Category Archives: Fiction

THE LAST SEPTEMBER by Nina de Gramont

The Last September by Nina de Gramont was one of my favorite reads of the summer. It’s hard to describe – it’s about the demise of a passionate marriage, but it’s also a suspenseful murder mystery. Brett and Charlie meet through Charlie’s younger brother Eli when Eli and Brett are in college together. Brett falls deeply in love with Charlie, despite Eli’s warnings that he is a womanizer who can’t commit to a relationship. After one night together, Brett doesn’t hear from Charlie again. She tries to move on, getting engaged to another man, but runs across Charlie a few years later (ironically through her fiance) and is simply powerless to resist him.

Meanwhile, Eli is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Brett and Charlie marry and have a baby, but their marriage is always under the cloud of Eli’s disease – the ups and downs, the dangerous episodes and hospitalizations. And Brett remains deeply insecure about Charlie’s love, an insecurity that is proven justified when she discovers that he has had an affair.

The Last September opens with Charlie’s murder, and the rest of the book traces Brett and Charlie’s relationship and marriage. It also eventually deals with the question of who killed Charlie. The obvious choice is Eli, off his meds and out of control, but Brett isn’t so sure.

I really, really enjoyed The Last September. de Gramont’s writing is understated but beautifully detailed. Her characters are flawed people trying to make the best of a really awful situation, finely drawn and utterly realistic. I had a hard time putting this one down. Brett is a tough character to like, in a lot of ways – she’s impulsive and self-absorbed, willing to sacrifice anything to be with Charlie. But if you’ve ever been crazy in love and desperate to be with someone, then you can start to understand why Brett does what she does. I thought the first 4/5 of the book was absolutely perfect, and then took issue with some of Brett’s actions that seemed out of character. But in the end, I still really enjoyed it. There were enough plausible suspects for Charlie’s murder that I was left guessing until the very end.

The Last September also provides a heartbreaking glimpse into the sad effects of mental illness on the afflicted and their families.

Highly recommended for fans of domestic fiction and/or mysteries. The Last September is a beautifully written combination of both.

 

AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

After Birth by Elisa Albert is a biting, raw book about motherhood, childbirth and friendship. Ari is a new mom with a year-old son who has recently relocated from Brooklyn to upstate NY with her academic husband. After Birth is really two books – one that focuses on Ari’s son’s birth and one that traces the relationships in her life from her childhood to the present. (She’s pretty angry about all of it.)

On motherhood, Ari is ambivalent, to say the least. She loves her son Walker, but she is physically and emotionally scarred from his birth, which was an unexpected C-section. She blames her doctor for rushing her into a C-section and cannot seem to get over it. She feels that both she and her baby were damaged by the birth and talks about it in incredibly angry, visceral terms. She also describes the days and months of new motherhood (during which she was clearly suffering from post-partum depression) and the isolation and loneliness that often accompany that period.

I found Ari’s anger a little much. I had 2 C-sections and I am not angry about them in the least. Yes, motherhood is challenging, especially in the early months. Yes, breastfeeding is really painful. No, people aren’t always sympathetic about how hard it can be to be a new mom. Yes, motherhood takes a toll on one’s professional ambition. I get all of that. I just had a hard time with the intensity of her anger. No one told her any of this before she had her baby?

On the relationships in her life, Ari got much more interesting. Her (really awful) mother, who died when she was in middle school, her judgmental Bridezilla cousin, the girls with whom she shared intense friendships and flameouts – Ari’s analysis of these women was pretty entertaining. I understood her anger here better than in the motherhood part. There’s a current friendship in the book – probably the closest After Birth gets to a plot – with Mina, a feminist former musician-now-poet who is temporarily living in town and who just had a baby.  Ari and Mina become fast friends when Ari helps Mina cope with her own hellish introduction into motherhood (in part by nursing Mina’s baby when Mina’s baby isn’t latching well). But Mina moves away before the book ends, so there’s no promise of a really lasting, redemptive relationship here.

