Category Archives: Fiction

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is the latest novel from Celeste Ng, who wrote the popular Everything I Never Told You (reviewed here) in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in idyllic Shaker Heights, OH, where Elena Richardson lives with her husband Bill and four kids, Tripp, Lexie, Moody and Izzy. The Richardsons are well off – they have a big house and their kids drive fancy cars, do lots of activities and apply to Ivy League schools.  When the book opens, someone has set fire to the Richardson house, and everyone suspects Izzy. But why?

Izzy’s anger at her mother – building for years – is stoked when Elena leases a small rental house the family owns to a mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl, who move to town with few belongings under a shroud of mystery. Elena is immediately suspicious of Mia, an artist who has lived her life on the move and who embraces none of the traditional trappings that Elena has always sought. Mia and Pearl’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the Richardsons’ when Mia starts cleaning their house and Pearl becomes close with three of the four siblings. Izzy, meanwhile, is drawn to Mia and becomes an apprentice of sorts to her, which drives a wedge even further between her and her mother.

Ng is a good storyteller, letting the connections between the two families slowly grow deeper as the pages turn. There is a side plot involving the adoption of an abandoned Chinese baby by a white family, but while I expected that story to be more central to the novel, it wasn’t. Elena and Mia wind up on opposite sides of the controversy over the adoption, but the real story here is about the relationship between the two families.

Little Fires Everywhere has been very well-received, but I have to admit that I didn’t love it. There were too many neat parallels involving motherhood and pregnancy for the story to remain plausible to me. Elena – a reporter – got access, often too conveniently, to information that she shouldn’t have known, and everything ultimately got resolved too abruptly and dramatically in the end. Some of the characters became more one-dimensional over time, particularly Elena, making them less sympathetic and the story less complex. So while I enjoyed the process of the story unfolding, I found in the end that it lacked substance. I didn’t take away much from the book.

I listened to Little Fires Everywhere on audio. Jennifer Lim’s narration was precise and empathetic, though at times a little too upbeat for the subject matter. But she moved the story along nicely, and the hours went by quickly. I just wished the promise of the story had held up throughout the book.

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney is about Frances, a 21 year-old in Dublin who has recently broken up with her girlfriend Bobbi and has an affair with an older, married man, Nick, who is half of a couple that Frances and Bobbi befriend when the wife, Melissa, gets interested in Frances and Bobbi’s spoken poetry. That is pretty much all that happens. There is a lot of talking and texting and thinking. Frances and Bobbi fight and make up a few times, and there is drama when Melissa learns of the affair. (Strangely, the foursome continues to socialize even after Melissa finds out, which I had a hard time accepting.) Frances is rather cold, and she communicates with Nick with varying degrees of honesty and candor, depending on how vulnerable she is willing to feel. Nick is weak and insecure despite his good looks, and he can’t make up his mind about what he wants.

I don’t quite get the hubbub over Conversations With Friends. I credit Rooney for her sharp writing and very accurate depiction of emotions, particularly twentysomething emotions when inappropriate relationships are involved. She definitely nailed that. But as a novel, it was disappointing. All that time spent on one relationship between two relatively uncompelling people! I never felt emotionally invested in this story and it took me much longer to read than it should have. I also think Frances and Bobbi acted more like people in their mid- to late 20s, not 21 year-olds.

A good friend of mine really enjoyed Conversations With Friends. I am going to give (not quite) equal time to the opposing viewpoint and include the text she sent me last week when I told her that I wasn’t loving the book: “It’s more of a series of conversations.  Musings than a story. I love the way she captures the mindset of that age woman. And how the male character unfolds. Literally.”

Totally fair. The musings are real and relatable, and some of Frances’ actions and thoughts definitely brought me back to my own 20s. For me, though, the narrowness of the story and self-absorption of the characters held me back from really engaging with it.

 

JILLIAN by Halle Butler

Jillian is a strange, dark little book about two unhappy women and their parallel unravelings. Megan is in her mid 20s and works as an admin in a gastroenterologist’s office scheduling appointments and reviewing colonoscopy films. Her co-worker, Jillian, is a single mom in her 30s with toddler. Megan is depressed and moody, and she is judgmental of everyone around her, especially people who are more pulled together than she is. Jillian, on the other hand, wears an upbeat mask to hide her inner desperation. She is in desperate financial straits, and when her car is possessed because her license is expired, she finds herself even deeper in a hole. Nevertheless, she adopts a dog – probably the worst decision she could make given the situation she’s in.

