This book seems intent on perpetuating the myth of specialness. When we first "fall in love" - in quotes because I don't think of such a state as real in any emotional sense - we think this one person will fix all the holes and complete all the unfinished sentences in our souls. I don't happen to share that opinion of first love, and consider it, and all attractions that could possibly follow, to be just another drug, evolution's method of perpetuating the species.
Perhaps I'm too jaded and have outgrown all this stuff and so I have little interest in finding that one special person from my past. It doesn't appeal to me and I don't sigh in support and envy. I don't think one person is ever going to be all that, although certain hookups can and do prove to be advantageous from a child-rearing or economic point of view.
I liked the story, though, even with its antiquated writing style and narration which I'll label "Jane Austen With Cell Phone", and the one thing that spoke to me throughout the book was the creation of a faux persona, the modern iteration of the treehouse, and when you see you've clearly strayed from any sort of productive or meaningful path and have no other resources than your own imagination, you do a "do-over".
This novel does happen to be beautifully written and flows seemingly effortlessly, even though the plot lines ignore the protagonist's ties to reality. However, I just don't get how a person can just walk out of her life. Anne Tyler presented this topic in one of her books and was more successfully believable about it, as the main character walks into town and just keeps on walking.
I also did not relate to the retreat to Nebraska from Vermont. I am a reader who thinks of many interior locations in the continent to be "fly-over" states - shame on me, I know, but I am owning up to my elitist perspective and i am working on it. I do empathize that the abortive departure of the father was due to job circumstances, but how he came to embrace a life as different from the one he left (would have been easier to move to France, or Italy, culturally speaking) was a story arc that I felt needed more exploration.
On balance, this was an entertaining and enlightening read, in spite of its casting away of practical detail, and, having tried and failed at the same kind of culture shock that Judith and her father successfully achieved, I was hooked from the beginning and like many, hated that it had to end. Maybe a sequel can turn up somewhere. Either by this author or by someone else.
OK, the familiar basics are there: attractive teenage girl, overprotective father, lustful family friend, moneyed, powerful, and successful.
But this is where the archetypes end. The protagonist is a physician, a cynical general practitioner with a dissonant loathing for the human body; his remarks about office visits by the "typical" patient are filled with negative energy and his self-deprecation for not being "good enough" to sign on for four + more years of med school in order to specialize are recounted in detail.
Mix this up with a family vacation with his actor friend and his family, two beautiful (aren't they always?) daughters and there follows a series of potential disasters. Lots of near-nudity by the pool and at the beach, bikini bottoms that nearly fall off, body contact during casual ping-pong games and just general older man-teenage girl lust.
This novel would have seemed clichéed and overdone if it were not for the primary character's voice and dark vision of life, coupled with a vaguely-described precipitous event befalling one of the daughters. She has nothing to say about what actually happened and she continues her life "sadder but wiser" as the saying goes. We never find out just exactly what happened but we can all guess. The doctor's quest to find the perp after this summer seaside idyll dominates the rest of the story.
My only issue with this novel is the lack of geographical grounding. We know the doc is living and practicing somewhere in Holland but that's as far as it gets. The sense of place, with shops and restaurants, museums, scenery, architecture, weather, people-watching, etc. is missing, and there is no concept of a particular locale that could act as a backdrop for the action, if not be present as an additional character.
Narration is perfect, the voice very neutral but age-appropriate
This book does not follow any typical story line nor any customary resolution, and that's why it gets five stars.
I bought this book, preview unheard, because "The Descendants" is high on my list of faves.
But I found this novel to be nowhere near the quality of "The Descendants". Hemmings uses some of the same devices as in "The Descendants" but somehow they do not add up. Foremost amongst these is the presence of an unseen character who, because of death or coma, has a past but will have no future. In this case it is the protagonist's son, Cully, who has died in a snowboarding accident. I may be wrong on those details, but his presence is a character throughout the book, even though he is no longer available to actively participate in the story. Similar to the narrator's wife in "The Descendants" who is in a coma after a boating accident.
And, also, both novels are staged in a resort area, but the stories evolve from the perspective of a native.
