Category Archives: Fiction

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri

For the Pulitzer Prize Winner category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I chose Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I am a big fan of Lahiri’s, and enjoyed her books The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that follows the same themes as Lahiri’s novels: immigration, loneliness, identity and connection in unexpected places.

Most of the stories in this collection involve Indian immigrants to the U.S., usually in the 70s or 80s, and usually to Massachusetts. There are couples learning to love each other after arranged marriages, graduate students trying to assimilate into American culture, and Americans to understand immigrants. Like in her other books, Lahiri has deep compassion for her characters and, in her quiet, elegant way, conveys the isolation and rootlessness they feel living in a new place and trying to find their way. There is restraint to Lahiri’s writing, just as her characters are often emotionally restrained in how they relate to each other and express their feelings.

I don’t love short stories because I often feel they lack staying power, and I feel similarly about Interpreter of Maladies. I enjoyed the stories a lot while I read them, but to write this review, I had to flip back through the book to remind myself of the different plots. The strongest one is the first, “A Temporary Matter,” about a married couple finally communicating with each other about the stillborn baby they lost months earlier. Sadly, the gulf of silence that has grown between them proves to be uncrossable and they separate by the end of the story. I also enjoyed “Mrs. Sen’s”, a story about an American boy who spends his afternoons in the care of an newly immigrated Indian woman who is isolated in her house because she’s too afraid to learn to drive.

I am glad I finally got to Interpreter of Maladies, which had been on my shelf for years. (Also my daughter is going to read it for school in January, so I can talk about it with her.) And I ticked another category off the challenge list. One more to finish!

ASK AGAIN, YES by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is a novel about two families who move next door to each other in suburban New York in the 70s and how tragedy soon links them inextricably for generations. The Gleesons (Francis and Lena) and the Stanhopes (Brian and Anne) move to the same suburb after Francis and Brian serve as partners on the NYPD in their twenties. Soon after moving in, both couples have children, and those children grow up together. But there is no closeness between the two couples – Anne and Lena never become friends due to Anne’s increasingly paranoid and erratic behavior.

One night, Anne becomes violent after a confrontation with her son Peter, and the repercussions are tragic, leading to the collapse of the Stanhopes and leaving an indelible mark on the Gleesons. Ask Again, Yes tracks the years that follow, as Peter deals with the aftermath of his family’s breakdown and tries to navigate his way to adulthood largely on his own. When he reunites with the Stanhopes’ daughter Kate years later, the tragedy they endured as kids resurfaces in many complicated ways.

Oh boy did I like this one. There’s quite a bit here – coming of age, family estrangement, substance abuse, mental illness, loyalty and disillusionment. These characters endure a lot. But I loved how Keane rotated around among them, giving them closeups and then pulling back, checking in with them and revealing how their lives were progressing and changing. Rather than include every notable event in their lives, she often addressed them in flashbacks, focusing instead on daily vignettes and seemingly unimportant moments that provided a more nuanced and realistic view of her characters’ lives. The pacing was perfect, with incremental shifts rather than dramatic change happening as the years unfolded. The details are spot on – body language, dialogue, small decisions made or actions not taken – all combining to paint a compelling picture of the Stanhopes and the Gleesons.

I spent so much of this book just wanting to give Peter a hug – a similar impulse to how I felt last week reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (reviewed here). In the end, I liked Ask Again, Yes even more. The characters were more complex and their lives were more richly conveyed. I do wish Keane had allowed some ups to balance out the downs. There isn’t much joy in Ask Again, Yes, and even when discover that her characters were, at one point, happy, those are inevitably times we only learn about later, in flashbacks.

I listened to Ask Again, Yes on audio except when I just couldn’t stay away from it and had to pick up the print. It was narrated by Molly Pope, who did a great job conveying the gravity of the story (and the occasional Irish brogue). I actually looked up a video of Pope narrating the book because I was curious to see what the narrator looks like (does anyone else ever do that?) and learned that she is an actress and singer who is not always as serious as this book is! I highly recommend the audio.

Ask Again, Yes is going to be a a top-5 read for me this year. If you enjoy multigenerational family sagas that tackle tough topics with empathy and kindness, this one is definitely for you.

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is the latest novel from Ann Patchett, author of one of my all-time favorite books, Bel Canto, and others I’ve reviewed – Commonwealth, Run, State Of Wonder, Truth And Beauty. It is about two siblings – Danny and Maeve – who grow up in an odd but beautiful home outside Philadelphia called the Dutch House. Their mother left when they were young, and they lived with their aloof, inscrutable father and a cadre of household help who raised and took care of them. When their father married a younger woman, Andrea, and then died, they found themselves booted from the house and cut off from their father’s wealth. The Dutch House is about how their relationship survives into adulthood, and their lifelong obsession with the house and the wrongs committed by their stepmother.

