Author Archives: gayle

MARY B. by Katherine Chen

Katherine Chen’s Mary B. is a novel told from the point of view of Mary Bennett, the famously plain, ridiculed and unloved middle Bennett sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unlike her sisters Jane, Lizzie, Kitty and Lydia, Mary is presumed not to be interested in frivolities like men and fashion, as she is too often found with her nose in a book or playing the piano. In Austen’s original, Mary is a caricature, one of the many sources of humor in the book.

Chen’s novel opens during Pride and Prejudice, soon after the Bennett’s odious cousin, Mr. Collins, comes to Longbourne.  Before his visit, Mary confides to the reader that despite what people think of her, she has, in fact, been in love three times, immediately signaling that this Mary is not the same Mary from Austen’s novel. Mary B. explores those three relationships and how they shape Mary’s life and her future.

I have so many conflicting feelings about Mary B. I have a lot of admiration for Chen, who clearly spent a long time with the original to develop the right language for Mary B.  She’s faithful to the era and the writing style of the original, and that’s fun in and of itself. And I was happy just to revisit these beloved characters and extend my time with them.

On the other hand, Chen took these familiar characters and sent them in some unexpected directions. Lizzie, Colonel Fitzwilliam and even Darcy turn into very different people from what one would expect of them. That’s Chen’s right, of course, but when you reimagine a book as beloved as Pride and Prejudice, you’re going to make people mad if you mess with what they love about it. I love Lizzie and Darcy – the romance of their relationship, the fiery passion, the intellectual connection – so I was pretty upset to see that relationship taking a different turn in Mary B. and I seriously questioned Darcy’s judgment. Other characters suffer similar fates: Charlotte Lucas, for example, who is so sympathetic in the original. Mary B. is a darker and more bitter book than its witty, sly inspiration, for sure.

I did appreciate Chen’s feminist update of the novel – Mary’s independence at the end is certainly an anomaly for her era. That was a nice twist.

So if you want to read Mary B., approach it with caution and consider your own feelings about the original. If you can’t tolerate tampering, you might want to stay away. And if you’re looking for other books in the Pride and Prejudice-industrial complex, try Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld or Longbourn by Jo Baker.

I listened to Mary B. on audio. The narration by Marisa Calin was quite good, perfectly capturing Mary’s shrillness and judgmental temperament and showing off Chen’s skillful writing. I definitely recommend the audio.

GHOSTED by Rosie Walsh

When Nicole raved about Ghosted by Rosie Walsh on Goodreads and on the Readerly Report podcast a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good book to follow A Place For Us, which I liked a lot but found really slow. I wanted something that would suck me in early and go at a faster clip, and Ghosted didn’t disappoint.

Sarah Mackey is a British expat living in America, where she has recently gotten divorced from her husband of 6 years. She returns home to England on her annual monthlong visit home to see her parents and best friends, and while home, she meets Eddie, a man with whom she feels an instant connection. They spend a glorious week together, each admitting by the end that they would like to continue the relationship once Sarah returns to California. Eddie heads off on a pre-planned trip to Spain, promising to be in touch on his trip and to see her on his return, and then… disappears. Sarah has been ghosted.

I don’t want to say a lot about what happens next. as it will detract from the suspense of the story. Poor Sarah is completely distraught; did she imagine or misinterpret the strong connection she felt with Eddie? Where could he have gone, and why is he completely absent from social media? It turns out that there is an explanation, one that has to do with both Eddie and Sarah’s pasts and how they are linked. There were a few times when I was sure the story was heading in one direction, only to be completely surprised by how it played out.

Ghosted is a quick, engrossing read with relatable characters and a few nice twists. It was a great palate cleanser for me – just what I needed when I picked it up.

A PLACE FOR US by Fatima Farheen Mirza

There are good things and bad things about A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Let’s start with the good. A Place For Us is the story of an Indian-American family living in California. Parents Rafiq and Layla have three kids: daughters Hadia and Huda and son Amar. The book revolves around Amar, who grew up struggling with his parents’ Muslim traditions and their expectations for him. When the book opens, Hadia is getting married and Amar has shown up to the wedding, the first time he has seen his family in three years. Through flashbacks, Mirza pieces together Amar’s childhood and adolescence, including the tension he experienced in his relationship with his father, his secret, forbidden love for the daughter of his parents’ friends, and his struggle to live up to the high standards set by his sisters. At the wedding, Amar reconnects with his mother and sisters, as well as the woman he loved as a boy, but the pressure of the situation causes him to drink and confront his mother, ultimately driving him away from the family again.

A Place For Us is a heartbreaking exploration of the relationships and history leading up to the wedding and the many, often subtle, ways that Amar’s family failed him. There is a lot of pain in A Place For Us, with characters acting from a position of love but not being able to communicate or compromise enough to truly connect with each other. The final section, which is told from Rafiq’s perspective, is the most powerful in the book. These two men were so close to reconciliation and understanding, yet due to stubbornness and pride, they never achieved it.

If you like novels about culture clash and the complexity of families, then A Place For Us is a book for you.

But I have to warn you: A Place For Us is an unnecessarily long and slow book. It took me forever to read it. The reading is dense and detailed and beautiful, but it’s also quite repetitive. I think the author took many years to write it, and it shows. It could have been pared down considerably without shortchanging the flashbacks or compromising the complexity of the relationships. So while I really loved this story and recommend the book, it’s with the huge caveat that it’s really, really slow.