There is also the background layer of heritage and family history.
But there the similarity ends.
I found this story to be lacking in focus and direction, and missing that sense of pace and movement towards a completion. The characters were rather limited and incompletely fleshed out, and I was always having to work to create in my mind a character's "look" and animus. I like a little bit of description, but here there wasn't enough.
The narrator sounded way younger than the main character would be at her stage in life.
So, if you are looking for a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel that's on a par with "The Descendants" you will have to wait until her next offering.
Just one caveat here: in spite of my occasional frustration at the overused literary device of postponing for the reader a "big event" you know is coming, and filling in with meandering, anecdotal back stories, I loved this story and connected instantly with the issues facing that marginal generation of women who came of age in the 1960's. Torn between family and meaningful personal vocation, we all knew we should be doing something besides making dinner and babies, but what?? Yes, we were all college graduates, but that only seemed to complicate our situations.
However, that's simply the backdrop of this novel, which alternates between two time periods in the life of one woman, who finds herself caught up in a sensitive web of love, affection and commitment, through various breakups, re-starts, and her partner's escapes from a violent, controlling spouse. It's an at-the-time unconventional relationship that would sentence the participants to "disgrace", rejection and isolation from their peers.
I have become a T. Greenwood fan, and she is now my "go to" author when I have exhausted what's current from a Jodi Picoult or Elizabeth Berg, Sue Miller, and others in this genre.
I only have one minor bone to pick - at times I felt like a hostage, waiting for a key plot point to "happen", and wading through pages (minutes, hours) of not-so-interesting or relevant back story.
T. Greenwood is now on my short list. I've already read "The Hungry Season", which is a tighter, more compact family drama, and my review will come soon.
A full five stars!
Unlike other books by Julia Glass, this read meanders directionless, and is largely a series of short stories about family members through several generations.
I don't know the original publish date (or am not finding it when I try to look it up) but it reads like a first effort. The reader only has time to participate in one family's issues, only to be abruptly transported into the stories of another back story of the same family. Yes, they are all related genetically or in terms of extended family, but it's still a jarring transition, and it creates for me a negative animus toward the author, whom I have come to love, and whose books I always purchase without a preview.
Topping that off, the focus is generally on the male perspective, with very little nuanced insight.
I found myself really surprised by the characters' lack of introspection and continuous emotional blank slate.
I dislike when an author seems to declare through character development and story arc, "this is the main story" and then goes off on another tangent which in turn becomes the "main story". It's like getting off at the wrong bus stop, and it's all just too much. Perhaps this is a personal issue, having moved in my life many times geographically, but I ended up with emotional whiplash after reading this.
I did not think this read was nearly as "good" on many levels, as other books by this author.
But I am hopeful for more work from her.
This one begins like they tell you how to run a marathon: start slow and get slower. And it's a hard call to rate a book that has so few parts for women. Mostly this book is about men and all their stuff - golf, drinking, farming, music gigs, coupling and uncoupling with various women who are only interesting as sexual partners.
Aren't there any female (or male, for that matter) editors who could have steered this book towards a more balanced perspective?
There were some good prose snippets, with good flow and musicality, but mostly this was a flat narrative. Not much happens, and character development? Not so much, I'm afraid.
It's all about men and how they go about populating their lives with accessories: farm equipment, kids, drinking, people, music.
I am not so much a fan of "plot" for its own sake, and I can just as easily enjoy a book that meanders through decent and layered psychobabble. However, without any interior landscape nor circumstantial forces that drive the characters, "Shotgun Lovesongs" doesn't have much to grab on to. Excellent title, though.
A smaller group of characters and their stories would have served to provide some fresh depth, and to give spark and nuance to the monochromatic scenes, and a few piercing insights here and there wouldn't have hurt, either.
We are well into the 2000's, and fiction still is all about who is hooking up with whom. Isn't there anything else to think about? To write about?
This was/is a strictly "read while you're doing something else" kind of book.
Having read, devoured and otherwise cerebrally ingested Wally Lamb's other books many times over, I was looking forward to "we are water".
