THE AWKWARD AGE by Francesca Segal

If you enjoy seeing families in distress under a microscope and watching them squirm, then you will enjoy The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.

The cast of characters: 46 year-old Julia, widowed and newly in love with James, a 50-something American OB/GYN; Julia’s sullen 16 year-old daughter Gwen, who is still grieving the loss of her father; and James’ 18 year-old son Nathan, who is about to graduate high school and go to a prestigious college to study medicine. Julia and James move in together in London, merging their families, while Gwen and Nathan hate each other… until they don’t.

Gwen and Nathan’s relationship turns romantic, which is terribly awkward for Julia and James, at also puts them at odds for the first time in their relationship. And then, Gwen gets pregnant, which sends the whole difficult situation into overdrive. How will they, as a family, handle this mess? How can be it resolved in a way that doesn’t cause terrible pain? Are James and Julia ready to be grandparents – to the same baby?

Francesca Segal relates her story with detail, compassion and that beautiful eloquence that so many British writers have.  The Awkward Age is told mostly from Julia and Gwen’s perspectives, but there are additional characters with a stake in this family, and Segal lets us into their heads too. We see the action unfold from several perspectives, with much attention paid to their inner turmoil these characters are in.

What I liked: the writing, the very plausible dialogue, the theme of the awkwardness of love at any age.

What I didn’t like as much: how spoiled Nathan and Gwen were (it detracted from the plausibility of the story), the claustrophobia triggered by pages of dialogue (internal and spoken) among the same small family. Sometimes I just needed a break!

Overall, I liked The Awkward Age and would recommend it to people who enjoy domestic drama. I listened to it on audio, and particularly liked Jayne Entwhistle’s precise, British pronunciation. Her American accents were a little off, but I got used to them quickly. She conveyed empathy for each character, even babyish Gwen – it never felt as if she was judging them or their circumstances – which I think was Segal’s point. Life can get awkward, and we just need to deal with it.

UNRAVELING OLIVER by Liz Nugent

I know I said I was swearing off psychological thrillers.

But  I went to the Editors’ Buzz Fiction session at BEA, and the Simon and Schuster editor promoting Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent was so passionate about it, and the story sounded interesting, and then I almost got trampled trying to get my paws on a copy of it, so I decided to read it.

It is a psychological thriller, a genre I have compared to popcorn for its irresistibility, quick intake and vaguely sickening aftereffect. But Unraveling Oliver is a notch above most of the other thrillers I’ve read. It’s about a children’s book author, Oliver, who has just beaten his wife so badly that she is in a coma. What would move this man to do such a thing? Nugent unravels Oliver’s life from the present back to his childhood to get at what caused him to attack his gentle, loving wife so monstrously.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, providing a range of interpretations of and opinions about the title character. There are a few twists and turns, including one that made me gasp so loudly that my husband asked me what was wrong. Just when you think you understand Oliver, Nugent peels back another layer that reveals even more egregious behavior.

I don’t want to say too much more. If you’re looking for a book that you will have trouble putting down (but that won’t scare you half to death) then this is a good one. You won’t be thinking about it for days on end, but you’ll enjoy the ride while it lasts.

MRS. FLETCHER by Tom Perrotta

I like Tom Perrotta. I’ve read a bunch of his books and I like his take on suburbia and middle age. I even read his dystopia novel – as I told him once at BEA, if anyone could drag me into dystopia, it’s him. So I was psyched to read Mrs. Fletcher, his latest novel (out this August). It was top of my target list for BEA and happened to be the very first book I came across when I crossed the threshold of the show in May.

So I read Mrs. Fletcher this week on vacation, and it was… fine. Not great. It’s about Eve Fletcher, a 46-year old single divorced mom in an unnamed suburb whose life is empty when her son Brendan leaves for college. She discovers online porn, kisses a female coworker and takes a gender studies class from a transgendered woman. She becomes the subject of a few people’s lascivious texts and IRL advances, and in general wakes up from her single mom sexual stupor.

