I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
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The Couple Next Door
A Stranger in the House
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Find out more about the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books (Viking, PRH)
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
There is an art to the short story. It is not as simple as most people would think. People are daunted and awed by the novel—that long, arduous journey of pages, which of course, is no cake walk itself.
But in those pages, there is room to grow and splinter off in any sort of direction the characters take you, feeling free to meander down any trail the plot draws you down.
A short story has to be tight, has a word limit, has to create all of those feelings and momentums and arcs within the character and the reader in a much tighter scope.
That takes skill. A writer that has a handle on how to craft a great short story really has something.
These stories burn brightly, with a fierce determination, by turns dark and by others comedic, and it all keeps turning like those merry-go-rounds we used to play on as kids until it’s one swirl of nausea-inducing color that makes more sense than the painful world outside.
Behr captures that sense of unrestrained wildness, that captive clarity, the moment of crazed hilarity breaking through the horror.
The stories here, sometimes intertwining, with a consistent tone and dark eye turned toward the world, are narrated by characters lost, broken, set to repeat, and caught up in the uncertain fears we all force on ourselves.
I’ve been ruminating on children in fiction a lot, what with the huge release of It in theaters (and I’ve seen it three times, so sue me, it’s great), and the kids on the page here are hard as nails. They have that bright, intuitive sense of the world that kids so easily grasp and are dealing with so much more than they should have to carry. Brilliantly rendered.
The stories do tend to drop off at their conclusions like that step you forgot in the dark, leaving a bewildered sense of incompleteness. Perhaps stylistic and purposeful, but when overused, one tends to not feel as deeply for the characters, sensing no real conclusion for them will be achieved.
I found the standout stories in the collection to be the ones that center on darkness in more permanent ways, but ways that were only glancing for the narrators, like “A Reasonable Person,” where a juror reflects on her own life and the grisly case she has been assigned to assess, and “Afterword,” where a character reminisces about a young boy she knew growing up who was brutally murdered and how it still affects her.
Stories like these have a deeper resonance, a darkness that sinks to the bones and sits there, chilling and spreading, a real feeling that there is true evil in the world. They show the sparks of a true talent developing in these pages and I’d be glad to see where they go in the author’s work in years to come.
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This post is part of a blog tour for Daniel’s book!
Falatko’s newest book, The Travels and Travails of Small Minds, has his characters treading familiar ground—the streets of New York City—along with new territory—England, Moscow, and others.
Nathan is dragging along at a dead-end for a senile old crockpot loosely in charge of slumlike properties. His girlfriend lives too far away, his neighbor is a drug addict, and his sole coworker is no better off than he is.
Taking life one day at a time with no real future in sight, Nathan gets mixed up in a property scam that entangles him in the works of a dead beatnik of extremely dubious talent, that beatnik’s number one fan, and a large amount of money.
The book’s strengths are revealed in the writing of the city—it is a very comfortable place for the author. The descriptions would be familiar and smell like the sweet garbage funk of home to any New Yorker. It is a mix of the grungy underbelly and the unique moments that make it a city like no other: a guy selling tiny turtles on a street corner, drugged out kids dancing on the subway, brawls in the street. It’s the real New York, the one you see if you live there, pounding the streets every day.
There is a dark sort of comedy here, not really like a funny comedy, but more like theater of the absurd. You laugh because you don’t know how else to react, because that is the only feasible emotion for the craziness that is occurring.
Similar to Condominium, this book lives and breathes New York. The eccentricities and insider knowledge swells to the surface and is painted on every page. The characters themselves take a bit of a backseat to New York herself, which becomes obvious when the plot is driven away from the city to other countries.
As far as the character’s go, this one is a jumble of personalities and is very much a different style from the satirical look at the gentrification of New York’s boroughs that Condominium encapsulated. The characters in Condo had reached the top, they had nowhere to go but down.
Nathan and his pals, on the other hand, are not even trying to climb the ladder. An intriguing mystery, a pretty girl, even a potential opportunity at work fall into his lap and he can barely be bothered to look into any of it. He’s just coasting.
While the plot does manage to move forward in a haphazard way, that almost complete apathy does get in the way, especially in Nathan’s case. At what point will he decide to take action and be a deciding factor in his future?
I didn’t see him as a dynamic character, even as he makes stunning revelations, even with the One Year Later sections. He is just the same throughout the book. Riding the waves, taking what life gives him, and not really trying to change his situation. I would have liked more action on his end.
