Category Archives: Fiction

THE ARRANGEMENT by Sarah Dunn

A new novel out from Sarah Dunn is always reason to celebrate, and I was definitely excited to read The Arrangement after really enjoying her earlier novels The Big Love and Secrets to Happiness (click to read my reviews). The Arrangement has an intriguing premise: a suburban couple, Lucy and Owen, with an autistic 5 year-old and a happy if boring marriage, decide to liven things up by opening their marriage for 6 months. They agree to certain ground rules: no questions asked, no one they know, and no falling in love. What can go wrong?

The Arrangement is a smart, funny and well-written book. Dunn has a good sense of humor and an even better sense of what it’s like to be a suburban middle-aged parent, especially to a special needs child (she has one herself). Beekman, NY, where Lucy and Owen live, appears to be an idyllic destination for parents reluctantly leaving Brooklyn, but it’s a small town with its own share of tensions and pressures. And Lucy and Owen’s marriage, while not perfect, is a familiar one. They are pretty exhausted, with little emotional time for each other.

I loved this passage about how Lucy has given up certain (optional?) aspects of her life over time:

Perfect.

Dunn’s characters are memorable, from the eccentric billionaire in Beekman on his third wife, to the partners Lucy and Owen decide to spend “the arrangement” with, to the town’s transgender kindergarten teacher. Dunn is insightful and empathetic, and I laughed out loud and nodded in recognition often while reading The Arrangement.

Sarah Dunn is three for three, in my opinion. When is her next book coming out?

SECRET DAUGHTER by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is an interesting, if joyless, novel about two mothers: Kavita, a poor Indian woman whose first two children are daughters whom her husband does not let her keep, and Somer, a white doctor in Northern California who adopts a daughter from India after going into early menopause. Kavita’s first daughter was taken away at birth and never seen again (presumably killed by her husband’s cousin), and she took her second daughter, Usha, to an orphanage in Bombay. Somer, whose husband’s family is wealthy and lives in Bombay, ends up adopting Usha, whose name is changed to Asha. Asha returns with her parents to Northern California, where she grows up in privilege, in stark contrast to her birth parents’ poverty in India.

I liked the story told in Secret Daughter – lots of detail about Bombay, the slums, being female in India and how hard it is to make a living there if you start out poor. Kavita’s relationship with her husband somehow survived her deep anger at him, though she never recovered from the loss of her girls. Somer’s marriage had its own issues, such as Somer’s feeling of alienation from her Indian daughter and husband and her inability to connect to Asha. The book alternates between Kavita and Somer, Bombay and California, until Asha travels to India during college on a journalism fellowship and spends a year living with her grandparents and researching life in the slums. She also decides to look for her birth parents, traveling to the orphanage where she was born to identify them and track them down.

However, Secret Daughter was unfortunately too superficial and simplistic for me. There were moments when the characters seemed to show complexity – particularly Asha – but overall they were pretty shallow and two-dimensional. For the most part, they are sad and dissatisfied, with few moments of joy. The book spanned a lot of time and distance, with jumps that thinned the story out. And the prose was serviceable but not memorable. I never knew about this book when it came out in 2011, but it was apparently a popular book club choice. It’s basically mass-market women’s fiction – engaging enough but nothing really remarkable other than the subject matter.

I’m not sorry I read Secret Daughter. I was glad to get outside the U.S. and it was a memorable story. If you decide to pick it up, though, just know what you’re getting.

 

PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson is not a perfect book, but it’s a really interesting one. It’s about a 19 year-old woman named Izzy who gets pregnant on the eve of her high school graduation. The father is her art teacher, and when she tells him she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby, he has a breakdown and tells her he doesn’t want her to keep it. The teacher’s rich parents, who learn of the pregnancy and want to get Izzy out of the picture, connect her with a new social experiment funded by a very wealthy friend of theirs. In this experiment, ten families with newborns will move into a state of the art group home complex to have the babies raised communally, with all of the advantages they could ever want, to see whether such an upbringing has a significant impact on child development. Determined to have the baby, broke, and with no family to support her, Izzy decides to join the project.

The Infinite Family Project, as it’s called, requires its participants to commit to ten years in residency. The children are not told until their 5th birthday who their biological parents are, and at that time they move in with their parents instead of living in the communal setting. Most of the book is told through the eyes of Izzy, the only single parent there.

Perfect Little World raises a lot of questions about parenting and identity, as these parents grapple with the instinct to be close to their own children despite their commitment to them all. But I think that the book could have gone deeper. Wilson’s parents face a number of challenges – such as some infidelity among the group or differences in theories of discipline – but they are dealt with quickly. With 19 parents involved, realistically there would be more conflict and disagreement about how the children should be raised. And I didn’t feel that I got to know most of the characters other than Izzy and Dr. Grind, the head of the project, very well at all. A few stood out, but most were indistinct. I wanted more dynamics, more conflict, more there there. It also took a long time to get to the project – there’s a lot of setup as Izzy’s circumstances are established – but then the treatment of the project is disappointingly shallow.

