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God Bless the Child

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper; $14.99; 304 pages)

“…an engaging and engrossing novel…  counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.”

If you had asked me a few weeks or months ago if I’d be interested in reading a novel about adoptions I suppose I would have replied in the negative.   However, debut author Chandra Hoffman’s novel Chosen has the benefit of being set in Portland, Oregon which tipped the scales in favor of placing it on my to-be-read list.   It is, all in all, an engaging and engrossing novel; however, the pluses are counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.

This is primarily the story of Chloe Pinter, the director of Portland’s Chosen Child domestic adoption program.   Although Chosen Child is a fictional program (charging prospective adoption parents tens of thousands of dollars in fees), Hoffman worked as an orphanage relief worker in Eastern Europe, and so she knows of what she writes here.   Chloe is a young, ambitious woman engaged to a restless young daredevil who makes no money, and who is content to delay their marriage as long as possible.   As we meet her, Chloe has convinced herself – perhaps falsely – that she loves nothing more than combining otherwise abandoned children with couples for whom adoption is a last chance at parenthood.

All those adoptions where she believed she was creating a family, playing the puppeteer, chosing the right parents for this baby, or the perfect baby for the best couple.

The interest and tension in this story builds as Chloe must deal with flawed human beings, birth parents who decide to give up a child and then change their minds, and prospective adoptive parents who feel like their lives will be over if the planned adoption does not go through.   All of the parties involved express their frustrations to Chloe, who soon realizes that she – like her boyfriend – would rather be in Hawaii, or anywhere else where she would not have to deal with other people’s problems.

One of the unfortunate issues with this read is that Hoffman populates the story with a few too many characters for the reader to follow.   Unless you take notes as you’re reading, you may become confused as to who is who, especially as the characters include not only adoptive and birth parents, but also a couple that considered adoption before having their own child through natural means.

A more significant issue arises when Hoffman is compared (as on the back of the book cover) to writer Chris Bohjalian.   I attempted to read Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Night Strangers, but had to give up in frustration.   Bohjalian writes well but tends to insert sex scenes that seem to come from off of the stage – without context or introduction – and that are ultimately distracting.   They do nothing to advance the story being told.   Hoffman does the same here; all of the sex-related scenes could have been edited out without doing any harm to the tale.   And like Bohjalian, Hoffman writes comfortably about prosperous people – in this case, Volvo station wagon driving couples living in Portland Heights – but fails to be convincing when she writes about the gritty folks who live on the wrong side of town.   Part of this may be due to the locale she selected, as Chloe admits that while there are tougher parts of Portland, there are no truly dangerous sections in the greater city area.

To restate this, the harsh and adult content which is a key part of Chosen does not seem to come naturally to Hoffman.   Tough language and rough situations sometimes seem jarringly out-of-place in this story and require a suspension of belief that may be beyond the capacity of some readers.   As an example, when Chloe is threatened by some rough characters, she never has the street smarts to alert the local police, which would seem unlikely in a protagonist as seemingly intelligent as Chloe Pinter.

It is so much easier when, after the parents have signed, everyone simply retreats back to their corners, disappears.   The adoptive parents into the all consuming babyland, the birth parents drifting on, carrying their grief with them like battered travel trunks.

To Hoffman’s credit, she crafts a very satisfying conclusion to this tale, one in which we find that the bad actors are not quite as bad as they seem.   The ending may redeem any flaws that precede it for a majority of readers.   Personally, I view Hoffman as a new author with great potential who would benefit from developing a writing style that discourages comparisons with Chris Bohjalian or Jodi Picoult.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “…(An) unflinching and suspense-filled account of the pleasures and perils of domestic adoption.”   Los Angeles Times

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Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

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Building a Mystery

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw (Anchor; $15.00; 320 pages)

“I will never get enough of you.   I will never have enough.   I will never have enough.”

Author Holly LeCraw has produced something quite distinctive in this, her debut, a male romance novel.   It’s a romance novel, told from a male’s perspective (and from the perspective of the woman he pursues), about a young man who wants something he cannot have – his late father’s mistress.

Jed McClatchy leaves his big city job to join his harried married sister Callie in Cape Cod.   There he happens to encounter one Marcella di Pavarese Atkinson, who seven years earlier had an affair with Jed’s dad.   As a teenager, Jed was attracted to Marcella from the moment he spotted her in a sexy swim suit at an adult pool party.   Now he finds the very same swim suit stored in the attic of his late parents’ home.

Jed is attracted to Marcella physically, while emotionally and psychologically he’s tied to her in a desperate search for answers…  It seems that after Jed’s father, Cecil, promised Marcella that he would leave his wife Betsy for her, Betsy was found brutally murdered.   And then soon after Cecil died under mysterious circumstances.   Was Marcella involved in these events?   If not, what exactly did she know about this cataclysmic time?

“He was furious, again, that he could not stop wanting her.”

Subconsciously, Jed must wonder (as does the reader) whether he wants Marcella because she’s the one thing his very important father was never allowed to possess; or perhaps it is because she was the dangerous woman who was involved in eliminating her only competition, Jed’s straight-laced mother.   At any rate, this is a very powerful story of obsession – a young man’s obsession with love, lust and the need to solve a family mystery.

