EVERY OTHER WEEKEND by Zulema Renee Summerfield

Zulema Renee Summerfield’s new novel Every Other Weekend is one of those books that starts out a little weird but grows on you while you’re reading it, so that by the end you realize that, damnit, you really do care about these characters.

Nenny, an 8-year old girl in Southern California in the 80s, lives with her mother and two brothers. Her parents get divorced, and she spends time with her father on weekends. Then her mother moves in with a man with two kids, and Nenny joins the “every other weekend” club of broken homes and blended families. She’s an anxious girl with a lot of fears, but she keeps them to herself and doesn’t confide in her mother, despite desperately wanting to. She does her best to navigate the tricky waters of humorless stepfathers, moody older stepsisters, a befuddled father, and a mix of classmates dealing with their own issues.

Every Other Weekend is a quiet book. Nenny is introspective, an observer, and so it’s through her eyes that we watch the fragile bonds of this family get tested and strained. Things often go wrong, and while there is a lot of sadness, there is also a fair amount of gentle humor here. I think the most poignant parts for me were the references Nenny made to years later, when she asked her siblings and stepsiblings about what they were thinking during the time period in the book. Each of them was dealing with his or her own issues and problems, and yet they were barely connecting with each other, when they could have been a source of solace.

I like Sumerfield’s writing. It’s atmospheric and almost poetic at times without being pretentious. There’s also some 80s period detail in here, which I enjoyed. As to why Summerfield set the book in the 80s, I think there are two reasons: 1) divorce was becoming more common but it was before there was so much emphasis on the helping the kids handle it; and 2) the lack of social media and technology only heightened these kids’ feelings of isolation.

Every Other Weekend is a quirky, mostly sad book, and I am glad I picked it up. I am excited to see what this author does next.

THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER by Patricia Harman

The Midwife Of Hope River by Patricia Harman is about Patience, a thirtysomething midwife living in West Virginia during the Depression. Patience, an orphan with an (implausibly) complicated past, has moved to West Virginia to escape the law. She had formerly lived with a midwife who trained her how to deliver babies, so when she gets to West Virginia, word gets out that she is a midwife and she makes a living going to women’s homes once they are in labor and bringing their babies into the world.

The Midwife Of Hope River is basically a diary of Patience’s deliveries, with some plot developments thrown in to fill in the distances between them. She lives in an old house outside of town, trying unsuccessfully to make on her meager earnings. She ends up taking in Bitsy, a young African-American woman, as a roommate, both to save money on expenses and also to train her in midwifery. Over the course of the book, Harman covers race relations in the town, domestic violence, the market crash, and Patience’s developing relationship with a nearby veterinarian, delving rather incompletely into Patience’s past – the death of two husbands and a son, her role in union-related violence, and her time as a show dancer.

On the one hand, there’s a lot going on here, but on the other hand, not much happens. The details surrounding the births are kind of interesting, especially given Patience’s rudimentary tools and short training. But Patience is a pretty immature person, despite her former relationships. She is very clinical about the births she attends, recording the details faithfully in her journal but rarely expressing any emotion about them other than worry over her own reputation. Her  halting relationship with the veterinarian also evolves strangely, with neither of them expressing any emotion about each other, but leading to the inevitable coupling that seems to have been fated from the day they met. Patience is often moody and selfish, caring little about those around her but intensely missing those who are gone from her life.

Harman is clearly very experienced in midwifery and really did her research when it comes to 1930s West Virginia, and for those reasons The Midwife of Hope River is an interesting read. As far as character development, that’s where the book is lacking. I had an easy time putting this book down and was rarely compelled back to finish it. If you want some historical fiction and are OK with not a lot happening, then you may enjoy it. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass.

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.