Category Archives: Fiction

BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea

Our February Mother-Daughter book club book was Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. It was a big hit with the girls.

Because of Mr. Terupt is about a fifth grade teacher, Mr. Terupt, and the effect he had on seven of his students one fateful year. The students are a diverse lot – the class bully, the class clown, the brain, the withdrawn boy, the new girl from California, the outcast, and the bully’s sidekick. Over the course of the year, they each change – for the better – thanks to their teacher, who recognizes the good in them and gently coaxes it out.

Some of Mr. Terupt’s efforts were done unconsciously. He was hit by a snowball during recess about halfway through the book, and shockingly ends up in a coma. Yet even when he was in the hospital, he managed to bring the kids together and help resolve some of their problems, especially those that originated outside the classroom.

The girls in the book club really enjoyed the book. They liked the complexity of the characters, who faced difficult situations like the death of a sibling, very strict parents, and absent fathers. They liked Mr. Terupt. We even had a discussion about negligence, fault and causation, which reminded me of my torts class in law school. Some of the girls had read the sequel already – Mr. Terupt Falls Again – and my daughters have already downloaded it onto their Kindle (and book club was today). Definitely the mark of a good book! Recommended for the middle grade set.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

So I jumped on the bandwagon and read the Book of 2015, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s one of the recent crop of Psychological Thrillers Narrated by Women that may or may not achieve Gone Girl success. The Girl on the Train has three narrators: (1) Rachel, a depressed alcoholic who is divorced from Tom and rides the train to London every day past his house, where she used to live and where Tom now lives with (2) Anna, who has a toddler, is happily married to Tom, and enlists babysitting help from (3) Megan, Anna and Tom’s neighbor who is married to Scott and has a checkered past.

Rachel, who is obsessed with Tom and mourning the loss of her old life, sees Megan and Scott’s house every day and romanticizes their relationship, naming them Jason and Jess and creating personas for them that reflect the life she wishes she had. But one day, when she passes the house from the train, she sees Megan with another man. And a few days later, Megan has disappeared – on the same night that Rachel was in the neighborhood, so drunk that she can’t remember what she saw. Rachel is devastated by the demise of this perfect couple she has concocted, and ends up getting involved with the investigation. She goes to the police with what she knows, she tells Scott about Megan’s affair, and she even manages to interact with the man Megan had the affair with, all the while continuing her unwelcome intrusions into Tom and Anna’s life. In short, her already teetering life goes entirely off the tracks.

The Girl on the Train is told from Rachel, Anna and Megan’s perspective, and as the chapters go by, you realize that the three women are not as different as they might seem. They each have their own insecurities and complicated feelings about motherhood. They are involved with some of the same men. Their interior thoughts reveal ugliness and weaknesses that they try, often unsuccessfully, to hide from view.

I can’t reveal much more without giving away what happens in the book, but there is a twist toward the end that brings the women’s stories together and resolves the question of what happened to Megan. I was a little disappointed by the twist, because it ultimately wasn’t one that the reader could have reasonably figured out on his or her own. I prefer twists that were hinted at, even briefly, by the plots leading up to them, and I think Hawkins hid the ball on this one. But the ending was nonetheless pulse-quickening and mostly satisfying (though in retrospect there are a few key things that don’t hold up).

I think I liked the experience of reading The Girl on the Train more than I like the book now. I was kind of glad to finish it. I listened to it on audio, so it was quite an investment of time for a story that in retrospect is basically a thriller. But it was definitely entertaining and held my attention. The narrators’ voices were fantastic – sad, humiliated Rachel; confident, no-nonsense Anna; and wispy, melancholy Megan. I think they did a great job bringing these characters to life.

I’d like to give away my audio copy of The Girl on the Train to someone who wants to take a crazy ride with this book. If you’d like to win, leave me a comment here and I will pick a name on Friday, February 20.

SINGLE, CAREFREE, MELLOW by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow is a collection of stories about women, most of whom are in the process of deceiving the men they love. They are cheating on spouses; they are longing for other men they aren’t with; they are in search of something different. These women aren’t bad people. They are human – funny, flawed, loving – and feeling constrained by the roles they have found themselves in. I really enjoyed this collection of stories. Heiny’s characters are anything but single, carefree and mellow; they are deeply entrenched in relationships, highly introspective, and emotionally intense. My favorite story is called “That Dance You Do” and is about a mother planning her son’s 8th birthday party. It’s just perfect. I laughed out loud many times reading that story, just as I did throughout the whole book.

