Tag Archives: Elizabeth Berg

The Losing End

Forever is the Worst Long Time: A Novel by Camille Pagan (Lake Union, $24.95, 276 pages)

“It’s so hard to make love pay/ When you’re on the losing end/ And I feel that way again…”  Neil Young

forever-is-the-worst-long-time

Synopsis:

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life.  There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his best and oldest friend, Rob.  So James becomes Rob’s Best Man, toasting the union of Rob and Lou and hiding his desire for The Perfect Woman.

Review:

With this setup, one can pretty much guess what’s coming in this third novel from author Pagan (Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, The Art of Forgetting).  And one’s guess would be right about half of the time.  Pagan adds some unexpected twists and turns that help to keep the story somewhat interesting.  The plot line is not the problem.

The tone of the story, the narrator’s voice, is where difficulties arise.  It’s sometimes problematic when a male author adopts a female voice, and vice versa.  It is an issue here.  This book is written in the form of a journal – a document to be read by James’ daughter in order to learn about her past.  (Novels in the form of journals seem to be the latest craze.)  The journal reads in a flat tone; in fact, it begins to drone on like a car on the freeway stuck in second gear.  Yes, early on Pagan shifts from first to second, but the reader mourns the absence of third, fourth, and overdrive in this journey of almost 300 pages.

And then there’s the issue of humor.  It was absent in this work which felt overly dramatic.  One of the strengths of bestselling authors like Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner – writers who similarly deal with love, loss and redemption – is that they enliven their stories with stress-relieving humor.  (This enables the reader to relax and avoid the feeling of reading a one note soap opera.)

“This story ends with loss,” said your mother.  “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”

Basically, this novel proves the truth of the notion that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.  I hope that in her future works Pagan adds more life to her tales and spirit and volume.  Reading this book, for me, was like trying to listen to music being played in a far-off room.  The experience was muffled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on February 7, 2017.

On the writing of Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner:

Home Safe (by Berg) is written with humor and elegance.”  – Chicago Tribune

Home Safe explores, with insight and humor, what it’s like to lose everything and to emerge from the other side.”  – St. Petersburg Times

“Hilarious, heartbreaking, and insightful, Weiner shows she can write with exquisite tenderness as well as humor.”  – The Miami Herald

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Full of Grace

 

pictures of youPictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.95, 336 pages)

There was no cause and effect. There was no karma. The truth was that he wasn’t so sure he understood how the world worked anymore.

At the opening of Pictures of You, two women — April and Isabelle — are literally driving away from their marriages when they collide into each other on a foggy highway. Only Isabelle survives. This leaves three survivors, including Isabelle’s husband Charlie, April’s husband Sam and his needy 9-year-old son, Sam. In his neediness, Sam comes to view Isabelle as an angel placed on earth to save him.

It’s quite an innovative set-up for an extremely well written novel by Caroline Leavitt. Leavitt writes in a calm, methodical, factual style that brings to mind both Michelle Richmond and Diane Hammond; and like those authors (and Elizabeth Berg) she intends to impart a few of life’s lessons in the process of telling a story. One lesson has to do with powerlessness: “You could think you understood things, but the truth was that you could never see the full picture of someone else’s life.”

Than there’s the fact that we look for something more than human in times of grief and trouble: “Maybe tomorrow, the angel might be the one to come for him.” “People believed in angels when they were most in trouble.”

…he had somehow photographed her so that her shoulders were dark and burly, as if she had wings under her dress… (as if) she might spread them to lift off the ground and fly away.

Sam’s desire to make something sacred out of the very human Isabelle is a representation of the fact that everyone seeks comfort and safety in life. When Sam’s father reads the obituaries in the newspaper, “He (doesn’t) bother to brush away his tears… each one said the same thing: Come home. Come home.”

It wasn’t a pill or a car that made her feel safe.

Isabelle, however, is the one who has the clear chance to re-start her life, and the reader will be intrigued to see what choices she makes. The beauty of Leavitt’s telling is that what the reader thinks is going to happen does not. And this, in itself, makes it a very special book.

Pictures of You concludes with a perfect ending in which everything is fully and satisfactorily resolved. There’s also a Hollywood-style postscript, a look back from 21 years later, that adds a nice cinematic touch to the account. All in all, this is an amazing novel.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

The reader who enjoys this book may want to read American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn, which also wrestles with the notion of angels on this earth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Full of Grace

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.94, 336 pages)

There was no cause and effect.   There was no karma.   The truth was that he wasn’t so sure he understood how the world worked anymore.

At the start of Pictures of You, two women – April and Isabelle – are literally driving away from their marriages when they collide on a foggy highway.   Only Isabelle survives.   And she’s joined in the role of survivor by her husband Charlie, April’s husband Sam and his needy 9-year-old son, Sam.   In his neediness, Sam comes to view Isabelle as an angel placed on earth to rescue him.

