MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS by Gina Sorell

My reading has slowed down a little bit, but I have read a few books and just haven’t had the time to review them. Here is a shorter -than-usual review to get me caught up.

Mothers And Other Strangers by Gina Sorell is a rather dark book about Elsie, a woman in her late thirties living in LA whose mother has just died in Toronto. The two had a very difficult relationship throughout Elsie’s childhood, and Elsie had moved far away from her mother and the emotional pain she wrought in her daughter’s life. Mothers And Other Strangers is an examination of their lives together and the mysteries surrounding her mother’s death. Elsie’s attempts to understand her mother in death – which she was never able to do during her life – take her from Toronto to Paris to Capetown as she is driven to learn about why her mother acted as she did.

Mothers And Other Strangers is a novel about relationships, but it’s also a thriller, as Elsie tries to figure out why people are ransacking her mother’s apartment, and why she died destitute when she lived an indulgent, luxurious life. When she is given a box of mysterious photos and jewelry left for her at a neighbor’s apartment, safe from the ransackers, the quest to get to the bottom of her mother’s life becomes more urgent.

I liked but didn’t love Mothers And Other Strangers. I enjoyed Elsie as a narrator – her quiet, lonely life and her anger at her mother are sadly compelling – but the depiction of her high school years with her mother and the strange religious cult her mother joined left me a little cold. The big reveal at the end wasn’t all that satisfying, as it got a bit too sunny, too quickly.

I am not surprised that Mothers And Other Strangers was a debut novel. It had an interesting concept but the pacing was a little uneven and the mystery’s resolution seemed inconsistent with all that came before. If I am sounding vague, it’s because I don’t want to give too much away.

Mothers And Other Strangers is very well-reviewed on Goodreads, with many readers citing the suspenseful plot and interesting relationships. So give it a try if it sounds appealing.

AFTER I DO by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel After I Do opens, married couple Lauren and Ryan are having a fight that many couples might find familiar: they can’t find their car in the Dodgers Stadium and, tired after a long game, they each blame the other for not remembering where it was. This fight, while insignificant, winds up being the catalyst in the couple’s mutual confession that they are both miserable. Their relationship started out strong – romantic and passionate – but after ten years, they are each resentful, lonely and very unhappy. They decide to take a year off from their relationship, with no contact during that time, to decide whether they want to try to fight for their marriage or split permanently.

After I Do is told from Lauren’s perspective, and readers aren’t privy to Ryan’s side of things. Reid takes us through the days leading up to and immediately following the separation, and they are dark indeed. Despite her unhappiness with Ryan, Lauren is devastated over the demise of her marriage. I liked this book because it is realistic and sad and doesn’t hold back at all. You can really imagine this playing out. We see how the relationship broke down over time, the almost imperceptible shifts that led to the distance between the previously happy couple.

Lauren’s family plays supporting roles in the book – her divorced but dating mom, her single and proud-of-it sister, her feisty but possibly dying grandmother, and her commitment-phobic brother who ends up getting someone pregnant on a one night stand. The secondary characters here were less compelling; they seemed like stock characters that I’ve read about in other books. But the Lauren-Ryan relationship was fresh and original, and I felt invested in them and wanted to see where they ended up.

Speaking of endings, this one was a little too tidy.

Overall I liked After I Do quite a bit. Lots of incisive observations about marriage and relationships, written in a smart and realistic style. Don’t dismiss this one as chick lit, as there is more to it than that. I am intrigued by this author and have sought out another of Reid’s novels.

THE FEMALE PERSUASION by Meg Wolitzer

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer is about Greer Kadetsky, a young woman at a second-rate college in Connecticut who, on a fateful night, attends a lecture by a prominent feminist named Faith Frank. Greer, who has already begun to look at how men treat women on campus with a newly critical and analytical eye, is forever changed by Faith’s lecture, and a few years later, when she is a new graduate with little direction, she reaches out to Frank for advice. Her timing is good; Frank has just shuttered her longstanding feminist magazine and is now launching a speaker series about women’s issues funded by a famous, prickly venture capitalist.

And so, Greer goes off into the world under Faith’s tutelage, learning how to be an adult and how to work in the world. Meanwhile, her high school boyfriend Cory experiences a sad diversion in his own professional plans, while her best friend Zee similarly tries to find her own path while rejecting her parents’ expectations. And Faith herself finds her commitment to her ideals tested in a way that threatens her relationship with Greer.

The Female Persuasion is billed as a novel for the #MeToo era, one that takes on modern day feminism and explores the power constructs that have allowed gender discrimination to persist. But I found The Female Persuasion more successful on a less grand level. Like Wolitzer’s earlier books, The Female Persuasion is a dense, richly detailed chronicle of a personal relationships – romantic, friendship and professional – and how they evolve over time. There are certainly flashes of the more universal themes of feminism and empowerment, but they were not the most persuasive elements of the book. I always appreciate Wolitzer’s rich detail, gentle humor and observant eye, as well as the incredibly realistic world she creates for her characters. That’s what I took away from The Female Persuasion. Greer can be annoying at times – she seems incapable of acting unless something is handed to her – but Faith, Zee and Cory are interesting and memorable characters and I cared about what happened to them.

