BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman

download-1The most recent EDIWTB online book club pick was Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman, a collection of linked stories set in Washington, DC. Seventeen chapters explore moments in the lives of a range of characters, most of whom are related by blood or marriage and/or live on the same cul-de-sac in suburban Washington.

Brafman’s stories deal with relatively small moments – a child’s birthday party seen through the eyes of her mother and grandmother, a pregnant woman’s anxiety about miscarriage, a visit to a boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin. They are vignettes in the characters’ lives, mere blips on the overall arc of their relationships. But Brafman manages to find the profound in these small moments, teasing out the conflicts, passions and tenderness at the heart of these friends, spouses, partners and parents.

I love Brafman’s writing. She focuses on small details that seem insignificant but help paint such an immediate, realistic picture of what is happening. There’s also a nice feeling of tension that propels the stories- you know they are building up to something, and it’s fun finding out what it is. I think I grew to appreciate the book more and more as I read it and saw how Brafman really got to the core of these characters and relationships in 20 pages or so.

I had expected Bertrand Court to feel particularly Washingtonian, as it is billed as a book about “politicos, filmmakers and housewives”, but to be honest, I didn’t really find it all that resonant of my hometown. This could have taken place in any suburb where smart, engaged people live. (It *does* have a lot of Jewish people in it – that is true. And they felt pretty familiar to me.)

My favorite chapters were “You’re Next”, “Minocqua Bats” and “Would You Rather”.

At times it can be hard to keep everybody straight (though Brafman does include a list of the characters and their relationships in the beginning), but ultimately, I decided it didn’t matter if I couldn’t remember how everyone related to each other, each time. The stories worked on their own.

Bertrand Court is a big-hearted book to savor and to nod at in wistful recognition.

OK, EDITWB book club readers, what did you think? Please leave me your thoughts below.

 

16 Comments

  • Miriam Boots
    October 11, 2016 - 9:17 am | Permalink

    I really liked “Bertrand Court” by Michelle Brafman- I do not prefer short stories; I would rather read a novel and really get into the story. The fact that these stories were somewhat related appealed to me and I really liked the explanation of how the people were related to each other at the beginning of the book. I did look back at that during my reading.
    Thus said, I do not think it really mattered how these people were related to each other but I do think it helped to tie the stories together and I liked that.
    I do think the author took the small things of life and in that way shine a light on each of the characters and how they related to each other. I really liked the story “Skin”. Perfectly captures how hard it is to blend families when they come from different religious traditions.
    I keep thinking about “More So”- I love Becca and her “earth mother” lifestyle. What is with the “up in the air:” ending? I want to know what will happen with Adam and Becca!!!
    This is wonderful writing and really brings these characters to life.
    I loved being in Bertrand Court!!!

  • October 11, 2016 - 9:24 am | Permalink

    While I liked this book I didnt love it. I did like the format…skipping from character to character and seeing this story unfold from all those different angles. I did love the story about the baby spoon and the neighbor Zelda Greenberg,who was always “kvetching about something”. and the birthday party with the sugar free carrot cake and the mother who”is always screaming at me by her deliberate silences”. I guess I came away with the feeling that we are all imperfect and that life’s struggles are what unite us. I didnt like the ending….I wanted to know what happened to Adam…Why did the author leave that unresolved?

  • Lindsay
    October 11, 2016 - 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much to Gayle for organizing this online book club. I completely agree with Marcia that I liked this one but didn’t love it. I don’t like short stories, preferring the longer format (and learning about characters, etc.) of novels. I had hope that this short story set would be different, however, because the stories intertwined. Like Gayle, though, I couldn’t keep track of everyone. And, while I wanted to just like the stories for what they were, I was hoping for more of a novel-like experience than what I got. I think the author would have been better served by lingering with each character and storyline longer and by not using the short story format. I, too, was excited that the book took place in the DC area, but didn’t see anything of the DC area in the descriptions, which was too bad. Lastly, I also didn’t like the ending – I felt let-down and left-hanging.

