As fairy tales go, stepmothers get a bad rap. In the Brothers Grimm version of parenthood, a step mother is liable to eat or poison or curse her husband’s offspring the minute his back is turned. And while there may be actual stepmoms of the Grimm variety, this isn’t a story about that kind. In her debut novel, The Underside of Joy, Seré Prince Halverson tells the tale of two mothers united by their love for one man and his children.
Ella Beene is having an ordinary day in an ordinary life anchored in bucolic Sonoma County. On this particular day, she has kissed her darling husband Joe Capozzi goodbye and sent him on his way and is stealing precious early morning moments with Zack and Annie, Joe’s adoring children. Then without warning, everything Ella believes to be true and good goes sideways. When Joe’s buddy and local lawman Frank Civiletti pulls up the driveway in his police cruiser, he isn’t flashing the lights and running the siren for the delight of the children, as usual. He is ominously subdued as he approaches the house and Ella is quizzical, watching him watch her, watching with growing dread at the wrongness of Frank’s appearance.
Now we stood with the door between us. He looked up with red-rimmed eyes. I turned, headed back down the hallway, heard him open the door.
“Ella,” he said, behind me, “Let’s sit down.”
“No.” His footsteps followed me. I waved him away without turning to see him. “No.”
“Ella. It was a sleeper wave, out at Bodega Head,” he said to my back. “It came out of nowhere.”
As if losing her husband on a perfectly ordinary day isn’t nightmare enough, Ella learns that the family grocery, which had been Joe’s inheritance, is in serious financial trouble and needs help fast or will be sunk. So in addition to helping her kids work out the unthinkable loss of their daddy, she must also find a way to save the store. True to the maxim that trouble comes in threes, Joe’s first wife Paige, the woman who abandoned her children before Ella arrived on the scene, is back and suing for custody of her kids.
Details of her personal disaster continue to unfold and Ella bumps up against demons from her past that insist that family secrets are sacred, and that some things are simply not talked about, ever. Joe’s family does not talk about the internment camps that his Italian immigrant grandfathers were sent to during World War II and how that injustice cut those families in two. Paige doesn’t talk about the abuse she suffered as a child and the depression that led to her giving up her own babies. As a child Ella was punished for telling families secrets, a family convention that forms the crux of her biggest dilemma.
Ella knows that if she withholds certain information, she will be guaranteed custody of Zack and Annie. But despite all possible consequences, Ella appears at the custody hearing and speaks a truth that could cost her dearly. In the end, she makes the choice that any true mom would; she puts what is in the best interest of her children, first. As it turns out, this is the gesture that begins the process of mending her broken family.
THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY
The Underside of Joy, Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel set in the river town of Elbow, California in the Sonoma Valley explores the stepmother terrain from a less than stereotypical point of view. Ella Beene was a woman on the move, trying to outrun her own muted past when she meets her future husband, Joe, and his two children, Annie and Zach. Recently abandoned by their mother, Paige had set her family’s little boat of life adrift when she left them. Her departure was as inexplicable and misunderstood as the human heart and the disease from which she suffered: postpartum depression. Enter Ella Beene who stops in to Joe’s store for a sandwich and steps up to become not only a surrogate mother, but a full blown replacement — no Cinderella stepmother. Ella had tried, relentlessly, to have a baby with an ex of her own and lost both the baby and the marriage. Then she meets Joe and the kids and bingo, instant family. Maybe that’s why the love oozes from these first few pages, for the kids, for Joe, for the in-laws, for the eclectic and asymmetrical cottage with its not-so-great room that Joe and Ella live in, but because it’s a novel and we need a jumping off point, all that falls away even before the end of Chapter One when Joe drowns. Ella had asked few questions of Joe in the last three years, had been satisfied with his meager explanations as to Paige’s departure, and instead spent the time living in the present in another woman’s house with another woman’s family. Ella’s so blissed out by her new life that she doesn’t even realize her husband’s livelihood, the store started by his Italian immigrant grandfather, Sergio, is in trouble, or that Paige has been reaching out to Joe and asking to see the kids. So it’s a huge surprise to Ella when Paige shows up at Joe’s funeral. Secrets coupled with anxieties are a big part of Halverson’s story and all the main characters have a few. While the “aha’s” aren’t huge, they’re satisfying like dinner and an aperitif, bringing closure all around. My criticism of the book has to do with complexity rather than construct. Like Halverson, I am a stepmom and a mom, and while Halverson probably felt every one of Ella Beene’s emotions in the raising of her collective brood, it’s the emotions left out, along with the people, that I am most interested in. Where are the in-laws once removed as I like to call the birth mother’s clan? Aren’t they interested in these children? When we do meet Paige’s aunt later in the book, she feels like an afterthought. And while Halverson spends a lot of time in Ella’s head, I would rather see more of Ella’s heart in her interactions with the people whose goals are the same, but whose methods are diametrically opposed. For example, Joe’s parents are great to Ella — calling her the best thing that’s ever happened to the family — until they’re not (for reasons that you’ll have to read the book to discover). To be fair, some of the stepmom struggle is laid out in the book, but no where near a mirror to the real deal which in stepmom parlance is this: a quilt-like family stitched together like the patchwork fields of Sonoma county, often times at war, even while being on the same side. Despite this, the Underside of Joy is a lovely little story from a budding storyteller whose work will no doubt ripen like a fine vintage wine.