But perhaps his apathy is the point. Are we the choices we make, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the city we live in? Tyler Durden would say no.
So what is left?
In the end, this one is a wild mind-trip. Falatko has an interesting take on the world and it’s worth exploring.
Find out more about Daniel Falatko on his website.
Get your copy of Travels and Travails of Small Minds (Ardent Writers Press)
I mentioned reading two epic novels back-to-back in my post about The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Well, here comes the other one.
John Boyne returns with The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a novel spanning the lifetime of a Dublin-born lad named Cyril Avery (but he’s not a real Avery, you know, as he was adopted, and as his adoptive mother and father like to remind him all the time). Cyril knows pretty early that he is gay, but any sort of homosexual lifestyle is not condoned in the slightest in Ireland while he is growing up there, so he spends much of his life hiding who he is and, for various reasons, not really understanding what it means to be loved.
Navigating love, tragic loss, confusion, success, family, and the curious cosmic turnings of the universe across several countries and multiple decades, Cyril tries to fit in, to find his place in the world, and to be at peace with who he is.
Boyne has an innate skill for dialogue, cutting surgically straight through situations with such clear, concise language you can see the heart of the matter literally beating right there, on the surface of the page. It makes you want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, while at the same time cry because it is so obvious that some people just won’t ever be able to unclench their hearts and relinquish their hate.
This book could almost be required reading in our nation today with the state of things the way they are. The book lays out the types of bigotry, hatred, violence, and even nonchalant dismissal of people who are deemed other and therefore wrong, shining a fierce light on the behavior of people toward other people. In the end, we are all people who deserve the same amount of respect and chance to life their life no matter what you’ve been conditioned to believe.
This book discusses gay men, unmarried women who are pregnant, people with AIDS, and other minority groups who have been and sadly sometimes continue to be marginalized, ostracized, and even brutalized and murdered for their supposed otherness. The book takes on these topics in a way that is direct and real, through the history of place and how thoughts and opinions changed (or didn’t) as the years passed, just as Cyril experienced them.
While an inherently tragic figure who makes more than a few mistakes and finds himself in tumultuous situations more than a couple of times, Cyril is a very likable character who is the reader’s constant eyes and ears in this world. I found myself getting indignant on his behalf more than once, coming up with some choice remarks for his abusers, but Cyril tended to hold back and was even-keeled, just a constant observer.
I found him endearing and flawed, and by the end of the novel, I was missing him already, sorely wishing I could have seen more of the intervening years of his life that the novel skipped.
In frank, everyday conversations that Cyril has with the wide cast of characters, conversations that are full of easy hate, lack of understanding, and sometimes friendly voices of reason as well, the reader develops a sense of the world he lived in, the fear of persecution he experienced, and the trauma that not being able to be yourself can inflict on a person. A world that many people like Cyril did live in, and a world that many people are currently living in, right here in the freedom of the United States in 2017.
On a smaller scale, it is also the story of Cyril’s personal discovery, a coming of age piece told over the years of his life, as he figures out who he is. He and Joan Ashby are not so different after all—everyone is looking for a way to be happy, to find some semblance of what that might mean, and then catch it and try to hold onto it with all their might—with all their heart.
Thank you to Hogarth Press for sending me an ARC of this title.
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I don’t think anyone dives into a 500+ page book lightly; it’s somewhat of an undertaking. But I have to admit, I do tend to be drawn to bigger books, and although they take a bit of commitment, I have had many good experiences with long books. In fact, I've just finished two back to back, two that were both deeply emotional, propulsive, extended saga-like books—for the characters and the reader—I need nothing more than to lay on the floor and decompress. They were long and brilliant, and I went on quite a journey with the characters. What more could you ask for?
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is without a doubt in my best-of-2017 list for the year. It is the type of book that as I came closer to the end, I found myself reading smaller chunks at a time, savoring the book and trying to keep it from ending. It is a phenomenal achievement and it is so impressive that it is Cherise Wolas’s debut novel.
The book centers around Joan Ashby, who, in the beginning, is a wildly successful literary author in her mid-twenties. After having sworn off men, love, marriage, and especially children, she gets married and finds herself expecting a child. Knowing full well that it will change her life and the trajectory that she has in mind for herself, she decides to have the baby anyway, to start a family and make her husband happy, though it isn't what she wants. One becomes two, and her writing, though she tries to keep it alive, gets pushed to the background in the intervening years as motherhood consumes her.
