Tag Archives: alienation

Darkness, Darkness

Heartbroken: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Crown, $24.00, 384 pages)

Heartbroken

Lisa Unger coerces her readers into experiences of the soul that can leave an indelible mark. The interactions among three generations make this a tale for a wide audience. Heartbroken provides a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. Again, as in Darkness, My Old Friend, Ms. Unger makes alienation, self-absorption and serious mental illness the undercurrents for her most recent creation. It’s all about contrasts and the need for visibility/balance in life.

On one side of the equation are the old-money Burke family members and on the other is Emily, a coffee shop waitress who has gotten herself in a bit of a tight spot thanks to her conniving boyfriend, Dean. Birdie Burke, the matriarch of the Burke clan, owns an island on a lake in the Adirondacks where her family has enjoyed the comfort and recreation known to precious few people. Daughter Kate is firmly fixed in the sandwich generation as the mother of teenager Chelsea who is feeling awkward and plain.

The annual family gathering brings Kate, Chelsea and Chelsea’s best friend Lulu to the island. Kate has been trying without success to crawl out from under her mother’s thumb. She hates being coerced into the summer ritual. Kate’s father, Joe, escapes from his wife’s tyrannical island rules to tend his business in New York City leaving Kate and the girls to endure until Kate’s husband and their son make the trek to the island.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, Emily is drawn in way beyond help into a scheme that Dean has cooked up. Emily has family issues. She’s the daughter of a less-than-ideal mother who is buried in her own issues. Emily, Dean and his evil friend from Florida go on a rampage reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. Naturally there is a meeting of the disparate tales. The drama builds to a magnificent, exciting, ending.

Ms. Unger is a highly-skilled author whose work deserves more attention than the airplane read. Nevertheless, any time spent reading Heartbroken, in the air, on the beach or on a comfortable sofa will be well spent.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Heartbroken was released in trade paper form on April 9, 2013.

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My Old School

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books, $24.95, 288 pages)

The Lola Quartet, the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel (The Singer’s Gun and Last Night in Montreal) reads like an unsettling dream, sliding between present and past in the lives of a group of high school acquaintances.   The title refers to the jazz quartet in which four of the characters played in high school — they’d named it after a German film they liked.   Playing jazz from the back of a pickup truck one night at the end of senior year is a scene revisited with longing throughout the novel, as it represents the end of their innocence or the beginning of their futures, when all things seemed possible.

The classmates scatter the moment they graduate but remain connected by bad choices, honorable impulses, and blood.   To say they are friends would stretch the definition of the word, but perhaps that is appropriate in the era of Facebook, an age that the author paints in shades of alienation.

Although several characters tell their versions of their roles in the incidents that connect them, the primary narrator is Gavin Sasaki, who achieves the most career success in the decade after high school – before he almost inexplicably sabotages himself.   He’s a reporter who lies, a discordance that underscores the sense of unease and hopelessness that pervades the novel.   On one level, The Lola Quartet presents a mystery as Gavin searches for a child he thinks may be his.   On another level, it seems like a photo printed in a darkroom: the image that slowly forms on the page is that of a generation hungry for connection and mired in hopelessness.  It’s a page-turner and a thought-provoker.

Highly recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Lola Quartet was released on May 1, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

This is a review of The Singer’s Gun: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/two-steps/

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Brooklyn Roads

Sunset Park: A Novel by Paul Auster (A Frances Coady Book/Henry Holt and Company; $25.00; 320 pages)

It is the policy of Joseph’s Reviews to consider each work as to its own merit.   This latest novel by famed Brooklyn, NY writer Paul Auster is the first of his works read by this reviewer which makes it easy to adhere to the policy.   The book has served to pique my curiosity about Auster’s previous novels.   I hope they, too, have the quietness and narrow focus that he grants each of his characters in Sunset Park.

There is aloneness, almost an alienation that Auster’s characters Miles, Bing, Alice and Ellen have in common.   They are approaching midlife without the confidence and skills necessary to carry them into the next segment of their lives.   Each has strongly felt needs that serve to nudge them into the world each day away from the city-owned house in a seedy part of Brooklyn where they have become squatters because all of them are painfully short on funds.   These needs are coupled with real world time-sensitive matters that cannot be ignored.  

Miles’ girlfriend in Florida, Pilar, is a ticking time bomb through no fault of her own (she’s underage).   He is both drawn by and afraid of his need for her.   Alice is closing in on the final chapters of her doctoral dissertation, Ellen knows that her job is in peril if she cannot stay focused and Bing fears his own proclivities.

The housemates are aware that any day Brooklyn city police will serve them with an eviction notice.   Even though there is a sense of passing time and looming eventualities, the pace of the novel allows the reader to observe each character and appreciate how life has handed them challenges that will either serve as lessons or bring them disastrous outcomes.   Of the four, only Miles has a safety net in the form of famous parents and step-parents.   He has a painful secret that he has kept and danced around for over seven years.   This secret has drawn him away from his parents and into hiding.

Auster tells just enough of a tale to capture the reader’s attention.   He leaves out enough to allow the reader space to consider the reality that each of us has issues in life and they can be vastly different.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sunset Park will be released on Tuesday, November 9, 2010.

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