There is a power in naming things, and in her debut novel, The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin names an entire world. Coplin’s voice is poetic and subtle, so that it draws you in and before you know it, you are deeply involved in William Talmadge’s life and dive willingly into the avenues of his apricot orchards tucked away in the remote hills of Wenatchee, Washington.
Talmadge is just a boy when his mother delivers him and his sister across the plains to the fertile fields of Eastern Washington. She plants trees and with the passing of seasons, a farm grows. The mother dies, and the sister vanishes one day, too. Still, Talmadge’s farm prospers, and he with it. A solitary farmer with a few close friends, it seems enough for him.
Then one day, two girls appear at the edge of his field. Clearly runaways, the girls are dirty and hungry. Without comment, Talmadge adopts the feral strangers. He prepares large farm dinners and leaves plates on the porch for the girls, whom, it soon becomes apparent, are both pregnant. Talmadge reasons that the girls are spooked and abused, and on the run from a terror that makes living in the woods and begging food from strangers seem a more reasonable prospect. And so he asks no questions. He prepares a cabin on his property where they can stay if they want, and he makes sure that they are safe and fed.
Soon, a wanted poster appears and Talmadge learns that a reward is being offered for the return of the girls by a man named Michaelson. He travels to see the man for himself, to understand the kind of person that would turn girls into vagrants. Michaelson appears in a drug delirium and offers to clean up a child who toddles into the room, to put a dress on the little girl for Talmadge’s sake, for his purposes, whatever they might be. Understanding the horror of the girls’ past reconciles Talmadge to continue to care for, and protect them.
Talmadge hadn’t know that he was searching for a family, until one found him. What is astonishing about The Orchardist is that it is not merely a story of what family means, but that Coplin’s dexterity with language is so mesmerizing.
He had never been awed by Della, puzzled by her – never was relieved when she left. Never missed her severe quirk, her tendernesses that cut him to the quick. Her strange hair, her eyes, her glances. Her way. Never witnessed her, a girl barely reaching his shoulder, on a horse as mean as any snake. Never sat with Clee in silence, smoking pipes on a summer evening. Never roamed with Clee as a boy through the tall grass, running after his sister: a game. Never was in prison. Never cried for his mother. Never sought to conjure his father’s face. Never tasted an apricot, or trout, or soil. Never slept under the slow-wheeling constellations, or bathed in a winter creek.
As the summer reading season has officially begun, The Orchardist is a must-read. It isn’t the usually pool-side reading fare, and it will take you to a place remarkably like home.
TURN OF MIND
There is nothing more entertaining than an unreliable narrator. In her debut novel, Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante gives us a delicious narrator who is as fascinating as she is unpredictable.
Dr. Jennifer White is a respected surgeon with a stellar career and grown children when she begins to slowly lose her mind to dementia. Compound the tragedy of the loss of mental abilities with the murder of her best friend and neighbor, Amanda, and Dr. Jen is one confused lady. Because she was a surgeon who specialized in the medical mysteries of the hands, and her BFF was found murdered in her home with three fingers surgically removed, Dr. Jen is the logical suspect. But the police cannot find the necessary evidence to officially charge her. Because her own memory is dissolving by the day, there seems little they can do but to continue to doggedly pursue the case, asking questions, probing memories, and hope that she has a good day and can help them to solve the crime.
