Author Archives: gayle

THE LAST MRS. PARRISH by Liv Constantine

I need to stop with the popcorn thrillers. I find them irresistible – their intriguing plots, their largish print, their promise of hour whiled away breathlessly flipping pages. But the end result is almost always the same: it’s like the vague sickness and self-loathing I always feel after eating movie popcorn. The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine was no exception.

You’ve read this book before. Two female narrators telling a story from two opposite perspectives plus one sociopath husband. In this case, Amber Patterson is a manipulative, obsessive woman on the run from a stormy Midwest past who has set her sights on Jackson Parrish, a very rich, married man living in a New York City suburb. Her M.O. is to befriend his wife Daphne and insinuate herself into their lives, making herself indispensable to both and then driving a wedge between them so that she can replace Daphne. She’s basically a despicable person, willing to use Daphne’s dead sister to her advantage and lying to Jackson to make Daphne look bad. But Daphne, of course, has some tricks up her sleeve and some secrets of her own.

The Last Mrs. Parrish was a decently entertaining book, but it left me feeling pretty empty. I could see where it was going before the second narrator took over. I also really hate these cruel husband books, like Best Day Ever, The Wife Between Us, Behind Closed Doors – they stress me out and make me depressed. Do people like that really exist?

If you enjoy these types of thrillers and/or reading about superrich people with gobs of money, then The Last Mrs. Parrish might be for you. There are a lot of 5 star reviews on Goodreads but a lot of 1 star reviews too. If this sounds like something you’d like, then by all means, pick it up. Just remind me to stop with the thrillers.

I listened to a little over half of The Last Mrs. Parrish on audio and it was fine. Sucked me in and got me hooked. I then got on a plane to Vegas and finished it off in print. So if you’re interested in the audio – which is narrated by Suzanne Elise Freeman and Meghan Wolf – it’s pretty good. It won’t make Jackson any nicer, though.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee

I almost gave up on Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee about 60 pages in. I didn’t, and I am glad.

Everything Here Is Beautiful is about two Chinese-American sisters, Lucia and Miranda, who were very close growing up. As a young adult, Lucia – the younger of the two – experiences her first schizophrenic episode, and although she eventually gets better, the spectre of her hospitalization and the disease’s looming presence forever change the sisters’ relationship. Miranda is Lucia’s protector, always worrying about her and ensuring that she is stable, while Lucia braces against Miranda’s watchful eye and everpresent concern.

When Everything Here Is Beautiful opens, Lucia has impulsively married an older man, and Miranda is trying to keep up and accept it. For many months, things go well, but when Lucia’s illness resurfaces and her new husband is at a loss for what to do, Miranda steps back in to have Lucia hospitalized again. From there, Lucia’s life takes a number of turns that lead her from New York to Ecuador and back, while Miranda marries and moves to Switzerland. Their relationship, while strained and often dormant, remains an important guiding force for each of them, especially during the times when Lucia’s illness re-emerges.

Everything Here Is Beautiful is a sad book. The epicenter of the pain – Lucia’s schizophrenia – causes ripple effects for her sister, her husband and her daughter. They all live in fear of her next episode, and the illness binds them all together as an involuntary support team for Lucia, who is not always receptive to their intervention. Mental illness is never cured; it’s just a question of which stage of the disease the afflicted is in – recovery, dormancy or decline.

So why did I almost give up on it? It got off to a slow start, and I did it on audio at first, which didn’t work for me at all. There are three narrators – Miranda, Lucia and Lucia’s husband Manny. The narration of Miranda was OK, but Lucia’s voice was chirpy, upbeat and girly, which I didn’t find to match the character at all. Manny, too, came across as unemotional and rehearsed. It wasn’t until I switched to print that I could actually focus on the book and get into the story.

In the end, I didn’t love Everything Here Is Beautiful as much as most people seem to have, but I came to appreciate it. And I think this book will have staying power.

THE FALLOUT by Tamar Cohen

I have been home from vacation for 2 1/2 weeks and I am finally getting the last of the reviews up! My 7th vacation read was The Fallout by Tamar Cohen. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was still good.

