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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

 

 

 

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Life in a Minor Key

Saving Grace (Amazon)

Saving Grace: A Novel by Jane Green (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 320 pages)

Take one bratty American husband and pair him with an English wife who walks on eggshells. Next, stir in a sense of impending doom. Jane Green, a prolific author (Tempting Fate: A Novel), casts an easily believable couple in this, her 16th novel. As one who has, in a past marriage, known the atmosphere in which Grace Chapman lives, this reviewer was initially hesitant to read through the novel.

The slightly off-kilter telling builds a sense of gloom and has a hint of the Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. Ted Chapman, an aging author, takes on a new assistant named Beth. Beth quickly takes over the household and pretty much shoves wife Grace to the side.

By page 150, there is a strong question bound to pop up in the reader’s mind, “Is this entertainment?” If not, it might drag the reader into a past best forgotten. As it is, the tale has many lessons to teach, the best of them is to take care of yourself! Being who you are is a reward!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon, and more.

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Not the One

The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch (Shaye Areheart Books, June 1, 2010)

“…I wonder if being too satisfied with your life and becoming numb to it aren’t somehow intertwined.   Like there isn’t something just as dangerous about playing it safe.”

It’s odd to love a novel by a writer and then be disappointed by her next effort.   That is the position this reviewer is in with the release of Allison Winn Scotch’s The One That I Want, which follows her very successful Time of My Life.   Lifewas a glorious read with a plot that was a variation on the storyline in the film “Peggy Sue Got Married.”   In Scotch’s novel a young woman isn’t sure that she’s made the best choices in her life and wishes she could return to a certain point in her life.   In Time of My Life the protagonist Jillian Westfield is a 34-year-old woman – married with a husband and a toddler – who is permitted to return to the age of 27 (her life becomes a “do over”).   The reader follows along to see if Jillian can make better use of these 7 years with the so-called benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

It was easy to identify with Jillian Westfield from page one and the story seemed to move along effortlessly.   Author Scotch also provided the reader with some very nice insights such as noting that in romantic relationships, “One person is always changing too much and the other not enough.”   Unfortunately, The One That I Want does not share the positives of Life.

In The One, our protagonist is Tilly Farmer, a 32-year-old young woman with the seemingly perfect marriage and life.   Then everything falls apart, not gradually but all at once.   If this were not bad enough, Farmer is given the gift of seeing the future, although it’s not a gift she welcomes.   It’s an unpleasant gift as her future looks bleak.

It’s obvious that Scotch has fashioned an inside-out version of her earlier novel here.   But Tilly Farmer is hard to identify with – she’s externally forgiving of other’s faults but boils inside.   This reviewer felt that he never actually knew the character even after 288 pages.   There’s also the awkward means by which Farmer’s fortune-telling skills are triggered.   It would have been easy to have her experience visions in her sleep or in daydreams.   But, no, Farmer must experience painful blackouts – she sees the future only while unconscious.   Farmer pays for her views into the future by experiencing physical trauma, and this makes the reader uncomfortable and less willing to wait for the next such incident.

A number of things happen in this novel that strain credulity from the outset.   But perhaps the key is that in Life Scotch wrote a complete story, almost as if it came to her all at once.   With this story, it felt as if Scotch was writing it a line, a paragraph, a page at a time; the flow is not present.   A number of the sentences are awkward and stiff, such as this second half of a long sentence:  “…I realize that lessons are meant to be learned, honored even, or else you spend your life running so far from them that you erect a false existence around the very thing you should be embracing.”

Perhaps Scotch was playing it safe here; in any case, this novel felt strangely numbing.   It never came to life.   Her fictional journey into the past in Time of My Life was satisfying in a way that The One That I Want – a journey into the future – is not.   Apparently Jackson Browne got it wrong – it’s simply not easier to change the future than the past.

Take Away:   Pass on this one and pick up a copy of Time of My Life instead.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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