Jennifer White is a widow, but most days she doesn’t remember that. Instead, she insists that her husband is working late, that he is out of town, that he is somehow missing and will return. She lives with a caregiver and most days does not recognize “that woman.” Magdalena helps Jennifer keep a diary of daily events. She helps her pour over photo albums, prompts her with questions about who the people are; what they mean to Jennifer. Increasingly, Magdalena keeps Jennifer from wandering outside of the house and getting lost because she is as cunning as she is fast, and can cover a considerable distance before anyone notices she’s missing.
Then, there are the two children who should be familiar to Jennifer, but who have become unknowable. Mark is an oily, seductive sort, and for reasons Jennifer cannot comprehend, is not to be trusted. Her daughter, Fiona, manages her finances. Fiona is the trustworthy one. Fiona is the one who looks after her mother and whose heart breaks to watch her fading inevitably away. On good days, Jennifer recognizes her children. On bad days, she is liable to ask Mark if he is her husband. Similarly, she will see her daughter and suspect there is a relation, but she can only catalogue facial features that refuse to attach themselves to memories.
As the story wends its way from the beginning to the absolutely fabulous twisted ending, we see Jennifer’s personality revealed. We are also privy to understanding Amanda, the relationship between the two women, and come to see why a person might want to harm Amanda. Not Jennifer certainly. . .or maybe so. The police detective who lost her own lover to Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t give up on Dr. Jennifer White and in the end, her patience pays off.
Here is a novel that will keep you guessing to the end, using the vernacular of a generation that has grown accustomed to the loss of reasoning.
THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY
Have you ever felt that the big events in our lives are sometimes the result of one small decision that, once made, shifts every event following it toward a slightly new trajectory? Yeah, Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is like that.
The morning that quietly retired Harold Fry begins his walk across England starts much as any other day in substance and form, except one thing. Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Queenie is dying of cancer, and she has written Harold to say goodbye. Though he hasn’t seen or talked to Queenie in many years, Harold is staggered by the news and begins a series of steps that take him on a journey both across England and to the center of his heart.
Harold doesn’t mean to hoof it across the country. What he means to do was to mail a letter to Queenie, thanking her for her friendship all those years ago. Queenie’s friendship, as it turns out, is the most authentic relationship that Harold has had in decades. Maureen Fry, Harold’s wife, is as emotionally distant as the moon, and Harold cannot express to her the depth of his shock of the news about Queenie. In fact, when Harold mentions Queenie, Maureen blandly responds that she can’t be expected to remember everyone from his work, and could Harold please pass the jam?
Harold is not a great man compelled to do great things, but he feels bound to do something, so he writes Queenie a note, telling her that he hopes she will get better. Then heading out in little more than a windbreaker, slacks, and a pair of loafers, he aims to mail his letter at the corner mailbox. But he gets to the corner and thinks that perhaps he will mail it at the next post box, then the next; and the next. Before he knows it, Harold is on the road, walking toward Berwick-upon-Tweed.
He cannot even admit to himself that he would rather keep walking away from Maureen and the antiseptic sleepwalk that is their life, than dare to think of returning. Maureen would certainly not understand Harold’s need to do something to honor Queenie. So he walks. Harold reaches the outer borders of their village, and continues northward completely ill-prepared and quite without a plan.
During his cross-country journey, Harold meets many people who, inspired by his pilgrimage, convince him to keep walking despite the obvious lunacy of doing so. Soon, the news stations catch wind of Harold’s story and he becomes a folk hero, walking to deliver a message to a dying friend. He attracts groupies and critics, and watches as his private pilgrimage become a reality news event with little actual resemblance to the facts.
In the end, Harold loses his mind, finds his compass, and completes his big journey with little fanfare. In the end, Harold lets his heart break open, where he finds the love he had hidden away.
There is perhaps nothing more interesting in the way of storytelling than to include the narrative of a variety of characters, and in his debut novel, in A Land More Kind Than Home, author Wiley Cash spins a web that keeps the reading guessing to the end.
