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The Unforgiven

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

“Grant had never forgiven her for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago…”

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C., Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry him; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their twin toddlers.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.   Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who’s home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is popular fiction wrapped in the guises of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with  Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her married, pregnant daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in stories such as this one.   After another set of implausible events (the second of two sets, if you’re counting), Annabelle has moved to New York City to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will either seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a stretch.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is sometimes plodding by comparison and the time shifts are awkward and distracting.   There may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This is the third of three reviews of The Stuff That Never Happened posted on this site.   The novel was well recommended by Kelly Monson, and highly recommended by Kimberly Caldwell.

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re conducting the first part of an interview with Maddie Dawson, author of the novel The Stuff That Never Happened.   Kimberly Caldwell (KC) asks the questions in this stage of the interview.

1.  KC:   The Stuff That Never Happened is about a woman who weighs the allure of an old lover against the solid dependability of a marriage she seems to be outgrowing.   Where did the idea for the novel come from?   Is it autobiographical?

MD:  I suppose in some senses, all novels have autobiographical elements in them.   Authors are always using their own experiences as springboards for the torture we put our characters through.   That being said, nothing specifically about Annabelle’s situation is anything like my life.   But I was once in love with a man who, while not precisely married, had little children and a complicated life with the mother of those children…  and we had a crazy, up and down relationship for a long time, with lots of drama and thrills and chills until the day we finally broke up for good.   And then one day, fifteen years later, I got on a train and there he was, in a nearly empty train car, and we had a two-hour ride together.   It seemed almost pre-designed by a kindly universe to give us a chance to look at what had been, to compare our lives – and to reflect about what it had all meant.

Frankly, it didn’t mean very much.   (Real life can be so boring sometimes.)   He was as impossible as I remembered, vague and noncommittal, and just as infuriating to talk to as he ever was.   We parted, both of us grateful, I think, that things hadn’t worked out for us way back when.   Still, it got me doing that thing I’ve been doing my whole life: thinking how much more interesting things might be if life was a novel.   After that, it seemed everywhere I looked everybody had a what-if person tucked away, someone to think about when real life seemed unsatisfying.

And so the character of Annabelle was born, a woman who married too young to Grant, a man she barely knew, and who then fell in love with someone else during the first year of her marriage.   After a time apart, Annabelle and Grant manage to reunite and go on to have a happy life together, raising children and creating a stable life and community in his home town in New Hampshire.   They make a pact never to speak about Annabelle’s betrayal again, to pretend it just never happened so that they can go on.

What I was mostly interested in exploring in this novel was what came next for Annabelle and Grant: the stuff that came after the kids leave home, after their family responsibilities are over.   It’s then that the cracks in their marriage really become apparent.   Grant realizes the sacrifice he’d made in his career to stay married to Annabelle and feels compelled to catch up; Annabelle realizes that she’s stifled in a life that no longer seems to need her, and she senses Grant’s long, leftover anger.

But what is one to do?   Are we just supposed to settle for living with past memories, or do we still have a life ahead of us to create?   After twenty-eight years together, is it even possible to start over?   To me, that’s when the story really begins: with Annabelle’s realization that she doesn’t know anymore what she owes herself and what she owes Grant and her children; what she will lose by remaining unhappy  in her marriage, or by venturing out into the unknown, or traveling back to the past.

2.   KC:  How did you decide how to present the story?   When you began did you know what Annabelle’s decision would be?

MD:  Ha!   What an interesting question!   As it happens, I didn’t know what Annabelle’s decision would be.   Sometimes I thought she would stay with her husband, but there were times I was sure that her old lover had been the right one for her.   For a while, when I was writing, I thought maybe she’d end up with neither of them – a woman alone making her way through the world.   I just kept writing, sure that one answer would emerge.   And as happens in novels – unlike real life – things finally seemed to settle themselves clearly in one direction over the other.   I’ve heard from lots of readers who have said they were so relieved at the way it turned out, but I have one dear friend who says she still wishes Annabelle had made the other decision.

As for the presentation of the story, I wrote it in two periods: the past, 1978-80, when Annabelle and Grant first met as students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and impulsively married and moved to New York, and then in the present, 2005, when their lives are settled in New Hampshire and their children have left home.   I wanted to tell it this way because both time periods were equally compelling to me.   I didn’t want to simply tell the 1970s stuff in flashback, but to let the events unfold as part of the main story.

3. KC:  What makes novels about other people’s relationships compelling?

MD:  I think we’re all hungry for details of other people’s stories.   And, let’s face it, romantic relationships carry an extra wallop of mystery to them.   How many times do you look at couples you know and think, “What in the world can they possibly see in each other?”   Perhaps we’re trying to answer that mystery at the heart of ourselves: why am I with this particular person?   Will we be able to last?   Do we have it better or worse than other people?

In novels, I think, relationships make sense.   They have reason and nuance, and we can peek in other people’s insides and compare them to our own.   I love riding around in someone else’s head for a while.   It helps me to understand myself much better.

To be continued… (In the concluding section of this interview, we have four additional questions for Maddie to answer.)