  • Sarah
    October 11, 2016 - 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I liked this collection of stories, but didn’t love it. In the “Acknowledgments” at the end, Brafman shares that she wrote the collection over a span of 15 years. This validates for me that I didn’t feel like the stories fit together very well. The connections seemed bumpy, and like others who commented, I had trouble keeping the characters straight. I didn’t feel a book of this scope warranted a “family tree” of sorts; that seems to be more fitting to me in a long tome, not a short collection of vignettes. The ways in which character’s showed their weaknesses — stealing a cat in one story; stealing a deeply meaningful tallis in another; stealing one’s wife’s wallet in yet another — didn’t strike me as realistic but just deeply disturbing. Jennifer Haigh’s “News from Heaven” struck me a near perfect collection of short stories, and this collection didn’t flow for me nearly as well. That said, I was intrigued enough to keep reading and I was interested by the sometimes mundane, sometimes bizarre, situations that the characters found them in. I thought this was a good choice, Gayle, and I appreciate your facilitation.

  • October 11, 2016 - 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t officially participate in this book club, but I read BERTRAND COURT on my own (and posted my review today) so I thought I’d chime in. Thanks for the excuse to pull this galley off my shelf, Gayle!

    I didn’t realize that BERTRAND COURT wasn’t structured as a conventional novel when I picked it up, but the linked-stories form suits it well. I thought it was an effective way for Brafman to shift perspectives among the large cast of characters and across time periods. On that note, I did not expect a book centered around a present-day suburban DC neighborhood to detour to mid-20th-century Wisconsin, but I thought these stories contained some of the book’s strongest, most vivid writing.

    I agree that the book didn’t feel especially “Washingtonian.” I actually felt a little misled by the “secrets of suburbia” blurb on the back cover of my galley–the neighborhood really didn’t feel like as effective a linking device as the personal ties between the characters. I liked the writing, though.

  • Cori
    October 11, 2016 - 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading Bertrand Court and I applaud Michelle Brafman for writing something different with the intertwined short stories. I did use the family tree for reference more than once, but I thought that Brafman intertwined the characters subtly and it wasn’t overdone. I found it so important to read the dates at the beginning of each chapter and it helped me to try to understand why the character was making the choices. I’m not typically a fan of short stories, but this was a unique book that I liked. I did read a chapter a night rather than a larger chunk of a novel I normally read and I think that made me look forward to the different stories even more. Thanks for allowing me to be a part of the Online Book Club, I love reading the other reviews and understand their thoughts and perspectives. Thanks for Gayle for organizing and the publisher too!

  • Suzie
    October 11, 2016 - 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I agree with some of the others- although the stories were connected in some ways, they didn’t feel connected. I prefer novels to short stories but my hopes were high after seeing this was about a group of connected people. I need to get my thesaurus out and stop using connected

    Overall, I would give his book 2.5 stars. It had potential but didn’t live up to it.

  • Shany
    October 11, 2016 - 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I typically love books that develop each character and gives the reader different perspectives. While I liked the format and read it quickly, I felt like I was waiting for something that never happened. I was waiting to see more of a connection between the characters. And while some stories felt purposeful like Sylvia’s Spoon, others like Molly Flanders seemed rushed leaving me with lots of questions.

    In terms of the setting, I recognized many of the places but felt that it could have been any cul-de-sac in suburbia.

  • Susan
    October 12, 2016 - 7:18 am | Permalink

    While I did like some of the stories (my favorite was what Hannah Never Knew) I was not a fan of this book. I don’t usually like short stories but did very much enjoy Olive Kittredge which had the same idea of interconnected stories. I was constantly flipping to the front of the book and even with the list characters, I still had a hard time keeping them all straight. I also felt like with the exception of Sylvia and Goldie, I felt the characters were not very developed and interesting. I would give this two stars.

  • Gina Beirne
    October 12, 2016 - 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed some of the stories included in Bertrand Court (notably “Sylvia’s Spoon,” “In Flight,” and “What Hannah Never Knew.” Unfortunately, I didn’t discover the character list until the end of my reading and spent a lot of time trying to figure out the connections between them. I finally gave up and read each story on its own merits. As someone above said, I was waiting for something that never happened.