After Birth is short on plot, long on anger and a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of reviewers have hailed it as a feminist manifesto on motherhood that addresses issues that too many women don’t speak out about. Ok, fine – I get it – but I didn’t really enjoy reading this book very much and had a hard time relating to quite a bit of it.

SUMMERLONG by Dean Bakopoulus

I’ve seen Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos on many 2015 summer book lists – usually enjoying glowing reviews – and it was positively reviewed by a few sources I trust (Book Chatter and Ron Charles), so I decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

Summerlong is about an odd love square (is that a thing?) that forms one hot summer in Grinnell, Iowa. Claire and Don are married, in their late 30s, and at a precipice in their marriage. Don, a realtor, has hidden their dire financial situation from his wife, and the two now face foreclosure on their house and an inevitable bankruptcy filing. Meanwhile, Charlie, an underemployed actor in his late 20s, is back in town to go through his father’s papers and prepare his house for sale after his father is moved to a nursing home with dementia. And ABC, a recent Grinnell graduate, has returned to her college town after the death of her best friend/lover, mired in grief.

One night, these characters interact in an unexpected way: Don comes across ABC lying in the grass, smoking pot, and joins her for an intimate but chaste evening of sleeping next to each other and getting stoned. Claire goes for a midnight run and meets Charlie in the parking lot of a convenience store, where they share an instant attraction. Over the course of the next 3 months, the characters couple off in a variety of combinations, sometimes consummating their attractions and sometimes not. Don and Claire’s marriage deteriorates until they decide to separate, while ABC floats along in her grief and depression and Charlie tries, unsuccessfully, to find his father’s missing manuscript and redeem his academic reputation.

I really didn’t like Summerlong.  I did appreciate some of the insights into marital harmony and middle age that Bakopoulos infused into Claire and Don’s relationship. But I found the other relationships unrealistic and strange, and I had a really hard time with most of the dialogue in the book. I don’t think people talk to each other in real life like they do in Summerlong. Claire and Don were blunt and sharp to the point of meanness – do most married people act like that to each other?

Lots of drugs, lots of sex. I don’t have a problem with that, but they became a crutch for the author. These characters didn’t have much to say to each other or a genuine attraction, so he just had them get stoned and hook up. Problem solved! There are also too many unlikely coincidences.

There’s a feisty old grandmother type who says it like it is and eventually saves some of these doomed characters. Meh.

Didn’t these characters have ANYONE else to hang out with other than the other three?

Don and Claire’s kids – didn’t THEY find the whole setup kind of weird?

Why is Claire so angry all the time? And why hasn’t she worked for the last 10 years? For a feminist New Yorker, she sure depends on her man to make everything better.

These questions plagued me as I read Summerlong. I just didn’t get it. I know I am in the minority on this one – people seem to love this book. It just made me angry.

A WINDOW OPENS by Elisabeth Egan

This is what I learned about Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens at a BEA Hot Fall Fiction panel: it’s about a middle-aged mother of three who loves books and has to juggle the competing demands of work and family when she goes back to work full-time at a company purporting to reinvent the bookstore experience.

Um, yes. I would like to read that.

Alice’s cushy life with a part-time job as a book reviewer for a magazine comes to an end when her husband doesn’t make partner at his New York law firm. They need money, so she finds herself a new full-time job working at Scroll, a startup division of a corporate mall developer who has set out to create a new bookstore in which ebooks and “carbon-based books” coexist among leather recliners and gluten-free snacks packaged in biodegradable containers. Alice is hired to help build relationships with publishers eager to get their upcoming books into Scroll’s stores. Off to Alice’s new job she goes, leaving her three kids in the care of her (excellent) babysitter and husband, who is starting to drink more heavily than he used to and whose hang-a-shingle law firm isn’t getting off the ground very quickly. Meanwhile, her father, who has already been through a bout of throat cancer, gets a very troubling medical diagnosis and her middle schooler is getting moodier and more withdrawn by the day.

