Tag Archives: Pamela Dorman Books

Not So Harmonious

harmony

Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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An Interview with Jojo Moyes

JojoMoyesMe Before You

Jojo Moyes is the English author of Me Before You: A Novel, which is already an international bestseller. Her prior novel was The Last Letter from Your Lover. She recently completed a tour of bookstores in northern California and here she answers a few questions.

Q: Tell us a little about where your ideas for your characters and their stories come from.

A: They come from all over the place. It’s often a snippet of conversation or a news story that just lodges in my head and won’t go away. Sometimes I get an idea for a character too, and then unconsciously start knitting them together. Me Before You is the most “high concept” book I’ve ever written – in that I could describe it in two sentences. But most of them are a lot more organic, and just contain lots of ideas and things that I’ve pulled together. With this book I think the issue of quality of life was probably to the front of my mind as I have/had two relatives who were facing life in care homes, and I know that in one case she would probably have chosen any alternative to that existence.

Q: Which of the characters in Me Before You do you identify with the most?

A: Well, there’s definitely a bit of Lou in there. I did have a pair of stripy tights that I loved as a child! I think you have to identify with all your characters to some extent, or they just don’t come off the page properly. But I also identify with Camilla a bit. As a mother I can’t imagine the choice she has to make, and I could imagine in those circumstances you would just shut down a bit emotionally.

Q: We love the way you draw the social distinction between Lou’s working-class upbringing and Will’s upper-class background. Did you do that deliberately to introduce humor into what could otherwise have been a deeply tragic situation?

A: Yes I did. I thought that the subject was so bleak potentially that it was important to have a lot of humor in the book. But it adds a useful tension to the narrative too: offsetting the warmth and chaos of Lou’s home life with the more formal and reserved nature of Will’s relationship with her parents. And it gives Lou an added reason to feel totally out of her depth once she arrives there. From the point of the reader, it also gives Will a subtle advantage that is vital if we are to see him as Lou’s equal, and not just an object of pity.

Q: Your books always have an incredibly moving love story at the heart of them. What is it about the emotional subject of love that makes you want to write about it?

A: I have no idea! I’m not very romantic in real life. I guess love is the thing that makes us do the most extraordinary things – the emotion that can bring us highest or lowest, or be the most transformative – and extremes of emotion are always interesting to write about.

Q: Have you ever cried while writing a scene in any of your book?

A: Always. If I don’t cry while writing a key emotional scene, my gut feeling is it’s failed. I want the reader to feel something while reading – and making myself cry has become my litmus test as to whether that’s working. It’s an odd way to earn a living.

Q: Where do you write? Do you set hours or just put pen to paper when inspiration strikes?

A: I work in roughly set hours, but with three children and a lot of animals I’ve found you have to be flexible. If there are no disruptions I roll out of bed and straight to my desk and work from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., and then again after I’ve done the animals from roughly 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. My ideal time to work would be from 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. – but unfortunately that only happens if I go away and hide in a hotel.

Q: When you form characters do you ever incorporate aspects from people you know?

A: Yes – but often without realizing (it). Luckily if you write a negative character trait people are rarely likely to recognize themselves. More often though the characters have elements of myself which I then stetch and exaggerate until they become their own. Lou, for example, contains something of the character I could well have been if I had married the man I got engaged to at 17. I would have led a very different life.

Note: Me Before You is an Amazon Book of the Month for January 2013. “(It’s) a word-of-mouth sensation from Britain.” USA Today

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Me Before You

Me Before You

Me Before You: A Novel by British author Jojo Moyes was released in the U.S. on December 31, 2012, by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. It’s already a bestselling book in 28 other countries, and is often compared with One Day: “…an emotionally powerful tale of an unlikely love affair between two people who represent each other’s last hope.” The bestselling author Adriana Trigiani (The Shoemaker’s Wife) said this:

“Jojo Moyes has written the perfect modern love story. Me Before You can be wickedly funny, and in a phrase, make you weep. You will be astonished at what you feel, and what you hope for when you are forced to face the possibility of your own dreams. It’s that good. Read it now.”

Added Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters:

Me Before You is… funny and hopeful and heartbreaking, the kind of story that will keep you turning pages into the night. Lou Clark and Will Traynor will capture your heart and linger there long after their story has ended.”

Here is a synopsis of the novel:

Louisa Clark (or Lou, as she’s known) lives a life about as big as the tiny English village she calls home. She loves being a waitress and figures she’ll eventually marry Patrick, her longtime boyfriend. When she unexpectedly loses her job, she must scramble to replace the income that her tight-knit family depends on. Out of desperation, she takes a job working for ex-Master of the Universe Will Traynor. Will used to live a life full of high-stakes deals, adventurous vacations, and beautiful women. Now, due to a tragic accident, his life is suddenly restricted beyond his control and he has lost all desire to live.

Will keeps everyone at a distance with his caustic and high-handed attitude. Unlike his family, however, Lou refuses to tiptoe around him and cater to his bad moods. Soon they become exactly what the other needs. Seeing how hopeless Will is about his future, Lou plans a series of adventures (and mis-adventures) to try to convince him that his life can be worth living. In turn, Will attempts to persuade Lou that she doesn’t have to confine herself to the small existence she’s settled for so far. As they set about changing each other’s lives, what emerges is a love story that is as complex as it is beautiful.

Tomorrow we’ll have a 7-question interview with Jojo Moyes. See you then.

Joseph Arellano

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger, which will be released on February 20, 2012.   “A page-turning debut novel about a wealthy New York family embroiled in the biggest financial scandal of our time.”

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The Darlings

Imagine if the Bernie Madoff scandal had become public only after his death.   This is one of the key plot elements in The Darlings: A Novel by debut author Cristina Alger.   The Darlings will not be released until February 20, 2012, but you can read the first 33 pages now:

http://cristinaalger.com/about-the-darlings-by-cristina-alger/excerpt-from-the-darlings-by-cristina-alger

Joseph Arellano

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