    Reading this inspired me to seek out Michelle Brafman’s novel Washing the Dead which was EXCELLENT. I would highly recommend it.

  • RachelB
    October 12, 2016 - 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to love this book. I really enjoyed so many of the characters and how the author presents their lives. I felt at times like the book had switched lanes; it didn’t flow well. I kept hoping it was only a minor bump in the road but the disjointed feeling continued throughout the book. When I finished the book and read the author’s note at the end, it all made sense. The author wrote this book over 12 years. The stopping and starting jaunty feeling was because of the time lapses over 12 years of work. If this book had flowed better, it would have worked. Or, if the focus was deeper and on less characters, it would have worked. Unfortunately, I finished this book feeling frustrated that the style got in the way of a smooth and enjoyable ride.

  • TLB
    October 12, 2016 - 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this book. I did not really think of it as a collection of short stories – I considered it more of an Olive Kitteridge type of novel/novelette. She writes so well and her characters are so relatable. I loved her attention to detail and the way she wrote so comfortably about contemporary suburban/urban life with kids/career/family. She was spot-on with her depictions of extended family interactions. I hope she writes more – would love a big juicy long novel from her! Will look into Washing the Dead ASAP

  • October 12, 2016 - 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I love short stories and really enjoyed this book. I like how all the stories were connected in some way, and I liked the writing style of the author, and I had no problem with the flow of the book. Thanks, without this book club I would have missed out on a really good book.

  • Elisabeth
    October 14, 2016 - 9:51 am | Permalink

    I seem to be in the minority here, but I found Bertrand Court disappointing. I have taken into consideration that I for some reason completely missed that this was a book of short stories. This might explain why I found the time jumps confusing. I enjoy short stories that are interconnected as other commenters mentioned – as in News From Heaven and Olive Kittride,having alsoread both of these – I did not find that kind of flow here. I found it hard to relate to many of the characters. I was trying to figure out the connection to Bertrand Court. Was this a slice of life from the people who lived there?

    SHH, was told from the unborn babies point of view- definitely a different and novel way to tell a story. I liked that. I believe that the author did try to wrap things up so to speak, but as others commented I was left wanting to know what happens to the characters and what was the purpose of the telling. I felt let down that clarity was not brought to bear for why all these stories were connected somehow.

    All in all though, I am very glad to have read this book, and to have been able to participate. Thank you again Gayle for pulling this together and I hope hope there will be more group reads in the future.

  • Pat Burke
    October 18, 2016 - 8:21 am | Permalink

    I found this book to be a pleasant and easy read, but I was not that enthralled with it.
    While some of the situations were very believable and evoked empathy, sympathy, and humor, the characters did not seem terribly real to me. Like others, I found some of the chapters more interesting and/or endearing than others. Many of them seemed too disconnected and at times I found myself even questioning the order. Perhaps that comes from the book being written over a period of 15 years.
    I enjoyed participating in the discussion and am always interested in “stretching” my reading experience. Gayle, you are great in putting all this together.
    (Forgive my late post as I was on vacation and did not have email/Wi-Fi access)

  • Laura Kirsch Hudson
    October 18, 2016 - 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m late to post as well, but I definitely wanted to chime in. I normally prefer an engrossing novel to short stories – I like to be sucked into the story. Bertrand Court connected the characters together as relatives or neighbors so it felt like it was a hybrid novel/short story collection in one at times. As a result, I found myself continually expecting the characters to be brought together in a climactic moment of the story – even though it was clearly never going to happen.

    I enjoyed the author’s descriptive writing. She had a way of laying out the scenes that brought the reader right into the moment – appealing to every one of the five senses to draw us in. One of my favorite stories was Skin, likely because I identify so much with the struggle of blending families of very differing religious tradition. (I grew up with a Jewish father from a very traditional Jewish home and a Catholic mother from a deeply religious household.). I could feel the tension between the couple as they struggled to accept each other’s traditions and make their parents comfortable and accepting of things they didn’t fully understand. This all said, Brafman’s beautiful descriptive writing made me long for an engrossing novel even more.

    In the end, I found myself wishing for some resolution to the stories told in the book, especially the last story!

    I

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *