Tag Archives: the past

The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets: A Novel by Dianne Dixon (Anchor; $14.99; 272 pages)

Tracing our steps from the beginning/ Until they vanished into the air/ Trying to understand how our lives had led us there…   Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky”

“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline…  She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”

It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small.   The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon.   This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher.   But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life.   He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston.   “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts.   In bits and pieces.   Out of nowhere.”

In this tale by a Hollywood scriptwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful.   It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger.   He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations.   “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings…  It marked and branded you.   And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”

The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from.   “Mom, I don’t need a house.   I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio.   I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love.   I have no interest in getting married and settling down…  (This house was) a nice place to grow up in.   But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult.   You grow up.   You move on.”

So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother.   But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents.   In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life.   Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.

Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel.   There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage.   Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult:  “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”

Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead.   In The Language of Secrets, life is not what it seems to be.   This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events.   (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred?   And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe our own version of what happened?)

The difficulty with reading The Language of Secrets is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place.   The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just don’t chart out in sequence.   Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.

The great revelation perhaps never did come.   Virginia Woolf

The Language of Secrets is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation.   This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order.   Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“A lovely and compelling debut.”   Kristin Hannah, author of Distant Shores and Night Road.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Virginia Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton.

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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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When I Was Young

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $15.00; 288 pages)

last-time-i-saw-you

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg is a novel guaranteed to appeal to Boomers.   It’s the story of 58-year-olds who attended Whitley High School together and who are gathering for what is said to be their “last reunion.”   Why they won’t be gathering again is never clear, but we do know that the glamorous Candy Sullivan has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.   Her husband insists that this is just a first opinion, but Candy knows better and is determined to enjoy what little time is left to her.

“The diagnosis let her recalculate the meaning of time and relationships.”

Berg, the author of Home Safe, has a smooth and relaxing style and she’s at her best when describing human vulnerabilities.   At one point, a male character feels sorry for the spouses who have been dragged along to the reunion.   Then “all of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.  Here they all are, these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

The Last Time celebrates the joy of spending moments with those who knew you in times past, while highlighting the futility of getting them to accept you as a new and different person.   It’s an enjoyable read that’s deeper than it first appears.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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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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