Brendan, meanwhile, arrives at college and discovers that his frat bro asshole ways aren’t going to cut it anymore. He’s selfish, unmotivated and immature and ultimately finds himself single and friendless.

That’s basically what happens. I feel like Tom Perrotta saw the attention that Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner were getting and thought “I should get on that trend”. There is a message in this book: that attraction of all kinds is OK (trans woman-straight man; older woman-younger man; woman-woman; frat boy-girl in wheelchair; the myriad permutations in porn; etc.) but it felt a bit simplistic and dated. Do we really need a novel in 2017 from one of our more insightful authors to tell us this?

Mrs. Fletcher is a fun and easy read but there isn’t much to it beyond that. Given that it came from the author who gave us The Leftovers and Election, I was a little disappointed.

 

PERENNIALS by Mandy Berman

Vacation read #1 was Perennials by Mandy Berman. This book has been on my radar for a few months. It’s about two friends – Rachel and Fiona – who meet at summer camp as campers and have returned to the same camp as counselors several years later when they are both in college. Rachel, the daughter of a single mother in Manhattan, is cool and confident, while Fiona, from a wealthy family in the NY suburbs, is not as comfortable in her own skin as Rachel, and is subsequently envious of yet drawn to her friend.

Perennials is billed as a story about Rachel and Fiona’s friendship and how it is affected by how they grow apart and the secrets they keep from each other, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more of a collection of short stories that covers a wider circle of characters than these two women: Sheera, a black camper who is new to the camp; Helen, Fiona’s little sister; two British counselors spending the summer at the camp; and on and on. Characters rotate under Berman’s microscope, as she explores their own discomforts and longings while they are at camp. This novel in stories is atmospheric and intriguing, but it’s not the friendship novel it’s being marketed as. I enjoyed the shifting perspectives but felt at times as if I was missing out on deeper character development and a more satisfying story arc.

Much of Perennials will feel familiar to people who spent time at summer camp – not just the sensations but the dramas and intensity – but like camp itself, reading it was sort of a fleeting experience. I finished it a few days ago and it basically evaporated as soon as I was done. Reviews are pretty good so maybe it was just me expecting something a little different when I went into it.

STANDARD DEVIATION by Katherine Heiny

I had high hopes for Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny after reading her collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow. I loved those stories for their snarky humor and incisive honesty about relationships. Standard Deviation is a novel, and I was excited to read it based on its synopsis: Graham, a man in his 50s, is torn between lingering feelings about his restrained ex-wife, Elspeth, and his larger-than-life current wife, Audra.

Sadly, I was disappointed by Standard Deviation. Heiny is as snarky and observant in this book as she was in her novels, but the underlying tension here just didn’t work for me. First, Audra is basically a caricature and incredibly annoying. I had a hard time seeing how Graham could be so besotted. The whole subplot of Audra’s infidelity was never really resolved, which also seemed unrealistic to me. Graham didn’t want to lose her, but he also didn’t seem the type to just sweep it under the rug. His relationship with Elspeth was odd, to say the least, and she too didn’t seem the type to hang out with her ex-husband and his current wife as much as she did, notwithstanding her coldness and snark.

And not too much happens in the book either. There is a lot of day-to-day commentary about Audra and Graham’s lives in New York City, as well as the challenges of parenting a son with Asperger’s. Much of that commentary is funny – some of it even brilliant – but without the propulsion of a compelling plot to get me through, reading Standard Deviation was a bit of a slog. I was happy to be done.

If you want to try Katherine Heiny, check out Single, Carefree, Mellow first. This one didn’t do it for me.

ONE OF THE BOYS by Daniel Magariel

One Of The Boys by Daniel Magariel is a bleak, dark book. It’s about two boys who move with their father from Kansas to New Mexico to “escape” their mother, whom their father has left. The father paints the mother to be their enemy and insists that the three of them are now a pack, and that they must each be loyal: “one of the boys”. He says they will have a fresh start in New Mexico, where their father rents an apartment and works as a financial advisor from home on “the big account”.