I listened to The Female Persuasion mostly on audio, which was narrated by Rebecca Lowman. She did an excellent job with a long book and many characters. Her precise, measured delivery was a good match for this detailed, absorbing book.

I went to a Q&A with Meg Wolitzer at Politics & Prose here in DC last week, and here is some of what I learned:

  1. Wolitzer wanted to write about “the person who sees something in you and changes you” and “idealism, the motor that sends you off when you start out”.
  2. In Cory, she wanted to explore one version of doing good and making a difference, but by a male character.
  3. In fiction “what we remember isn’t plot but character”. (For most books, I think that’s true.)
  4. Reading breeds empathy by showing readers how other people live. (Yes!)
  5. She didn’t try to keep up with current events in this novel, though she does refer to the Trump administration at the end as “the big terribleness”.
  6. As for feminism: there are many generations of feminists in this book, and she wanted to explore the conflict between these different ages.
  7. She agrees that this book is about characters, not necessarily the broad swaths of feminism.
  8. She believes in “writing the way you go through your life” and “writing about what obsesses you”. (I love this. It sounds so obvious, but it clearly isn’t always how authors approach their work.)

 

AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

The title of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, her latest novel after Silver Sparrow (reviewed here), suggests a large, epic story with lessons about our country and the relationships it houses. But An American Marriage is also a surprisingly small, intimate story about a tragic love story and the people it affected.

Roy and Celestial are an upscale African-American couple living in Atlanta who met at Morehouse and have been married about a year and a half. Celestial’s parents are wealthy, and she makes her living as an artist who creates artisan dolls. Roy works in sales, but has bigger ambitions. On a visit home to visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana, he is arrested after being falsely accused of committing a crime. He ends up in jail, sentenced to 12 years, while Celestial tries to rebuild her shattered world in Atlanta. She turns for comfort to her childhood friend Andre, the one who introduced her to Roy in college, leading to the third prong of the book’s central triangle.

Much of An American Marriage is told through letters between Celestial and Roy, as the reality of their situation sets in and they try to remain connected even as their lives progress in cruelly opposite directions. The rest of the novel is told through alternating chapters narrated by Celestial, Roy and Andre, giving them equal time as they bare their souls, fears and hopes. Jones expertly paints each character sympathetically, blurring guilt lines and deepening the tragedy of the situation. The story will not end without heartbreak – for any of them – but the suspense of just how it will resolve makes the pages turn quickly. Jones is an assured storyteller and An American Marriage is hard to put down.

Of course, the backdrop of An American Marriage is the pervasive racism of the justice system which landed these characters in their predicament. Class and money are not enough to save Roy from the fate of so many black men: incarcerated, his ambition and promise cut off at the knees by an indifferent judge and a society that doesn’t care. The book may appear quiet, even resigned, on this topic, but it’s there, the whole time – the institutional forces working against Roy and Celestial and the many other couples reunited briefly for visiting day at the prison.

There are a lot of themes at work in An American Marriage – loyalty, parenthood (there are all types of parent-child relationships here) and what we owe the ones we love. In Jones’ deft hands, these themes work beautifully in this very personal, almost quotidian story with a bigger message about the blatant inequity in our society.

 

I LIKED MY LIFE by Abby Fabiaschi

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to look in on your family after your death, and possibly impact how they are living their lives? In Abby Fabiaschi’s novel I Liked My Life, Maddy Starling, the fortysomething mom of a teenage girl, Eve, died after jumping from the roof of a college library where she volunteered. Eve and Maddy’s husband, Brady, are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after Maddy’s death. They each remember Maddy as a devoted mother and wife who seemed happy and fulfilled. How could she have taken her life, leaving them bereft and stuck with each other when she had always been the glue of the family?

As Eve and Brady try to make sense of what happened and learn how to relate to each other, they also try to understand Maddy better. They read her journal in hopes of identifying the source of her unhappiness, and they examine their own behavior toward her, which was at times self-centered and selfish. They regret how they treated Maddy and wish they could rewind and pay more attention to her and her needs. Meanwhile, Maddy is floating around, trying to influence their behavior and cure their problems. She prompts them to say and do certain things by repeating those words to them as they go about their day. She also plays matchmaker, finding a woman who ends up serving as Eve’s math tutor and a possible love interest for Brady. So while she’s gone from their lives, she’s still orchestrating things behind the scenes.

I Liked My Life is an interior novel, in that most of what happens takes place in the characters’ heads. Fabiaschi is expert in analyzing relationships and identifying their pressure points. Maddy is a pretty amazing mother, but her relationships with Brady and Eve go through normal ups and downs. Fabiaschi clearly gets modern relationships, and it shows. I Liked My Life is neither super-depressing nor gauzy women’s fiction (despite the cover). It is substantive and moving, at times very sad and at times funny. I found it to be a slow read, mostly because it’s dense and detailed. This is not a book to skim, because you might miss something good.

