Tag Archives: fiction

INNOCENTS AND OTHERS by Dana Spiotta

9781501122729 (1)Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a hot book these days, so I thought I’d give it a try and grabbed it from the library. It’s the story of three women: Meadow and Carrie – both filmmakers, who were best friends growing up in LA – and Jelly, a woman living in upstate New York who contacted powerful men in Hollywood as a hobby and engaged in longterm phone relationships with them under an assumed name. (Jelly is based on a real-life woman named Miranda Grosvenor (not her real name) who engaged in similar catfishing of famous men.) Innocents and Others tracks Meadow and Carrie’s careers and friendship, and weaves in Jelly’s story so that it intersects with Meadow’s as well.

Here’s what Innocents and Others has:

-A close female friendship where both women work in the same field, with the expected ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, but abiding love and respect

-A fascinating look at a woman who is so afraid of real connection that she spends her days hiding behind a fake identity and living through the movies

-An exploration of the responsibility of a filmmaker to pass judgment on her subject (or at least acknowledge wrongdoing). Is it wrong, for example, for a documentarian to focus on the perpetrators of massive crimes against humanity (Argentine executioners who adopted the children of their victims) rather than on the victims, to try to understand who they were?

-A variety of narrative devices, such as transcripts, lists of movies, interviews, essays

-A lot about movies and the study of filmmaking

I mostly enjoyed reading Innocents and Others, but it’s also one of those books that made me feel like I wasn’t smart enough to really get it. Maybe it was the passages about the history of cinema or the mechanics of filmmaking – those are not areas I know a lot about and I ended up skimming a fair amount of them. But I did enjoy the rest of it. I like Spiotta’s writing – a little detached but wonderfully detailed about the things that matter. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the parts about friendship and connection more than those about filmmaking.

I went to a reading by Spiotta last week at Politics & Prose here in DC in the hopes that hearing her speak would enhance my understanding of the book, and it did. Here’s what she had to say:

-What does she like about writing? Having questions and trying to figure them out through writing. Just like reading, writing brings joy when you feel the self go away and you can imagine other experiences and have connections, even if you’re making them yourself.

Innocents and Others is full of connections and discovery through the imaginary and the observational.

-Jelly, Meadow and Claire are all strange women. Reading fiction can make our own experiences more clear (?).

-Spiotta is interested in outdated technologies, like landlines. How funny that you would pick up the phone and there would be a stranger there! We hate the phone now – there is something intimate and intrusive about being called on the phone rather than being texted. Using landlines in the book established a “slight location to the recent past” so that we could see it more clearly and precisely.

Innocents and Others also follows the theme of listening vs looking (phone vs film). Spiotta wanted to explore “the tyranny of the visual”, where what you’re saying doesn’t matter, but what you’re seeing that wins out. The power of the image overrides other senses.

-About the three plots in the book: Spiotta knew the stories would intersect, she just wasn’t sure when. She doesn’t like to write in a big line; she jumps from thing to thing as she’s going through. The rhythm of the novel comes from switching the stories around.

In the end, I liked Innocents and Others a lot and am glad I read it. (Just feel free to skim the filmmaking stuff if you’re not getting it.)

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

I am a big fan of Elizabeth Strout’s; I read a few of her novels before she won the 2009 Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, including Amy and Isabelle (pre-blogging) and Abide With Me, and I was really looking forward to her latest, My Name Is Lucy Barton. It was well-reviewed by critics and Goodreads readers, so I bumped it up the TBR list this winter. Unfortunately, when I finished it, I was left wondering what I had missed.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is about a woman in her late 20s living in New York City in the 80s who develops a mysterious illness after an appendectomy. She ends up spending nine weeks in the hospital in a mostly feverish state as her doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her. Her husband is busy with work and their two young daughters, so Lucy spends a lot of time on her own in her hospital room. One day, she looks up to find her mother sitting in the room – a woman she hasn’t seen in many years and from whom she is basically estranged.