The story begins with the words of narrator Adeliade Lyle describing a small town, peopled with folks she knows as well as she knows herself. First off, she describes the darkly menacing and oddly charismatic preacher Carson Chambliss — a devotee of a sect of Pentecostal religion that holds with the practice of praying with poisonous snakes. A dangerous zealot, Chamblis, who is pastor at the River Road Church of Christ in Signs, believes that working with snakes is a test of faith, and he is defiant of anyone who questions his right to do so.
Chamblis urges congregants to handle the snakes, and if they are “pure,” they are safe. He takes up a copperhead, prays over it and hands it to seventy-nine year old Molly Jameson, who holds it “like a baby” to show the strength of her faith. The snake strikes her twice, the second time sinking its fangs into her hand so deeply that the preacher and two deacons have to pry it loose. She is carried out of the church and later found dead in a tomato patch behind her house. This is the first, though by no means last, instance in which the magnetic minister, a man with a shady past, uses God as a weapon.
Clem Barefield has perhaps the most difficult job in Madison County, being a sheriff just like his daddy was. After more serpent related deaths occur, Barefield is called in to investigate. What makes it difficult for him to make a clean case of it is that this is a small town where relations are complicated. People are not just friends and neighbors, they have a shared history that goes back generations. They are a kind and forgiving people, looking for answers that will give them peace.
“I’ve gotten right used to feeling . . .after you’ve lived in a place long enough, it becomes harder and harder to pick out the things about it that once seemed strange, even if most folks still consider you an outsider after two and a half decades just because you weren’t born there and raised up knowing everybody’s business.”
The most heartbreaking narrative in this kaleidoscope of viewpoints is Jess Hall. Jess is just a kid with a special needs brother and parents who can barely speak to one another, they are so weighted with the burden of a soured marriage. Jess’s mother is a big believer in the Reverend Chamblis. Worse yet, she is having an affair with him, which is why perhaps, she brings Jess’s brother Stump, to a revival meeting. Sweet, big-hearted Stump is a mute, and Chamblis is convinced that the boy only needs saving, so coerces his mother to have him “healed” with snakes. Things do not end well for Stump. Or Jess, or anyone else in that sad family.
Religious faith can be a beautiful thing, and in the wrong hands it can be a scary passage of survival. A Land More Kind Than Home is provocative reading and will make you question what you believe to be true.
I can’t believe how much I love Tell The Wolves I’m Home. From page one I fell in love and totally gave myself over to the narrative. It begins as fourteen year old June Elbus and her sister Greta are sitting for a portrait painted by their eccentric uncle Finn, who also happens to be June’s godfather. June feels like a freak for being secretly in love with Finn, the one person in the world who understands her. She also feels sad, because it is 1986 and Finn is dying of a mysterious disease called AIDS, and there is no saving him. Each week June’s mother drives her and Greta from the suburbs into Manhattan where in Finn’s apartment, June is the delicious center of Finn focus for a few precious hours.
What makes this debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt so stunning is that she creates such a perfectly outcast child in June. June feels like the strangest creature on earth. At fourteen, she likes nothing better than to hike out into the woods where in her imagination it is a mediaeval forest, not just a suburban patch of trees. The world is a mystery. Her parents are dull. Her sister is becoming a teenage alcoholic. She secretly loves her uncle and is deeply shamed by the realization. Rifka’s child-narrative will break your heart.
That afternoon we sat for an hour and half while Finn painted us. He had on Mozart’s Requiem, which Finn and I both loved. Even though I don’t believe in God, last year I convinced my mother to let me join the Catholic church choir in our town just so I could sing the Mozart Kyrie at Easter. I can’t even really sing, but the thing is, if you close your eyes when you sing in Latin and you stand right at the back to you can keep one hand against the cold stone wall of the church, you can pretend you’re in the Middle Ages. That’s why I did it. That’s what I was in for.
