Tag Archives: family novels

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

The Next Best Thing: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, $26.99, 400 pages; AudioWorks Audio, Unabridged on 11 CDs, $39,99)

Songs Without Words: A Novel by Ann Packer (Vintage, $14.95, 384 pages; Random House Audio, Unabridged on 11 CDs, $34.95)

This review is a duet of sorts.   Both books were read in the audio format.   They explore what can happen when a young girl loses a parent or multiple parents.   Ironically, each begins on a separate coast of the U.S.; however, all the main characters end up in California, albeit Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, respectively.   As we’re often told in self-help books and philosophical literature, it’s not the incident that shapes us, but rather, the way we react to it.   Each of these tales packs a wallop of an incident.

In The Next Best Thing, we learn that young Ruthie Saunders endured the horror of an automobile crash that killed both her parents and maimed her for life.   Ruthie’s face is mangled on one side, as is her body.   She has the good fortune to be the granddaughter of a truly kind and loving woman who steps in and gives her a life filled with hope and understanding.

Although Ruthie braved numerous painful surgeries over the years and the unsympathetic stares of her classmates, she persevered.   Her scars and physical limitations are vivid and readily noticeable but her spirit is strong.   Together with her beloved grandma, Trudy, Ruthie travels from the East Coast to take on the daunting challenge of breaking into the Hollywood television writing scene.   She becomes a promising comedy writer in Hollywood and even has a boyfriend.   The story takes on a sense of urgency when Ruthie’s autobiographical sitcom script is given the green light and is produced as a television show.

For sixteen-year-old Sarabeth life had always been difficult.   Her mom had overwhelming difficulties with depression that overshadowed the family.   Luckily for Sarabeth, her best friend Liz – who lived across the street in upscale Palo Alto, California – had a loving and good-natured family that helped to balance her life.   This difficult yet somewhat stable life was destroyed when Sarabeth’s mom committed suicide.   In this case, Liz’ family took her in and provided a home when Sarabeth’s father fled to the East Coast.

Despite years of loving friendship from Liz, Sarabeth nearly wallows in self-pity and neediness despite her outward good looks.   Her choices in men run to ones who are married with children.   Her career is limited to small artsy projects and a meek existence in a somewhat-dilapidated cottage behind another house in Berkeley.   The real challenge comes when Liz’ daughter acts on her own suicidal impulses.   Liz is unable to grasp how her robotic take on life has failed her daughter.   The supportive friendship between Sarabeth and Liz falls apart.

Given the remarkable parallels, these two tales could not be more dissimilar.   Both of these authors are well-known and very successful; however, Jennifer Weiner demonstrates her ability to craft engaging, sympathetic, and dare I say,  spunky characters.   This reviewer’s attention was fully focused on Ruthie and her life while Sarabeth provoked a slight revulsion due to her clueless self-pity and lack of empathy.   Ann Packer chose to portray a pair of lifeless and clueless women whose plights evoked barely a stirring of compassion.   In fact, a song title for a review of this book could easily have been, Get Over It.

As always, the narrators contributed significantly by literally setting the tone for the listener.   Olivia Thirlby gave Ruthie in The Next Best Thing a youthful, optimistic and somewhat naive voice.   She drew this listener in and brought out feelings of caring and hope for Ruthie and Grandma Trudy.

Conversely, Cassandra Campbell’s pervasive monotone was heavy and lacked the necessary inflections that produce engagement in the listener.   To her credit, Campbell had a difficult assignment as she portrayed Sarabeth, Liz and her daughter.

The Next Best Thing is Highly Recommended, while Songs Without Words has a limited audience – folks who don’t mind devoting the time and money this difficult story requires.

Ruta Arellano

These audiobooks were purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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The Season of Second Chances

The Season of Second Chances: A Novel by Diane Meier  (Henry Holt, $25.00, 285 pages)

When I finished The Season of Second Chances, I felt bereft.   The Season of Second Chances was a wonderful novel that I enjoyed reading.   I enjoyed it so much that I ripped through the book reading it too late into the night and finishing it in record speed during a busy work week.   After I finished it, I regretted only that it didn’t continue on as I loved the story and characters so much, it was hard to let them go.