Most of the book relates what Lucy and her mother talk about during the week her mother spends by her side. Lucy’s family was very poor when she was growing up, and her parents were cold, withholding people who rarely showed affection or love to their children. Her father fixed farm machinery, and her mother took in sewing. Lucy and her siblings never had much, and were often embarrassed at school by their clothes and appearance. Lucy worked hard and earned a scholarship to college, and from there lived her own life, getting married and having children, with little contact with her family.

Lucy is very surprised to see her mother in her hospital room, and the two women spend most of their time together talking about people they knew in their small Illinois town. Divorces, scandals, tragedies – Lucy’s mother is most comfortable relating the misfortunes of other people, rather than addressing her own behavior as a mother and her relationship with Lucy. And Lucy doesn’t press the issue. She turns into a little girl again in her mother’s presence, calling her “Mommy” and becoming the unassertive, passive child she was in Illinois. Ultimately, nothing is really resolved between the two of them. Whenever Lucy inches toward something uncomfortable – raising a painful memory or questioning her mother’s distance over the years – her mother basically shuts down and changes the subject. Lucy knows her mother cares about her, as evidenced by her getting on a plane for the first time and flying to be by her side, but her mother still shows little affection.

My Name Is Lucy Barton meanders its way to its end. Strout’s writing, which I admired in the past for its spare elegance, is repetitive, with sentences literally repeating themselves with a word or two reversed. The conversations between Lucy and her mother meander, and the chapters that take place in the present meander too, with Lucy jumping from topic to topic, memory to memory. I got really frustrated with the writing as I made my way through My Name Is Lucy Barton – I think it needed a good edit.

I appreciate the book’s treatment of messy, unresolved relationships, and the way that a lack of resolution and clarity can eat at you over the years. But other than that, I didn’t take away much from My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy was passive and seemed emotionally detached from her own life at times, perhaps a symptom of the cold childhood she endured. But she was sort of frustrating to follow as a reader.

I listened to My Name Is Lucy Barton on audio. It was narrated by Kimberly Farr, and I think she did a decent job with the material. Her narration took on a meandering quality, like the book, and she gave life to a rather passive character. She was good at conveying when Lucy felt lonely and sad, and her voice inspired empathy. Her narration enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

 

AMONG THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS by Julia Pierpont

Among The Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont has a promising start. A young woman who had been having an affair with a middle-aged artist named Jack decides, after he ends things with her, to print out all of the texts and emails he sent her over their several months’ long relationship and send them in a box, with a letter, to his wife Deb. The box is intercepted by the couple’s 11 year-old daughter, and later by her older brother, which only complicates the devastating impact it has on Jack and Deb’s marriage and their family.

Among The Ten Thousand Things traces the aftermath of the delivery of the incendiary box, exploring how Deb and the kids react to Jack’s infidelity. The main question, of course, is whether the marriage will survive. Deb is understandably furious, although we learn that she was aware of the affair months before, even if she didn’t have concrete evidence to flip through at night. So the marriage was already on shaky ground before the box arrived.

Pierpont takes an interesting approach in the structure of her novel. She divides it into four parts – the first taking place immediately after the box arrives, the second jumping way ahead into the future, the third resuming where the first left off, and the fourth looking ahead only about five years. This controversial structure didn’t work for me in the end, and here’s why: it made parts 3 and 4 basically unnecessary and therefore somewhat tedious.

I love Pierpont’s incredibly detailed and precise storytelling. She knows how to narrate a scene with such realism that you can just see it unfolding before you. I am always impressed by authors who conjure up random little details that give stories authenticity and a sense of uniqueness, a sense that this scene is neither predictable nor expected. Pierpont is very good at that. She failed, however, to make me care much about how the story resolved, and with the ending revealed halfway through, the second half was even more of a struggle to get through. I already knew what was going to happen, even if she was going to it to me eloquently.

Despite the originality of Pierpont’s writing, this is also a pretty standard story – husband has an affair, wife has to decide whether to forgive or move on, kids are affected, no one is perfect. I’ve read this before.

I do have to give props to the audio version of Among The Ten Thousand Things. Hillary Huber is an excellent narrator – precise, restrained when necessary, angry when the words called for it. She moderated the tone of the characters beautifully, deftly conveying their inner conflicts and the variability of their reactions and impulses. I thought she did an excellent job performing the novel, and she was a big part of why I stuck with it.