The novel is an exploration of self and identity, what it means to find yourself and how your experiences and choices collect and culminate to make you who you are. It is devastating, opening, and ultimately a redemptive story—one that I felt very at home in, despite not having much in common with Joan’s personal struggles.
The character of Joan is so richly rendered that she feels very real, so real, that I expected to be able to walk into a bookstore and find one of her own titles sitting there on the shelf. I loved that bits of her novels were worked into this book; they were an unique passageway not only into her own mind but even more so, into how others chose to view her.
Not only is the story compelling, but the writing is just exquisite. This is the type of literary novel that you want to get completely lost in. Rich descriptions of place and vivid depictions of people (not just characters, but seemingly three-dimensional people) just permeate each page.
During the passages taken from Joan’s books, I often found myself so sucked into the new and gripping narrative of her work that I would completely forget about the main thrust of the plot, or why I was getting to read pieces of her pages anyway. Now that is good writing.
Joan is not a perfect character by any means. She is just figuring out what it means to be happy, to make those she cares about happy, and to live a life that means something—to leave something worthwhile behind. As so many of us do, she struggles with her path in life, and whether or not the reader identifies with her directly, that narrative thread is one that we are all familiar with. The “who am I” part of life where we are just grope about in the dark, searching for some semblance of an answer.
It is hard to explain why I identified with this book so much, but sometimes things find you at the right moment, just when you are looking for something, even if you don't know exactly what it is is. book was soul-searching and redemptive for me, reminding me why I love books so much in the first place. Why I read, why I want to write. Why books are important.
I can’t recommend this book more highly. Not only will it top my list this year, but I will be recommending it for a long time to come.
Thank you so much to Flatiron Books for sending me a finished copy of this book.
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Find out more about the author, Cherise Wolas
Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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Read on for an interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
This summer is getting hot. So hot all I want to do is stay inside with a big glass of iced tea and a good book, away from the burning rays of the sun. But what happens when the book brings the heat to you?
This book really hit me in ways I didn't expect. For all the bright, dazzling sunshine in it, this is a very dark book.
It is the story of a town turning on its itself, on its own humanity.
It is about loss and grief, and the blaming, paranoia, and mad rage that can follow.
It is about what heat can do to a mind, or perhaps just what the mind blinds itself to and then blames on other elements.
It is a coming-of-age story—but not the warm and fuzzy one that is usually associated with that term.
The summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss's father invites the devil to Breathed. When a scrawny thirteen-year-old black boy shows up claiming to accept that invitation, it is not what anyone expected. But then the heat comes. And unfortunate accidents start piling up, mysteriously connected to the boy who calls himself Sal. Is he really the devil? And what is going on in the previously quiet and quaint town of Breathed, Ohio?
Fielding narrates his story from the future, where he is an old man, still licking the wounds from his past and suffering—for what, we don't yet know. But this technique puts a cloud of dread over the whole book. Something wicked this way comes, but you'll have to read on to find out.
As the summer progresses, the heat stifles everything and things go from bad to worse with secrets coming out— including secrets about Fielding's own family—innocents caught in the crossfire, and even Fielding's neighbor turning everyone against Sal in a strange religious fervor.
The book examines good and evil, presenting the situation bare, sometimes even metaphorically and through Fielding's eyes, you as the reader are the judge. Who is right and who is wrong? Can this even be decided?
The prose is unexpected, sometimes strange or unfamiliar in its description, but always lyrical, something I was continuously wrapping my mind around while reading. McDaniel is a very unique writer and her influences from southern gothic writers and other literature are keenly felt, but adapted in a way all her own.
The book is highly stylized and more like a fairytale than realistic fiction, hovering just above reality and told in a heightened state. But somehow, the little town of Breathed is meant to exist in its own world, and Fielding is trapped there, not only in the summer of 1984, but even later in his life, even just in his mind.
For me the real revelation doesn't lie in who the devil actually is, but in how everyone reacts to who they think he is, or what they are told to think. Perhaps it is that there is that spark of evil inside all of us, waiting for that heat wave to catch flame.
And now, a short interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
Shelf Stalker: What are you reading right now?
