Tag Archives: Michelle Richmond

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.

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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/

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Riders on the Storm

Rescuing Olivia by Julie Compton

Julie Compton has produced an engaging and unique mystery in this, her second novel.   Such is the good news.   The bad is that in reading Rescuing Olivia I was reminded of The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond which shared the same two stylistic drawbacks.  

I loved Richmond’s novel No One You Know which had a near perfect start-to-finish flow.   But Fog was, in Richmond’s own judgment, “somewhat drawn out.”   There was also the distracting fact that a story very comfortably set in northern California was diverted in part to Nicaragua.   As I wrote earlier, “This seemed quite unnecessary.”

Rescuing Olivia is a good story but harder to read than Compton’s legal thriller Tell No Lies.   And while Olivia is just 16 pages longer than Lies, it felt drawn out.   It felt quite a bit longer.   Further, this story set in Florida (the author’s home state) is arbitrarily moved to Africa in what becomes essentially a second book.   I could not understand the need for the device.   It seemed, once again, unnecessary.

Story wise, Olivia presents a movie-like plot.   Anders Erickson is an everyday guy whose girlfriend Olivia Mayfield is quite rich.   Olivia’s picked out an initially reluctant Anders to be her boyfriend rather than vice-versa.

“Anders had known all along…  that he was but a blip on the radar screen of her life.”

Anders has never had an accident riding his motorcycle until he and Olivia are run off the road by a large black Mercedes sedan.   Olivia winds up in the hospital in critical condition and Anders is led to believe that she’s died from her injuries; that is, until he finds out that she’s been taken away.   The responsible parties may include her controlling father and her former fiancée.    Anders vows to find Olivia before she’s further harmed or killed.

Yes, this is a great set-up, but the execution is just not as smooth as it was in Lies.   There never seemed to be a loose thread in Lies, but in Olivia a few patches are visible.   Part of this is due to character development.   Anders is real and sympathetic.   Olivia is presented with the right amount of mysteriousness for a leading lady.   It’s the other characters that seem to be less than plausible, from Anders’ best friend Lenny, to his former girlfriend Shel.   Then there’s the African native Makena, an employee of the Mayfield family, who raised Olivia from birth.   From first appearance, the reader is given the impression that Makena is a critical character yet the story could have been told without her.

But don’t let me give you the wrong overall impression.   Once you begin reading Rescuing Olivia, you will want to keep reading to see how the mystery of Olivia’s disappearance is resolved.   The same is true of the Anders-Olivia love story.

The criticisms here result from the natural difficulty Compton encountered in fashioning a follow-up to the almost flawless Tell No Lies.   I’d like to think that she might present us with another taut legal thriller in the next year or so.   A Scott Turow-like courtroom drama would be just fine.

Actually, forget about the comparisons to Turow or Grisham…   I have the feeling that Compton’s got the stuff to deliver her own blockbuster in the not-too-distant future.

Recommended.

A review copy was provided by Minotaur Books.

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Dave Eggers Goes Retro

It’s derivative…

“…we, the loudmouths who so cloyingly espouse the unshackling of one’s ideas about work and life…”

“If you don’t want anyone to know about your existence, you might as well kill yourself…   You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of dignity.”A heartbreaking work

There’s been an ongoing dispute over Dave Eggers.   His initial novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out in 2000 (hardbound) and 2001 (trade paperback).   Some viewed him as a genius – “like a young Bob Dylan” in the words of the Washington Post – while others just found his writing style to be clever.   After reading this book, I tend to concur with the latter group.   Eggers is clearly funny and he has an obvious knack for writing humor but content-wise there’s not much here.   Heartbreaking is a bit like Seinfeld, which was a TV show about nothing.

Here Eggers fictionalizes his own life, when both of his parents die while he’s in his early twenties and he moves from Lake Forest, Illinois to Berkeley.   Oh, and he also takes care of his nine-year-old brother while his sister studies law at Bolt Hall.   That’s about it for the plot except for Eggers’s work in starting a magazine and auditioning for The Real World, MTV’s so-called reality show.   (Eggers, of course, is not selected to live in the fun house in San Francisco.)

Eggers seems to be at his best when telling shaggy dog stories.   For example, he tells a story of when he and a date were jumped on a San Francisco beach by a group of Hispanics.   He blames them for stealing his late father’s wallet but the reader figures out halfway through the lark that Eggers left the wallet at home in Berkeley.   Not so clever or funny.