The Fallout is the story of what happens when one of two couples who have been friends for a long time break up. Josh and Hannah are married with a young daughter, and their best couple friends – Dan and Sasha – have grown to depend on each other for friendship, for backup child help, for long lunches that extend into dinner – for all of the things that adult friends expect from and give to each other. They are shocked when Dan announces that he is leaving Sasha, and even more shocked when it turns out he’s already seeing another (younger) woman.

The Fallout examines – in great detail – how Sasha and Dan’s breakup affects not only their individual relationships with Hannah and Josh, but also Hannah and Josh’s own marriage. Sasha is devastated, leaning on Hannah for emotional support and rallying Hannah in her campaign to malign Dan, while Dan seeks out Josh’s support and confidence as he grows more and more impatient with his increasingly unhinged wife.

I was expecting domestic drama – analysis of these relationships and how they changed through the strain of the breakup. What I wasn’t expecting was a psychological thriller, where the tension ratchets up throughout the book and you never know what outrageous thing is going to happen next. Instead of simply being weary and conflicted, Hannah and Josh become victims of increasingly disturbing intrustions in their lives. Who’s behind the nefarious stunts – and does it have to do with Sasha and Dan? Will Hannah and Josh’s marriage survive the strain?

The Fallout was a page-turner, to be sure. If you’re looking for relationship fiction, be warned that there is something more sinister at work here. It was a decent read, though, and with a few weeks’ distance, I am surprised at its staying power. I especially enjoyed Cohen’s observations about marriage and parenthood – all pretty spot on.

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW by A.J. Finn

Vacation read #6 was The Woman In The Window by A.J. Finn. I knew that this was a popular book when I stopped in to the little gift shop on the Greek ferry boat I was riding from Santorini to Athens and saw the Greek version of the book by the register – one of only 10 books in the store.

The Woman In The Window was one of the buzz fiction books I picked up at Book Expo 2017. It’s the story of Anna Fox, an agoraphobic woman – a therapist – who hasn’t left her home in upper Manhattan in months. She keeps tabs on her neighbors, dispenses advice on a website for fellow agoraphobics, watches classic movie thrillers, and drinks – a lot. One day, a new family with a son moves in across the street. Anna befriends the teenager and his mother, each of whom stop by her house, providing her with some human connection that she has been lacking so acutely in recent months. Within a short time, though, Anna witnesses the mother being beaten to death in the house across the street, and frantically summons the police to investigate.

Anna is the classic unreliable narrator – a familiar character in psychological thrillers. Did Anna really witness a murder? If so, where the is the body, and why does the husband deny that he was married to the woman Anna met? Or did Anna hallucinate the whole thing – the meeting at her house, the murder – due to the toxic combination of alcohol and prescription pills that she ingests every day? The police are skeptical, the son is evasive, the father is irate.

So, this book is typical thriller popcorn, causing me to breathlessly turn pages to get to the resolution. There are a few twists along the way (including one big one which I found pretty obvious), and there is a constant thrum of tension and peril that accompanies the whole book. Anna is literally trapped – she is too afraid to leave the house – which ratchets up the danger when others are in the house with her. Who can she trust? Can she even trust herself?

In the end, I didn’t like The Woman In The Window much at all. Too stressful of a read and implausible in the end. Add to that an inexplicable sex scene and an overwhelmingly detailed confession and you get an unsatisfying resolution.

I’d skip it.

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman’s The Submission (Vacation read #5) takes a look at the political aftermath of 9/11 through the setup of a competition to design a memorial at Ground Zero. The book was written in 2011, but it’s set a few years after the attacks, when a jury of art bigwigs, city officials and a 9/11 victim’s wife are choosing the winning design. The final choice – a garden – turns out to have been submitted by a Muslim-American named Mohammad. Once word gets out that the winner is Muslim, the outcry is swift and passionate, with various groups protesting the choice and others defending the architect’s right to see his winning garden through to completion.

There are a number of characters here – the architect, the guy in charge of the jury, the widow, the widow of a Bangladeshi immigrant who was also killed on 9/11, the brother of a firefighter who lost his life in the Towers, the ambitious journalist who broke the story, etc. They each have their positions, extensively articulated by Waldman in impressive detail.