Tiffany McDaniel: I am reading Ruth Franklin’s bio of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson is a wonderful writer, so it’s nice to be able to learn more about her and her life.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
TM: I still have lots of reading to do, but so far my favorite authors are:
Ray Bradbury—I love his novel, Dandelion Wine. It’s a beautiful, melancholic story that touches on those experiences we have coming-of-age.
Shirley Jackson—I still have yet to read her entire collection, but one of my favorite novels of hers is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully told story of two sisters wrapped around the mystery of who poisoned the rest of their family.
James Wright—A poet from my land of Ohio. Above the River is the entire collection of his writing. His voice is a beautiful contribution to the poetic verse.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
TM: There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world, experienced by both humans and animals. I’ve always thought the superpower to heal and remove pain would be something that one could do a lot of good with.
SS: OK, on to the book!
I know you are from Ohio, but can you tell me how you got the idea for this book?
TM: The novel started first as a title. It was one of those hot Ohio summers that I felt like I was melting. Out of true heat, the novel was born. I start writing a new novel with two things: the title and the first line. Because I don’t outline or plan the story ahead, the title and the first line work together to shape the entire rest of the story.
SS: What was the purpose of having the book set specifically in 1984?
TM: When I was thinking about this story, the 1980s came to mind. When I think of that decade, I think of the neon colors, the big ambitions, and the big hair. It seems like a decade-long summer to me, which I thought made the perfect setting for this particular summer in the book. I chose 1984 in particular because it aligned with my George Orwell 1984 theme. Orwell’s novel is all about herd mentality and the importance of preserving individual thought. This is something the characters in my novel deal with, especially when it comes to answering the question: Who is the real devil?
SS: I loved how heat was an integral and constant part of the narrative—I really felt its presence while reading! Can you talk about why heat is so important to the book?
TM: The heat was an interesting character to write, and I say character because the heat is a character that developed just as the other characters around it did. The arrival of the heat coincides with the arrival of the boy claiming to be the devil. The heat allows for a certain “hellish” atmosphere, all the while becoming the evidence for those who believe this boy to be the devil. The heat has not only a physical effect on the characters, but an emotional and mental one as well. Without the heat, you don’t have the same story.
SS: Fielding acts as a sort of an outside narrator to the events of the novel—he reminded me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Why are his eyes the ones we see the story through?
TM: I wanted to explore this story through the eyes of someone coming-of-age. I chose thirteen years old because that’s an age when most of us began to shed the skin of our innocence and take on the maturity of who will be as adults. It’s also the age they say Joan of Arc began to hear her voices, so it seems a divine age as well. All the novels I’ve written thus far are told through first person. From the first line, I have the narrator, and his or her voice will deliver the rest of the story. Fielding was the right character to deliver this story because it is through him that we understand the relationships and dynamics of his family and of his community, both before and after the devil’s arrival. The story couldn’t be told through the eyes of Sal because Sal needs to remain a mystery to us, and a first person lens on his story would have opened up the mystery just a little too much. But with Fielding we get the story through a lens that allows us to be both outside and inside the mystery as it unfolds.
SS: The book examines evil as a part of the human condition. But evil isn't necessarily black and white. To what extent do you feel this is true? Or, why were you interested in pursuing this as a subject?
TM: I’ve always been interested in good v. evil, and I think on some level I’ll always be exploring this. But more than that, I’ve always been interested in that gray area between good and evil, the area I think most of us live in. With these characters in the novel, you’ll see that they are all capable of good and evil. Even the villain of the story has his moments where he is revealed to be more than the evil he bears. It’s about nothing being clear cut, and just because someone is called “devil” doesn’t mean they are devilish. Ultimately, it's a story that explores what it is to be human, and the grief and the happiness of that very existence.
SS: Can you tell me about your writing process? Like, do you write a certain amount every day? At a certain time of the day? Do you take lots of notes first or just go straight to the computer?
TM: I don’t have a routine, probably because I’ve never been a very scheduled person. I seem to work in chaos and am always trying to stay or get organized. I’m an insomniac so sometimes I write at night. Sometimes during the day. I don’t have a particular word or page count I strive for. It’s like going to a big faucet with a big bucket. You turn the faucet on and sometimes you have a lot coming out, sometimes it’s just a drip. The trick is to be present. There are lots of distractions in today’s world, so the best thing we can do is to turn off the noise and focus only on the page in front of us. My process is that I don’t take notes. I don’t outline, or plan the story ahead. I think if you plan a story too much, it can domesticate the story, and I like to preserve the story’s wild soul.