Megan’s coldness and lack of enthusiasm are beyond frustrating to Jillian, who shares everything with Megan, hoping to get some sort of affirmation. Meanwhile, Megan is fixated on Jillian and how ridiculous she is. Megan dulls her pain on the weekends with beer and weed, while Jillian fabricates a car accident, obtains prescription painkillers for her phantom back pain, and takes them to escape the reality of her life.

Not much happens in Jillian. Megan goes to parties on the weekend with her boyfriend, gets drunk, and one by one alienates their group of friends with her bitterness and criticism. While high, Jillian alienates the one person who was helping her – a friend from church who drives her son to daycare when Jillian can’t – thus cutting off her one lifeline. In the end, there is no redemption for either woman, nor does either of them gain a greater understanding of or appreciation for the other.

But Jillian is still a worthwhile read. It’s definitely mean, but it’s a funny, dark meanness that most of us can probably, sadly, relate to. Kirkus Reviews says that Jillian has “a degree of compelling, train-wreck allure” and that “[i]t offers up its characters for hatred and ridicule with such energy, obsessive detail and hopelessness that the reader can’t help but read on”. Yes, totally. You’re not going to feel great after reading Jillian, but you’ll laugh and be horrified and will want to tell your best friend all about it.

You have to be in the right mood to read Jillian. If it doesn’t sound appealing after reading this review, maybe save it for later.

 

 

 

THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

I bought The Circle by Dave Eggers when it came out in 2013, read about 25 pages of it, and set it aside. No reason, really – I was intrigued by the premise and, as a social media professional, it was definitely up my alley. Fast forward 4 years to when my daughter saw the preview for the movie this summer and got interested in it. I suggested she read the book first, so she did, and then I picked it back up and finished it.

The Circle is about a fictional social media/search technology company called The Circle, which is basically an amalgamation of Facebook and Google. Mae Holland, who lives in the Bay Area with her parents and works in customer service at a utility company, gets an interview at The Circle, set up by a close friend from college named Annie, who is an executive there. Mae gets the job, and her orientation at The Circle takes the reader into the cult-like campus, where thousands of employees enjoy benefits like yoga, free medical care, meals, concerts, lectures, trampolines, dorm rooms  – the list goes on. Mae is initially reluctant to embrace the full Circle culture, with its forced engagement and interactions, but before long she moves up the ranks in Customer Experience, is noticed and lauded by the company’s founders, and gets drawn into the company’s philosophy of sharing, connection and ubiquity.

Mae’s parents and her ex-boyfriend provide the foils for Mae, who becomes increasingly blind to the perils of a private company owning data and access to pretty much all of our everyday lives. Her father has MS, and when the book opens he and his wife spend most of their time dealing with his illness and fighting with insurance companies about treatment coverage. Mae is able to get him on the Circle health plan in exchange for data about his condition, and her parents are unwillingly co-opted into sharing their lives via cameras placed in their homes. This goes badly, of course, souring them on the Circle and estranging them from their daughter despite their dependence on the medical care.

The Circle is a relevant and timely warning about the intrusive dangers of technology (lack of privacy!) and our growing dependence on affirmation, streams of real-time information and “connection” (however superficial), mostly created by the social networks that have become intrinsic to so many of our lives. While The Circle dreams up some extreme scenarios (requiring everyone to have a Circle account to be able to vote; installing tiny cameras all over the world that can be accessed by anyone; pressuring politicians to go “completely transparent” through real-time monitoring), we’ve edged even closer in 2017 to what’s going on in this book than when it came out. I am not a social media critic – in fact, much of my career has been spent devoted to social media – but I can certainly appreciate its dark side. Eggers’ book is not a subtle one (at all), but it’s a meaningful one and I am glad I read it. This stuff can be scary, and given the political climate we’re in right now, the negative implications for the technology Eggers described are staggering.

I suspect that most people who wanted to read The Circle have done so already. What did you think of it?

My daughter and I are halfway through the movie, and I’ll report back with a book vs. movie post when we finish it.

STAY WITH ME by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo is a moving novel about a marriage tested and strained by infertility, secrets and the pressure of tradition. When the book opens, Yejide and Akin, a modern Nigerian couple who met at college, are in love and have a respectful marriage of equals. After several years of marriage, Yejide is not pregnant, and Akin’s family pressures him to take a second wife to produce a child, even though he promised Yejide that she would always be his only wife. The introduction of that wife, Funmi, sets into motion a chain of events that does lead to pregnancy, but also brings heartbreak and tragedy.

There are layers of secrets and betrayals to be revealed, the cumulative effects of which drive a wedge between Akin and Yejide that causes them to separate for a decade (which is made clear in the first chapter). This is a terribly sad story, with two people who love each other deeply but who are also desperate to get what they want as well, by whatever means necessary. Ultimately, this modern couple cannot escape tradition – the traditional pressures to have children, the looming spectre of polygamy, even the genetic disease that Yejide carries – and that pull of tradition dooms them.