The Season of Second Chances is a unique story that I really loved.   Joy Harkness is a middle-aged literature professor at Columbia University.   She loves and excels at her work, but doesn’t really feel connected to anyone.   When a professor she admires, Bernadette Lowell, offers her a chance to move to Amherst College in Massachusetts and be part of an innovative new curriculum in learning, Joy jumps at the chance.   She impetuously buys an old large, falling down Victorian house and quickly moves up from her small New York apartment.   I love the scene where she moves in and the house springs a giant leak.

Realizing that something needs to be done about the state of her house, Joy hires Teddy Hennessy to fix her house.   Teddy is a unique individual that knows the history and design of old houses.   He has an impeccable eye when it comes to interior design and works wonders with the house…  and with Joy.

Joy finds life changing for herself at Amherst and becomes involved with a great new group of friends.   She has a growth of personal relationships and self.   Through her time there, Joy really has a “coming-of-age” at mid-age.   She learns that to be a feminist, one does not need to give up everything that is feminine.

It is really hard to describe this novel as it was so unique and I do not want to give away the entire plot of the novel.   It was a great story and I really loved the style in which it was written.   Meier has beautiful prose throughout the novel.

Some of my favorite quotes were:

“What became apparent in my conversations with Teddy was my acceptance of a kind of snobbery I thought I’d avoided:  the notion that accessible writers and authors were hacks.”

I love this quote.   I think there is a lot of snobbery that exists, especially in academia about “accessible” writers.   It saddens me that a lot of great female authors from the past have been dismissed and have slipped into obscurity for just such reasons.   One example is Fannie Hurst.   I read a compilation of her short stories a few years ago and it was wonderful.   The stories gave a glimpse of working class girls’ lives in the 1920’s and 30’s.

“There is the family you’re born with, my dear – and then there is the family you choose.”

This quote is so true.   While you’ll never forget your birth family, I’ve found wherever you move you make a “family” of friends too that you can count on during times of trial.

There is also a great section about style, where two of the characters discuss that one doesn’t need to be afraid of style to be a feminist woman.   There are too many good quotes in this section just to pick out one!

I also loved that since Joy is a literature professor she talks about a lot of my favorite authors such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.   The discussions are like small diamonds throughout the text that I really enjoyed reading.

Overall, The Season of Second Chances is a wonderful novel with a great story, fantastic characters, and great prose.   I highly recommend it.

This review was written by Laura Gerold of Laura’s Reviews.   You can see more of her book reviews at: http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .   An Advance Review Copy was received from Interpersonal Frequency LLC.

 

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Suburban Dreams

Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe (Harper Perennial; June 29, 2010)

This is the first novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe and it may gain her admission into the club of today’s best women writers.   At one point in Commuters, a character goes on vacation and takes with her “a satisfyingly quiet Anne Tyler novel.”   Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, and Jennifer Weiner are just three of the popular authors whose influence can be observed in Commuters.

Commuters deals with the lives of individuals who, while they live in a quiet one-square-mile suburb, are only a train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.   It is also about the way people’s lives change – sometimes instantly – when their partners and family members experience tragedy or opportunity.

The story begins with the marriage of seventy-eight-year-old Winnie Easton to Jerry Travis, a wealthy businessman from Chicago.   Winnie and Jerry (a widow and widower) had met once while both were in their twenties attending a wedding, and now each is taking a chance on this late in life pairing.   For Winnie, the act of getting married to Jerry may be her first taste of true freedom:  “She had married once because it was a good match, mostly for her parents and his…  But now she found herself about to do something that felt like the first thing she’d ever done on her own…  She was marrying a man for the delicious and wicked and simple reason that she wanted to.”

Winnie and Jerry’s children, grandchildren, and in-laws all, of course, have their own strong opinions about the wisdom of their joining together for better or worse.   In Commuters, the story is told from Winnie’s viewpoint; from that of her distracted and tired daughter Rachel (whose one-time lawyer husband has recovered from a serious accident); from the perspective of her angry daughter-in-law Annette, who views Winnie as an opportunistic gold-digger; and from the perspective of Avery, Jerry’s troubled grandson.