I had been in a reading slump over the last month or so, thanks mostly to the World Series (Go Nats!), and after some false starts with other books, The Dutch House was the one that got me out of it. Ann Patchett is an expert storyteller, and I was immediately drawn in to these kids’ lives and their unfortunate circumstances. I thought the middle third of the book was the best – the part that covered Danny’s journey to adulthood and the evolution of his life separate from Maeve’s, despite their codependence.

Ultimately, The Dutch House is about forgiveness and acceptance. How do we forgive those who wrong us? How do we accept that people – especially parents – make decisions that we cannot understand? Sometimes that process can take a lifetime. I felt deep empathy for Danny and Maeve, even as they were turning inward or reinforcing patterns that only prolonged their hurting. While sometimes I wondered whether it was reasonable for them to be angry so many years later, to continue to drive to the house and sit outside, recounting the injustices done to them, in the end I could understand how those wounds from childhood were still raw decades later.

I liked The Dutch House quite a bit. It’s a juicy book to get caught up in, and I stayed up late reading it last night for the first time in a while. I am always impressed by the variety of Ann Patchett’s settings and plots, and how convincing I have found almost all of them. I highly recommend The Dutch House – great read.

I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson

This is the longest stretch I’ve gone all year without finishing a book. I mostly blame baseball – my beloved Washington Nationals made an unprecedented postseason run from the Wild Card game to the World Series, surviving several elimination games and beating the odds to win the pennant. We are a baseball house, which meant late nights throughout October and much exhaustion and distraction during the days. My reading ground to a halt. I stopped and started about 4 books, getting nowhere, before finally just accepting that I was not going to be getting any reading done until the end of the Series.

Another reason for the inactivity: the one book I was reading/listening to just wasn’t doing it for me. For the “Movie in 2019” category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I chose I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, a YA novel that I JUST DISCOVERED IS NOT COMING OUT AS A MOVIE IN 2019. OH MY GOD. How did that happen? I can’t believe I read this book for no reason. I may have confused it with another book? It is in development, but no release date has been set. WHY DID I READ THIS BOOK? I may just give myself a pass on this because I truly believed it was coming out this year. My blog, my challenge, right?

I’ll Give You The Sun is about twins in Northern California – Noah and Jude – who used to be inseparable but became estranged between ages 14 1/2 and 16. The story of why they stopped speaking to each other unfolds throughout the book in alternating chapters, with the early years narrated by Noah and the later years narrated by Jude. In those intervening years, the two grapple with a lot of complicated things: sexual identity, death of a parent, competition between them for academics and their parents’ attention, sexual assault. It sounds like it should be an interesting book, and I am particularly drawn to books about twins because I am a twin mom, but I had a really hard time with this one.

Things happen in I’ll Give You The Sun that are implausible or make no sense. There are weird supernatural effects throughout, such as conversations with dead family members. Noah and Jude are totally self-absorbed, even for adolescents, and act in unforgivably selfish ways. There are inappropriate sexual relationships and underdeveloped characters who fall in deep love with little explanation. The plot was hard to follow. And, it was boring! It took me SO LONG to finish this book. And I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Maybe this is an age thing? People seem to love this book.

I alternated between listening to and reading I’ll Give You The Sun. It is narrated by the excellent Julia Whelan and Jesse Bernstein. I thought Bernstein in particular did a great job with Noah – I actually googled him because he was so convincing as a 14 year old and I wanted to see what he looked like. But even this duo couldn’t save I’ll Give You The Sun. I found my mind wandering as I listened to it – the death knell for an audiobook.

At least I completed one of the challenge categories… kind of.

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, author of Sag Harbor (reviewed here) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, is a novel about a depressing episode in American history: the corrupt management of a reform school for boys in 1960s Tallahassee and the rampant racism that scarred decades of its inhabitants.

Elwood Curtis, an African-American high school student in Florida, is serious, principled and ambitious. He lives with his grandmother, having been abandoned by his parents, and spends his time working, listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches and aspiring to go to college. He ends up being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thanks to institutional racism, finds himself sentenced to a year at Nickel Academy.

Any hope that Nickel will actually further Elwood’s education is dashed when he gets there and starts to grasp the cruelty and injustice with which the school is governed. White and black boys are separated, with black boys receiving fewer resources and investment. The white administrators abuse the kids – physically, mentally and sexually – and, as the book hints at in the preface, cover up the “accidental” deaths of students whose families are told simply that they disappeared.