Adebayo is a masterful storyteller. The book took some turns I didn’t expect, and her slow revealing of Yejide and Akin’s history was enthralling. But I often had the sensation of being in a downward spiraling eddy, as things got worse and worse with little hope of redemption. I kept wanting things to get righted, and they don’t.

I listened to Stay With Me on audio. The narration by Adjoa Andoh was just perfect –  so many accents, dialects, tones, moods, each done beautifully. I really enjoyed the performance and felt that it really enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the book.

Stay With Me has gotten a lot of acclaim this year, and rightly so. I recommend it – just be emotionally ready for it.

 

THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE by Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind Of People looks at what happens when a respected father, husband and teacher in an affluent suburb is accused of sexual misconduct with students at his school. George Woodbury is arrested and put in jail while awaiting trial, leaving his shocked wife, daughter and son to carry on as they wonder whether he is guilty of the crimes of which he’s been accused.

I got sucked into The Best Kind Of People early on, as the Woodburys’ lives unravel and each one breaks under the stress of the accusations. Wife Joan tries to be strong for her kids, but her faith and trust in her husband are deeply shaken as she comes to terms with her own doubts about his innocence. Daughter Sadie, a senior in high school, is ostracized by her classmates and turns to marijuana and a crush on an older man to escape her own disappointment in her father. And son Andrew, who has moved away and become a lawyer in Manhattan, has his own demons to wrestle with as his visits home to see his mother unearth painful memories of being a closeted teen. The book raises the question of how well we know the people we love, and what secrets might they be keeping? How would we react if we learned those secrets? Could we forgive them?

The Best Kind Of People had promise but ultimately didn’t live up to its potential. I found some of it to be pretty unrealistic, such as a subplot where the boyfriend of Sadie’s boyfriend’s mother decides to write a novel about the scandal and barely conceals Sadie’s identity as one of the characters. (Who would do that?) Some threads were picked up and dropped with no resolution, like that involving Andrew and his former coach and secret boyfriend. And the group of women (!) who defended George unconditionally and blamed the teenage victims was a little hard to take.

The resolution of George’s guilt was rushed and confusing, as it ignored several of the original complaints against him with no explanation.

My verdict: strong start with an intriguing premise, but too many holes, unanswered questions and unrealistic characters. It was a quick read that kept my attention but it ultimately didn’t hang together well and came to an unsatisfying conclusion.

I listened to The Best Kind Of People on audio, with narration by Cassandra Campbell. Campbell as always does a good job of differentiating voices and creating dramatic tension in her storytelling. I have written before that she tends to over-enunciate certain words, and this time was no exception, which I found a little distracting. I also don’t love her portrayal of moms – they always seem nagging and manic. But like I said, this audiobook kept me interested and entertained.

THE GRAYBAR HOTEL by Curtis Dawkins

The Graybar Hotel is a collection of stories by Curtis Dawkins, a convict in Michigan who is serving a life sentence. The stories revolve around many dimensions of prison life: the monotony, the close proximity to a rotating series of cellmates, the capriciousness of guards and wardens, the hours on end spent regretting and rethinking, and the attempts, often futile, to cling to one’s few diversions and possessions. Dawkins has an MFA, as evidenced by his strong writing, command of detail and compelling storytelling. The stories are powerful and disturbing, as they reveal perspectives on prison that people on the outside rarely see or even think about.

One story is about the physical transition from a jail to a prison, with the inmates in the transport wondering whether life will be better at the next place. Another is about one prisoner who’s a compulsive liar, but who gets his revenge when his cellmate calls him out on the lies. Another shows how much two baseball teams mean to an inmate – his beloved Detroit Tigers, whose games he watches every night, and the baseball team he creates within the prison until a prison fight puts an ends to their games.

There isn’t a lot of violence or tension; rather it’s the tedium of life in prison and the loneliness of the inmates that make the biggest impression. Friendships are fleeting, because prisoners are often moved without warning. Yet these men are in the closest of quarters, thrust into situations that they have no control over and often must suffer through with no relief.

That Dawkins is himself an inmate who has undoubtedly lived through most of these experiences makes The Graybar Hotel even more poignant. Dawkins doesn’t excuse his actions or blame anyone else for his situation. He has found an outlet and a purpose in writing about his experience, and I hope that it brings him some solace to know that there are readers out there who are hearing his voice. The Graybar Hotel is difficult to read at times, but it was illuminating and quite moving.