I bought The Submission many years ago – close to its publication date – but didn’t start it until this summer. In the end, it didn’t work for me, and here’s why. First, context. I think America has other issues on its mind right now than how it feels about Muslims. Our enemy is coming from within these days. The book felt outdated to me and I had a hard time feeling passionately about the questions she raised. Maybe I would have felt differently pre-Trump.

Second, Waldman – a journalist herself – seems to have listed the points of view she wanted to express and then assigned characters to those points of view. As a result, they were one-dimensional  – stock characters used solely to round out the discussion with the needed talking points. With the exception of Mohammed, they were predictable and not at all complex. In the end, I didn’t care about any of them.

Third, The Submission was sooo slow. The narrative moved along at a snail’s pace, with lots of wordy dialogue as points of view were expressed over and over. Waldman is not a bad writer, but this didn’t feel like a novel, per se. It felt more like a transcript of a documentary. I had a really hard time getting through it. This could have been a really interesting book – maybe in Tom Wolfe’s hands? – but as written, it wasn’t.

I listened to The Submission on audio for the first 200 pages and then finished the last 100 in print. The audio was fine – narrated by the capable Bernadette Dunne (who narrated Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout) – but the narration couldn’t fix the major problems with the book.

I am sorry to say it, given the author’s good intentions, but give The Submission a pass.

HAPPINESS by Heather Harpham

Vacation read #4 was Heather Harpham’s memoir Happiness, which I grabbed on an impulse from my 2017 Book Expo box the night before we left. Harpham, a writer living in New York, meets and falls in love with an author named Brian. They have a strong, passionate relationship that is leading toward permanence, except for one issue they can’t resolve: Heather wants kids and Brian doesn’t. When they accidentally become pregnant, the decision of what to do – and how it will impact their relationship – becomes too much for them to survive. Heather moves home to California to have the baby, leaving Brian in New York.

Their daughter Gracie is born outside San Francisco, and from the start it’s apparent that she is suffering from a mysterious blood disorder. Within the first few weeks of her life, Gracie received a blood transfusion, a procedure she requires every three to four weeks to help get oxygen to her body. Heather handles Gracie’s condition and treatments solo, with help of her mother and some longtime friends, bearing the emotional and physical burden of caring for a sick infant. Brian finally flies out to California to meet his daughter a few months later, and he slowly backs his way into fatherhood.

Ultimately, Heather and Brian reconcile, and are then faced with the question of whether to have another child who might be a genetic match to provide bone marrow for Gracie. Given their history, this is a complicated question, but one that is quickly answered when Heather becomes unexpectedly pregnant with their son, Gabe. From there they must decide whether to transplant his marrow into Gracie, and where, and how they will get through it, emotionally and professionally.

I enjoyed Happiness. Even though I knew how it would end, I felt the suspense and stress of Gracie’s treatments and procedures and was eager to hear how it all worked out. Harpham does a really good job of letting the reader into the head of the parent of a sick child. She’s honest and genuine, sharing her innermost thoughts while Gracie was hospitalized, including the guilt she felt about neglecting her young son, her ambivalence toward her partner, and the conflicting emotions conjured by watching other parents enduring the same awful experiences in the hospital. I felt great empathy for her and for Gracie.

Happiness was a compelling read and I’m glad I included it on my travels.

THE BOOK OF ESSIE by Meghan MacLean Weir

Vacation Read #3 was The Book Of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir. Imagine a Duggar-like family, with an evangelical preacher father and strict, domineering mother, who is famous thanks to their hit reality TV show. When the book opens, the family has been on air for several seasons, and their 17 year-old daughter is pregnant, leaving the Hicks family facing the difficult decision of how to explain – or hide – it.

Essie, meanwhile, is a smart young woman who is keenly aware of what’s going on around her and capable of manipulating the situation to serve her needs. She manages to go along with her mother’s plan for her to get married, identifying the boy she wants to marry while creating a situation that provides her the options she needs to survive.

The Book Of Essie is suspenseful and insightful, lampooning reality TV and the hypocrisy of an evangelical family whose exterior hides an ugly reality. The ending is certainly convenient and perhaps contrived, but I still enjoyed the story and the question of how Essie was going to pull off her escape. There are a few secrets in the book that I managed to figure out pretty early, but it’s still a fast-paced and satisfying read.

(These vacation reviews are shorter than usual – it’s hard to review books two weeks after you’ve finished them!)