to my wish list until I listened to Today Will Be Different.

Where’d You Go Bernadette was different in format.  It’s told as a dossier of documents interspersed with narrative.  Near the end of the novel Semple reveals that this dossier was assembled by Bernadette’s daughter, which is another narrative trick of the novel, to slowly release information that allows the reader to make sense of this disparate pieces put in front of him or her.

Bernadette is a middle-aged mother of one teenaged-daughter, who is finishing her last year of school in the states before heading to England for boarding school.  Bee, we learn, was born with serious health issues following a series of miscarriages.  Bee’s father is a programming genius who works at Microsoft, which is what brought the family to Seattle, a place Bernadette despises.  The family lives in an old girls’ school that is slowly returning to nature, complete with holes in the roof and moldering floor boards.  Even before she disappears, the reader can tell something is not right with Bernadette.  She spends her days in a travel trailer in their yard, where she writes highly personal emails to her virtual assistant, whom she’s hired against her husband’s wishes.

Bernadette is unhappy.  Her husband is absorbed by his work and disconnected from his family.  Bee is trying to hold the family in balance and has pinned a great deal of hope on a trip to Antarctica, a reward for a great report card, and a cause of serious anxiety for her mother, who seems to suffer from some measure of agoraphobia or social anxiety or both.

Most of us can connect to Bernadette through her fear of failure–in her career, her ability to become a mother, her ability to make friends, and her ability to hold her family together.  Fear and anxiety send Bernadette to her trailer, to disconnect, making her failures more and more likely.  While we may not all have a trailer retreat in the back yard and a virtual assistant to whom we can confide our darkest secrets, many of us can likely identify with Bernadette’s fears and her impulse to flee entanglements in order to protect herself from facing them.

I did not enjoy Semple’s first novel as much as her second, but I’ll take that as a positive sign and look forward to her third.

Finished 1/17

The Woman in Cabin 10–Ruth Ware

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I loved In a Dark, Dark Wood, so was super excited when I saw Ruth Ware’s new novel on my book review site–and very disappointed that it was only available to reviewers in the UK.  When it was published in the US, I bought a copy, but have only just had the proper time to devote to it.  This could not be, I knew, a casual read over many days.  Ruth Ware grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the last page.

The novel begins with Lo, a travel journalist, experiencing the break-in of her apartment while locked in her bedroom.  She is violated and terrified.  She cannot sleep and in desperation goes to the home of her out-of-town boyfriend, with whom she has a “did we break up?” kind of fight before leaving on a fantastic opportunity for her career and a wonderfully posh boutique cruise with other journalists and investors.  Thanks to sleep deprivation and a generous amount of alcohol, Lo sees the ship in the first day through a distorting distancing haze.  When she finally sleeps, or passes out, she awakens to a scream followed by a large splash.  When she runs to her balcony, she sees a woman disappearing beneath the waves and blood on the glass that divides her balcony from that of the neighboring room.  She calls the staff and is told there is no one in the cabin next to her, even though she had borrowed mascara from a woman in that room the first evening.  Things begin to go downhill from there as she sticks to her conviction that she heard and saw a murder and those around her question her reliability.  As events move forward, everyone on the ship becomes a suspect, even former friends, and Lo’s paranoia climbs to new heights.

As is usually the case with novels that are so successful in building suspense, the conclusion seems destined to disappoint.  Ware does a satisfactory job with the narrative, but takes a disappointing tactic in a predictable post script that made me close the cover with a pang.

Regardless, I enjoyed this novel for its ability to scare the bejeezus out of me and pull me into Lo’s paranoia.  Ware is so adept that she brings readers into the mind-messing world of the page.  The ship, of course, was a perfect setting on which to trap her protagonist, just as the isolated house in the woods was a perfect place to trap the protagonist of her debut novel.  I am curious to see what hand Ware plays in her next novel.

A quick note on aesthetics.  The dust jacket of the hard cover edition is gorgeous.  The title is contained within a porthole streaming with rivulets of water.  The beads of water are raised and glossy, so shimmer like actual water.  My daughter marveled at the design, in fact, when it caught her eye in our kitchen.  Kudos to the designers.