It’s quite an amazing set-up for an extremely well written novel by Caroline Leavitt.   Leavitt writes in a calm, methodical, factual style that calls to mind both Michelle Richmond and Diane Hammond; and like those authors (and Elizabeth Berg), she intends to impart a few of life’s lessons in the process of telling a story.   One lesson has to do with powerlessness:  “You could think you understood things, but the truth was that you could never see the full picture of someone else’s life.”

Then there’s the fact that we look for something more than human in times of grief and trouble:  “Maybe tomorrow, the angel might be the one to come for him.”   “People believed in angels when they were most in trouble.”

…he had somehow photographed her so that her shoulders were dark and burly, as if she had wings under her dress…  (as if) she might spread them to lift off the ground and fly away.

Sam’s desire to make something sacred out of the very human Isabelle is a representation of the notion that everyone seeks comfort and safety in life.   When Sam’s father reads the obituaries in the newspaper, “He (doesn’t) bother to brush away his tears…  each one said the same thing:  Come home.  Come home.”

Isabelle, however, is the one who has the clear chance to re-start her life, and the reader will be intrigued to see what choices she makes.   The beauty of Leavitt’s telling is that what the reader thinks is going to happen does not.   And this, in itself, makes it a very special book.

Pictures of You concludes with a perfect ending in which everything is fully and satisfactorily resolved.   There’s also a Hollywood-style postscript, a look back from 21 years later, that adds a nice cinematic touch to the account.   All in all, this is an amazing second novel.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Magically written, heartbreakingly honest.”   Jodi Picoult

The reader who enjoys this book may also want to read American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.  

  You can find our review of American Music here:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/late-for-the-sky/

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Unforgiven

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

“Grant had never forgiven her for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago…”

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C., Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry him; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their twin toddlers.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.   Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who’s home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is popular fiction wrapped in the guises of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with  Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her married, pregnant daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in stories such as this one.   After another set of implausible events (the second of two sets, if you’re counting), Annabelle has moved to New York City to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will either seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a stretch.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is sometimes plodding by comparison and the time shifts are awkward and distracting.   There may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This is the third of three reviews of The Stuff That Never Happened posted on this site.   The novel was well recommended by Kelly Monson, and highly recommended by Kimberly Caldwell.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Weight of the World

The Life You’ve Imagined: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (Avon; $13.99; 334 pages)

“…I’m thinking of making a change myself.”   She gapes up at me, searching my face as if she’s not sure who I am.   I know the feeling.

If you love the novels of Elizabeth Berg, and especially The Last Time I Saw You, you’re likely to feel a great sense of fondness for this book by Kristina Riggle.   As with Berg, she hits the sweet spot of human emotion in telling the stories of women who’ve arrived at the point in life where they must either evolve or accept their failure in life.   In the words of Bob Dylan, Riggle’s characters are either busy being born or they are busy dying.

Like Berg’s The Last Time, this is an ensemble piece…  The Life is about four women, three still relatively young and one clearly not, who are united by circumstances in the town of Haven, Michigan.   Haven is not to be mistaken with Heaven.

Anna Geneva is the high-powered Chicago attorney who returns home after being rattled by the death of an older male colleague and mentor.   Here she must deal with her mother Maeve, whose mom-and-pop convenience store is failing.   Morever, Maeve holds out hope of being reunited with the man who long ago abandoned her and Anna.   Anna will also encounter two of her best female friends from high school – Cami Drayton, who has come back to live with a monster of a father, and Amy Rickart, the now slender and beautiful bride-to-be who used to be overweight and socially ostracized.

Only Amy lives a life to be envied as she prepares to marry the loving and considerate man of her dreams.   But her husband-to-be’s career will place him in conflict with Anna and Maeve and Cami and she will soon come to wonder about his values in life.   She will even come to wonder if he loves her at all after he announces that their wedding must be postponed.

About three-quarters to four-fifths of the way through the telling of this tale, you – the reader – will figure out exactly what the resolution will be.   Except that Riggle has other ideas and soon you’re following unexpected twists and turns as you near the end.   In this fashion, it’s like real life which is never quite what we imagined it would be.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “A richly woven story laced with unforgettable characters…”   Therese Walsh, author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

When I Was Young

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $15.00; 288 pages)

last-time-i-saw-you

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg is a novel guaranteed to appeal to Boomers.   It’s the story of 58-year-olds who attended Whitley High School together and who are gathering for what is said to be their “last reunion.”   Why they won’t be gathering again is never clear, but we do know that the glamorous Candy Sullivan has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.   Her husband insists that this is just a first opinion, but Candy knows better and is determined to enjoy what little time is left to her.

“The diagnosis let her recalculate the meaning of time and relationships.”

Berg, the author of Home Safe, has a smooth and relaxing style and she’s at her best when describing human vulnerabilities.   At one point, a male character feels sorry for the spouses who have been dragged along to the reunion.   Then “all of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.  Here they all are, these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

The Last Time celebrates the joy of spending moments with those who knew you in times past, while highlighting the futility of getting them to accept you as a new and different person.   It’s an enjoyable read that’s deeper than it first appears.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized