We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves–Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselves

Fowler begins her novel with a mystery.  Why was Rosemary a talker as a child and now rarely speaks?  What trauma silenced her voice?  Rosemary is the first-person narrator who starts her story in the middle with absences–that of her older brother and her sister, Fern.  Rosemary speaks of her sister and an idyllic childhood in a farmhouse full of her father’s graduate students.  Everything changed when she was sent on her own to stay with her grandparents and came home to find Fern gone and her older brother surly.  She gradually peels back the layers of family history to reveal that her brother is now an animal rights activist wanted by the government for domestic terrorism and her sister, Fern, is a chimpanzee who was sent to a farm, which she later discovered was not a farm, but a lab.  Rosemary’s role in her family’s calamities becomes clearer as she processes her losses by telling the story and reclaiming her voice.

Rosemary’s story raises interesting questions about the nature of family, what it means to be human, and the humanity of parents.  Rosemary’s father, a famous psychologist, is the ghost behind the story–the reason for Fern, for Fern’s disappearance, and perhaps for Rosemary’s clinical telling of her story.

 

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The Widow-Fiona Barton

widow fiona barton

Barton’s debut novel is a fast-paced, page-turning read.  It was the kind of book that made me want to stay home and read until I was finished.  Instead, I read hungrily and then stayed up late to finish it.  Jean is the kind of women we all pity and secretly despise.  She is a mouse who allows her husband to dominate her (not in a 50 Shades way, but in a basic control freak way).  When Barton lets us see that her husband, Glen, was involved in child pornography, we are not sure if we should really despise her for turning a blind eye or if we should fear that we could be her, the wife who does not know her husband is watching child porn late at night and who believes he really is the good guy he seems.

We meet Kate Waters, journalist, and DI Bob Sparkes.  The way Barton introduces them may support my theory that The Widow was written after The Child–as if we should already know them.

Barton uses the short chapters seen in The Child, but they are not quite as brief and the cycling is not quite as rapid.  She bounces between the story of Waters pursuing an interview with Jean and Sparkes and Waters trying to find baby Bella, who was taken from her front yard.  Sparkes and Waters have an interesting dynamic.  I would love to see Barton come back to Sparkes and write a more traditional mystery novel with him as central character.  That I would not only watch for–I might pre-order.

Finished 3/18

The Child–Fiona Barton

child barton

I read Fiona Barton’s novels out of order–The Child before The Widow.  Slightly crazy Emma, the ghostwriter whose social anxiety confines her largely to her home and whose daddy issues led her to marry a man much her senior, is another not quite reliable narrator.  Kate Waters is a bored journalist who seizes on the discovery at a construction site of a baby’s skeleton.  Angela, whose daughter was stolen from her maternity room, still harbors hopes of finding her child, even if that means finding her remains.  Barton cycles rapidly between narrators and stokes the possibility that the remains are Emma’s baby then that they are Angela’s baby.  With all of the hype surrounding Barton, I kept thinking she was going to pull off a wonderful surprise, but the ending was predictable.  Once again, like Dan Chaon (but with less suspense), a suspenseful narrative concluded with disappointment.  The Child came out so soon after The Widow that I wonder if it was written quickly or if it were, indeed, written before The Widow and was rushed out to capitalize on The Widow’s success.  Perhaps my reading order was the writing order, which might explain why the second novel was less wonderful than the first.  I will watch for Barton’s third novel and give her another try.

 

A Separation–Katie Kitamura

Separation

I don’t remember where I saw A Separation and decided to add it to my Amazon wish list.

Kitamura chooses a first-person narrator, the wife who has been separated from her husband for several months.  He has gone missing in Greece  so she goes looking for him–rough job.  The novel proceeds through flash backs and internal monologues.  The husband’s body turns up at the side of a rural road.  His mother and father fly to Greece to look for him and end up taking his body home.  His wife decides not to disclose their separation and to embrace her identity as widow.

I think the novel was meant to be an examination of marriage, but, to someone who has been married over two decades, it fell flat.  Maybe this narrative requires someone who has experienced a miserable marriage.