You can see where this is going: stressed-out working mom gets embroiled in new job while things fall apart on the home front as she tries to do it all. While Alice was frustrating at times – she was clueless in a lot of ways, and seemed not to care that she was trampling over her husband – I could definitely relate to many of the challenges she faced. Scroll was a bit overblown, but I have worked at companies with a lot of millennials and I smiled in recognition at some of  the company’s policies and jargon-laden meetings and emails.

There’s an inconsistency in A Window Opens, as Egan pendulums between humor/parody and the more serious theme of losing a parent while struggling to be a good one yourself. I definitely liked the more serious parts of the book better than the lighter ones. There are a lot of I Don’t Know How She Does It books out there already, so the passages with more emotional heft felt fresher to me than the ones where Alice goes on her first business trip or has to run out of a meeting because her daughter is sick. Egan really nailed the poignant moments throughout the book, and those are the ones I will most remember.

Overall, I recommend A Window Opens despite its uneven tone. It’s entertaining, well-written and surprisingly moving.

A Window Opens comes out next week.

MAMBO IN CHINATOWN by Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok’s first novel, Girl in Translation, told the story of Kimberly Chang, a Chinese immigrant living with her mother in Chinatown and trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar Western world of privilege

Kwok’s second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, addresses some similar themes. It’s about Charlie Wong, a woman in her early twenties living with her father and younger sister in Chinatown. She works alongside her father in a noodle shop washing dishes, but aspires to do anything else that would get her out of the restaurant. She was not a good student and has had a bad track record in other jobs, so she feels particularly stuck. Meanwhile, her 11 year-old sister Lisa, who is bright and engaged, has started developing some strange medical problems that are worrying Charlie and her father.

The novel takes off when Charlie applies for a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dancing school. Unexpectedly, she gets the job. She works as a receptionist until one of her mistakes causes an upcoming class to be left without an instructor available. With no other options, the school management decides that Charlie must teach the class. She gets a crash course in ballroom dancing, and her new life as a dance instructor is born.

Mambo in Chinatown is a gentle, slow-paced story about Charlie’s breaking away from her strict Chinese father and embracing a Western life, one that comes with showier clothes, non-Chinese men, and a lot of Latin rhythms. At the same time, she has to balance her new life and interests with looking after her sister and trying to unearth the problems behind Lisa’s troubling symptoms. She is very loyal to her father, a widower, and has many familial and societal expectations to live up to which come into conflict with her newly-discovered love of dancing.

I liked Mambo in Chinatown, though perhaps not as much as Girl in Translation. Where Kimberly was stubborn and focused, Charlie was at times frustratingly scattered and meek. I understood the tension she faced over the Eastern and Western forces in her life, but I thought some of it seemed a bit extreme. (Would no one – especially Charlie – have insisted that Lisa see a Western doctor?). I did enjoy the glimpses into life in Chinatown – the witch doctor, the tai chi instructor, the matchmaking – and was moved by the difficult economic circumstances that the Wongs were in, which prevented the family from enjoying almost any luxuries. I think dance is a hard thing to convey in writing, but Kwok did a good job of communicating what Charlie and her partner were doing without getting too mired in steps and dance terminology.

I listened to Mambo in Chinatown mostly on audio, and thought the narrator, Angela Lin, did a great job. She had good accents, particularly for Pa, and I liked her depiction of the different dance instructors. I wasn’t crazy about her voicing of Lisa, who was perhaps more whiny than necessary. But her voice overall was soothing and calm, which was a good match for Kwok’s tone and her style of writing.

Overall, Mambo in Chinatown was an enjoyable and memorable read. I am a big fan of Kwok’s, and will read anything she writes!

MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER by Hilary Liftin

I have had the pleasure of knowing author Hilary Liftin for a long time. We went to school together here in DC from 4th-12th grade and have stayed in touch over the years since then. I’ve always known that Hilary is a great writer, both from what she wrote in high school and from her two non-fiction books published under her own name: Dear Exile, a collection of letters she exchanged post-college with a friend who was living abroad, and Candy And Me, Hilary’s ode to candy, one of our shared passions.

