Category Archives: Fiction

THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM by Emily Culliton

So, someone in my neighborhood was recently found to have embezzled $35K over the last two years from the school-parent association at my son’s elementary school while serving as treasurer. I don’t know her – I don’t even know who she is, or even if she’s a she – but this development may have accelerated the rise of The Misfortune Of Marion Palm up my TBR list. Emily Culliton’s novel is about Marion Palm, a woman living in Brooklyn who goes on the lam after embezzling $180k from her daughters’ school.

This is an odd book. The story is told in a series of short chapters, told in the alternating viewpoints of Marion, her daughters Ginny and Jane, her husband Nathan, some of the people who work at the school and a detective who is investigating Marian’s departure. There is not a single likable character in this book, nor are they even relatable. Marion is oddly cold and unfeeling, admitting easily that she doesn’t miss her children after going underground. Nathan, her husband, is pretty pathetic until he launches a lifestyle blog about being a single dad, and then he’s just an opportunist. The daughters are cold and weird (and we see a glimpse of their future and it isn’t particularly bright). The school board members are gossipy and self-absorbed.

Culliton DID do a decent job of exploring how Marian started with the embezzling – and why she stuck with it – which was of course why I wanted to read the book. So that was satisfying. But I found the process of reading The Misfortune Of Marion Palm quite a slog. I wasn’t rooting for Marion or hoping she’d get away with the crime, because she was so unlikeable and didn’t have a plan of any sort for the money. Culliton has a sharp eye for detail and spares no one with her snark, but that didn’t make the story worth it for me.

I listened to The Misfortune of Marion Palm on audio. Narration by Saskia Maarleveld was fine, if a bit flat. She didn’t infuse much emotion into the characters, but it’s hard to fault her for that, given how they were written. Honestly, I just wanted to finish it and move on.

I’d be curious to hear from someone who liked The Misfortune of Marion Palm. There are a number of 5 star reviews on Goodreads so they are clearly out there. What did you like so much about this book?

 

THE LIGHT WE LOST by Jill Santopolo

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo is one of those books that I took with me – in hardcover – to walk the dog. That’s how involved I got in it.

Lucy and Gabriel meet on 9/11, when they are in an English seminar together during college. They share an intense moment from the roof of Gabe’s building as they watch lower Manhattan burn, an experience that will always bond them. There is the promise of a romantic relationship, but Gabe gets back together with an ex-girlfriend and they go their separate ways. A few years later, they meet up in a bar on Lucy’s birthday, and end up getting together for good.

This is the first serious, adult relationship for both of them, and Lucy moves in with Gabe after a few months. They are very happy together, even though Gabe, a photographer, is hinting at a desire to go abroad to capture conflict zones. Lucy is crushed when Gabe takes a job in Iraq, leaving her alone in Manhattan and walking away from their relationship.

A few months later, Lucy meets Darren, an investment banker who is older and more settled, and she ends up marrying him. But while she is happy with Darren, Gabe is never out of her mind entirely. The Light We Lost is about Lucy’s regret and second-guessing, her continued relationship with Gabe, and what happens when Gabe comes back into her life more consistently a few years into her marriage.

At first, I thought The Light We Lost was good, then I feared it was veering toward something more trite and juvenile, and then I got into it. Santopolo does a great job of conjuring those intense, 20-something relationships where the stakes feel enormous. Of course, time and perspective make those 20-something relationships seem a little, um, dramatic?… but it was fun to relive the intensity of that period for a little while. Were Lucy and Gabe really meant to be? Did they even know each other well enough to know for sure? Would their relationship have survived adult stressors like parenting and money and health problems? Who knows. But it was fun exploring the concept of a soul mate and lost loved and what we owe to others vs. our own happiness.

As Lucy says, “[W]hat I think you were saying, what you believed, is that you have to sacrifice. This love for that love. This piece of happiness for that one. It was a theory that shaped your decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The Light We Lost is not a perfect book but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

THE WINDFALL by Diksha Basu

The Windfall by Diksha Basu is about the Jhas, a middle-aged Indian couple in Delhi who move from their middle-class apartment and neighborhood to a fancy new house when Mr. Jha sells his website for a lot of money. They are sad to leave their old friends behind and experience some growing pains as they get used to a bigger house and being able to buy whatever they want, but Mr. Jha in particular is eager to show off his wealth to his new neighbors. Meanwhile, their son Rupak is failing out of graduate school in America and hiding his American girlfriend from his parents.

That’s pretty much the whole book, other than a subplot about a young widow (neighbor to the Jhas) who finds love with the brother of the Jhas’ new neighbors.

So, I *really* didn’t like The Windfall. The characters were vapid and materialistic, caring only about appearances and keeping up with the rich neighbors and impressing the old ones. They don’t talk about anything of substance, ever. There is one time when Mr. Jha seems to question the purpose of life to Mrs. Jha, but that lasts about 2 sentences and is over before she can even respond. Rupak is aimless, inconsiderate and lazy, and when he gets booted from Ithaca College for smoking dope, his parents welcome him back to India and seem almost proud that he’s back living on their dime, because it shows that they are rich enough to support him. He at least seems a little more introspective than his parents, who just bicker and whine at each other.

There was so much potential here – The Windfall could have been funny, incisive, biting, wry, or even just plain interesting – and it was none of those things. There was no tension or suspense, and one out-of-character meltdown right at the end of the book seemed totally implausible and out of place, rather than serving as some sort of dramatic peak.

I didn’t even get a good sense of Delhi from this book – just the fancy new neighborhood of Gurgaon and the Jha’s new sofa.

I listened to The Windfall on audio. Narration by Soneela Nankani was fine – she did different accents for different characters, particularly people of different social levels – but I wonder if her narration exacerbated my issues with the book. Even she seemed to be irritated by the characters. She probably could have toned the performance down a little bit, just to make it all seem a little less absurd, but I am not sure it would have redeemed the book for me.

Cute cover, at least.

 

MISS JANE by Brad Watson

Miss Jane by Brad Watson is a quiet book about a girl who raised in rural Mississippi in the beginning of the 20th century. Jane, the youngest of four kids, is born to older parents who are already in the midst of a growing frostiness and distance. What makes Jane’s birth noteworthy is that she is born with a genetic defect that causes her reproductive organs to be malformed. As a result of her condition, she suffers from incontinence, which will plague her throughout her whole life. Jane’s condition would be treatable through surgery today, but back then, it meant a solitary and nonsexual life for those who were born with it.

Miss Jane is based on the real life of Watson’s great-aunt, and he has done an impressive job of imagining what her life was like, both emotionally and physically. As a young child, she learns quickly that she is different from other girls. She is unable to attend school, but she’s inquisitive and smart, and learns instead from her parents’ farm and observing the nature around her. By the end of the book, Jane is an old woman whose life, while lonely and at times tragic, has elements of connection and fulfillment.

Watson is a sensuous writer, and Miss Jane is full of detail about the animals and nature found around Jane’s home. There is a lot of sexual imagery, in stark contrast to the chaste life Jane is forced to lead. Her closest confidante, the doctor who delivered her and who took a lifelong interest in her and her condition, was ironically infertile himself, making the two characters given the most attention and detail both unable to partake in the cycle of life Watson describes with such care.

Miss Jane is not intensely sad, but neither is it hopeful or upbeat. Jane accepts her lot in life and learns to find joy despite it, but at her core she’s a lonely person in a family of very unhappy people. I respect Watson’s ability to tell this story without pitying his protagonist, or encouraging his reader to do so – he walked a fine line and he did it well. I recommend Miss Jane for people who don’t need a happy ending to enjoy a book.

 

 

THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES by Siobhan Fallon

I became a big fan of Siobhan Fallon after reading her 2011 collection of stories, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which is about military families living on army bases in the U.S. Her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, came out this summer and I was eager to get my hands on it. It did not disappoint.

Cassie and Margaret are two American women living in Jordan while their husbands are stationed there. Cassie has lived in Jordan for a few years and knows the rules and expectations for expat wives. But she’s lonely in her marriage, frustrated by her inability to get pregnant and to connect with the other wives. When Margaret arrives, Cassie is happy to take her under her wing, spending time with her and her young son and teaching her how to comport herself in a Muslim country during the Arab spring.

Margaret is dealing with insecurities of her own, and living in Jordan is the first time she has ever been away from her claustrophobic home in Northern California, where she lived with her chronically ill mother. She wants to explore Jordan and make friends with the guards and the building superintendent, even though it is inappropriate for her to have contact with them. She is open and friendly and flirtatious, in stark contrast to Cassie’s tightly wound primness. Yet these two women become good friends and Margaret comes to depend on Cassie a lot.