Single, Carefree, Mellow came out this past week, and Heiny has been getting a lot of attention. She has a story of her own to tell: her first story was published twenty years ago, when she was 24. She sent it to 30 magazines, only to be rejected by all of them, and finally sent it to The New Yorker, who accepted it. That story – “How To Give the Wrong Impression”- is included in Single, Carefree, Mellow, and is about a young woman whose romantic love for her male roommate is unrequited. After the success of that story, Heiny got married, had kids, and didn’t publish anything for 20 years, until this collection came out.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Q&A at Politics & Prose tonight between Heiny and her editor, Jenny Jackson, from Knopf. (I knew I would like her – she has edited Jennifer Close, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emily Mandel.)  It was a really interesting conversation, which I have tried to sum up here. Read this Q&A and I promise you will want to read the book.

Q: Tell me about the story “How To Give the Wrong Impression” and why there was such a long break after that one.

A: There was a girl in my building who told me about “the guy she lives with”. I asked her if he was her boyfriend or not, and the whole story unrolled from there like a rug. It’s as personal to me today as the day I wrote it. Of all of my protagonists, I am most like her.

After it was published, I wrote a lot of YA novels, then got met my husband, got married and had kids. That took everything out of me. I didn’t start writing again until my youngest was in first grade. Then the floodgates opened. I think the imagination is like a muscle – the more you write, the easier it gets.

Q. Most of your stories are about relationships and women chafing against marriage. Did you set out to write about love and infidelity?

A: Sex and relationships is what I like to read about, so it’s what I wanted to write about. In my collection, infidelity is really second to what I want to write about. The inspiration for the infidelity? My husband was a spy, a professional secret-keeper. I had to keep his job a secret and be careful about what I said. That colored my fiction.

Q: When women characters are unfaithful, there is often the opinion that they have to get their comeuppance and be punished for it. That is not the case here. Was that a conscious decision here, to buck convention?

A: No. I don’t like to write about the beginnings or ends of relationships. I don’t like to write about the day of reckoning. I would rather talk about the middle. I am interested in whether the infidelity will change the relationship or the people. I leave a lot up to the reader; I am not moralizing.

Q: Do you care if your readers dislike your characters?

A: I love my characters like I love my children. They are flawed but I love them anyway. I don’t care if my readers like the characters as long as they are enjoying the book.

Q: Let’s talk about the feminist aspect of the collection. These women are chafing against convention and are feeling circumscribed in their lives. A lot of the drama here happens in the kitchen, in the car, in the dining room. What drew you to the domestic sphere?

A: I am not a person who could write an international thriller – I don’t know much about politics or foreign policy. I get my news from Facebook. When you have kids, you enter a parallel universe of naps, playdates and logistics – a domestic microcosm. That’s where I see things happening.

Q: Maya appears in three of your stories. Why? Could you write a novel about her?

A: The Maya/Rhodes stories were hard to write because I like Rhodes so much. He deserves better than Maya. But things would happen to me and I’d see them happening to Maya. I don’t think I could do a whole novel about her because I feel such solidarity with Rhodes.

Q: “How To Give The Wrong Impression” was written 20 years ago, but it still holds up. Why do you think that’s true?

A: Unrequited love is always relatable. It is as old as jealousy.

Q: The story “That Dance You Do” is about a particularly horrible experience at a kid’s birthday party? Was this true to life? Is that your most autobiographical story?

A: This story was based on my son’s 8th birthday party. But it’s so boring to say that this is my most autobiographical story. There are a lot of true things throughout the book. I often put something true into a different context within the narrative.

Q: Short stories used to get a bad rap. Publishers were reluctant to put a lot of muscle behind them. Now, there is a real spark behind short stories. Why do you like writing stories?

A: To me, writing a novel is like being at a horrible monthlong family reunion. There is no escape, and you’re surrounded by the same people all the time. Writing a short story is like stopping at a bar and having one drink. You can minimize the damage.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise about being published?

A: It’s so fun! I was worried that I would lose the personal responses I got when I wrote short stories, but that hasn’t been the case. It has been wonderful.

Q: Tell us about the novel you are working on.

A: It is very different from my story collection. The narrator is a man, and he is married to an over-the-top extrovert. Is that type of person, who is fun and exciting to be with but doesn’t stop talking, a good choice for a life partner?

 

HER by Harriet Lane


There has been a recent mini-explosion in British psychological thrillers with unreliable female narrators, perhaps fueled by the incredible success of Gone Girl. And I have succumbed to their wily charms. I am in the middle of The Girl on the Train on audio, and just finished Her by Harriet Lane. Both are hot books this month – and in fact both were reviewed together yesterday in the Washington Post.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD. (I won’t ruin the surprise of the book, but I may share more than you want to know if you’re planning to read Her.)

I will divide my experience reading Her into two parts: the first 90 percent, and the last 10 percent.