As a ghostwriter of several celebrity memoirs, Hilary has also seen Hollywood up close. She knows how that world works, and what it’s like to live on the A-list. And so when it came to writing her first novel Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, she drew on her knowledge of that world, one that fascinates so many of us.

The quick synopsis of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is that it’s a fictional retelling of the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage. Lizzie is a young actress with some notable roles and relationships under her belt who is suddenly and intensely wooed by Rob Mars, the most famous movie star on the planet. After a whirlwind courtship, they get engaged, she gets pregnant, and they get married. But while Lizzie is surrounded by unimaginable luxury and privilege, she is unhappy in her marriage. She’s not only trapped by Rob’s celebrity and the public’s insatiable appetite for information about their family, but she’s also unwillingly drawn into Rob’s participation in a Scientology-like cult called One Cell. She eventually comes to understand just how powerful and dangerous the cult is, and how her children’s lives have been – and will continue to be – affected by One Cell.

Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is a fun book. It’s a bit lighter than what I usually read and review here on EDIWTB, but I enjoyed it just as much as my usual (depressing) fare. Hilary has done her research (anyone with an US Weekly subscription will recognize pieces of Katie Holmes’ story reimagined for Lizzie Pepper) and has infused the book with many satisfying, juicy details about her characters’ lives. There is an element of suspense as the story heats up – how will Lizzie make her escape and will One Cell retaliate? And Hilary is a smooth, entertaining writer who crafts believable dialogue and satisfyingly leaves no stones unturned. And of course the book raises questions about why as a society we are so obsessed with celebrity culture and whether being famous is really something to aspire to.

I read in an interview with Hilary that she had never tried fiction before and didn’t know anything about how to write it. I am very impressed with her ability to craft a story, develop characters, and pace the plot so evenly with no prior experience or training.

If you’re up on celebrity divorces, aren’t afraid to read US Weekly in public (or even, gasp!, subscribe), or enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, then you’ll probably enjoy Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper.

Nice work, Hilary. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is a quintessential summer novel about a British couple – fortysomething Jenn and her older husband Greg – who are spending a two-week vacation at their usual summer rental in Majorca. Greg’s 15 year-old daughter (Jenn’s stepdaughter) Emma joins them for the second half the trip, bringing her boyfriend Nathan with her. Nathan’s 17, and Jenn immediately finds herself attracted to him, despite the wild impropriety of the situation.

As the vacation progresses, Jenn loses perspective and gets more and more obsessed with Nathan. Her feelings oscillate between shame, lust, anger and rejection as she and Nathan circle each other and she has to contend with his parallel relationship with Emma. This book is claustrophobia-inducing, as Walsh confines the action almost entirely to these four characters and the few places they inhabit over the course of the trip – the rental house, the beach, a few restaurants, a hike. Walsh dissects the interactions between the four in great detail, conveying shifting allegiances, affronts and retreats in what felt like real time.

I enjoyed the atmosphere of The Lemon Grove and its summery Mediterranean setting. I could just picture the people in the restaurants, the hippie girl at the beach, the pasta they prepared for dinner. With the action spread over such a short period of time, Walsh really captured the moods of this family’s vacation. She also did a good job with the family dynamics at work among Jenn, Greg and Emma.

I was less enthralled with the story of Jenn and Nathan’s physical relationship. I don’t know how realistic it was. It’s not that I didn’t believe the mutual attraction, it’s just that it all unfolded so quickly. Their vague flirtation escalated immediately, and under the eyes of Greg and Emma, no less,  which felt fabricated. I also think that Jenn would have been put off by Nathan’s selfishness and better able to keep her obsession with him under control.

In the end, the summer setting and incisive family dynamics weren’t enough to compensate for the emptiness I felt at the end of the book. The main story – Jenn’s obsession and dalliance with Nathan, didn’t hold up for me and really lessened Jenn as a character.