When Finn dies, June’s world closes in on her. According to her mother, Finn’s lover murdered him so the whole family disavows him. And then against all reason, Toby contacts June with a gift from Finn, something so compelling that for the first time in her life, she defies her parents. She meets him on the sly. Toby is sweet and strange and treats June like an equal. He lets her smoke and tells her things he shouldn’t and more than anything wants June to know that he didn’t kill Finn, that he sees the way June mourns Finn because he does, too. Smart girl that she is, June realizes that Toby is her ticket into Finn’s world. Of course, it isn’t what she thought it was, but she’s also learning nothing much is. June begins to see that so much of her memories of Finn were colored by Toby, and at first she hates him for it. But then she realizes that without Toby, Finn would not have been everything she loved. When she learns that Toby is dying too, she sees she is the only one who knows or cares. Then, strange, compelling, beautiful June leaves the child she was behind, and takes care of Toby the best way she can. She can’t save him, but in the end, she manages to save herself.
Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a great book for anyone who was once was a strange girl or who is lucky enough to know one.
As any good coming of age novel, Passage of the Kissing People walks between two worlds. When 50 year old Michael Kohler is called to Sonoma County from Seattle to build stained glass windows for an Episcopal church, he finds the project stirs memories that he had successfully buried for years. Michael returns to the Valley of the Moon for the first time in decades, and confronts the truth of what drove his family from Sonoma all those years ago.
Michael is just a boy when his father takes a job at the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded in the early 1950s. His family lives in pastoral Sonoma, where the land is comprised mainly of ranches and farms.
“Sonoma is a word with a grand sound to it – all open vowels and nasal consonants. It can be murmured with passion, but it also shouts well. Sonoma tastes of hot dust and toasted grass. It blazes with light. The sky in Sonoma is a dark blue force that twists the branches of the oak trees like the limbs of the cerebral palsy patients at the old State Home. Sonoma holds the sound of quail calling in the long golden dusk. . . .”
Young Michael is a little in love with Gisella Marrosi, second daughter of the neighboring family; he holds up Gisella’s brother Joe, as a hero. The Marrosi family is loud and happy and Italian, and the Kohler family is swept into the embrace of their collective joy.
The wonderful thing about a child as narrator is that elements of a story appear without context, and therefore are not fully understandable. As a boy, Michael is exposed to pieces of what will create his life story, parts that he does not fathom but will which form the basis of the man he will become. He does not understand the cruel conditions of the patients at the State Home, he merely describes them and leaves it up to the reader to know. He does not say that Joe Marrosi is bi-polar; he describes Joe’s manic behavior as it escalates to a crescendo and how the local police are called to haul Joe to the Home where he will be medicated into a stupor.
While in a child’s world little sense is made of the adult structures around them, superstitions loom large; a lucky charm carries great meaning. Before the Kohler family’s sudden exodus from Sonoma, Michael’s father loses the talisman from his keychain and accidents begin to stack up. In a child’s way, Michael wants to make things better, and so takes Mama Marrosi’s lucky talisman, a brooch of two people kissing. He doesn’t think about it, he doesn’t plan it. He finds the piece of jewelry between the cushions of the sofa, and pockets it. Bad things continue to happen, culminating with the Kohler family’s exile from the Valley of the Moon.
Years later, a grown Michael returns to Sonoma and pulls together the fragments of his life’s story, where he can finally sense of it all.
Summer reading is officially in play. There are so many great stories out there, it’s hard to know where to begin. But a reader could do much worse than start with Rebecca Makkai’s debut novel, The Borrower.
Makkai is clearly a lover of books. And endearing, quirky ten year old boys. With these two topics, she weaves a smart, funny, heartbreaking story of sin and redemption. The Borrower is about Lucy Hull, an accidental librarian by virtue of a college degree and a random job offer. Lucy accepts the job in the Hannibal, Missouri, library as much because it is a fair distance from Chicago and her loving but overbearing parents as anything. Random job or not, this girl loves books, and the story is peppered with the wisdom of literature and the love of reading.
Ten year old Ian Drake is a devotee of Lucy’s Friday children’s book hour. He is also a fan of her ability to smuggle him books that are not on his mother’s approved book list. Ian’s mom is a nervous, narrow-minded fundamentalist who gives Lucy a list of topics about which Ian is not allowed to read. The list includes such dangerous ideas as Halloween, witchcraft, evolution, or anything written by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or Lois Lowry (The Gooney Bird books). Rather than soaking in the rich literary tradition of children’s books, she is convinced that Ian needs books “with the breath of God in them.” Ian’s mom is also worried about Ian being gay. Ian is curious and articulate, smart and creative, and most decidedly gay. Ian’s mom decides that the best way to deal with her son is to enroll him in a special program offered by one Pastor Bob Lawson for children “whose parents suspected they were ‘headed down the wrong path.'”
