Category Archives: Fiction


Anyone up for a depressing family drama?

The latest in my canon of depressing family reads was In The Language of Miracles, by Rajia Hassib. It’s about an Egyptian couple, Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy, who move to the U.S. and eventually settle in suburban New Jersey. They have three kids, Hosaam, Khaled and Fatima, and live quiet lives of assimilated immigrants until Hosaam, age 19, shoots and kills his ex-girlfriend/next door neighbor, and then himself. When In The Language Of Miracles opens, it is one year after the shooting/suicide, and the neighbors are planning a memorial service for their daughter, Natalie. The wife comes over to Samir and Nagla’s house to tell them about the memorial service, and after she leaves, the couple immediately disagrees about whether it would be appropriate for them to attend.

In The Language Of Miracles plays out over the next week, with a lot of time spent inside the heads of this grieving, troubled family. Samir is proud and stubborn, refusing to consider whether his own intransigence might have alienated his oldest son. Nagla is grieving for her lost son and also at a loss as to how to deal with Samir – should she defer to his wishes like an obedient, traditional Muslim wife, or stand up to him and try to dissuade him from attending the service? Khaled, we learn, has very mixed feelings about the brother who turned his life upside down. He is not getting the support he needs from his parents, and steals off to New York City when he can to meet with an older female friend there who shares his love of butterflies but knows nothing of this tragedy that has befallen his family. And finally, there is Ehsam, Nagla’s mother, who has moved to the States from Egypt to help care for the family in the wake of Hosaam’s death. She is a traditional Muslim grandmother who cites the Koran and offers old-fashioned Egyptian remedies when her family is sick. She, too, is grieving as she tries to support her daughter and grandson navigating the firestorm after the shootings.

Here’s my issue with In The Language of Miracles: it is devoid of any joy or redemption whatsoever. It is a meticulous analysis of the internal thoughts of the members of the family, most of whom have a reason to be disappointed in the others. Not much happens over the course of the week other than the struggles and hardship of what they are going through. And those disappointments are extremely well-documented. There were interesting glimpses into Ehsan’s relationships with her daughter and son and the ensuing clashes of traditional and modern, and I enjoyed the immigration aspect of the story. I would have liked to have learned more about Hosaam’s relationship with his girlfriend. We see flashbacks of him withdrawing from his family, but ultimately are left with little understanding of why he resorted to such a desperate act.

There is little evolution or progression in the book. Even the climactic scene – the memorial service – is a rather ambiguous affair. I had to reread the chapter a few times and I am still not entirely sure what happened.

Hassib’s writing is precise and eloquent. But I was ultimately left cold by In The Language of Miracles. It is a debut novel; perhaps over time Hassib will become more comfortable with showing rather than telling.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

I finally made it through the audio (14 hours) of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and I’m still processing the book. It’s one of those books where the less you know about it going in, the better, but OMG I want to talk and talk about this book with anyone who has read it.

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

Fates and Furies is basically two books in one. Both are about the marriage of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and his wife, Mathilde Yoder. One half is told from Lotto’s perspective, and the other from Mathilde’s. The first half, Lotto’s side, is about his deep, deep love for Mathilde, his failed acting career, his brilliant playwriting career, and the friends and family in the couple’s orbit during the course of the marriage. Despite the early death of his father and his mother’s estrangement, Lotto was born under a lucky star (Fates). People are naturally drawn to him, and after his early professional failures, his success skyrockets. Most of all, he – a born womanizer – is devoted to his wife Mathilde, whom he believes to be the purest, most honest women he’s ever known. He’s faithful to her to the end.

(SORT OF SPOILER-Y – proceed with caution) The second half of the book is told from Mathilde’s perspective, and what a change in perspective it is. Mathilde loves Lotto fiercely and purely, but beyond that, she is not the person he believes her to be. I found her to be one of the most interesting and disturbing characters I’ve ever come across in a book. The twists and machinations that Groff unspools in the second half of Fates and Furies are breathtaking. Mathilde is a deeply damaged and angry woman (Furies), and I have deep appreciation for Groff’s ability to conjure her up. I certainly couldn’t have.