 

Finished 12/16

The Other Side of the World–Stephanie Bishop

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This is a slim volume–237 pages–that an avid reader can start and finish in a weekend without too many social plans.  If that is your plan, however, you may wish to make sure significant people in your life are out of town because this novel creates a funk that swells until it swallows you.  It’s the early 1960s in England and Charlotte is a new mom who today we might say is suffering from postpartum depression and an artist who has stopped painting.  Or just sleep deprivation and the joy of new motherhood.  Her husband, a poetry lecturer, adores her, but seems uncertain how to help her.  Her only relief derives from the English countryside.  He immigrated from India to England as a child, pushed by his parents to leave before India gained independence and the world became less favorable to a young Anglo-Indian boy.  India is not home.  Neither is England, with its cold, gray, dampness.  Sun, Henry decides, is the answer, and that can be found, with sponsored passage, in Australia.  When Charlotte learns she is pregnant again, she gives in to this idea and finds herself in a countryside that brings her no joy, in a small house with two small children, with no friends or family in the neighborhood, and her husband in his office at the local university.  Charlotte does not disguise her unhappiness for long.  Henry hides his as he struggles against subtle and not-so-subtle racism and increasingly admits he belongs nowhere.  Their situation seems to improve when Charlotte makes friends, but as she makes connections, Henry becomes more troubled.  His students walk out of lectures.  He is moved into a smaller more remote office.  When he hears from India that his mother is near death, he leaves Charlotte and the girls and fails to write or call for weeks.  When he returns to Australia, Charlotte is gone, the girls with a friend.

Bishop creates a claustrophobic world that drags you into Charlotte’s negative lens.  Her sense of being trapped and bitter slips from the page into your own heart.  This may have been augmented by my reading the novel first thing in the morning with the house dark and my family asleep, so perhaps try reading in a brightly sunlit room with happiness around you.

Charlotte does not seem to see Henry as anything other than English, or at least she does not ruminate on it openly.  However, a key interaction between them in Australia is when he asks her to paint him in order to get her painting again.  His instinct regarding her needs was correct, but his estimate of the time required was far too short and many evenings of her seeing him without looking at him leave them both slightly unsettled.  This in combination with Charlotte’s attraction to a very pale Englishman suggest she does see Henry’s difference, even if she does not name it or admit it to herself.

I was unsettled myself by this novel and by its ending.  It is atmospheric, but not satisfying.  I wanted to shake both Henry and Charlotte at the same time that I longed to put them in the 1980s or 1990s to see if they would fall into the same patterns or if the 1960s were just too much for them.  Several times I offered thanks to the gods that I was born in a time of more domestic conveniences and in which women were able and expected to continue working and having professional identities, even though such opportunity gave rise to its own difficulties.

 

 

 

Luckiest Girl Alive–Jessica Knoll

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Cover Art for Luckiest Girl Alive

This is another of the “girl” thriller novels.  Indeed, on the jacket, this novel is compared to those novels, which is what led me to it.  Because I enjoyed those novels, I kept going despite a rough beginning.  Ani writes  about sex and other trivia for a prominent women’s magazine.  While others may see her as successful, she is plagued by insecurities.  Her columns are trivial.  She is still the girl who grew up in a McMansion whose mother wore clothes and drove a car a little too flashy to fit in with the truly monied whose acceptance she craved and whose acceptance led her to make sacrifices to send Ani, then TifAni, to a private school miles away from home filled with the privileged offspring of old money.  Ani, now living the dream life in New York City, is engaged to a man from old money, Lucas Harrison.  He seems dreamy until we get below the surface, where Ani reveals that he is in love with a facade she has created and worked hard to maintain, but the cracks of which are showing.

The novel moves between past and present through Ani’s perspective.  She reveals the problems in her parents’ marriage (her father was forced to marry her mother when she became pregnant with Ani and has not seemed to have a feeling for either of them since).  Mostly she reveals the ways in which she did not fit in and how deeply she felt her outsider status.  She makes friends with the popular crowd early in her days at Bradley, the private high school, but all goes downhill when she attends a party of only the boys while parents are out of town.  Enter the gang rape story of an incapacitated young woman, which is plenty sympathetic, but Knoll drags it out and many chapters in I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the plot for many more pages.