Over time, Lucy is saddened to watch plucky, happy Ian shrink into a sad, guilt-bitten little boy. One morning she discovers that Ian has run away to the library and has been camping out in the stacks. Lucy decides then and there to help Ian run away from this awful mother and the specter of scary Pastor Bob. Soon, they are fugitives on the road. First, to Chicago, where her parents’ empty condo provides respite from the madness of their road trip, then to Pittsburgh to a family friend, then on to Ian’s imagined grandmother in Vermont. The craziness of their little road trip is not lost on Lucy. She just needs time and space to clear her mind, and as we all know, there is nothing like an extended car ride to make things make sense.
Ian isn’t magically transformed by their impromptu and criminal flight from Hannibal. Neither is Lucy, who must come to terms about who she can and can’t save. She also has to be honest about the parents about whom she has been so critical. Yes, her father may have ties to a shady Russian mafia, and her family history may be largely revisionist, but the truth is, they love and trust her, and will do anything to protect her.
In the end, Lucy returns Ian to Hannibal, knowing that after his unexplained absence, Ian will likely be on permanent lock-down. As a final act of grace, Lucy manages to smuggle Ian a comprehensive reading list, one extensive and detailed enough to keep his mind alive and working for the next eight years or until he is able to work out a viable and permanent exit strategy.
The are many romanticized stories of the great frontiers of America, but Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, is not one of them. In fact, it is a lyrical piece that weaves a Russian fairy tale with a bit of magical realism, and dispels any illusion of an heroic frontier life by revealing a hard-as-nails struggle for existence.
Set against the backdrop of the 1920s, The Snow Child is about Jack and Mabel, who have run away to Alaska to make a new start. They love each other the best they can, but the peace they thought they would find by forging a life in the wilderness seems only to bring deeper sorrow and a more dangerous kind of isolation.
In their seclusion, Jack and Mabel begin to succumb to the bitterness of hardship. As beautiful as the wilderness is, it is also cruel and they haven’t the skills to take what they want from a land that has never been tamed. Still, one day it begins to snow and in a fit of wonder and playfulness, they run outdoors and begin to form a snowman. But the snowman is small and for some whimsy, Jack and Mabel create not a man from ice and snow, but a girl. Jack carves a face with his pen knife, and gives her hair of straw. Mabel stains the snow girls’ lips with wild berries, then rushes into the cabin and returns with a cap and pair of mittens she had knit and with which she decorates their creation.
In the morning, they spy out the windows of their home to admire their playful handiwork, but the snow girl is gone, and so too are the hat and mittens. What could have happened to them? Wild animals could have stolen the clothing in the night and made a nest of them. It’s never fully explained.
Soon after, the couple befriends a young girl who visits the homestead, and who appears to live in the wild. She’s a feral little thing with white blonde hair and a blue wool coat, who seem to manage quite well on her own. And she does seem to be made of the elements, preferring the freezing outdoors to the overheated cabin. She is at home in the wild, and resists Jack’s or Mabel’s attempts to rope her in. They move from concern and worry to actually loving the girl, and consider her their own. The trouble is, no one else has seen her, and the neighbors begin to suspect that Jack and Mabel have tripped over the edge of reason, having been driven mad by their seclusion.
Ivey’s novel runs on parallel tracks to the Russian tale of a little girl made of snow by the loving hands of a childless couple. The story is deftly told, and it leaves the reader wondering if Jack and Mabel have made the girl up out of longing for company and connection. Perhaps best of all, the author leaves it up to the reader to determine for herself, exactly who the show child is and what she is made of.
There are many reasons to fall in love a little with Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut novel, 13 rue Therese. You could love it because it is set in Paris in the early last century, and is therefore quite romantic. You could love it because the spunky protagonist, middle aged Louise Brunet, is too wonderful for words. Author Mauli Shapiro is a grad of Stanford and Mills College and grew up in Paris, and so there is a veracity to the work that is undeniably true. Moreover and quite deliciously, there really is a 13 rue Therese in Paris. You see? Lots of reasons.