Strangely, my issues with Perfect Little World arose after I read it, when I started thinking about what to write in this post. I actually enjoyed the book a lot while I was reading it. Wilson is a good writer: he’s funny, sharply observant, and occasionally gently mocking of the preciousness of the Infinite Family Project. But he has a lot of empathy for his characters, despite the bad decisions some of them make.

My enjoyment of Perfect Little World was undoubtedly enhanced by the exquisite narration of Therese Plummer. Plummer is one of my favorite narrators of all time. She never hits a false note, and her narration seems to be imbued with deep respect for the work she’s performing. She differentiates her characters beautifully, and she gets both male and female characters equally right. From the 80 year-old project benefactor to Izzy’s redneck enemy in the complex, Plummer gave them each a distinctive, memorable voice that was just pitch perfect. It was a pleasure to listen to Perfect Little World on audio. It sounded like Plummer was having a good time too.

Despite its shortcomings, Perfect Little World was worth the time. I wanted more from it, but I did enjoy what I got.

 

 

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH by Lindsey Lee Johnson

One buzzy book this winter was The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson. It’s about a high school in Mill Valley in Marin County, CA, and the very privileged kids who go there. When the book opens, the kids are in eighth grade, and one of them makes a very passionate pronouncement of love to another one. His letter was made public by the recipient, and after the relentless teasing and bullying that ensued, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Three years later, the kids are juniors and still dealing with the ramifications of the suicide.

Each chapter basically focuses on a different character, and by the end, the reader has a pretty good sense of the whole group, as well as some of their teachers. For the most part, the kids are privileged, entitled, indifferent and spoiled, with little respect for their teachers or even each other. There are overachievers (intense ballerinas and academic stars) as well as hippies, drug dealers, misogynistic athletes and thugs. Their parents are either neglectful or cloying. Johnson does manage to show other sides of these kids, eventually, but in the end it’s hard to find a redeeming person in the whole book.

What I liked:

  • Beautiful writing
  • Realistic incorporation of social media and other realities of teenage life today
  • Good pacing

What I didn’t:

  • Overall, it was pretty superficial.
  • Characters were rarely revisited (one simply disappears altogether) so there isn’t much continuity
  • Adults were very disappointing, as were parent-child relationships
  • The kids never learned lessons or changed their ways; some of them got worse over time

I kind of wonder what the author’s point was. To make us all despondent over the fate of humanity, if these kids represent our future? To try to get to the heart of teenagers? To shame us into better parenting? I’m not sure.

I’d read more by Lindsey Lee Johnson just because of her writing, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Place On Earth on audio. It was narrated by veteran narrator Cassandra Campbell. She did an excellent job with the voices, differentiating them for each kid and sounding as natural with the boys as she did with the girls, which isn’t always the case with narration. She’s precise and easy to listen to, and and she moved the story along nicely. It’s funny – I just looked up books that she has narrated and many of them are sitting on my bookshelf. I know I’ve listened to other Cassandra Campbell performances but I can’t remember which they were.

Others seemed to have enjoyed The Most Dangerous Place On Earth more than I did. If you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.

 

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is about a large African-American family in Detroit. Viola and Francis Turner lived on Yarrow Street in Detroit for fifty years, where they raised 13 children and saw the neighborhood turn from vibrant to dilapidated. Francis is now dead, and Viola, in ailing health, lives with her oldest son, Cha Cha, in the suburbs. The house is still standing, though, and Viola owes more money on the mortgage than the house is worth. The question of what to do with the house sets the plot of The Turner House in motion, as the Turner siblings deal with their own feelings about the house, their parents, their siblings, and the state of their lives.

I had heard good things about The Turner House before I picked it up, and in theory, I should have liked it. It’s about a large sprawling family, told from shifting points of view, with complex relationships between siblings. But honestly, I found it pretty boring. There’s a large subplot about the haints, or ghosts, which have plagued Cha Cha since he was a teenager. I couldn’t really get into it. I enjoyed following Lela’s story, the youngest sister who has a gambling problem. But that wasn’t enough to save this book for me. I slogged through it and was happy when it was done. Too many siblings, many of whom never got any airtime or distinguished themselves from the others. Too little resolution – we don’t even find out what ultimately happens to the house in the end. And frankly, not enough conflict. The family is big and messy but they basically all get along and no one really does anything too terrible.