A crucial plot device rests in a documentary being made about Bradley, for which Ani has agreed to be interviewed and about which Lucas is very unhappy.  He knows “what happened,” which readers can assume at this point was the rape, but his lack of empathy is troubling.  When the interview finally arrives, Ani reveals another “big thing” that happened at Bradley–a mass shooting/suicide in the style of Columbine and that relates in part to her rape.  This should have been compelling, but, because Knoll dragged out the rape and tried to build suspense for so long about what was the big deal with the interview, by the time the shooting story unfolded, I was annoyed.  What else, I thought, could Knoll pile into this novel?  Wait a minute, a complication with her favorite teacher, who now appeared in her life again and was also being interviewed.  But wait again, now how about reality tv?  What about the documentary crew filming the wedding of Ani and Lucas as a happy ending to the tragic shooting story?

All of these “ripped from the headlines” elements seemed piled atop one another for effect, like a bad infomercial, rather than authentic plot elements that flowed from one another.  This was not a bad story.  It was not a very good story.  Ani was not a very sympathetic (which is saying something given her gang rape and shooting victim status) main character.  Perhaps that’s because it was difficult to empathize with an upper-middle-class white girl whose parents gave her everything but the love she needed in order to elevate her and themselves into the next super-elite social stratus when there are so many stories in the news and elsewhere today of people struggling against much greater adversities.  Perhaps it’s because Knoll prioritizes Ani’s struggle with her middle-class identity over her insecurity and intimacy issues resulting from her multiple victimizations.  Either way, while this novel may have tried to be a Gone Girl or a Girl on the Train, its protagonist was nowhere near as compelling and its plot nowhere near as skillfully constructed.

Finished 9/16

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children–Ransom Riggs

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I am late to this party.  A colleague of mine recommended this book two years ago.  I put it on my wish list, finally bought it this summer, and just read it when our German exchange student began raving about it.

My nine-year-old, who is a big reader, tried to join us, but the beginning was just too slow.  I have to agree with her.  The novel opens with Jacob Portman’s relationship with his odd grandfather, who tries to convince him there are monsters in the world with very specific stories and photographs, and who dies a traumatic death in the woods, which Jacob witnesses and sends him into therapy.  His parents and therapist explain these odd stories away with the fact that Jacob’s grandfather was a Jewish child in WWII Europe whose family were killed by the Nazis.  The monsters, they reassure Jacob, were the Nazis.  Jacob, however, cannot get over the nightmares that began when his grandfather was murdered and, when he discovers that the school his grandfather talked about is on a Welsh island, he talks his therapist into supporting his trip there and brings along his ne’er-do-well bird-watching father with some enticing rare birds.

Jacob finds a bombed-out dilapidated building that had been a school and a trunk with more pictures like those his grandfather had showed him.  Eventually he stumbles upon a “loop,” a day that repeats over and over, the day the school was bombed by Nazis, and he finds the children and the teacher that featured in his grandfather’s stories.

Once Jacob is on the island, the story moves fairly quickly.  Much of the charm of the story comes from the vintage photographs, which Ransom gathered from collectors and uses to illustrate the story.

This novel did a lot of interesting set up work, but, given the slow start, I am somewhat surprised it became as popular as it did.  The peculiar children have powers, but they are not amazing powers.  In fact, most of the powers on their own create problems for the children rather than empowerment.

I am interested to see how this translates to film this month and to read the later volumes in the series, one of which was just released this week.

Finished 8/2016

Unbecoming–Rebecca Scherm

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Paris.  Antiques.  Art history.  A thriller.  What is not to like?

The pace.  The heroine.  Grace’s home life is “messy, broken” according to the fly leaf.  What’s broken?  Her parents had her out of wedlock, separated for a time, married other people, then reunited, married, and had sons, who are the apples of their eyes.  Grace feels like the outsider in her family.  Of married, working, non-abusive, non-alcoholic parents.  She chooses, instead, to make herself part of her rich neighbor’s family by playing a role, the cute daughter her neighbors never had, the lovable gal pal turned girlfriend of their son.  She secretly marries their son, but her facades begin to fall away when she moves to New York for a year of college and her role of slick city girl and lovable small-town girl come into conflict.