SS: Do you have anything else in the works right now?
TM: I have eight completed novels. I should say that while The Summer that Melted Everything is my first published novel, it’s actually my fifth or sixth novel written. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine for The Summer that Melted Everything. It was a long eleven-year journey to publication, full of rejection and perseverance. I write darker literary fiction and I was often told I was risky to publish, which is something I think female authors hear more than their male counterparts. As far as what's next for me, well, I've returned to that very first novel I wrote when I was eighteen. It’s titled, The Chaos We’ve Come From and it's inspired by my mother's coming-of-age in southern Ohio from the 1950s to the death of her father in the early 1970s. It’s been fourteen years since I first wrote this novel, so it feels like a good time to return to this story and to these characters.
A huge thanks to Tiffany McDaniel for sending me a copy of her book and being so generous with her time to answer my questions!
Get your copy of The Summer that Melted Everything
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Find out more about the publisher, St. Martin's Press (Macmillan)
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Having (somehow) not picked up Fiona Barton's debut The Widow last year despite the fervent admiration that went around for it, I jumped at the chance to read her second book early. When I finished after two intense sittings, I scrambled to the book store and quickly devoured her first as well!
I do enjoy reading thrillers, but generally I feel let down by them by the time I finish. The plots tend to be too predictably easy to solve—my personal rule is that if I've figured out the "twist" within 50 pages, it isn't a very strong narrative. (The downfall of the rule being that I have to read the whole book to find out if I'm right or not!) But Barton's books felt very different from that model of storytelling.
The characters are just as crucial as the plot, or perhaps even more so, and while this may seem like a small detail or even an obvious statement, I feel that it is something that is lacking from a lot of thrillers on the market. There is a lot of care put into these characters—you get to know them and through them you feel the story more than just read it.
For me, that is what makes a story. It isn't just the straight telling of a narrative, it is how the characters lead you to their story, through their eyes, and through them you fall into the story and find yourself truly caring about what happens.
The Child centers around the skeleton of an unidentified infant that is uncovered at a construction site in London. There are four alternating perspectives that swap between each chapter:
Kate, an intrepid reporter, takes an interest in the case and starts writing about it and asking questions.
Angela reads the articles and is certain the skeleton is her first born child, who was stolen right out of her hospital room decades earlier.
Emma sees the articles too and she is completely shaken, fearing some deep-buried secret from her past may be coming back to haunt her.
And Jude, Emma's mother, who only recently came back into her daughter's life after throwing her out when she was sixteen.
Kate's digging will uncover the connections between these women, the past, and the secrets they've hidden from each other and themselves.
There are a few recurring characters in Barton's books, but it isn't really a series; the story isn't about the reporter, Kate, and her dogged search for the truth, though both books include her and she is integral in both. Each book instead felt very much like its own entity.
Similarly, both books alternate perspectives of characters, but while temporal fluctuation between the past and the present was a crucial factor in The Widow, The Child often marks the how the same time passes for each character—a different but very effective technique that kept me turning the pages!
By no means are these characters perfect—they are flawed, sometimes even despicable—but they are human and their mistakes make them real and relatable.
By the time I got to the conclusion of The Child, I realized I'd been holding my breath a lot, waiting to see what would happen—I was really emotionally invested in these characters! That's what good writing will do and it's worth running out to get Barton's books to see what I mean.
This post is part of The Child's release blog tour! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this, Berkley Publishing!
You can visit Fiona Barton online at fionabartonauthor.com and on Twitter @figbarton. Join the conversation using #TheChild.
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It begins with a girl.
No, it begins with a mother, and how that girl thinks of her, wants to please her, wants to be her, hates her.
How to fill the void left by a mother who can’t seem to get it right? Do you find a new mother?
Be your own mother? Create a mother with art, with work, with the barriers you put up against the world?
This is a book about mothers, but it is also a book about identity and how much of that identity, especially for girls, is based upon mothers. It is about individuality, about growing up (or not) and finding your place in the world, and then filling that space with something.
