This is a dark novel about longing - longing for a better, "more exciting" life, (however that is defined), longing for release from pain, and longing to possess the object of one's affections. Hence the line "Tigers in red weather" from the Wallace Stevens poem, the subject of drunken sailors' thoughts - either wanting what they can't have, or summoning the courage and energy to get it.
What separates this novel from others on a crowded shelf of beach books and chic fic is not only Klaussmann's finely nuanced and detailed character development, but also the deep sense of dread and ominous foreboding that flows through the book.The story is told through the various voices of several characters, and a series of events in one summer is seen through a different lens by several main players who are gathered at the Tiger House, the family "cottage" on Martha's Vineyard.
The author does an excellent job of communicating darkness camouflaged by sunny circumstances, and individual stories have mystery because they are only partially fleshed out, with unanswered questions lurking in the mind of each storyteller. There are some seriously unpleasant, even tragic, moments but they are not so much "told" with melodrama but rather, are painted with a highly dialed-in visual sensibility and with a fine artist's brush. In fact, in one sense the novel can be viewed as a series of set designs art-directed by Klaussmann.
I think it's accurate to compare the underlying mood and tone color to what comes across in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that feeling that underlying all the "yellow cocktail music" is a rather sad and nasty streak of "red weather".
From a production aspect, the book is fantastic, interlaced with with all the right music from the period, the post-World War II 1940's to the late 1960's. The narrator strikes all the right accents, specifically that Hollywood semi-Britspeak from the 1950's, socially "appropriate", formal and distant.
I'm giving this one all the stars, and hoping it makes it to the big screen.
I bought this book because of the many positive reviews, and I was interested in a seventy-something as a primary protagonist. I like that this is a presentation of the life and work of a woman of a certain age, with all the acquired wit and wisdom that age provides.
While the story and characterization delivered, I just felt there wasn't enough exploration of the several connected plot lines, and not enough development of the characters' interior geography.
On the "plus" list: I did especially like the polarity that was set up between the main character, Florence, and her Gen Y (or is it "Z" by now?) granddaughter...where both the conflicts and connections were profiled with plenty of insight. And I also liked that both the male leads were not described as eye candy, their appeal emerging from more interior, subtle, character-driven sources.
But the narrator pretty much ruined it for me - most of her voices were delivered in a kind of sing-songy chatter, adding a lot of unnecessary drama which is NOT why I read. To her credit, she presented the male characters without sounding like a female Attila the Hun, but for the most part I was annoyed by her rapid staccato vocalizations.
I could sense in this narrator an affinity for the theater, as some passages of dialogue were read like a stage play, with no description, and I found it all just a little too "cute" for my liking, with quick one-liners back and forth, almost as though the speakers were going to break into song at any moment. Sort of a Noel Coward/Neil Simon effect. I realize this is the way that the scenes were written, but I would have preferred some interior thoughts and/or actions mixed in with the dialogue. Hope that makes sense.
The ending was abrupt - and I am not fussy about endings. I think they are about the same as beginnings - within certain parameters, one place is as good as another. But this novel sauntered gracefully towards an end you could see coming but then the story simply vanished, dropped out of sight without saying goodbye, leaving the reader to wonder "what just happened?".
So, it's a "3" all around. Still a very good listen, even though I didn't think it was quite "there", and it's one I would recommend - either in audio or print.
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.
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