HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT by Kaui Hart Hemmings

How To Party With An Infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a novel about Mele, a single mother living in San Francisco. Her daughter’s father (her ex-boyfriend) left her while pregnant to return to his fiancee (the existence of whom Mele was unaware of). As a new mother, Mele cast around for a group of other parents to hang around with. She started with the San Francisco Mom’s Club (SFMC), and was mismatched with a group of wealthy SAHMs before finding her tribe at a less tony playground, and the book is about those friendships and the imperfection of modern parenting.

How To Party With An Infant has an interesting structure. Mele is a foodie and a blogger, and when the book opens, she is submitting an application to the SFMC to supply recipes for the group’s cookbook. Hemmings teases out the backgrounds of each of Mele’s playground friends through the application, as Mele concocts a recipe inspired by each person and his or her individual story. (This construct reminded me a bit of Kitchens Of The Great Midwest, though it was used much better in that book.) I found the cookbook application structure to be forced and ultimately unnecessary. Hemmings could have written the book without it and nothing would have been lost. There’s a meal at the end where Mele serves her friends the dishes they inspired; this meal could have taken place without the cookbook application. Hemmings also switches back and forth between first and third person narration depending on whether Mele was doing the application, which is a little jarring.

On the other hand, How To Party With An Infant is entertaining and incisive, skewering a lot of mom types and relating the bittersweet nature of parenting small children. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and I was always happy to pick the book back up again. There isn’t much of a plot, but there are a lot of funny vignettes throughout involving Mele or her friends. It’s an easy read, a wisp of a novel that doesn’t leave much of a mark but is enjoyable in the process. My favorite scene is a wedding that takes place at the end – Mele’s ex-boyfriend’s – which was just totally relatable and ultimately uplifting.

Reviews of this book are a bit all over the place. My best friend loved it, and she’s a very reliable barometer for books. In the end, I was glad to have read it, but honestly can’t remember all that much about it since finishing it 5 days ago. If you want an entertaining, breezy read, give it a try.

 

YOU THINK IT, I’LL SAY IT by Curtis Sittenfeld

When I learned that Curtis Sittenfeld had a collection of short stories coming out next spring, I had to get my hands on it. Immediately. I don’t usually love short stories, but we’re talking Curtis Sittenfeld here. I will read anything she writes. So I got it, and I read it, and it was great.

The ten stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are about relationships – friends, exes, acquaintances – and the moments in life when they reappear or emerge in a surprising way, often against the backdrop of fame or marriage. In “A Regular Couple”, a woman is on her honeymoon when she comes across someone she went to high school with. Their power dynamic has shifted, which plays out in interesting ways when they end up spending a few unexpected days together. “The Prairie Wife” is about a mother of young kids who discovers that someone she knew at camp is now famous for creating a persona that is quite different from how she was as a teenager. In “Plausible Deniability”, a sister and brother-in-law play a dangerous game via text that ends when they both realize that he can never be what she wants him to be.

I don’t love short stories because they are unsatisfying; the good ones always leave me wanting a lot more. The stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are no exception. But damn, these are good. They combine two crucial elements: convincing, honest observations and dialogue, plus some sort of twist or surprise. There were situations in each of these stories that I could strongly relate to, and as always, Sittenfeld just nails them. Like her other books, high school plays a big role, but there are also stories about marriage and parenthood. I read this book slowly, savoring each story because I didn’t want it to end.

It’s not fair for me to write this review now, when You Think It, I’ll Say It isn’t out until April 2018. But I’ll post it again next spring and urge people to read it. If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, then this will be right up your alley.

THE MARRIAGE PACT by Michelle Richmond

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond is about a newlywed couple in San Francisco named Jake and Alice who receive an unusual wedding gift from a couple they don’t know well. It turns out to be an invitation to join a very selective club called The Pact, an underground network of couples around the world who are committed to preserving marriage and helping keep their members’ unions happy and healthy. There is a long book explaining the rules of The Pact, but neither Alice (a lawyer) nor Jake (a therapist) read much of it. They pick up some of the basics – always answer the phone when your spouse calls; buy your spouse a thoughtful gift every month; take trips together every quarter – and they seem reasonable. They are happy and in love, and they sign the Pact without giving it much thought.

Next comes the first home visit from a Pact member and the first strange dinner gathering they attend with other Pact couples in the Bay Area, and it becomes clear that the Pact is serious – and intrusive. And it’s for life – once you join, you can’t leave.

When Alice starts working a lot at work, leaving Jake to dinners and nights on his own, she is punished and required to attend weekly sessions with another Pact member to refocus her attention. And that’s just the beginning. By the end of The Marriage Pact, Alice and Jake have been severely punished – even incarcerated – by The Pact for various transgressions. The intensity of the action ratchets up throughout the book as Jake and Alice alternatively embrace and try to escape The Pact.