The boys – one in high school and one in middle school – try to be positive and hopeful about their futures. But slowly they start to notice things about their father – how secretive he is, his erratic behavior, the people who come and go at strange hours. It quickly becomes apparent that the father is an addict. He becomes less reliable and engaged with their lives, leaving them to parent themselves and him at the same time. He abuses both boys – psychologically, emotionally and physically – and pits them against each other to weaken their bond. Meanwhile, they try to navigate their father’s moods and stay on his good side, while taking care of themselves and going to school.

One Of The Boys will break your heart. These poor defenseless kids, left with an addict of a father, try desperately to find a way out, only to be boxed in both physically and emotionally. It’s a harrowing, stressful read, without much of a resolution. Magariel is a very good writer – realistic and moving, while accurately capturing the perspective of a middle school narrator. One Of The Boys is a quick but powerful read. I know it sounds really bleak, but I am so glad I read it.

 

EVERY DAY by David Levithan

Our last mother-daughter book club pick of this year was Every Day by David Levithan. This isn’t the type of book I usually read, because it’s sort of sci-fi/fantasy, but I am definitely glad I did because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The narrator of Every Day is A, a 16 year-old boy and/or girl who wakes up every day in someone else’s body. (In this review, I am going to use “he”, but he is sometimes a girl and sometimes a boy). He has never lived more than one day in the same person’s body; at midnight every night, he finds himself someplace else. When the 24-hour period is up, the person whose body he has inhabited “wakes up” and remembers some of what occurred during that day, but not what s/he was thinking or why s/he acted how s/he did.

When Every Day opens, A has inhabited the body of Justin, a 16-year old boy in Maryland who’s pretty much a jerk. He mistreats his girlfriend, Rhiannon, and is generally unpleasant, selfish and insensitive. A, however, falls in love with Rhiannon. A (as Justin) and Rhiannon go on a date, where he is tuned in, affectionate and emotionally open with Rhiannon, and they connect in a way that Justin and Rhiannon rarely do anymore. At midnight, of course, A takes up residence in someone else’s body, while Justin goes back to his boorish ways.

The rest of Every Day is about A’s relentless attempts to get back to Rhiannon. He commandeers his hosts (all of whom live in Maryland as well) and spends every day finding ways to get to her town and interact with her. Eventually, he confides in her about who he is, letting her into a world that he has shared with no one since he was born. His is a very lonely existence, and his connection with Rhiannon is the closest thing to a relationship that he has ever experienced. Of course, for Rhiannon, it’s immensely frustrating; she’s in love with a person (a boy? a girl?) whose presence is entirely unreliable and ever-changing.

Along the way, there are poignant chapters where A ends up in the body of an immigrant housecleaner, a suicidal girl, a home-schooled boy who takes care of his siblings, and on and on. The only constants are A’s email account, where he takes notes about where he has been, and his feelings for Rhiannon.

Every Day is a clever and compelling book. I usually avoid plotlines that are not realistic, but this one captivated me. I really felt for A and the bizarre predicament he was in, and I thought Levithan’s exploration of the permutations and ramifications of A’s body-snatching – both for him and for his hosts – was really well done.

This is YA fiction, but I liked it a lot. It’s no surprise that A is 16 years old, given the audience for the book. (I’d love to see a forty-something version!) The love shared by A and Rhiannon is a little shallow and a little quick, but again, it’s YA fiction. I liked the broader messages about acceptance of differences and the importance of seeing life through other people’s eyes. Unfortunately, not too many people read the book before our meeting so we didn’t have our usual robust mom/daughter discussion this time, but the few girls who read it liked it a lot. There is also a sequel, Another Day, which tells the same story from Rhiannon’s perspective.

Every Day was one of my favorite mother-daughter book club reads of the year, and I highly recommend it. Maybe a good summer reading choice for a teenager (or grownup!) with some time on his or her hands?