Each of these individuals has hopes and dreams – Avery for example wants to be the owner-chef of his own restaurant in Brooklyn – which may rely, in part, on securing some of Jerry’s fortune via inheritance.   Winnie becomes a wild card thrown into the game that forces everyone to scramble and re-evaluate their positions vis-a-vis Jerry.   The well-planned timetables for getting on Jerry’s good side are now thrown out of whack; even more so when Annette elects to sue her father for the control of his business and Jerry’s mental and physical health begins to fade.

Tedrowe does a remarkable job of telling this story from four different perspectives.   All sound like true voices and a wrong note is never heard.   The author incorporates a couple of sex scenes in a way that is subtle, unlike so many of today’s popular fiction writers who drop in such scenes in an attempt to enliven boring narratives.

Each of the narrators in Commuters encounters either unexpected opportunity or tragedy, regardless of their age, maturity or economic standing in life.   This novel informs us that dealing with family and dealing with money are two equal challenges.   And then there’s the matter of love, which does always win in the end.

Commuters also tells us that we’re seeing the emergence of a great new talent in Tedrowe.   Let us hope that she keeps up her craft.   If so, her name may one day be mentioned alongside that of another highly gifted writer, Anne Lamott.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Shaggy Dog

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson (Algonquin, April 2010)

This reviewer had such high hopes for this novel, a “love story” by Pete Nelson.   Like many readers, I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and hoped that this would be a worthy follow-up in the same genre.   In Stein’s book the animal protagonist is Enzo the dog; a dog whose thoughts can be heard by his race car driving owner.   Enzo is old and looking forward to his passing so that he can be reincarnated as a human being.   In Nelson’s book the featured animal is Stella the dog; a dog who can speak to her owner Paul Gustavson.   Stella is old and mostly immobile; she is fully prepared for her upcoming last trip to the vet.   Are the similarities a bit obvious?

I Thought You Were Dead starts off as a truly hilarious story due to Stella’s wise, sarcastic and biting voice.   The dog realizes that her divorced owner is pretty much a loser – he’s a hack writer who writes for the Moron series of books (like The Moron’s Guide to Nature, Paul’s current assignment).   Paul has a girlfriend, Tamsen, who takes out insurance in the form of a second boyfriend.   Paul might as well have the Beatles’ song “I’m A Loser” playing in the background of his life.

Stella’s spirit keeps the reader glued to the story until the point at which her health takes a turn for the worse, although it is not a fatal turn.   Because Stella looks at life as something to be enjoyed and valued in times of good health, she does not desire to hang around as something to be pitied when she drops stool around the house and has to be carried up and down the stairs.   In this, as in other things, she’s wiser than her owner.   Stella, in her wisdom, eventually convinces Paul that he must set up an appointment for her to be euthanized.

It is at the point of Stella’s sad death that the novel pretty much comes to an end.   Oh, Nelson continues it with a secondary plot about Paul’s father having a stroke and Paul having to come to terms with his past in order to understand his future.   Right…  It seems that Paul’s father crashed a family car when Paul and his siblings were young and tragedy ensued, a fact that everyone must deal with again for reasons that are not quite clear.   Paul is supposed to learn a great lesson when his father, recovering from a stroke, tells him not to drink.

One wonders if something happened in the author’s life that is being revealed here as a form of catharsis?   If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an author wrestled with his past in the form of thinly disguised fictional events.   In the forthcoming book The Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes admits to including a factual incident in a novel he wrote – the night his father crashed the family automobile, “drunk and doing ninety.”

The family story in Dead feels like a secondary plot that was tacked on as the author could not decide what to write about once Stella the dog was removed from the spotlight in this novel.   It’s unfortunate as the glue lines attaching the funny and overly downcast plots are almost visible.   With Stella gone, the story limps painfully and overly slowly along to a conclusion – a disappointing one – that will come too late for the average reader.

There are some who criticize Anna Quindlen (unfairly in my eyes) for what they view as her slow and detached style.   Quindlen’s latest family novel, Every Last One, virtually soars compared to the final few plodding chapters of Dead.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   This one starts off as cute as a puppy before it turns into an old tired dog of a story.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Free Fallin’

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