Tag Archives: family drama

Building a Mystery

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw (Anchor; $15.00; 320 pages)

“I will never get enough of you.   I will never have enough.   I will never have enough.”

Author Holly LeCraw has produced something quite distinctive in this, her debut, a male romance novel.   It’s a romance novel, told from a male’s perspective (and from the perspective of the woman he pursues), about a young man who wants something he cannot have – his late father’s mistress.

Jed McClatchy leaves his big city job to join his harried married sister Callie in Cape Cod.   There he happens to encounter one Marcella di Pavarese Atkinson, who seven years earlier had an affair with Jed’s dad.   As a teenager, Jed was attracted to Marcella from the moment he spotted her in a sexy swim suit at an adult pool party.   Now he finds the very same swim suit stored in the attic of his late parents’ home.

Jed is attracted to Marcella physically, while emotionally and psychologically he’s tied to her in a desperate search for answers…  It seems that after Jed’s father, Cecil, promised Marcella that he would leave his wife Betsy for her, Betsy was found brutally murdered.   And then soon after Cecil died under mysterious circumstances.   Was Marcella involved in these events?   If not, what exactly did she know about this cataclysmic time?

“He was furious, again, that he could not stop wanting her.”

Subconsciously, Jed must wonder (as does the reader) whether he wants Marcella because she’s the one thing his very important father was never allowed to possess; or perhaps it is because she was the dangerous woman who was involved in eliminating her only competition, Jed’s straight-laced mother.   At any rate, this is a very powerful story of obsession – a young man’s obsession with love, lust and the need to solve a family mystery.

“Marcella was trying hard not to tell him that she felt the cooling late-summer days ticking by like she was a condemned woman.   Every night she could physically feel that the sun was setting earlier, the world darkening in response to their looming separateness.   She was having trouble sleeping.   Her life was broken and she did not know how to fix it.”

LeCraw has a fine, calm and sophisticated style that becomes more engaging the farther one is into the telling.   If there’s a weakness here, it’s that making one’s way through the slow opening pages takes a bit of persistence.   (I put the book down after a few dozen pages, but I came to feel well-rewarded once I resumed the read.)   LeCraw’s strength is that the sexual scenes strike just the right balance – they do not simply drop down from the sky, nor are they included for mere titillation.

It’s a bit disorienting to find a debut novel that is truly one of a kind (sui generis) in tone and nature, but this is precisely what LeCraw has delivered here.   Let’s hope for more to come.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Swimming Pool will be released in a trade paperback version on April 19, 2011.   “A fearless novel full of fresh insights and casually elegant writing…”   Atlanta Magazine


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Teach Your Children

Night Road by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages)

For a mother, life comes down to a series of choices.   To hold on…  To let go…  To forget…  To forgive…   Which road will you take?

In a compelling novel of love, loss, hope and understanding, author Kristin Hannah redefines the pluses and minuses – challenges, tenderness and empowerment – of motherhood.

Jude Farrady has everything.   She lives the ideal life; a loving husband, a custom-built home, friends that support and love her, and twins that have an extraordinarily close relationship.   Her life revolves around her twins, ensuring that they have everything they need to be happy and successful.

Lexi Baill has nothing.   The orphan of a drug addict, she has grown up living in multiple foster homes, without a family, abandoned and alone.   With a heart of gold she selflessly carries hope that someday things will turn out differently.

When Lexi befriends Jude’s daughter Mia on their first day of high school, their lives are forever changed.   Lexi brings out the best in the shy sister of the most popular boy in town.   The bond between the twins and Lexi encourages the Farraday’s to treat Lexi like one of their own.   Finally finding a permanent home with the aunt she never knew she had combined with the love she is shown from the Farraday’s, Lexi feels she has finally found the life she has always dreamed of.

Yet tragedy finds a way into the lives of even those with the most fortunate of circumstances.   The resulting loss forces everyone to reevaluate the future of their relationships and life beyond the boundaries of the predictable.

Author Hannah presents an endearing and engaging story that uncovers a path of unpredictable events…  Events that will leave you laughing, crying, wishing and hoping but above all feeling fully appreciative of the love, devotion and trials that come with the territory of being a mother.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Night Road was released on March 22, 2011.   “Longtime fans will love this rich, multilayered reading experience, and it’s an easy recommendation for book clubs.”   Library Journal

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Wild Horses

rescue

Rescue: A Novel by Anita Shreve (Back Bay Books; $14.99; 320 pages)

“He wants to go to her.   He’s used to caring for a person who’s sobbing.   It happens to him at least once a week.   But he can’t go to this particular person.”

When Anita Shreve writes, everything is set forth in perfect human scale – neither too large nor too small.   This is why she can take a tale, that in the words of another writer might seem pedestrian and predictable, and turn it into something cinematic.   While reading the novel Rescue, I often felt as if I were watching a movie on a DVD.