“Marcella was trying hard not to tell him that she felt the cooling late-summer days ticking by like she was a condemned woman.   Every night she could physically feel that the sun was setting earlier, the world darkening in response to their looming separateness.   She was having trouble sleeping.   Her life was broken and she did not know how to fix it.”

LeCraw has a fine, calm and sophisticated style that becomes more engaging the farther one is into the telling.   If there’s a weakness here, it’s that making one’s way through the slow opening pages takes a bit of persistence.   (I put the book down after a few dozen pages, but I came to feel well-rewarded once I resumed the read.)   LeCraw’s strength is that the sexual scenes strike just the right balance – they do not simply drop down from the sky, nor are they included for mere titillation.

It’s a bit disorienting to find a debut novel that is truly one of a kind (sui generis) in tone and nature, but this is precisely what LeCraw has delivered here.   Let’s hope for more to come.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Swimming Pool will be released in a trade paperback version on April 19, 2011.   “A fearless novel full of fresh insights and casually elegant writing…”   Atlanta Magazine


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Isn’t It a Pity

13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Reagan Arthur Books; $23.99; 288 pages)

Initially this appears to be a beautifully presented novel based on the possessions of a woman who once lived in the early 1900s (experiencing both World Wars), in Paris.   The graphic reproductions of items owned by Louise Brunet, which came into the author’s possession as a young girl, are reproduced in a high-class manner.   Unfortunately, this story also contains some troubling characteristics which ruined the experience for this reader.

In the early 1980s, the author’s mother salvaged a small box of mementos formerly owned by Mrs. Brunet:  “This box is the sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart.   The story behind the objects is lost; the objects are now the story…  As I have carried this strange box through life and across the world, I have always intended to make a book out of it.   This book now exists; you hold it in your hands.”

It is a charming and promising premise – fleshing out an unknown life via the author’s imagination.   A great deal of the content involves the lives of French people, men and women, during World War I.   The read is initially quite engaging as we encounter an American historical researcher-professor, living in the present day, who comes across Mrs. Brunet’s possessions and begins – as he charts out the happenings of her life – to fall in love with her.   It will be an unrequited love except for the fact that through a miracle of time travel he comes to meet her face to face.   Having met Mrs. Brunet, the researcher is essentially freed to fall in love with a woman of his own time.

All of this has a Somewhere in Time or The Time Traveler’s Wife aspect to it, which seems wonderful on its face.   And yet, the Louise Brunet that the reader comes to identify with in the first half of the novel turns into a madwoman in its concluding portion.   This is a happily married woman – a woman who has never had a child – who engages in an affair with a married neighbor, knowing full well that it is wrong and that she takes the chance of getting pregnant; something that would destroy her marriage and world.

This female protagonist also engages in crimes and enjoys confessing her sins to a Catholic priest, to the point where she laughs hysterically after confessing her adultery.   It all seems strange and disjointed, as if the two halves of the novel do not fit together properly.   But this is not the biggest issue with the telling.

“She does not understand the power of that man’s body over her…  He is like a poison in her, all the more potent because she doesn’t want an antidote.   She welcomes this disease of desire.”

The major problem with 13 rue Therese is that the sex scenes are described in terms more than a bit reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rude, crude and shocking.   The polite language of an earlier time gives way to terms that appear to be deliberately intended to shock the once comfortable reader.   Perhaps this was done deliberately as an attempt to demonstrate the lack of control that overtakes Louise, a woman ready to destroy her life for a man she’s attracted to even while she does not understand that attraction.

In summary, 13 rue Therese is like one of those schizophrenic films (the movie version of Steve Martin’s Shopgirl comes to mind) that is quite pleasurable for the first hour, but hard to watch for the second.   This is a novel with great potential that simply self-destructs, and concludes in a rather mundane fashion.   It’s a pity.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This novel was released today.

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Do Not Enter

Based Upon Availability: A Novel by Alix Strauss (Harper Paperbacks, 340 pages, $13.99)

“Living with a ghost is easier than living alone.”

If the idea of reading about the fictional lives of eight highly dysfunctional and miserable women makes you giddy with excitement, you might like Based Upon Availability.   This novel by Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals, Death Becomes Them) allows one to wallow in misery.   The chief protagonist Morgan, the manager at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, would seem to have it made.   But she’s never gotten over the loss of her younger sister, so she does some very strange things – like having sex with the lowest paid males who work for her and entering the rooms of guests while they’re away.

Oh, yes, we meet the other women – all of whom have big troubles – when Morgan goes inside their room.   That’s the signal that another sad story is about to play out.   It is actually quite a shame because Strauss can write well, “Bernie sounds like a beagle that never comes when you call…  (a man) wearing a golf hat who plays cards with his cronies in Florida.”   But the sex scenes are beyond redemption.   Morgan whispers to her latest conquest so that she can pretend “like (she’s) in a porn video.”

All in all, this is a sad collection of stories which portray life as nothing more than simple torture.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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