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

VOX by Christina Dalcher

We’re living in troubling times, and that’s reflected as much in current fiction as in the news we read every day. Novelists are just as concerned as the rest of us. Vox, Christina Dalcher’s new dystopian novel that takes on the precariousness of women’s rights in America, is grim and alarming, but ultimately unsuccessful.

It’s the near future, during the presidential administration of an unnamed man whose term succeeds that of America’s first black president. In an incredibly short period of time, religious fervor has taken hold and women have lost almost all of their rights. They can no longer work; all decisions are made by husbands; girls go to school only to learn home ec; and worst of all, women must wear bracelets that restrict them to speaking 100 words a day. If they go over 100, they suffer electric shocks. Premarital sex is a crime, as is homosexuality; those in same-sex relationships are sentenced to hard labor and imprisonment until their sexual preference is “corrected”.

Ugh.

Dr. Jean McLellan, a formerly renowned linguist and scientist, lives with her husband Patrick and four children in Washington DC. Patrick works in the president’s administration, and Jean is silent at home. Their youngest, Sonia, is a girl, and Jean is dismayed at Sonia’s future as well as her oldest son’s dangerous support of the values-based policies of the administration. She’s also pining away after her secret lover – an Italian scientist she hasn’t seen in months.

The possibility of change comes when the president’s brother is in a skiing accident and has suffered speech aphasia – Jean’s area of expertise. The president makes her a deal – if she’ll come back to the lab and develop a cure, she can take off her – and her daughter’s – word counter. This brings Jean back in contact with her former colleagues – and her Italian boyfriend.

Vox is thought-provoking – and terrifying – to be sure. Dalcher started out with a great premise. But as a book, it kind of falls apart as it goes along. It turns into a thriller rather than a serious novel, with a rather preposterous conclusion that also ends a bit too cleanly. I can’t say I enjoyed reading Vox, and not just because it’s incredibly depressing. I wish Dalcher has stuck to dystopia rather than veering into action thriller territory. The writing also really repetitive.

If you’re a guy, be warned: men don’t come across too well in this book.

I listened to Vox on audio. It was narrated by Julia Whelan, who infused Jean with the fury and stridency the character required. It’s not a relaxing listen. But my issues are with the plot, not the narration – Whelan did what she could with it.

Vox was a buzzy book at the end of the summer. I am sorry to say that I can’t recommend it.

BACHELOR NATION by Amy Kaufman

I am a fan of the Bachelor franchise. I have been since the beginning. I’ve watched almost all the seasons – maybe missed 4 or 5 along the day – and it’s definitely one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s mindless, yes, and predictable and ridiculous too, but I do love watching it.

So I jumped at the chance to read and review Bachelor Nation: Inside The World Of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the franchise, compiled with lots of research about the show and how it works. Kaufman starts with a history of dating shows, which is a little dry, but then explores how the Bachelor franchise got started and why it’s so popular. Kaufman explains how the producers manipulate interviews and dates to create drama, and how people on the show are pressured to act certain ways and say certain things for the cameras. She covers the double standard for men and women on the show and gets a bit into the details of what it’s like to live in the mansion.

I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but Kaufman did answer some of the questions I’ve amassed over time. I wish she had gone into more detail about the daily lives of the contestants and what it’s like for the couples when the cameras stop rolling. Many of her sources were other books, articles or blogs, and I wanted more first-person accounts and interviews. I feel like I never have enough detail when it comes to The Bachelor!

If you’re a hardcore Bachelor fan who follows the podcasts and blogs about the show, then you’ll probably find that Bachelor Nation doesn’t have a lot of new material. If you’re a casual fan who hasn’t spent a lot of time learning about the show, then you’ll find this book to be a fun read. If you don’t know or care about the show, then definitely don’t pick this one up.

A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE THING by Jen Waite

A few weeks ago, I said that I was done reading popcorn thrillers about sociopathic husbands. So what did I do next? Picked up a memoir about a sociopathic husband. SMH.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is the story of the demise of Jen Waite’s marriage to a charming Argentinian man named Marco. She married him after a frenzied period of dating and enjoyed 5 blissful years with him before everything fell apart. A few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter Louisa, she found a strange email on his computer that suggested that he was seeing someone else. He denied it repeatedly, but it came out over the next few months that Marco was cheating on Jen with another woman (and that there had been others).

The cheating was bad enough, but hardest for Jen was Marco’s coldness and lack of empathy. He claimed to be “sick” and “numb” and “unable to feel” anything about what he had done. After a lot of internet research and therapy, though, she concluded that he was a sociopath who had tricked her for years into believing that he loved her, but who cast her off when he decided he was ready to move on due to his own need for attention and adoration.

I guess I’m glad I read A Beautiful, Terrible Thing… ??? In the end, yes, Marco was awful and Jen’s pain was very intense, but did I need to read a whole book about it? I was more interested in the analysis of sociopaths and the identification of their patterns than the timeline of the revelations about Marco’s infidelity. Waite is a good writer, so it’s not like the book wasn’t written well. It’s just a somewhat familiar story and in the end I didn’t really grow that much for having read it. There is a lot of talk about not giving too much of yourself to another person or being so invested in their happiness, but if Marco hadn’t been a sociopathic monster, I don’t think Waite would be advising against either. (That’s what marriage is, right?)

You probably know by now whether this book is for you or not.