Whitehead’s writing style, one of understatement and quiet devastation, is on full display in The Nickel Boys. It’s not a long book, but it’s one you have to read slowly, so as not to miss a word. The violence is there, but it’s neither gratuitous nor overdone. Instead, Colson writes about it matter-of-factly, which I found made it even more impactful. I read The Nickel Boys with a low level of dread at all times. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; it just means that there is always the potential for something bad to happen (and it often does). That’s the reality of life at Nickel Academy.

The Nickel Boys is a harrowing read, but definitely worth the experience. There are also some twists and turns that kept me guessing until the end. Nicole Bonia and I recorded a book club discussion of The Nickel Boys for The Readerly Report podcast, which will air Thursday, October 31. (I’ll add a link when it’s live.)

THE DEARLY BELOVED by Cara Wall

The Dearly Beloved is a quiet, contemplative novel about two couples who are brought together when their husbands are hired as ministers at the same church in Greenwich Village in the 60s. Lily and Charles and Nan and James each grapple with their own relationships to faith and how differences in their faiths impact both their marriages and their relationships with the other couple. But while faith is a major theme of The Dearly Beloved, at its core it is a novel about friendships and marriage. So if you’re daunted by the religious bent, don’t be.

Charles and Lily meet when he’s in divinity school and she’s in graduate school at Harvard. He pursues her energetically, despite her pronouncement that she doesn’t believe in God and never will. He breaks through her hard shell and convinces her to marry him. As their relationship unfolds, Lily remains rigid and aloof, but challenges they face later as a couple ultimately bring them closer together while Charles’ commitment to God is tested.

James and Nan are both believers, but he is an activist and leads his congregation intellectually and socially rather than spiritually, while Nan is a traditionally observant Christian who is uncomfortable with social change. They too face challenges as a couple, but their relationship is less fraught than Charles and Lily’s.

When the two couples’ lives become entwined, Wall explores the dynamics between the four, putting them in situations where their individual relationships strain and rebuild, expand and evolve. The Dearly Beloved is not an action-packed book; much of what happens is inside the characters’ heads. But the book moves along at a nice pace and unfolds consistently. I was invested from the start, interested to see how these four lives would unfold and how the characters would change. I also found the conversations about faith interesting. There’s not a lot of God in the book, but there is discussion about the different role that religion plays in people’s lives, even those who choose ministry as a calling.

I’ve read complaints about The Dearly Beloved from people who didn’t like Lily or who found the book slow or boring. Lily can be frustrating, for sure, but her corner of the square in in many ways the most interesting of the four. (And I don’t mind unlikeable characters.) I also didn’t find the book boring. It’s quiet, but compelling. I’m glad I read it.

I listened to The Dearly Beloved on audio. It was narrated by Kathy Keane, who did a nice job with it. Her performance, like the book, is understated, never overly dramatic, matching the tone of the book. I had no trouble telling the characters apart and always looked forward to listening.

THE NEW ME by Halle Butler

A few years ago, I read a dark novel called Jillian by Halle Butler about two women working in the same office whose hatred for each other simmers just below the surface, making for a depressing but also bitingly funny read. Butler’s new novel, The New Me, has a slightly different setup, but it’s as dark as, and perhaps deeper than, its predecessor.

The New Me is about Millie, a thirty year-old living in Chicago who has a temp job at a home design showroom. Her job is basically unnecessary – she answers intermittent phone calls and puts folder together for potential clients – leaving Millie with a lot of time to surf the Internet and feel bad about herself. She’s a few years out from a breakup, and with the exception of one self-absorbed friend, she spends all her time alone. She doesn’t have any money, but she fantasizes about the ways she will improve – get a job, go to yoga, upgrade her wardrobe, do her dishes, make new friends – once she lands a job. Meanwhile, she fritters away the hours at the temp job, unwittingly torpedoing any chance she has of getting a permanent offer.

While there is a lot of biting humor here, The New Me is really a sad commentary about isolation and loneliness in lives lived online and in hermetically sealed apartments with streaming Netflix. Millie is actually smart and cultured (we see glimpses to her childhood when she was a precocious reader and listened to The Rite Of Spring as a toddler). She has been beaten down by her own anxiety, depression and lack of motivation, condemning her to living hand-to-mouth as a thirty year-old who is dependent on her parents to buy her new clothes and get her a haircut when she goes to visit them as a last resort.

Halle Butler may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed The New Me and laughed through my cringing (cringed through my laughing?) many times. I found this interview in The Paris Review to be pretty helpful in understanding Butler and where she’s coming from. If you want a mostly depressing but also biting and incisive look at millennials and the modern workplace, give The New Me a try.

I listened to The New Me on audio. It’s narrated by Butler, the author, and while she’s not the best performer (her voice is kind of monotonous, and this felt more like a book reading than a professional audiobook), her style actually worked really well with the book. Millie is disaffected, which was conveyed pretty well by Butler’s almost blase narration. So for this reason, the audio worked pretty well.