Esther, who goes by S, wants to be a subversive, or at least some kind, of artist and she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend. Now she feels the need to prove herself, to do something big—something with meaning that will get her noticed. But she also needs a job, so she becomes a live-in nanny for Lady, an aspiring writer recently separated from her (very-rich) husband, and the mother of two boys, a young toddler, Devin, and a teenager, Seth.
What follows is an entangled narrative, each character wrapped up in so much more than just the simple timeline of the book. The past beats heavily in them, even if they don’t know why.
While the book is focused on the actions of the characters in the present, it is swirling with the tensions of the past. Both Lady and S have strong connections to their mothers that they can’t ignore, and they are constantly trying to come to terms with their damaging upbringings, even as their current situations spiral out of control.
Lady is estranged from her mother and her issues and insecurities run deep. Her mom seems to be the main reason why she’s writing a memoir, though she can't quite admit that to herself, and though she’s living the high life in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills now, that is not at all where she came from.
S’s parents are divorced and it seems like S takes on more of the parenting role when she’s around her mom—cleaning up her apartment, getting rid of the alcohol, confiscating a bunny that is sure to get her mom evicted. But still, S clings to her mother, wanting to know who she is, or perhaps why she turned out the way she did, even taking on her identity as part of her new art project. S dresses sloppily like her mom, acts carefree, speaks like her, and drinks wildly. The “S” that Lady knows is not Esther.
And then there’s Seth. He’s never said a single word despite being completely normal otherwise, and he vibrates with a strange energy, like a bomb ready to go off at any point. His mom has protected him his whole life, kept him to herself, but it has become smothering and he wants to experience, he wants to know.
There are surprises here. There are rich characters living dense, real lives, dealing with modern and strange situations. While I didn’t fully connect with California, Lepucki’s first novel, this one feels much more resonant and true to me.
There is a shocking disregard for what identity means in our tech-crazed world, where you can hide behind your social media feed, where you can be some form of anonymous whenever you touch the screen. And who are you really? Are you who you are in the real world? Or are you the screen you? Are you who you used to be? Are you your parents? Some sort of amalgam?
The way Esther puts on her mother’s skin with such ease is almost scary—it is like taking over someone’s identity simply because she was tired of her own, or possibly lacked her own altogether. The way these characters struggle to come to terms with what it means to be themselves is fascinating and wrenching. They deal with a two-sided coin: the real-world identity struggle of shedding the sins of your parents, and the meta-world struggle of forming a persona through social media or creative means: This is what our society is.
Thoughtful, well-written, highly evocative of a specific place and a specific moment, this book is well worth a read if you’re looking for more depth than a quick summer read.
Get your copy of Woman No. 17 here
Find out more about Edan Lepucki
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth/Crown (Penguin Random House)
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“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene II
There is something a little mysterious, a little intoxicating about Shakespeare. Of course, for many of us, it is a lot mysterious—in fact, nothing but mysterious—and conjures up memories of long afternoons in dusty high school lit classrooms trying to puzzle through the meaning behind every line, sometimes every word, of Romeo and Juliet.
But to see it performed, that is truly something else, that is the way it was meant to be consumed. It filters down to a part of your soul that feels right, feels true, and even if you can’t quite grasp the meaning of every phrase, you feel something special burning at the core. Or maybe just a tingle.
For the seven students in their last year of theatre study at the elite art school in the novel If We Were Villains, Shakespeare is like this, but also, he is more. They live in the bard’s texts, studying him with such constant devotion that it filters into their real lives.
They talk in texts, frequently, having Shakespearian conversations that all seem peppered with double meanings, hidden layers, and sometimes it is unclear whether you are speaking with an actor or their character.
Each of the seven has their type: strong, leading man Richard; his opposite, the sultry Meredith; the beautiful hero James; the wispy maiden Wren; the fool Alexander; and then there’s Filippa and (our story’s hero) Oliver, who seem to get the leftover roles, slipping into whoever is secondary, but never playing the lead.
Who are they really? Is there a separation between the stage and reality? What happens when that line seems to bend, and then snap?
And snap it does. Oh, yes.
Aren’t you all waiting for the turn?
The book is set up in five acts, much like a play, and while the main action of each follows the seven during their fourth and final year at school, each one begins with a prologue, set ten years in the future.
Oliver has just been released from prison, sentenced for something that happened at school, something that he may or may not have done, and now he’s going to tell the real story. To the man who put him away.
And the curtain rises . . .