I would have enjoyed hearing more about growing up with 12 siblings and how it impacted each of the kids. I would have enjoyed hearing about what meals were like, what doing homework was like in a small house with 15 people in it.  Instead, I had only a shadowy sense of this family, and way too much information about Cha Cha and the haints.

I listened to The Turner House on audio. It was narrated competently Adenrele Ojo. She did a good job differentiating the featured siblings and I liked her voice and narration. But she couldn’t save a boring, meandering plot.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Turner House. Based on the reviews I read, a lot of people enjoyed it. It just wasn’t for me.

 

 

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF MRS. SHARMA by Ratika Kapur

Life is a bit crazy right now, as evidenced by my ONE post in February. (One!) My reading has slowed down considerably, but I did manage to finish two books after The Girls, and I want to post about them before too much time goes by.

The first was The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma, by Ratika Kapur. It’s about Renu, an Indian woman in her late 30s who lives with her son and in-laws in an apartment in Delhi. Her husband is working remotely in Dubai in order to make more money, while Renu works in a doctor’s office in Delhi to help support the family. She’s a modern woman by Indian standards – she works outside the home and has a fair amount of freedom – yet she is traditional in that she dotes on her son, lives with her husband’s parents, does most of the housekeeping, cleaning and nurturing, and has rather old-fashioned views about how marriage works.

One day, Renu meets a young man named Vineet on the train, and instead of telling him that she is married, she strikes up a friendship with him. They spend time together on a regular basis when her son is in school. It starts as a platonic friendship, an escape for Renu to fill her lonely hours. The book is written as Renu’s private inner dialogue, and she comes across as chaste and naive as she spends time with Vineet – but justifies it as something she deserves because her husband is away and her son needs her less. Of course, Renu is not as innocent as she portrays herself, and before long things have progressed into a dangerous zone, with their relationship turning physical and her ability to keep her two lives separate in jeopardy.

The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma is about the collision of old and modern, as well as freedom and responsibility. Kapur’s language is strikingly simple – almost childlike – yet also formal and sort of indignant. (More contradictions!) I can’t settle on how I felt about it, or about Renu – despite her selflessness and devotion to her family, she was also immature and selfish, caring little about the desires of others.

And there’s a surprise ending which seemed really out of place.

So this was a mixed bag for me. I liked that it was set in India, and it was an easy, engrossing read that effectively explored some of the tensions in modern middle class Indian society. But the protagonist was frustrating, the language almost claustrophobia-inducing at times, and the ending was jarring.

How’s that for non-committal?

More posts coming, I promise.

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, which was one of the hot books of 2016 that got big advances and lots of attention. The Girls is about a summer in the late 60s when a teenager named Evie got involved with a group of other young women living on a ranch under the thrall of a charismatic musician named Russell. The reader learns early on that, at Russell’s direction, members of the group committed a quadruple murder in California (an act based on the Manson murders). The Girls explores how Evie got involved with the group and how that involvement reverberates through her life for decades to come.

First, I will say that Emma Cline is a beautiful writer.  She has a way of describing rooms, scenes, people, actions that make you feel as if you’re seeing it unfold right before you in vivid, sensual detail. I’ve seen some people criticize this book as too flowery, but I thought the writing was its greatest strength.

Clines’s storytelling is not quite as strong. I suspect she looked up “why do people join cults?” and then created a story to satisfy each of the criteria that can lead to susceptibility to cult leaders like Russell. Evie’s parents were separated; her best friend turned on her; she was rejected by the boy she liked; she was bored. Cline sets up Evie’s involvement with the cult perfectly on paper, but I was never really convinced of it in action. Evie’s devotion to Russell and his clan is also premised on her love for Suzanne, one of the girls in the group. Her infatuation with Suzanne is what brings her back to the ranch, over and over, and what landed her in the car with the others when they headed out on the night of the murders. But I didn’t really believe in the ardor, the passion that Evie had for Suzanne, who was basically a hippie from a rich family who stole from strangers and passed her hours stoned and disconnected.

Without a really convincing reason at its core for Evie to lose herself in Russell and his hippie ranch dwellers, The Girls loses its import. Why tell this story, after all? I wanted more – more of Suzanne, more of Evie’s loss of objectivity and judgment. As written, it’s a beautifully told story without a lot of substance.

I listened to The Girls on audio, mostly, and it was one of the rare times where I thought the audiobook detracted from the experience of the book. The narration by Cady McClain was fine; it’s just that Cline’s writing – almost poetic at times – was easy to miss on audio. I found myself re-reading passages in print to make sure that I fully appreciated her imagery and descriptions. I’d recommend the print over the audio for this one.

Was The Girls worth a $2 million advance? I don’t think so. It’s good, but not that good.