The first 90 percent: I was hooked.

Her is about two women – Nina and Emma. They are the same age, but Nina has a 16 year-old daughter and is a successful artist, while Emma has a toddler and and a baby, and has left behind a career in television news to stay at home with her kids. Nina is cool and pulled-together, while Emma is exhausted and frazzled. They live in the same neighborhood, and when the book opens, Nina has just seen Emma for the first time in many years. We learn that Emma wronged Nina once, many years ago, and that Nina is still very angry, but we don’t know what Emma did. Emma doesn’t recognize Nina, and is therefore unsuspecting and open when Nina slowly starts to ingratiate herself into Emma’s life.

Lane sets up her story beautifully. Nina shrewdly constructs situations in which Emma will be worried and anxious, and Nina will come to the rescue. She returns Emma’s missing wallet. She finds Emma’s son, who has wandered away from the park, and takes him to the police station. She comes to the rescue as a babysitter when Emma’s other babysitter (who happens to be Nina’s daughter) cancels. Her is told from both women’s perspectives, alternating, so as Emma’s gratitude toward Nina grows alongside Nina’s parallel plotting and manipulation. Nina is always in a position of power and generosity, putting Emma into situations that make her feel self-conscious and helpless but grateful.

I LOVE Lane’s writing. Love it. The little details she peppers in that beautifully convey motherhood and women’s friendship. Her observations about modern life: “Looking through Emma’s collection, I’m struck by how little these pictures have in common with the photographs people take now, the casual why-not off-the-cuff snaps of people yawning or laughing or mucking around. Emma’s parents saved their film for shots that stood a good chance and that mattered. The times when the light was right and people were still and formal, conscious of the moment, already colluding in its artifice.” I couldn’t get enough of Her. I couldn’t wait to finish and find out what Emma had done that deserved Nina’s cruel treatment and how she would eventually uncover Nina’s true motives.

The last 10 percent: Extreme disappointment.

At the end, Lane finally reveals why Nina was so angry at Emma, and it was a major letdown. I found it totally implausible that Emma’s actions, which were basically unwitting, would have set Nina off so many years later. I wonder if Lane got to the end of her story, realized she had no idea what had propelled it, and found a hasty candidate in a thin – borderline laughable – motive.

Or maybe it was intentional. At one point toward the end, Nina is thinking about a thriller that another character is reading: “I don’t say that I’ve read it and enjoyed it, though I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are: nothing like life, which – it seems to me – turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings, or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” Perhaps that was Lane’s point – Nina didn’t need a huge, dramatic transgression to justify her actions; a simple disappointment was enough. I’d love to know.

Overall, I was so disappointed by the ending of Her that I almost regretted reading it, but in the end, Lane’s beautiful writing justified the hours I spent on it.

THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan

The Children Act is Ian McEwan’s latest novel. It takes place in London (where I read it!) and it’s about Fiona Maye, a family court judge who is facing simultaneous professional and personal crises. On the home front, her husband of 30+ years has told her that he wants to have an affair. He loves her, but he feels like the window of his own desirability is closing, and he wants to experience the thrill of new passion once more. Needless to say, Fiona is devastated and angry, and when her husband leaves their apartment that night, she has the locks changed and tries to focus on her work, despite her pain.

On the professional side, Fiona hears a consistent stream of cases involving divorces, custody battles, restraining orders and the like, some of which are difficult and some of which deal with greedy ex-spouses fighting over money. But one case  – which comes before her the day after her husband leaves – is much more agonizing. Fiona has to decide whether a 17 year-old with leukemia who has refused a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ beliefs should be forced to have the life-saving treatment. She decides to go visit the boy – Adam – in the hospital, to see for herself whether Adam is acting on his own accord. Their meeting has a profound impact on both of them, and influences her decision in his case but also forces her to think about her role as a judge, especially at a time of deep insecurity in the rest of her life.

This is my fourth McEwan novel (after Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). I LOVED Atonement (top 5 of all time), liked On Chesil Beach but found it odd, and wasn’t as impressed with Saturday. To be sure, McEwan is a beautiful writer. Just beautiful. In many ways, The Children Act read like a novella: it covered a pretty short period of Fiona’s life, but packed an emotional punch thanks to sharp detail and McEwan’s depth of writing. When I was in law school, I found the family law cases to be the most wrenching, often because both sides were equally compelling. McEwan did a nice job here of laying out the case and letting the reader appreciate its complexities. Fiona’s decision is made early enough in the novel that the case doesn’t take over the book; it is its aftermath that really propels the story.

I marked several passages as I was going through the book because of the sheer beauty of McEwan’s writing. I don’t think they will be as powerful out of context, so I won’t copy them here. But even on re-reading, I am still in awe.

