CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is not unlike her earlier books: full of sad, lonely characters who have suffered cruel twists of fate trying to find happiness in challenging circumstances. In this most recent novel, 16 year-old Lucy has run off with her 30 year-old teacher William, a hippie who has been fired for not adhering to the traditional curriculum. It’s the 60s, and William’s talk of running away to be free and in love persuades the immature teenager to leave her sister Charlotte and her much older adoptive mother, Iris. Unsurprisingly, life in the small rural town William takes Lucy to is isolating and boring, while he goes off to work every day but forbids her from talking to anyone or contacting her family because she is underage.

Cruel Beautiful World is a bit of a thriller – what will happen to Lucy? can she escape from angry, controlling William? When it doesn’t all go as planned, who will find out, and will justice be served? Interspersed with Lucy’s story are the offshoot stories of Iris, Charlotte, and Patrick, a widower whom Lucy secretly befriends during her long, lonely days. I enjoyed the explorations of these characters, and I think that is where Leavitt is at her strongest. She takes her time explaining how her characters became the people they are, and she imbues them each with dignity, empathy and just enough hope to keep the reader invested.

The story of Lucy and William was much more problematic for me. William is a child predator: emotionally abusive and unconscionably selfish. I know that Leavitt intends for the reader to understand that about him – in interviews, she said she based him on a real-life controlling partner – but shockingly, she sort of lets him off the hook in the end. It’s as if she wants the reader to wonder if he were really that bad. (!)  (Yes, he was.) Also, I found it unrealistic that Lucy would have kept silent for so long. She had opportunities for escape and didn’t take them. I wasn’t convinced enough of her love for (or fear of ) William that she would have stayed with him that long. She was immature and selfish herself, and I think in the end she would have just done what she wanted.

So Cruel Beautiful World was a mixed bag for me. I loved the classic Leavitt touches but found the underlying plot problematic.

I listened to Cruel Beautiful World on audio. Xe Sands did a masterful, restrained performance, especially during the Iris chapters. Her smooth, understated delivery was perfect for the book. I did wonder whether she was as frustrated with the main characters as I was!

 

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

Our mother-daughter book club read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for our most recent meeting. It’s about Junior, a dorky teenager living on an Indian reservation who makes the unprecedented move of transferring from his reservation high school to an all-white school 22 miles away. Like most of the people who live on the reservation, Junior is very poor. He has attended 42 funerals in his short life, most due to alcohol-related accidents and diseases. His parents are loving, but his father is an alcoholic and neither parent is capable of providing Junior with much support, emotional or financial.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about Junior’s attempt to fit in at his new school, among the rich white kids who have iPods and cars and three pairs of jeans, while maintaining his relationships back on the reservation, where he is deeply resented for his “desertion” of the tribe and pursuit of success. It’s funny, wry and very easy to read, but it’s not a light book. Alexie tackles racism, poverty, alcoholism, bullying, serious health issues and depression in the book, and it can be depressing. But Junior has hope that he can improve his life, and that he can rise above his childhood and succeed. He finds the good among the rich kids at the new school, and he forgives his old friends who turn on him when he returns to his old high school for a basketball game. He recognizes his parents’ limitations, but he loves them anyway.

I really liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just more depressing. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons featured throughout the book are poignant and funny at the same time. The girls in book club were moved by the condition of the reservation and the lack of hope so many of its residents felt. They were struck by how few options Native Americans have to improve their lives.

I recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a range of ages. Definitely worth a read.

Podcast: Memorial Day Weekend New Releases

I am a little behind on reviews – have two to write. I’ve been reading, just not reviewing! Soon to come: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt.

If you’re looking for new books for Memorial Day weekend, Nicole and I have a brand new Readerly podcast out with lots of irresistible new releases. Check it out (and if you like what you hear, please subscribe and/or leave us a review!)

 

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

Catching Up On The Readerly Report

Nicole Bonia and I have increased the frequency of our Readerly Report podcast episodes… have you checked the show out recently? Last week we posted an episode about the most disturbing books we’ve ever read, and each month we also discuss new releases that have caught our eye and books we’ve recently finished. Please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and if you like what you hear, leave us a review. If you have ideas for future episodes, we’d love to hear those too!

Thanks, and happy listening!

ALL GROWN UP by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up is about Andrea Bern, a woman in her early 40s who is childless and single. She had planned to be an artist, and still paints occasionally, but gave up in her 20s and now works in advertising and lives in Brooklyn.

Andrea is definitely messy – self-absorbed and immature, yet also funny and self-deprecating. She asserts that she wants neither a husband nor children, yet also laments her single status and complains about being lonely. She is close with her mother and brother, but when her brother and his wife have a daughter with severe health issues, she is incapable of providing any of them them the support they need to help live with their daughter’s round-the-clock needs.

I enjoyed the structure of the book – the chapters jumped around chronologically, with each chapter named for a woman who had some impact on Andrea’s life. Events that were explored in detail in one chapter were mentioned in passing on others, which I liked once I got used to it. I like Attenberg’s writing, which, like in The Middlesteins, is wry and observant.

But in the end, All Grown Up, left me cold. Andrea routinely sabotaged herself and her relationships, and she was so rarely empathetic or supportive that I just didn’t like her much. She could be generous, but only with money, rarely with her feelings.

All Grown Up was moderately entertaining while I read it, but I have not thought about it once in the week since I finished it. Just not much there.

 

 

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?