The story is told by moving between past and present, which should build suspense, but that instead begins tiresome.  Grace is in Paris restoring antiques under an assumed name and fighting anxiety as her husband and his best friend are released from prison.  Their crime–robbing a local museum and causing the death of the caretaker–are slowly spun out at an excruciating pace.  Everything in the plot is spun out in this fashion, and that becomes a problem very quickly.  This, however, could be overcome if Grace were likeable or, barring that, intriguing.  She is, instead, just annoying.  I kept reading not because she or the plot were compelling, but because I really wanted to find a saving grace in a novel that earned the high praise it has received.  In the end, I had to admit to myself I had chosen a lemon and spent precious reading time trying to prove myself right rather than cutting my losses and moving on.  The ending, which was meant, I think, to be complicated and clever, was just the icing on the cake.

Finished 8/2016

 

Eligible–Curtis Sittenfeld (Audiobook)

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I guess it’s very nineteenth-century of Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld to publish under a male pseudonym, and I realize it’s her authorial name, but it struck me as odd for a piece in the Austen project, given that Austen was one of the first to publish as a woman and forego the fiction of male authorship.

Some reviewers have panned this book, some because it’s an Austen remake.  As someone who absolutely adores Pride & Prejudice, I would never dismiss someone for writing an Austen homage novel.  I enjoyed listening to this novel because I love Pride & Prejudice and all of the characters, but there were several elements of this remake that I did not enjoy or that puzzled me.

First, the sexual tension (or ST, as it is referred to in Eligible), is crucial to Pride & Prejudice.  How can there be that tension when Darcy and Liz sleep together so early in the novel–and in such an anticlimactic way?  That was seriously disappointing and contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the novel. I do not object to the more modern nature of the conceit–I object to the fact that the conceit was not carried out in a way to retain the tension crucial to the original–the whole reason, likely, that readers have continued to make this Austen’s most popular novel.  I wanted to see what Sittenfeld was going to do.  I did not care that much about the two characters “finally” getting together because they had already gotten together.

Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennett is true to the primary character traits found in Austen’s Liz for the most part, but she is just less likable and, at times, less believable.  She cannot stand Darcy, but spills her guts to him when they meet up during a run and then, oops, realizes to whom she is talking.  Liz is a journalist and lives in New York City, so presumably is fairly sophisticated, but when she learns her new brother-in-law is transgender, she asks a ridiculous question about his genitalia and seems more like her Midwestern backward mother than the urbane woman Sittenfeld is trying to portray.

Mrs. Bennett is racist, a lovely characteristic, and a shopaholic.  She avidly desires her daughters to marry, but reacts very poorly to Lydia marrying a handsome, successful man because he is transgender.  Sittenfeld’s situation here, a replacement for Wickham’s abduction of the underage and desperately naive Lydia, just does not work.  It makes Mrs. Bennett too awful and Darcy’s intervention underwhelming and uncompelling.  It also makes the crucial scene where Liz receives the letter about Lydia’s abduction and Darcy’s reaction to it, which she misreads so terribly, also not work in Sittenfeld’s version.  The stakes are too low, the situation too ridiculous, even if likely in today’s conservative Midwest.

Throughout the novel, Lydia accuses Mary of being a lesbian.  When Mary learns that Lydia has married a transgender man, she gleefully calls Lydia a lesbian. Again, tone deaf on this whole sexual identity issue.  Most bizarrely, Sittenfeld ends the novel with a profile of Mary including her choice of dildo, frequency of its use, personal hygiene practices (no shaving) that seems to be mocking the only woman in the novel who does not follow at least some element of conventional femininity.  Mary cannot just be a woman content to be herself with her own independent pursuits.  She must be a caricature of a feminist, although a feminist who definitely does not want to be thought to be a lesbian and who relishes calling her sister one for marrying a transgender man.  Ugh.

That this is the Pride & Prejudice chapter in the Austen Project is seriously disappointing.  That this was published to such fanfare is seriously disappointing.  Regardless, my family did not see me without headphones, finding excuses to listen to the book (biking, gardening, cleaning) for several days as I lost myself, again, in the story of Liz and Darcy.  God help us if this becomes a movie, but I fear it may.

Finished 8/11/16