Strong second read of 2015.

TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Blunt

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Blunt is another book that I didn’t like as much as most people did. I bought it because I had heard great things about it, and I enjoyed parts of it, but overall I didn’t love it.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home is set in the 80s (which the author never lets you forget, throwing in references to things like Dennis Miller on SNL and New Wave songs and Yoo-Hoo whenever she could) in Westchester. When it opens, 14 year-old June is about to lose her beloved uncle Finn to AIDS, which at the time was a scary and mysterious disease that caused paranoia and blame in the general population. June doesn’t really fit in with her friends at school – she’s sort of a Renaissance Faire type of girl – and is left totally adrift when her uncle dies. Finn was her closest friend, and had become a replacement for her older sister Greta, with whom she had once been very close.

The title of the book refers to a portrait Finn had painted of June and Greta, which he finished right before he died. Finn was a famous but reclusive artist who had disappeared from the art scene a decade earlier despite critical acclaim and financial success.

After Finn’s funeral, June learns that he left behind a boyfriend, Toby. Her parents scare her into thinking Toby is a murderer for giving AIDS to Finn. But Toby starts sending June letters and secretly trying to see her and share special things that had belonged to Finn. The two slowly develop a relationship based at first on their mutual grief over Finn’s death, but eventually find their own ways to connect.

Meanwhile, Greta keeps acting colder and meaner to June, and their parents are absent (it’s tax season and they are accountants). June steals away to the city to see Toby more and more frequently, and strange things keep appearing on the portrait Finn painted (which has been estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Here’s what I liked about the book: Finn and June’s relationship; the backdrop of the 80s (I am a sucker for anything set in that decade); the depiction of high school isolation and insecurity; and Toby. Here’s what I didn’t like: it was unrealistic (how could June sneak off to the city like that, day after day); the bad choices June made over and over again; and the fact that the loooong middle of the book had the same pattern happening over and over (June pushed Toby away and then returned to him; Greta got drunk and admitted she missed June; June ignored Greta’s attempts to reconcile and went back to Toby; June needed more reassurance that Finn loved her). After a while, it got boring and predictable. No one really changed; they just danced around each other and lobbed bits of honesty at each other before retreating.

I respect what the author was doing here – exploring AIDS in the 80s through the prism of a coming-of-age novel – but the book was too flawed to fully succeed.

I listened to Tell The Wolves I’m Home mostly on audio, and I thought the narration by Amy Rubinate was quite good. I enjoyed the audio more than the print version, perhaps because she gave June some credibility and pathos that was missing from the book. She expressed the petulance and confusion of a 14 year-old, and handled other voices quite well.

I’ve been a bit of a cranky reader lately, and Tell The Wolves I’m Home is yet another on the list of books other people loved that I didn’t. I am hoping to right the ship in 2015. Not sure how yet, but I’m determined to lose myself in books I love.

If you read and loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home, tell me why.

THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach

I may have been the last person on the planet to read The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, but I finally did. The 500+ page book slowed me down quite a bit this month. Unlike most people who have read it, I liked it, but didn’t love it.

The Art of Fielding revolves around a baseball team at a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts college. The main characters are Henry Skrimshander, a baseball phenomenon from South Dakota who is headed to the majors (or is he?); Mike Schwartz, the team’s captain; Owen Dunne, Henry’s room- and teammate; Guert Affenlight, the college’s president; and Pella Affenlight, the president’s daughter. There is a fair amount of baseball in the book – which I liked – but not enough to turn off non-baseball fans.

Ultimately, The Art of Fielding is about relationships and how loyalty can be tested and proven over the course of challenges and setbacks. It is also about coming to terms with who you are, especially when you turn out to be someone different from who you thought. People bill it as a coming-of-age novel, but I didn’t really see it that way. College was more of a backdrop for the story than a meaningful setting that guided the plot, and one of the main characters is in his 60s. It’s really about a pivotal year in the lives of five people and how they were challenged and tried to figure out where and how they fit in.

People have been raving about The Art of Fielding ever since it came out. I don’t quite understand why. The writing is quite good, and Harbach is very clever with his turns of phrase. But overall I found the book pretty slow. I had no problem putting it down. I found some of the dialogue and details to be implausible, and I kept asking, “Don’t these characters interact with ANYONE other than the other four?”  I was moved by some of the characters’ predicaments, but I was also frustrated by how they chose to deal with their situations. It was an interesting story, but I think it fell flat. In the end, this book just didn’t do it for me the way it did it for others.

The reviews are so overwhelmingly positive for The Art of Fielding that I urge you not to rely on my opinion on this one. Give it a try, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t already.