Rio holds onto the tension of seven characters very well, stringing them along in an even way, making sure they are all developed characters, and I thought she had a great voice for natural dialogue. I can’t claim to know that much about Shakespeare, but I do dabble a bit and I actually quite enjoyed the Shakespearian language spilled across the pages; it developed the characters in unexpected ways when I stopped to really examine what was going on with the bard’s text. I think it even helped me figure out the twist . . .
The seven kids flit in and out of reality, fighting and giving in to obsession, mimicking the violence and drama of the plays (or is it that the plays begin to mimic their lives?) and they begin to come apart at the seams, each breaking down in their own way.
A very promising debut and interesting character study type of novel from a bold and inspiring voice. The only thing I’d ask for in a follow-up book is to cut down on the adverbs—let your descriptions do the work! Ah, well. Room to grow.
One final thought: The ending will rattle your soul.
Whether you like Shakespeare, don’t remember a bit of it from high school, swoon over the lilting words, or shrink away from them in pure fear, this book has a bit of mystery for everyone and it might even bring you a bit closer to learning the mysterious staying power of the bard.
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Find out more about the author, M. L. Rio
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Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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This is a book about straight up life. At times, we are all hot messes. At times, everyone can be a bit unlikable. At times, it definitely can be difficult to get up off your ass and actually do something about your life, something that you should do, can do, and actually want to do.
Andrea is just like us. She is pretty average, coasting along through life, not really doing anything extraordinary and ignoring the things that get hard and the things that hurt.
She is an art school dropout who now only sketches the view of the Empire State Building out her window every day, until they build a new skyscraper that blocks that view.
She is stuck at a job she doesn't really care about, dodging promotions and commitments.
Her best friend is settling down and getting married and doing the whole kid thing and doesn’t really have time for her anymore.
Her brother is dealing with his child, who has a terminal illness and her mom has moved out of the city to live with them, leaving Andrea feeling abandoned.
She has meaningless one night stands or horrible dates or some strange relationships that are fruitless and she’s not really sure if her being single is by choice or because she is undateable or some other reason. But she isn’t really looking for a guy to solve her problems.
Basically, Andrea’s problems are not the problems that so-called society thinks she should have, not at her age. She should be having the married-babies-working or stay at home mom problems.
And somehow, all it seems she can get from society is everyone looking down on her, thinking less of her, or directly telling her to pull her shit together, that she’s doing it wrong.
I read some reviews that so hated this book because they didn’t find Andrea to be a likable person. Is she a bit singleminded and self-absorbed? Yes. But so are we all. How often do you actually think about other people during the day versus yourself? Yeah.
Attenberg even writes the entire first chapter in second person, which to me, calls attention to the reader that, hey, this story is about you. Maybe not the specific details, but the story. So pay attention.
Maybe we don’t ever really “grow up” in the sense that we are always just trying to figure everything out, find the best way to be ourselves, to have a place in the world, and make all those dumb adult things work.
I felt it was very refreshing to read a book with a leading female that really digs right to the heart of actual living, cutting through all the crap and focusing on what is really there. This is Andrea’s life. It isn’t a story about her needing to fill her voids (literally and metaphorically) with men and chasing after everything that society tells her she should want. She is just trying to figure life out and she may not be the best at it.
The book is interesting because if you can really look at Andrea’s flaws, if you can see past your frustration with her to the root of the issue—what is causing her to avoid her family, to waste her time with her niece?—then perhaps you might see places in your own life where you are doing the same thing.
The book doesn’t try to explain who Andrea is or why she is living her life the way she is. Instead, it is almost more of a set of interlocking short stories, each one detailing a different interaction that made Andrea who she is.
This seems to echo New York City itself, how everything can become very compartmentalized and each moment exists separate from others. Even people seem to drift in separate spheres, while at the same time, they are literally right next to each other, passing each other on the street, in cars, brushing up against each other in the subway.
It also echoes the way we live our lives, treating each segment as separate: home life, internet life, Instagram life, Twitter life, work life. We put a piece of ourselves into each segment—who really knows who they are anymore.
All Grown Up is a compulsive book, the short chapters making it easy to just keep reading, to try to put together the puzzle that is Andrea, about who she is in this moment and who she has the potential to become.
It’s something we all have inside us, this potential. How long are you going to make yours wait?
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Find out more about the author, Jami Attenberg
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Find out more about the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.