I must first point out the book's central oxymoron. Two female protagonists are getting married. How hip with the times. One partner was raised with abuse and with no material nor cultural advantage, and I mean…zip, nada, zilch. She meets her partner by chance at a gallery and then becomes a kept woman. Well, she does supply the art for which her partner becomes wealthy, but how is this any different, except for the fact that the principals are the same gender - than the 1950's version of this same rescue story of a "woman in distress"?
Wally usually takes on highly ambiguous situations with a keen understanding and writes with skillful interpretation, with lots of elegant emotional and geographical description thrown in. However, I cannot say that "we are water" is up to Wally Lamb's standards - at least not as I have come to understand them. The obstacles to my enjoyment of this book are easy to enumerate as follows.
1) "we are water" is all about highly-educated, wealthy elitist characters with "first world" problems. There is a less-advantaged hispanic family thrown in for "diversity" I guess; someone's "help" brought along to assist with the logistics of a wedding, and wordsmith Wally deftly adds their little backstory as just more cumin in the curry.
2) The artist character gets her start by making little Joseph Cornell shadow boxes. I can say that nearly every book I've read where a female artist becomes successful she starts with little Joseph Cornell shadow boxes. Do writers just not know how to describe the visual arts and are incapable of giving the artists in their stories anything to create besides these (becoming trite) mini-scenes?
3) The female protagonists all talk with what I call Piping Rock Lockjaw. Those who've been raised in private schools and country clubs know what I mean. For simplicity's sake - let's just say they talk in that 1950's Hollywood-speak, sounding like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, but with drawn-out syllables to the "drama". I actually thought the first sentences read by the Anna character - pronounced "Ah-nah" - were part of a parody of snobspeak. Her first scenes were meandering thoughts on "Viveca"'s wedding dress. Just sounded like something out of "The Onion", or "Hyperbole and a Half".
4) I can't stand listening to George Guidall, who always brings to my mind a matronly picture of Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie", wearing a wallpaper-like flowered dress, white gloves, and boxy, capacious purse carried on his/her forearm, sort of like Queen Elizabeth. Add to that the fact that Guidall can't seem to read more than three words without taking a breath and you get a barely endurable Guidall endurance-fest. Not my most pleasant listening experience.
5) The names of the characters are pretentious, snobbish, elitist and non-relateable. "Viveca"?? Really?. "Orion", with his constellation-of-stars reference? The pompous one-letter surname "O"??
I am being harsh, because the shallowness of all these factors derailed for me the devastating emotional issues with which this extended family grappled. And grappled successfully, I thought. The pay dirt is there and is pure Wally Lamb. But this book makes you dig your way through a lot of shallow sandboxes to get there.
Elizabeth Berg is one of those writers who explores just about all aspects of the human condition - and "condition" is the operative word, as in we are al here "conditionally" and must navigate our lives with attention and mindfulness.
Having said that, what happens is that you never quite know what you're getting when you sign on to a literary trip with Berg. I always think I know her, but am always jolted from my complacency.
After very recently finishing "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted" and being satiated with comic as well as tragic (or at least challenging) moments in life, any life, I have expanded my reading repertoire into the short story genre and was pleasantly surprised. Berg has a few substantial funny (if not downright slapstick) bones in her vision and deploys them well in this story collection.
But now, to my point - "Talk Before Sleep" could have been an inspiring exploration into the experience of the end of life; after all, loss is universal to us all, part of the admission price we pay to enter the planet and does not have to be a monochromatic plunge into sadness and despair. But instead I found the world portrayed in here in "Talk Before Sleep" to be narrow and sad.
But I will continue to seek out work by Elizabeth Berg, one of my favorite authors, and one of the few whose work I download without even having to listen to a sample.
As the other reviewers have shared, this book is more of a contemplative exploration on grief and loss, than a story in the conventional sense. Harding's writing is elegant and throughly crafted with layers of detail, as he gradually progresses deeper and deeper into his own dark places, which match the dark woods near Enon, his home.