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Win the Life You’ve Imagined

No, we don’t have magical powers but, thanks to Avon Books/HarperCollins, we do have two (2) copies to give away of The Life You’ve Imagined: A Novel by Kristine Riggle.   This trade paperback book has a value of $13.99.   Here is an official synopsis:

Are you living the life you imagined?   Is there anything you’d have done differently if you could?   Those are the questions asked in Kristina Riggle’s unforgettable novel.

In high school, Cami and Anna were as close as they could be…  now, years later, both have returned to their hometown to face the people they had once left behind.   Anna must confront her mother, still distraught over the abandonment of her husband, and come to terms with choices she had made years before.   While Cami returns home to stay with her alcoholic father, she uncovers a secret he sought to keep which could change her life and salvage her future.   They reconnect with their classmate, Amy, who can’t understand why achieving the thin body and handsome man of her dreams hasn’t given her the happily-ever-after life she desired.

This is a novel that digs deep and touches the heart of the issues so many women face – the quest for perfection, the hope of love, the value of family and the importance of always striving for your dream.

Here are a couple of comments about this novel:

“(Riggle) explores what happens when real life diverges sharply from childhood dreams.   Her strong and complicated female characters are interesting and likable, and she ably weaves together multiple story lines.”   Booklist

“Rich, messy and real…  Kristina Riggle is going to be my official go-to for novels about the complications of everyday life.”   The Devourer of Books

In order to enter this giveaway, you should answer the key question, “Are you living the life you imagined?”   You can post your response below, or if you prefer send an e-mail with your reply to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, post your answer to the question, “What is the one thing in your life that you absolutely would not change?”

In order to be eligible to win a book, you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. Box or to a business-related address.   The two winners will be drawn at random by our highly experienced contest administrator, Munchy the cat.   You have until Midnight PST on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 to enter.

This is it for the highly complex contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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Son of Your Father

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, August 2010)

“Every writer is alone…”

This is a memoir about a writer, Tom Grimes, whose idol was famous for writing a memoir.   It began as a eulogy written by Grimes for Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time: A Memoir that was published in 1977.   Grimes decided to expand that eulogy by writing in detail about how he came to be discovered by Conroy, a noted instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   This, however, describes just half of the narrative – the book might just as easily have been titled A Writing Life, as it fully details the obstacles, impediments and vagaries that can overwhelm an ambitious young writer.

Interestingly, Grimes and Conroy first happened to meet when the former was an applicant to the Workshop.   The meeting went so badly that Grimes left and destroyed his copy of Stop-Time.   But Conroy randomly happened to read the manuscript for a novel written by Grimes, and greased his admission into the Iowa Writer’s program.   Conroy and Grimes had such an obvious father-and-son relationship that many of Grimes’ fellow students derided him as Conroy’s “golden boy.”

In the sections where Grimes writes about Conroy, I was reminded of the tone used by John Gunther in Death Be Not Proud, the account of his son’s death at the age of 17.   The tone is quiet, sad, respectful.   (Especially as Grimes comes to regret the periods where he failed to keep in touch with Conroy.)   In contrast, the writing has a sometimes jarring quality when Grimes details his own rollercoaster-like (and manic) career as a young author.   With the strong support of Conroy, Grimes’ first novel resulted in a small bidding war among publishers for the rights.   Grimes went for the highest pay-day only to find that the promised public relations campaign for his novel was never to materialize.   And then no publisher wanted Grimes’ second novel.

Grimes clearly covers his descent into depression and near-madness in a manner that only some will wish to read.   The more fascinating pages are the ones where he provides a view into the world of publishing; it’s a world where a writer can be offered a high six-figure advance one day and find that the offer has dropped to the very lowest of five figures the next.

“You’ve changed my life…  love, love, love.”

This memoir concludes in a way that the reader will find – depending on his/her perspective – either encouraging or unimpressive.   Grimes was 54 at the time he wrote Mentor, the same age that Conroy was when the student-writer Grimes met his most important instructor.   Grimes is now a college-level journalism professor.   He teaches in Texas rather than in Iowa, but serves as a replica of Frank Conroy.   This can be viewed as a heartfelt, living, tribute to his mentor or, alternatively, as the reliving of a life that had already run its course.

This reader found this to be an admirable and frank memoir of two lives that, for all of its stark candor, fell just a bit short of being the type of inspirational story that one would read and subsequently re-read.   The first half of the account was far more engaging than the second half.   Mentor leaves one with a sense of sadness and wariness about life, which was likely the writer’s intent.

Takeaway:   This is a memoir that some (writers, mainly) will love – they will view it as a loving tribute to a teacher from his student.   Others will understandably see it as a bit too unvarnished.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Upside Down

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C, Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry Grant; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their toddler twins.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.  Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who is home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is chick lit (popular fiction) disguised in the trappings of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly has died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her  pregnant, married daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in novels such as this one.   After another set of implausible events, Annabelle has moved to the city to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a status she has not earned.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is occasionally plodding by comparison and the time shifts are distracting.   There also may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff. 

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Stuff That Never Happened was released on August 3, 2010.

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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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