This was a buzzy book of 2015. In the end, it was just OK for me.

 

THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE by Heidi Pitlor

The Daylight Marriage by Heidi Pitlor is a thriller about a suburban Boston mother who disappears from her daily routine the day after a bad fight with her husband. Hannah and Lovell have two children, ages nine and fifteen, and have been married for seventeen years. Lovell is academic and distracted, and while he feels he married out of his league, he’s no longer good at noticing or appreciating his wife. Hannah is a stay at home mom with a part-time job in a flower shop who feels distant from her husband and bored/unfulfilled with the routines of motherhood.

After the fight, in which Lovell questions how she spends her time and why she can’t get anything done, Hannah simply vanishes. She doesn’t pick her children up at school, and never returns home. What happened to her?

The Daylight Marriage was just OK for me. Pitlor is observant and creates very believable scenes and dialogue. There are little details sprinkled throughout the narration which made the action come alive for me. Her description of Hannah’s life and routine – picking up the kids, going to the orthodontist, making one of the few meals they would eat for dinner, homework, her husband’s vacancy – gave some clues as to why Hannah might want to disappear. She wrote, “When in [Hannah’s] life had she lost her desire for the next moment and then the next? It seemed to have happened slowly, not in one sudden blow, but over thousands of ordinary moments, in the tiniest of choices meant to lead her toward a well-defined future, the sort that had been chosen and lived by so many other people.”

Lovell was frustrating at first in his obtuseness, but he is redeemed somewhat by the end of the book. Faced with Hannah’s disappearance, he is forced to participate as a parent in a way he hasn’t before, and that process is gradual but convincing.

So why did this book fall short? I think it was the ultimate resolution of what happened to Hannah. Despite her apparent depression and desperation, her actions were unrealistic and unlikely. Pitlor throws in a few red herrings, but ultimately the answer to what happened wasn’t terribly shocking.

In the end: good writing, some keen observations, but an unfulfilling story.

 

IN THE LANGUAGE OF MIRACLES by Rajia Hassib

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.

THE LAST SEPTEMBER by Nina de Gramont

The Last September by Nina de Gramont was one of my favorite reads of the summer. It’s hard to describe – it’s about the demise of a passionate marriage, but it’s also a suspenseful murder mystery. Brett and Charlie meet through Charlie’s younger brother Eli when Eli and Brett are in college together. Brett falls deeply in love with Charlie, despite Eli’s warnings that he is a womanizer who can’t commit to a relationship. After one night together, Brett doesn’t hear from Charlie again. She tries to move on, getting engaged to another man, but runs across Charlie a few years later (ironically through her fiance) and is simply powerless to resist him.

Meanwhile, Eli is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Brett and Charlie marry and have a baby, but their marriage is always under the cloud of Eli’s disease – the ups and downs, the dangerous episodes and hospitalizations. And Brett remains deeply insecure about Charlie’s love, an insecurity that is proven justified when she discovers that he has had an affair.

The Last September opens with Charlie’s murder, and the rest of the book traces Brett and Charlie’s relationship and marriage. It also eventually deals with the question of who killed Charlie. The obvious choice is Eli, off his meds and out of control, but Brett isn’t so sure.

I really, really enjoyed The Last September. de Gramont’s writing is understated but beautifully detailed. Her characters are flawed people trying to make the best of a really awful situation, finely drawn and utterly realistic. I had a hard time putting this one down. Brett is a tough character to like, in a lot of ways – she’s impulsive and self-absorbed, willing to sacrifice anything to be with Charlie. But if you’ve ever been crazy in love and desperate to be with someone, then you can start to understand why Brett does what she does. I thought the first 4/5 of the book was absolutely perfect, and then took issue with some of Brett’s actions that seemed out of character. But in the end, I still really enjoyed it. There were enough plausible suspects for Charlie’s murder that I was left guessing until the very end.

The Last September also provides a heartbreaking glimpse into the sad effects of mental illness on the afflicted and their families.

Highly recommended for fans of domestic fiction and/or mysteries. The Last September is a beautifully written combination of both.