I would compare this to Joyce Carol Oates' treatment of grief in her book "A Widow's Story", which focuses more on the details and nuances of her daily life as does Harding, but her focus is more at a distance, as though she is an outsider, observing her own recovery, and recording her days as she experiences them. She certainly has plenty of "stuff" to fill her life - friends, family, a job at the top of her field, but even with all this, she is reduced to the same questions - now that the loved one is gone, what is life's meaning and how do we interpret its lessons?
Enon shows us how a a seemingly well-constructed life can implode by a single devastating loss, and how precarious are our attachments. One day it's all hanging together for Charlie, the next day his daughter is dead and his wife is gone. There certainly is no "resolution" in the conventional sense, not for this reader, anyway. I read the book twice and was twice led to the conclusion that Charlie had reached a conditional accommodation to his condition, was taking some steps to rebuild, but was certainly not yet emotionally solvent. Letting go of his dependency on prescription drugs was a start.
I applaud Harding for not turning Charlie's story into an archetypal "hero's quest" for redemption. Instead it's a realistic account of what's left to work with, and using that to restart, after all our life-sustaining resources seem to be gone.
I grabbed this book as soon as I heard an interview with the author on NPR. Based on that, I wanted to read anything by Kate Christenson and thus I was expecting a much more introspective exploration of her life. What I got instead was an extended list of unexamined life experiences, rendered factually and sounding totally banal by the narrator's sing-song-y voice. Every event, situation, item in the physical environment was made to seem oh-so "precious", with unnecessary detail which after a few chapters became just tiresome. Perhaps in the hands of a less chirpy narrator, this book would have more heft and substance. But performed as is, "Blue Plate Special" is the new "Eat Pray Love", with the same shallow, self-referential descriptions that make it a picaresque pseudo-adventure for the privileged.
Actually, the "I", Kate, the narrator of this memoir is not nearly as interesting as her mother, with her multiple marriages, breakdowns, struggles and angst, and the listener only gets a random flash of her as background noise. Sometimes I kept reading just for the purpose of finding out more of what was going on with the mom in the story.
I can't say that this book is ruined by the narrator (although for me it was), or simply that IMO Tavia Gilbert's birdsong reading gives a shallow rendering to what might be an interesting life. Might read better in print.
I'll give it a "3", though, because it satisfies one of my basic standards of read-worthiness: it's entertaining.
Once again Shriver treads the tough path through the weeds and delivers a novel that is so overstuffed and super-sized with conflict that every sentence is a gift that leaves us waiting eagerly for the next one. WIthin the novel she deftly embeds the issues of fame & notoriety, the role of food in our lives, the relative importance of family and loyalty, the role of addiction and the "addictive personality" - she gives us all of it!
Shriver's protagonist, Pandora Hafdinarsen, the almost-accidental but successful entrepreneur is jolted out of her comfort zone when her brother, a jazz pianist who is having a "rough patch", arrives in their home weighing 240 pounds more than he did the last time she saw him. This causes all manner of mayhem, particularly offending the aesthetic sensibilities of her husband, Fletcher, who is a designer and builder of art furniture in the basement of the home he shares with Pandora and his two pre-adolescent children. He is additionally an exercise maniac, riding his bicycle 50 miles per day, and a "nutritional nazi", shunning all white flour, white sugar and anything that's wrapped, packaged or processed, his primary meal consisting of brown rice and broccoli. His body is lean and spare, the perfect contrast to the excessively over-nourished-by-junk-food Edison, Pandora's brother, for whom all sorts of spatial and emotional accommodations must be made as they all attempt to deal with his extreme girth.
This is the main plot setup, but woven through the story are musings about food (she's also a former caterer) and its importance (and lack thereof), addiction, fame, loyalty, and what it means to be "successful". Pandora feels divided between her husband and her brother and this forms the fulcrum on which the novel balances perfectly, delicately, and with the precision we've come to love and admire in Shriver's writing.
I have read some reviews on other sites and there seems to be some discussion about the ending. As a reader I favor neither a 'perfect' resolution nor an open-ended plot line - what makes a novel work for me is the writer's attention to detail, characterization, layers of emotion and sense of place. It's more about the story itself, the process, rather than any particular event that signals "the end", and with "Big Brother", IMO ending is organic to the story.
Five stars all around!
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