The ending is pretty satisfying, particularly the “Ten Years Later” chapter.

If you’re up for a mostly sad book where not a lot happens but you can really get to know the characters and understand their relationships, I Liked My Life is for you.

 

THE BOOKSELLER by Cynthia Swanson

Ugh – over 2 weeks since my last post. I’m here, I’m reading – I just have a lot going on and haven’t been able to keep up the same pace as the first 2 months of 2018. But I have a lot of good books coming up on my TBR and hope to pick up the speed a little.

I did finish The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson last week. The Bookseller is a Sliding Doors-esque novel in which a single woman in her thirties, Kitty Miller, wakes up day from a strange dream in which she is married with three kids. In the dream, she lives in a suburban part of Denver in the 60s, whereas in her real life, she lives downtown and runs a bookstore with her best friend. She finds the dream intriguing – who is this handsome architect she has married? – and in the subsequent weeks, she finds herself returning more and more frequently to the alternative dreamscape in which she has a different identity. Ultimately, the reader finds herself questioning which version of Kitty is real, and which is imagined?

I don’t want to give away too much of the story, because the fun of The Bookseller is figuring out how the two lives unfold and affect each other. The dual tracks of Kitty’s life turn out to be zero-sum; very little that exists in one life also exists in the other. And this is intentional, setting up a painful contrast between the two and ultimately a difficult choice as Kitty has to commit to one or the other.

The Bookseller of course requires some suspension of disbelief, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it magical realism. I enjoyed Swanson’s storytelling and the depiction of life as a single woman a half-century ago in Denver. Kitty is a bit simplistic at times – Swanson’s depiction of parenting and marriage was cliched –  but I liked this story, which is on the lighter story and provided a more upbeat antidote to the sadder books I read right before The Bookseller.

I mostly listened to The Bookseller on audio. Narration by Kathe Mazur was fine and I found myself engrossed in the story and eager to get back to it.

If you want a lighter read and are willing to tolerate some ambiguity, give The Bookseller a try. It’s not terribly deep but serves as a great palate-cleanser.

 

 

NOMADLAND by Jessica Bruder

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder looks at a relatively invisible American demographic: a mobile workforce, made up mostly of people in their 60s and 70s, who live out of vans and cars and follow low-wage seasonal employment opportunities around the country because they can’t afford homes. I wasn’t aware of this demographic before I read about Nomadland, and once I read the book’s synopsis I knew I wanted to get hold of it.

In Nomadland, Bruder looks a range of employers and job opportunities that have attracted nomad workers, including: Amazon, who hires hundreds of workers (“Camper Force”) at warehouses across the country to handle holiday season order fulfillment; national parks who hire “camp hosts” to staff campgrounds over the summer; amusement parks; the sugar beet industry, who needs seasonal harvesters; and more. These employers hire nomad workers who descend on their locations, setting up temporary mobile home communities while the work is still paying. When the work dries up, the vans pull out and the communities disappear. The work is usually tedious, physically taxing and low paying, but the workers come anyway. They need the money.

In addition to looking at the jobs, Bruder spends a lot of time on the nomads’ way of life. Where do they shower? Park? How do they get mail?  Bruder did an incredible amount of research for Nomadland, including getting her own van and spending time on the road with her subjects. She even took a job at Amazon as part of Camper Force to truly understand the experience of nomadic work. The result is a very thorough and empathetic view of the challenges of this type of lifestyle.

Bruder focused on one nomad – a woman named Linda – throughout Nomadland to lend the book a narrative structure. Linda went from a national park in California to a casino to an Amazon warehouse in search of income. The depiction of Linda’s story really captures the dichotomy of the nomadic lifestyle. On one hand, Linda enjoys an untethered existence, free to come and go as she wants, while still enjoying the benefits of a vibrant community of friends. Without rent to pay, she is unshackled from some of the financial stress that her peers share. Yes, she lives on a tight budget, heading to Mexico for cheap medical treatment and postponing needed repairs on her van, but she is debt-free and able to support herself. But Linda’s story is emblematic of so many Americans whose fortunes were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis. They lost jobs, savings, retirement plans, and the comfort of knowing that their needs would be covered into old age. Faced with financial uncertainty, they take to the road because they tave no other options. And while living on the road may sound romantic, it’s also hard in many, many ways.

Nomadland was a fascinating book. There were a few places where Bruder veered off course a little and I found myself losing focus. The chapters focusing on Linda were the easiest to follow, but some of the other nomads’ stories tended to ramble a little. That said, I still found this to be an interesting and disturbing read. Of the many casualties of the financial crisis, these older Americans without good options are among the saddest.

I listened to Nomadland on audio. It was narrated by my friend Karen White, who gave it just the gravity it needed. Her precise delivery, verging on alarmed, conveyed the substance and urgency of the topic, yet she handled the book’s wry and humorous moments just as well.