So there are really two books to review here. I found the first to be a little tedious. I skimmed through some of the chapters about Lotto’s plays, and I ultimately found him tiresome. He’s self-absorbed and lives in a kind of old-fashioned world where he doesn’t have to focus on quotidian details like bills or cooking. Maybe it was the audio version that did it, but I was also annoyed by his Southern drawl and theatrical delivery. This was likely all intentional – Groff setting up the counterpoint of Lotto’s openness and idealism with Mathilde’s secrecy. The second half of the book was the thrill for me, hands down. I couldn’t get enough of it.

I’ve read a bunch of reviews of this book that describe Fates and Furies as the story of a marriage and the secrets and passions two people hide from each other over the years. Uh, no. This is not a typical marriage! Neither one is a typical spouse, and Mathilde’s machinations are (I hope) rare among loving unions. Instead, I recommend this Slate review by Laura Miller, who nailed it:

The novel is in many ways about marriage, as many critics have observed. But it’s also about something even more universal than love. Two people sharing the same home and what seems to be the same life can occupy entirely different planets, storywise; two very different short novels can, bound together, explore the way we use stories to get what we need to make sense of our own lives and others’… ‘Fates,’ published alone, would have felt slight. ‘Furies,’ published alone, would have seemed farcical. In binding them together and letting the parts reflect each other like distorted mirrors, Groff reminds us that while Lotto may live in a dream world, he’s not the only one.

Groff’s certainly is a dream world. I’ve woken up from it and am still working on interpreting it.

About the audio: two books, two narrators. Lotto’s narrator Will Damron imbued him with the dreamy drawl I mentioned earlier, making him almost otherworldly and, I thought, inaccessible. I also didn’t like his Mathilde – too much of a falsetto. She sounded like a pansy. Julia Whelan was the perfect narrator for Mathilde, though. Precise, cold, and thin, she gave Mathilde the calculating, deliberate tone needed to pull her off. So the audio was a mixed bag for me.

If you’ve read Fates and Furies, come sit next to me. Let’s talk.

JAKE AND LILY by Jerry Spinelli

I am not on track for a record year of reading. Life just keeps getting in the way. Oh well!

I am almost done with the audio of Fates and Furies, which I have been listening to for several weeks. I  am in the home stretch and while I am tempted to just read the rest, I like the narrator of the second half and I want to hear it out. I have very mixed feelings about the book, and I’ve read a bunch of reviews and can’t seem to find anyone who sees it like I do. Review soon…

I am reading In The Language of Miracles too, which I think I would enjoy more if I didn’t read it for the 5 minutes before sleep every night. It’s very well-written and I want to get far enough in that I can’t put it down.

I did manage to finish a middle grade book for our mother-daughter book club last weekend. We read Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli. It’s about eleven year-old twins, Jake and Lily, who are going into sixth grade. They’ve always been very close, and have a special bond that lets them know what’s going on with each other even when they’re not together. But now they’re in middle school, and Jake is starting to want to spend time apart from Lily. He wants to hang out with other boys and do things that Lily doesn’t like to do. Jake goes along with a neighborhood bully who assembles a group of 4 to ride around on their bikes and find “goobers” (a.k.a dorks).

Lily, meanwhile, is devastated by Jake’s defection. She is left facing the summer without her best – or any – friend. She spends her days moping around and lamenting her brother’s decision to her grandfather, who finally urges her to move on make new friends.

I thought Jake and Lily was OK, but not great. There isn’t a whole lot to the story beyond what I summed up above. Lily does nothing but whine about Jake until the book is almost done. Jake’s story is more interesting, as he takes the blame for something his friend does and has to confront him about it. But in the end it isn’t a very memorable or deep book. I also thought it was a little young for 6th grade. Also – I didn’t buy the twin superpowers that Jake and Lily had, or their birthday tradition of sleepwalking to the train station.

None of the girls loved Jake and Lily (including my own eleven year-old twins), but it did prompt a robust conversation. There ended up being more to discuss than I expected. (Sometimes that’s the case with books we don’t like.)

So that’s where I am. I hope to pick up the pace going into the end of the year.


Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg is definitely one of the It Books of the fall. I picked it at BEA last May and decided to give it a read when all the reviews started coming out. In the end, I liked it, but didn’t love it as much as others have.