At first it seems like there will be few surprises in this family novel.   A young paramedic, Peter Webster, comes across a car accident in which a drunken young woman has nearly killed herself.   The woman, Sheila, is clearly troubled and promises to darken the life of anyone who comes close to her.   Peter falls in love with her even before she’s removed from the wreckage.   In a matter of weeks, they’re shacking up before getting married and having a child – a little girl named Rowan.

As we expect from the very beginning of this story, Peter has let an accident come in the front door and his life is nearly turned into wreckage by Sheila.   When Sheila has a second DUI accident, and seriously injures a man, Peter knows he needs to protect himself and his daughter.   He banishes Sheila from their lives.

Fast forward 18 years and Rowan suddenly appears to be the second coming of her mother, drinking too much and endangering herself.   And then the completely unexpected happens… the ever-responsible Peter elects to do something that seems almost mad.   He invites Sheila back into their lives.   And this is where Shreve the writer hooks the reader, putting you in a position where you cannot put the novel down.

Peter let Sheila nearly ruin his life once, and now he’s giving her a second chance?   It’s a disorienting twist on what seemed to be a plot that was traveling down a straight road – now it’s gone sideways.   But this is Anita Shreve and in her cinematic style, this is where the cameras begin to zoom-in, to focus on the major players as events escalate.

“Sheila turns her head.   ‘Go slowly and be careful,’ she says.”

No spoiler alert here, but Shreve will surprise you in the way life itself constantly surprises us.   One never knows exactly what’s coming next; the fact that the telling of this tale reflects this is a reason Shreve is one of our best story tellers.   This story is taut, engaging, realistic and fulfilling.   At its conclusion it teaches us that life’s next lesson is not in the here and now, it’s up ahead, just down the road apiece.   You’ll know it when you get there.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Every Last One

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Random House, April 13, 2010)

“Most of our fears are petty and small…  Only our love is monumental.”

In Every Last One, author Anna Quindlen gives us a monumental – yet quietly reserved – look at the life of a typical American family, before and after the family is rocked by an unimaginable tragedy.   This is the story of Mary Beth Latham, basically a stay-at-home mom who operates a landscaping business; her ophthalmologist husband, Glen; daughter Ruby; and her fraternal twin sons, Max and Alex.   Although we observe their lives through Mary Beth’s eyes, we come to know Ruby the best.   She’s a senior in high school who is about to leave the nest for a yet-to-be-determined college.

Mary Beth at one point ponders whether it is a woman’s role to persevere after everyone she loves has left her.   But she thinks about this at a time when everyone she loves is still close to her.   This is when she’s the woman who worries about the smallest of concerns, when her life goes on as normal.   But normal is not lasting…

Daughter Ruby has known her boyfriend Kiernan since childhood, and he becomes obsessed with her and all of the Lathams.   Kiernan finally becomes less of a boyfriend to Ruby than a stalker, and someone who uses any excuse to keep company with the Lathams.   Ruby realizes that she’s going to have to reject Kiernan soon – and before she departs for her future life.

When tragedy strikes Mary Beth must become a survivor.   Everyone around her fails at offering comfort; instead, they impose their expectations on her as to how they believe she should act.   The people she worked so hard to please, to impress, to be close to all let her down.

Eventually Mary Beth comes to see – as we all must – that she cannot live her life in a manner that pleases others.   She simply must continue, even if the reason for doing so is not completely clear.

“It’s all I know how to do now.   This is my life.   I am trying.”

It is impossible to describe the nature of the tragedy that Mary Beth experiences without betraying the story, and this summary does not disclose it.   Suffice it to say that when it occurs the reader will think that the story is over.   In the hands of a less skilled writer it would be.   But Quindlen is at her best in writing the tale of a woman who is strong when the world believes she has been stripped of the reasons to continue living.

In the end, this novel tells us that you never know what you might be capable of until the situation is there, staring you in the face.   In Mary Beth we find a character who is a stronger person than she ever believed herself capable of being, back when life was relatively untroubled and easy.

“The silence is as big as the sky…”

Author Quindlen teaches the reader that life is not predictable and, further, that one must be prepared to start over at any time.   It is – after all – the nature of every life.   Life, for better or worse, every year, month, day, and each and every minute.   It is all to be treasured, and readers may come to justifiably value this impressive work from the subtly gifted pen and mind of Anna Quindlen.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Unnamed

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: A Novel (Back Bay Books, $15.00, 320 pages)

ferris unnamed amazon

The heart asks pleasure first, and then excuse from pain.   Emily Dickinson

God, if He was anything, was the answer to the mystery of why you got sick…   Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) has written a second novel.  The Unnamed, is a dark and mystical tale that brings the pain before it delivers the pleasure.   This is about Tim Farnsworth who is blessed with status and a fine career.   Good luck and good fate lead him to take two things for granted: his health and his family.