It is the brief read and involves a mental trip to Greece.  There are worse ways to spend a few hours.

Ill Will–Dan Chaon

ill will chaon

Ill Will has an amazing dust jacket and a great blurb and premise.  Dustin’s adopted brother, who was found guilty as a teenager of murdering their parents and aunt and uncle, is released from prison.  Dustin, who gave damning testimony in the trial, has become a psychologist, has recently lost his wife to cancer, and is struggling to parent his two late-teenage sons, one in college and the other about to graduate high school.  One of Dustin’s patients, a cop removed from service, brings Dustin into a conspiracy theory about the disappearance of young men across the Midwest whose bodies then show up in rivers or other bodies of water.  So begins Dustin’s journey from the mainstream.

Chaon creates a fascinating journey into the guilty grief-stricken mind of his narrator and gives us a perfect example of a narrator we think we can trust (after all, he’s an established psychologist), but whom we slowly begin to doubt and then to fear.

The problem with such a dramatically crafted narrative is that the conclusion is almost destined to disappoint.  I finished Ill Will in the middle of the night because I could not stop reading until I knew whether or not I was right to doubt Dustin.  I had gone to bed several nights before then terrified of the nightmares I knew were going to visit me thanks to Chaon’s mastery of psychological suspense.  On that last night, I stayed awake trying to decide how Chaon could have ended the novel without disappointing me and thinking that I forgave him the disappointment because the journey was so delicious.

 

Grace Period–Kelly Baker

Grace Period

Grace Period belongs to the new genre of “quit lit” penned by academics from a variety of disciplines.  I first read Kelly Baker, like many others, through her blog posts on the Chronicle’s Vitae site.  In Grace Period, Baker recounts her struggle with the academic job search and her decision to leave traditional academia and pursue the alt-ac path.  Her struggles are captured in brief chapters, which means they can be read in short settings, but these periods are necessary because the content can often be difficult to face.  Baker’s struggles reflect the stories–or near misses–of so many academics.

Baker credits Cheryl Strayed’s writing for getting her through one difficult stage.  Strayed answers WTF with “the fuck is your life–answer it.”

Baker works through her anxiety about leaving her dream of a tenured teaching position and begins envisioning herself in alternative lives.  One of those alternative paths takes her to the job as editor of Women in Higher Education.

I love that she faces the fact that academics do labor in exchange for compensation and that that compensation should be at least a living wage.  When her “luck” turns, she challenges the idea of luck and lists all of the labor she had done in the previous few years–writing, researching, reading, etc.  She also acknowledges the role her family played in her decisions–her children and spouse.  This was particularly refreshing from a woman in academia, many of whom either opt not to have children or are pushed into living as if they do not have them.

Thanks to Kelly Baker for the courage to share her struggles–and her grace.

 

The Hate U Give–Angie Thomas

the hate u give

The best book recommendations come from those close to you.  My oldest daughter, studying to be a high school English teacher, told me this book was a must.  Bahni Turpin’s narration added a further rich layer to my experience of Thomas’ story.

Starr watched her best friend die on the sidewalk when she was ten.  At sixteen she holds her friend, Khalil, as he dies from multiple gunshot wounds at the hands of a police officer making a routine traffic stop.  Starr moves between the world of the neighborhood, Garden Heights, and the suburbs where she attends school and where her uncle, a detective, and her aunt, a surgeon, live in a gated community.  Starr’s mother works at a clinic in the neighborhood.  Her father, a former member of the Kings, for whom he did time, owns a neighborhood grocery store.  They are committed to Garden Heights, despite the tragedies their daughter has endured.  Starr becomes the star witness testifying in front of a grand jury deciding whether the officer who killed Khalil would be charged.  As she processes her feelings about the murder, she is awakened as an activist and is forced to bring her two worlds, the neighborhood and the surburb, together.

The Hate U Give is powerful.  Starr’s story boldly tackles issues that have become taboo in too many circles.  Thomas’ characters are not political cartoons.  They are as complex and frustrating and sympathetic and unforgettable.  My daughter was right. This one is a must.

Finished 2/18