June Reid is a middle-aged woman living in a Connecticut town. The night before her daughter Lolly’s wedding, her house burns down in a fire, killing Lolly, Lolly’s fiance, June’s ex-husband and her much younger boyfriend Luke, all of whom were asleep in the house. Did You Ever Have A Family picks up after the funerals. June gets in her car and simply drives away, leaving the charred carcass of her home and the memories of her family.

What makes the book interesting is that it is told from the perspective of about a dozen characters, including June, Luke’s mother, a teenager living next door, the caterer of the wedding, and the people who work at the motel in Washington State where June eventually ends up. Through these perspectives, Clegg unfolds June’s story and eventually reveals what happened the night the house burned down. Long-held tensions and secrets are addressed as the reader begins to understand these complex characters who are carrying around regret and shame.

Clegg’s writing is very good and I enjoyed the slow teasing out of the story. There is a lot of pain in Did You Ever Have A Family, and it’s really a profoundly sad story. (What a shock, I know.) But there is some hope at the end – perhaps too much, as it felt a little saccharine and contrived after such a realistic journey to get there.

The shifting perspectives showed narrative mastery on Clegg’s part, but slowed me down a little as it made the book harder to get really immersed in. I ultimately had a hard time feeling emotionally connected to any of them, which made me feel remote from the tragedy. That said, I really liked Lydia, Luke’s mother, and looked forward the most to her chapters.

Overall, I liked Did You Ever Have A Family and recommend it for fans of fairly depressing family dramas. (Like me.)


My Sunshine Away is a debut novel by M.O. Walsh about the summer when the narrator – 15 years old and living in an upscale neighborhood in Baton Rouge – experienced the rape of a neighbor named Lindy Simpson. Lindy, also 15 years old, was the subject of a somewhat obsessive crush on the narrator’s part. Most of the book centers around his relationship with Lindy in the years leading up to and following the rape.

In My Sunshine Away, the narrator, looking back two decades later, explores his adolescence and how formative Lindy’s rape was in his life. He himself went through a lot of upheaval in his life around the same time – his father left his mother, and his older sister was killed in a car accident. But as a self-absorbed teenager, he didn’t experience the sense of loss around those events as acutely as he would later in life. Similarly with Lindy’s rape, he experienced it solely through the prism of an adolescent boy with a crush on the victim, with little capacity to understand how it affected her. In retelling the events of those years, he finally learns to appreciate what those around him were going through while he was lost in his own world.

For the most part, I really enjoyed Walsh’s writing. It was crisp and descriptive, intimate and honest. I got sucked into this story quickly and felt deeply connected to the narrator, in large part because I spent so much time in his head. Some reviewers have criticized the book for a few tangents it takes in places, such as describing in great length the impact of Hurricane Katrina’s displaced New Orleanians on the city of Baton Rouge. Those tangents didn’t bother me; I found them pretty interesting and, even if unrelated to Lindy’s rape, good for atmosphere. Baton Rouge itself is an interesting setting, sensual and rich in its food, heat and terrain.

My quibbles, because I always have a few: first, Walsh included too much explicit foreshadowing, which I hate. For example, the narrator would say things like, “Those things would come back to haunt me” or “our home was never the same” or “this is when things got interesting”. I much prefer when the story unspools naturally, without those narrative cues, which I think reflect the author’s lack of confidence in the reader.

MILD SPOILER: I also found the end, in which the mystery of who raped Lindy Simpson, underwhelming. The suspect likely would have been identified earlier, given the circumstantial evidence. I think Walsh expected his resolution to be dramatic and unexpected, but it wasn’t.

Overall, though, My Sunshine Away captured adolescence, with all of its inconsistencies, humiliations, passion and mystery, beautifully, and for that I really enjoyed it.

I listened to My Sunshine Away on audio. The narrator, Kirby Heyborne performed the book with a gravely, passionate voice that was perfect for the adult version of the narrator. I thought he did a great job and I highly recommend the audio.


MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

Whoa. Two weeks since my last post! Not good. My kids are back in school and I’ve been up late at night doing other stuff, I guess. I am halfway through two books – My Sunshine Away and Did You Ever Have A Family, so expect some reviews soon.