Eggers looks back more than once at the 70’s.   But this book is actually a throw back to the 60’s, and this is the biggest flaw with Eggers’s not-so-unique style.   While the style is entertaining, it’s a blatant return to the Gonzo rock journalism practiced back then by Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres (who appears as himself in the novel The Year of Fog) and others too obvious to mention.  

Reading this “work of fiction” in which all the events are said to “have actually happened,” is like hearing a newly formed rock band that sounds like the Beatles and Badfinger.   One would be tempted to say, “Good work but we’ve already been there, done that.”   Next.

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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The Year of Fog

The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond

With a few small reservations, I very much liked Michelle Redmond’s latest novel, No One You Know. I liked The Year of Fog, her preceding novel, even better.   For me, the story flowed much easier and more naturally without strange detours or author’s tricks.   I also was unable to predict what was going to happen at the end of the tale.   Perhaps most importantly, while Fog deals with the very unpleasant subject of a child’s abduction, Richmond’s telling of the story was uniquely calming.

In No One, the city of San Francisco comes off as part of the back stage.   In Fog, the city is an essential part of the story as main character Abby Mason wanders its streets looking for Emma (the child of the man she’s engaged to).   There’s even a cute scene included that involves the much-favored Dog Eared Books.

I so much enjoyed reading Fog that I will likely now go searching for the author’s first novel, Dream of the Blue Room. Remember how you felt about a rock band that you “discovered”?   Their first and second albums always seemed like their best work, but by albums three and four they either became sadly repetitive or seemed to annoyingly change for the sake of pleasing new-found (and late arriving) fans.   I’m not saying that this analogy applies to Michelle Richmond.   I am saying that, by virtue of fate or good luck, I’m glad to have found this intriguing writer.

Joseph Arellano

Note: As I was reading Fog, Sting’s CD The Dream of the Blue Turtles kept going through my mind.   But then there is a logical connection…   The book is about a very much loved child going lost with horrible consequences for the lives of those close to her.   Sting’s album focused on the love of children and the controlling desire to protect them from harm.   The Blue Turtles song titles eerily relate to what occurs in Fog: If You Love Someone Set Them Free, Love is the Seventh Wave, Shadows in the Rain, Russians (“I hope the Russians love their children too”), Fortress Around Your Heart and Consider Me Gone.   And then consider how close the album title, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is to the title of Richmond’s initial novel, The Dream of the Blue Room!Fog (kindle)

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Coming Up Next…

Fog 2A review of The Year of Fog, a novel by Michelle Richmond (No One You Know).

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Mystery to Me

No One You KnowWhen Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he called it a non-fiction novel.   With No One You Know, Michelle Richmond has written what might be called the fictional true crime story.   Ellie Enderlin lives in San Francisco where she works as a coffee buyer, traveling to many countries to find the very best beans.   Her sister Lila, a math genius, was murdered 20 years earlier while studying at Stanford.   Things have come together in such a way for Ellie that she thinks its time to find out who killed Lila, and why.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this story and Michelle Richmond’s writing style is smooth and easy to follow.   Anyone who has lived in or loves San Francisco will connect with certain places and scenes in the book (the main character went to college at U.S.F.).   Richmond also has a sly sense of humor…   In one scene Ellie steps into a coffee house that features books having a certain theme.   This time the theme is fog, and one of the books featured is Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco.   Then there’s, “a novel that I’d read recently, a sort of literary mystery about a kidnapping set in San Francisco.   The book had been interesting, if somewhat drawn out.”   In this way Richmond both references and makes fun of her earlier book, The Year of Fog.   Clever!

But there was a problem and it went to believability.   Early on, Richmond puts Ellie together with a former Stanford student who was thought to be a prime suspect in her sister’s death; what today would be called “a person of interest.”   But instead of permitting them to meet in the Bay Area, she transports both to the village of Diriomo, Nicaragua.   This seemed quite unnecessary – I still don’t see the rationale for it – and it made me wonder if I would find the remainder of the story to be credible.   Fortunately, Richmond’s telling makes a full recovery.   But…

The story also seemed about 31 pages too long.   The natural ending – the resolution of the basic story – comes at page 275, but it continues on until page 306.   (In Richmond’s own words, somewhat drawn out.)

Despite a couple of issues mentioned here, I look forward to reading Richmond’s next novel.   I may also read The Year of Fog, a book I decided earlier to by-pass due to its subject matter.   Richmond’s strengths lie in addressing the topics of morality, trust, human relationships, love and loss.   In No One You Know, she makes a superb case for the need to learn (and accept) the truth about those we love – because the truth defines them in human scale, in human terms.   And as Jackson Browne would remind us, sometimes we didn’t know what it was that we loved about another person.   The love was enough.

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