Tim’s a successful lawyer in a private New York City firm until he’s hit with a mysterious condition that causes him to walk.   When the condition strikes, he’s forced to abandon whatever he’s doing and walk for miles and hours until he drops and falls asleep from exhaustion.   The condition – which the medical establishment does not want to label a disease (Tim being the only person on record affected by it) – goes into remission twice enabling Tim to resume his work.   But Tim’s already lost 17 months to this condition when, as the story opens, “it’s back.”

Initially, Tim places his faith in medicine, doctors and mental health practitioners until he comes to see that “there was never anything anyone could do” for him.   He’s first affected physically, then mentally and becomes “removed from the person who knew how to form ideas.”   He becomes a man without hope, which to him seems worse than death.   Tim comes to envy cancer patients who have the “power of a familiar and fatal disease.”

It’s not difficult to see that this is pretty dark and dangerous territory for a novel but Ferris is skilled enough to turn the ship around.   A tale of illness and disease is transformed into one about marriage and family and the strength – physical and emotional – that these can provide.   Tim loses everything – career, family, wife, daughter – before he becomes stronger (in a strange sense) than the world around him.   His suffering has a pay-off and he sees and experiences hope before the end of his days.

This is a story about redemption.   Tim literally walks away from everything, including spouse Jane, until he has to decide whether to return to her – no matter what the cost.   Eventually, Jane and others come to be amazed that he “could suffer like that.”   In the end Tim, like every one of us, comes to experience joy in life’s small things: seeing children play, observing birds, having a couple of beers with an old friend, feeling the love of a daughter.

Ferris’ work is close to breathtaking here, although the second half of the work feels much longer than the first half.   Maybe that’s because the reader is meant to experience Tim’s disease states – pain, fever, disorientation, hallucinations – before he returns to normalcy.   We wonder if he’s gone insane in his battle with “The Other” – a condition, a disease, a devil, a fear, his mortality – until he accepts that it’s his inalienable right to have a life, a normal life.

She didn’t need a prescription, she needed a life.

ferris unnamed back

Taut, engaging, emotional…   Tinged in genius and yet troubling.   The Unnamed is a stunner and one of the few novels most readers will come across in which each and every chapter closes brilliantly.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Reagan Arthur Books (Hachette Book Group, U.S.A.).  

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Tell The Truth

Tell No Lies by Julie Compton

There’s a lot of buzz going around about Julie Compton’s new novel Rescuing Olivia, which will be released next month.   So we decided to go back and read Compton’s first book, Tell No Lies, published in mid-2008.   Lies is an excellent, excellent criminal justice system and family drama set in St. Louis.   The main character, Jack Hilliard, is an assistant district attorney who’s happily married; his wife is an adjunct college professor and they have two boys.   Life appears to be good for the family except that Hilliard is unfulfilled.

Suddenly everything changes at once for Jack…  Earl, the District Attorney for the City of St. Louis decides to give up his office to earn some pre-retirement riches at a prominent private law firm.   Although Jack is designated by Earl to be his successor, Jack struggles with the decision to run for the office.   Doing so will mean that Jack will need to hide or obfuscate his personal anti-death penalty views at a time when the local public is seeking blood.

Both Jack and his understanding wife Claire realize that moving from being an ADA to being the DA will turn their lives upside down…  But this is a small tremor compared to the coming earthquake that will change the ground under Jack and Claire – leaving them virtually foundation-less.   For years Jack has had a huge crush (“Can you be in love with two women at the same time?”) on the exotic Jenny Dodson, a mixed-blood civil practice attorney who turns men’s heads whenever she moves.   Jenny, in return, loves Jack but isn’t sure she wants to participate in destroying his happy marriage and contented family.

Against his better interests, Jack decides to involve Jenny as an officer in his campaign for DA which means he’ll regularly be in her company.   Jack initially believes that he can control his feelings for Jenny, but then comes to see that she’s far more than a distraction.   Jack, in fact, may love her to destruction.   Jack eventually becomes the DA who may be Jenny’s only hope when she’s charged with the murder of one of her clients.   But she had an alibi the night of the murder – one that involves Jack.   Will Jack save his marriage or Jenny?

This fantastic set-up only gets better and better and the reader will rush to get through the book, even at the cost of some sleep.   There never seems to be a wrong note in the story, and the fact that some major public figures have recently made a mess of their lives only adds credibility to this morality tale.   As with Tiger Woods, Jack comes to find that his life “is on fire and on the evening news.”   (Thank you, Paul Simon.)

Jack Hilliard is a person well liked and loved, but he’s often told that his flaw is that he feels that he must get what he wants in life.   This is a story about the high price to be paid for getting what you want.   The devil must be paid.

Compton is a former federal agency trial attorney and the language of the criminal justice professionals in Lies comes off as true in tone.   This is more of a gritty Prince of the City than homogenized Law and Order.   Tell No Lies was such an impressive début for Compton that I am quite eager to get to Rescuing Olivia.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.  

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Tell No Lies by Julie Compton.

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