Meanwhile, I interrupted my adult reading to read our first Mother-Daughter Book Club book of the year: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. This book ended up on our club reading list because it was one of the summer reading recommendations from my daughters’ school. Mockingbird is about an 11 year-old girl, Caitlyn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Her beloved older brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, and her father, a widower, is deep in his own grief. Caitlyn is trying to process what happened to her brother and make it through the 5th grade with her limited emotional vocabulary, without a whole lot of support.

Mockingbird is a good middle-grade introduction to Asperger’s and spectrum disorders. Caitlyn’s syndrome manifests in a number of ways: she is extremely literal, she has trouble reading other people’s emotions through body language, she’s not empathetic, she hates loud noises and finds colors “messy”, and she likes memorization and definitions. Caitlyn’s school counselor spends a lot of time trying to get Caitlyn to make friends and understand how others are feeling. Over the course of the book, Caitlyn makes some progress on these fronts, and she and her father begin to connect and share in their grief.

Our book club conversation ended up changing my feelings about the book. One of the moms/daughters in our club has a family member with autism, and they explained that the book oversimplified several components of spectrum disorder and didn’t give an accurate picture of what someone with autism is really like. They took issue with some of the therapies Caitlyn’s counselor used to help her understand other people’s emotions, finding them patronizing and insulting. To be fair, Caitlyn has Asperger’s, which is high-functioning autism, and the author has a daughter with Asperger’s so she was clearly basing the character on her real-life experience. But my friend’s and her daughter’s reactions did color my view of the book. Also, I was bothered by the way that Caitlyn’s guidance counselor kept trying to “fix”or change her, rather than accepting Caitlyn for who she was and helping her navigate the world as Caitlyn.

The girls found Mockingbird to be very sad. They felt sorry for Caitlyn and her father, and were touched by the friendship Caitlyn developed with a younger boy who had also lost a family member in the same shooting. The book was appropriate for 5th-6th grade and held their attention. I found it very sad and compelling as I was reading it, but took issue with the end goal, which was to “fix” Caitlyn rather than work within her limitations.


Bennington Girls Are Easy by Charlotte Silver has a good premise: chronicle the friendship of two Bennington grads from their early twenties to their mid-thirties as they experience moving to New York City, meeting men, finding their professional footing, and navigating friendship as young adults instead of college students.

Sadly, Bennington Girls Are Easy did not live up to my expectations.

Let’s start with the positive. Silver is a good writer with a sharp sense of humor. I enjoyed her commentary about New York and its boroughs, particularly Brooklyn. She skewered trends, neighborhoods, even whole colleges in a pretty entertaining way. Silver also has a good handle on aging, in particular the erosion of the feeling of invincibility and dazzling youth as women approach 30. She also comes up with really funny names for her characters, like Bitsy Citron and Vicky Lalage:


And now the negative. The characters! They were vapid, self-absorbed, materialistic and uninteresting. All of them. It was impossible to care about any of these women. The two main characters had a falling out halfway through the book, and they were each just so awful to each other that I couldn’t bother to take a side. These women went to Bennington, and not a single one of them had a job, not to mention a career. One was at least entrepreneurial in her late 20s, launching a lemonade stand (!) in Brooklyn that she turned into a company that made seasonal locally-sourced jam, but even that business tanked after a few years.

I think the hardest thing for me to take was that these women showed so little evolution of their worldview over a decade. One character appeared to mature a little bit, showing some sense of self-awareness of her privileged place in the world, but her awareness quickly turned into bitterness and cynicism, her self-absorption intact.

I do want to give credit to Rachel Fulginiti, who did a masterful job with the audio version of Bennington Girls Are Easy. If it weren’t for her entertaining, breathy delivery, I would have given up on the book a long time ago. She made it much funnier and kept me going.

Bennington Girls Are Easy was not without its touching moments, but they were few and very far between. I was mostly annoyed as I read it, which is never a good sign. There’s probably a band of rich New Yorkers who would appreciate this book, seeing themselves in the WASPy characters who have very few cares in the world, but I think it is less palatable for a wider audience.