I liked the concept behind The Marriage Pact. What makes a strong marriage? Does The Pact help marriage though its strict rules and constant surveillance, or does it strain marriage through stress and fear? How far would you be willing to go – and how much would you sacrifice – to ensure the health of your marriage? These are interesting questions and I liked how Richmond explored them in the beginning of the book. But I thought the book kind of went off the rails after that. Too much brute force, too many plot cycles (Jake trusts Alice; he doesn’t; she’s committed; she’s evasive), just too much. In the end, the couple’s punishments were too extreme and their costs too high.

Plus it’s a stressful read. I am not that into thrillers and that’s what The Marriage Pact turned out to be.

So this was definitely a mixed bag. Great concept, but ultimately just too much for me.

 

 

 

THE FUTURES by Anna Pitoniak

Anna Pitoniak’s The Futures is a novel about a particular slice of life in a very specific point in time: post-college New York City in the late 2000s. Julia and Evan met as freshmen at Yale and started dating after a few months of being close friends. They stayed together through his years as a Yale hockey player, her semester in France, and various college flirtations. After graduation, they move together to Manhattan, where Evan works as an analyst at a prestigious hedge fund and Julia, after a few weeks of flailing, takes an executive assistant job at a nonprofit funded by friends of her parents.  As the year unfolds, their relationship is tested by a number of external forces (the market crash of ’08, Julia’s flirtation with a business journalist, Evan’s long hours) as they try to navigate their adult lives, together and on their own.

 

Off the bat I’ll say that there are some things I didn’t like about The Futures. Julia is whiny and self-pitying, so paralyzed by indecision that she’s constantly susceptible to the motives and whims of others. She’s incapable of doing anything on her own, and the only characters she interacts with other than through work are people she knew before she came to NY. She blames everyone else for her problems and refuses to take responsibility for herself. Evan’s not much better. He does have a moral compass, but he turns out to be pretty unfeeling and unsympathetic. Meanwhile, as noted above, the book is about a very small, specific New York world: privileged Ivy League twentysomethings living in fancy NY neighborhoods.

 

So what’s good about this book, if its two main characters are unlikable and its purview is so narrow? Well, first, Pitoniak is a very good writer. I loved her little observations and details; she knows how to describe a room or a character and make it come to life in the most vivid way. Second, I am many years removed from those untethered, often depressing first years out of college, when you don’t know what to do with yourself and you’ve lost the safety net of classmates and the college routine, but I remember them well. I, too, lived in New York during those years, and I remember that feeling of being surrounded by people who had a life and a plan, while I didn’t. Pitoniak captured that all pretty well. The story unfolded nicely, and I was eager to know what was going to happen. The alternating narrative between Evan and Julia was pretty effective, and certainly helped to underscore the growing distance between the two.

The Futures is not a cautionary tale about the financial crash, but instead a smaller book about a few casualties of it. It may not be perfect, but it was entertaining and well-written, and I am glad I read it.

I listened to The Futures on audio, and I can’t really recommend it. The performer who narrated Julia, Sarah Mollo-Christensen, chose to use a breathy, dramatic delivery that I found distracting (and that only enhanced Julia’s irritating qualities). The narrator for Evan, Michael Crouch, was better. Despite these complaints, though, I zipped through the audio and was eager to get back to it when I had to stop listening.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is the latest novel from Celeste Ng, who wrote the popular Everything I Never Told You (reviewed here) in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in idyllic Shaker Heights, OH, where Elena Richardson lives with her husband Bill and four kids, Tripp, Lexie, Moody and Izzy. The Richardsons are well off – they have a big house and their kids drive fancy cars, do lots of activities and apply to Ivy League schools.  When the book opens, someone has set fire to the Richardson house, and everyone suspects Izzy. But why?

Izzy’s anger at her mother – building for years – is stoked when Elena leases a small rental house the family owns to a mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl, who move to town with few belongings under a shroud of mystery. Elena is immediately suspicious of Mia, an artist who has lived her life on the move and who embraces none of the traditional trappings that Elena has always sought. Mia and Pearl’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the Richardsons’ when Mia starts cleaning their house and Pearl becomes close with three of the four siblings. Izzy, meanwhile, is drawn to Mia and becomes an apprentice of sorts to her, which drives a wedge even further between her and her mother.

Ng is a good storyteller, letting the connections between the two families slowly grow deeper as the pages turn. There is a side plot involving the adoption of an abandoned Chinese baby by a white family, but while I expected that story to be more central to the novel, it wasn’t. Elena and Mia wind up on opposite sides of the controversy over the adoption, but the real story here is about the relationship between the two families.

Little Fires Everywhere has been very well-received, but I have to admit that I didn’t love it. There were too many neat parallels involving motherhood and pregnancy for the story to remain plausible to me. Elena – a reporter – got access, often too conveniently, to information that she shouldn’t have known, and everything ultimately got resolved too abruptly and dramatically in the end. Some of the characters became more one-dimensional over time, particularly Elena, making them less sympathetic and the story less complex. So while I enjoyed the process of the story unfolding, I found in the end that it lacked substance. I didn’t take away much from the book.

I listened to Little Fires Everywhere on audio. Jennifer Lim’s narration was precise and empathetic, though at times a little too upbeat for the subject matter. But she moved the story along nicely, and the hours went by quickly. I just wished the promise of the story had held up throughout the book.

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney is about Frances, a 21 year-old in Dublin who has recently broken up with her girlfriend Bobbi and has an affair with an older, married man, Nick, who is half of a couple that Frances and Bobbi befriend when the wife, Melissa, gets interested in Frances and Bobbi’s spoken poetry. That is pretty much all that happens. There is a lot of talking and texting and thinking. Frances and Bobbi fight and make up a few times, and there is drama when Melissa learns of the affair. (Strangely, the foursome continues to socialize even after Melissa finds out, which I had a hard time accepting.) Frances is rather cold, and she communicates with Nick with varying degrees of honesty and candor, depending on how vulnerable she is willing to feel. Nick is weak and insecure despite his good looks, and he can’t make up his mind about what he wants.

I don’t quite get the hubbub over Conversations With Friends. I credit Rooney for her sharp writing and very accurate depiction of emotions, particularly twentysomething emotions when inappropriate relationships are involved. She definitely nailed that. But as a novel, it was disappointing. All that time spent on one relationship between two relatively uncompelling people! I never felt emotionally invested in this story and it took me much longer to read than it should have. I also think Frances and Bobbi acted more like people in their mid- to late 20s, not 21 year-olds.

A good friend of mine really enjoyed Conversations With Friends. I am going to give (not quite) equal time to the opposing viewpoint and include the text she sent me last week when I told her that I wasn’t loving the book: “It’s more of a series of conversations.  Musings than a story. I love the way she captures the mindset of that age woman. And how the male character unfolds. Literally.”

Totally fair. The musings are real and relatable, and some of Frances’ actions and thoughts definitely brought me back to my own 20s. For me, though, the narrowness of the story and self-absorption of the characters held me back from really engaging with it.

 

WHAT HAPPENED by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and rarely political non-fiction, but I made an exception for Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which is her post-mortem on the 2016 election.

Full disclosure: #I’mWithHer. Have been from the beginning – even the 2008 presidential race. My husband worked for Hillary for four years at the State Department, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, as have my kids. So I went into What Happened already a big fan of Hillary’s. And I went into it as someone who was existentially disappointed after the 2016 election and who has been depressed and angry ever since. So that’s the prism through which I read the book.

Even though What Happened got me angry all over again, I really enjoyed it and am glad I read it. There are several sections of the book: some background on her decision to run for president in ’08 and ’16, some chapters about her personal life, a fair amount (too much?) about her policy positions, and, of course, a detailed dissection of the months leading up to Election Day 2016. There is a lot of coverage of Comey and the emails, and a very alarming chapter on Russia’s tampering in the election. But she doesn’t just blame her loss on Bernie and the emails and the Russians. Hillary takes on a lot of responsibility for the way things turned out. She knows there are a lot of people who don’t like her (as hard as that is for her), and she acknowledges missteps she made during the campaign, such as her controversial comment about coal mining. She also offers a lot of theories for why certain groups voted for Trump, why some didn’t vote at all, and how campaign tweaks might have flipped key districts that ended up sealing the deal for Trump.

It’s so clear to me that Hillary was absolutely qualified to be president and that our world would be such a different, safer and better place than it is now, had she won. What Happened confirmed all that, of course, but it also gave me a better sense of who Hillary is as a person, which I appreciated. Her humor shows through in the book, as does her intellect and her passion for public service and making the world a better place, particularly for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged.

Here are some of the criticisms and reservations I’ve heard about this book: “I can’t read it. Too soon.”; “She’s not going to talk about her role in losing the election.”; “Enough from her already.”; “It will make me too upset”. I get it; yes, she did; it’s never enough; and yes, it’s beyond upsetting. But it was oddly reassuring to hear her perspective, and to hear her say that we’ll get through this and that things will get better again. I hope she really believes that, because I am depending on that hope.

I listened to What Happened on audio. It’s narrated by Hillary, and hearing this all in her words and in her voice made for a very powerful experience. I highly recommend the audio on this one. I am not going to go into her narration – you know what Hillary sounds like. (I will confess that I sped it up a little bit because she talks pretty slowly. It’s a long book!)

My guess is you’re either going to read this book or you’re not. I can only say that if you’ve been hesitating because you’re worried you’ll be too upset, give it a try. You may be surprised by how it makes you feel.