But how well does Cassie really know Margaret? They get into a minor car accident one afternoon, and when Margaret has to drive to the police station to sort it out, she asks Cassie to stay with her son. The hours pass, and Margaret doesn’t return. Cassie, restless in the apartment waiting for Margaret to come back, discovers Margaret’s journal and discovers that there is a lot she didn’t know about her friend. The book teases out what’s really been going on in Margaret’s marriage, the tensions that have been growing between the two women, and the relationships that Margaret has been cultivating on the side.

I didn’t love The Confusion Of Languages as much as Fallon’s earlier book, but I liked it a lot. She is a great storyteller, maintaining tension throughout the book and building suspense. She’s also incisive and observant, just what you want in a novelist. I didn’t love the ending, but I enjoyed the ride quite a bit.  Give this one a try if you’re fascinated by military marriages (like I am) and want to be transported to a very foreign place.

DO NOT BECOME ALARMED by Maile Meloy

If you’re looking for a pure adrenaline read, Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy will definitely fit the bill. This summer novel book falls squarely into the Parent’s Worst Nightmare category of books, so be aware of what you’re getting yourself into if you pick it up.

Liv and Nora, two cousins living in LA, decide to go on a holiday cruise in Central America with their kids and families. They are very close, and their kids, who are roughly the same ages, are comfortable with and used to being together. While on the cruise, they befriend another couple from Argentina who have a teenage son and daughter.

After a few days of uneventful cruising, the three families decide to go onshore. The dads go off to play golf, while the moms and kids join a local guide who is to take them to a ropes course. It is at that point when things go off the tracks. The van going to the ropes course gets a flat tire, stranding them on a secluded road next to a beach. What happens next leads to all 6 kids being separated from their parents, whose nightmare has just started.

Needless to say, it’s a stressful read. It isn’t a mystery – the reader knows where the kids are the whole time – but the question of whether all the kids will safely find their way back to their parents looms over the whole book. The fact that one is diabetic and needs constant monitoring and insulin shots ratchets up the stress that much more.

Along the way, Meloy also explores the relationship between the two couples (and specifically the two moms), and the way they handle the situation vs the Argentine couple. There are a lot of parents trying to protect their kids throughout the book, but the American families have a lot more power than the non-American ones and enjoy a lot more leeway and support than the others.

Do Not Become Alarmed has gotten a lot of attention this summer, and I can see why. It’s well-written and totally engrossing. As for whether it’s enjoyable too, that’s another issue. Like most readers, I assume, I put myself in these parents’ shoes during the whole book and felt sick about the situation. So while I tore through the book, I was pretty anxious the whole time. There are also a few places where the plot verges on the unrealistic, which detracted from the overall novel.

If this sounds like your kind of read, go pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. If it sounds really unpleasant, then skip it.

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

I did not have Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman on my summer reading list, but I’ve heard good things about it all summer, and I saw it at the bookstore over vacation and bought it on impulse. It was supposed to be funny and quirky and I thought it would make a good summer read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is about Eleanor, a woman in her 30s in England with a difficult past. She leads a completely solitary life, spending from Friday to Monday in an alcohol-induced numbness to pass the days until she gets back to her unsatisfying job as an accountant. When the book opens, two things happen that shake Eleanor out of her strict routine. First, she goes to a show to hear a band (only because it was a work obligation), and falls in love with the lead singer, a man who is wildly inappropriate for her. And she meets the IT guy at her office when her computer stops working, and they end up becoming friends.

These two developments bring about two competing changes in Eleanor’s life. The friendship with the IT guy – her first real friendship, ever – gives Eleanor a glimpse of what a normal life is like, one in which she has worth and receives kindness, something she never got from her mother. But the crush on the singer, destined to fail from the start, sends her into a tailspin that threatens to undermine the parallel positive developments in her life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is not a light, quirky book, as I suspected. It is a much darker, more serious read about the impact of deep, emotional abuse. Eleanor is difficult and thorny and unable to relate to people, but it’s not her fault. As Honeyman unpeels the layers of Eleanor’s mind, you start to appreciate just how traumatized she is. There is progress and positivity, but it’s a difficult road to get there. Thankfully, there is also a lot of humor in the book to help ease the way.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is one of those books that I find myself flashing back to often, which to me is always the sign of a good book. I am glad I gave in to the impulse at the bookstore.

I came across this interview with Gail Honeyman today, which I enjoyed. Great quote: “What I wanted to highlight in the book was simply the importance of kindness, to show that we often have no idea of the burdens the people around us are shouldering, and that the smallest acts — tiny, everyday kindnesses — can be completely transformative for the right person at the right time.”