In13 rue Therese, there are two timelines; one is present day, in which American Trevor Stratton moves to Paris on a research project. This storyline is a bit hazy. There is Stratton, doing a certain amount of forensic research, though we are never quite sure why that is, or what it is about. Also, there is a box. Trevor Stratton’s comely assistant has given him a mysterious box of mementos, which he begins to study until a story emerges. One does, and it involves the life, loves, and affairs of one Madame Louise Brunet.
Louise is married to staid Henri, and is reasonably happy, though decidedly bored. It wasn’t always thus. Once, according to Stratton’s conjectures, Louise had a past. Her mother died during childbirth, so Louise and her brother were raised by their father alone. As a young woman, she fell in love with her cousin, Camille Victor, but World War I interceded and both Camille and Louise’s brother were called to fight. Louise’s father forbade the match, which was never to be in any case, as Camille was killed at the front. Not long after, Louise’s brother died by influenza, and her father married Louise off to one of his employees, Henri Brunet.
Some of the artifacts in Stratton’s box are letters that were exchanged between Louise and Camille; passionate, polite exchanges of undying love and mutual respect. There are coins. A pair of scissors. There are postcards in the box too. Mainly, the postcards are from the war and feature soldiers of the trenches posed informally for a camera. A century after the photos were taken, Stratton finds the artifacts and weaves a story of Louise.
After the war, Louise and Henri have a reasonably good life. They enjoy a good relationship, though remain childless, because, Louise is quite sure, Henri is shooting blanks. One day, an American family moves into an apartment below the Brunets at 13 rue Therese. Louise, who has grown bored with making scandalous confessions to the local priest for entertainment, decides to seduce the married man downstairs, for whom she develops a rich fantasy life. Their initial meeting is at famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and does not go well at all. But Louise is nothing if not determined, and she even thinks that perhaps this handsome near-stranger could give her the baby that Henri cannot.
In the end, the main storyline veers off into a magical third storyline, which requires careful attention to track. Nevertheless,13 rue Therese is a divine Parisian romp. If you can’t make it to France this year, you could do worse than spend time with this fabulous first novel.
A good mystery should engage all of your senses, and fortunately for us, Chris Pavone’s debut novel, The Expats does just that. Set almost entirely in Luxembourg, The Expats spins out a story of espionage and marital secrets in a landscape as rich as a European pastry.
Kate Moore is a likeable ex-spy, living a mundane life as a government bureaucrat, wife, and mother in Washington DC. She’s got a few skeletons in her closet, but that’s to be expected. What isn’t expected is that Kate is so darned likeable. She could be your neighbor. Well, that is if your neighbor is a trained assassin with more than a few notches on her international belt. Kate’s supposedly plain life is turned on its ear when her beloved husband, Dexter, announces that he’s earned an Internet security consulting gig of a lifetime, which involves moving the wife and the kids, lock, stock, and Legos, to Luxembourg. The money turns out to be too good to turn down, so the spook, the geek, and the boys pack off to Europe.
Living life as a full-time mom, carting the kids to school and back, lunching with the other expat moms in a postcard-perfect city drenched in history and intrigue might be a dream to some, but to Kate, whose caliber of excitement is decidedly more complicated than carpool, it’s a nightmare. The trouble is, and this is crucial to the storyline, Dexter has no idea that Kate is a retired spy and veteran killer. She meant to tell him, but the more time that goes by, the harder it is to come clean, until the admission becomes so monumentally huge, that she cannot justify the tower of lies it has taken to sustain the careful identity that she has constructed for herself.
For Dexter’s sake, Kate makes an effort to assimilate into their new life. She meets other moms, learns to shop for sport. Then one day, she befriends ebullient Julia, and the two couples become friends. It all seems rather perfect, but for a girl trained to see though what most consider ordinary, Kate begins to suspect that Julia and Bill are not who they say they are. She’s too nosey and he’s too smooth, and they don’t actually act like a married couple at all.
And so begins a game of cat and mouse wherein no one is who they seem to be, and Kate even begins to suspect that Dexter is hiding something important from her. The trouble is, she’s been lying to him for their entire relationship, and she has no idea how to undo that particular piece of deception, even while she’s works to unravel his increasingly knotty lies.
Pavone’s prose is fabulous and he keeps the surprises coming. There is a wonderful passage when the family takes a weekend jaunt to Amsterdam, and Kate takes the opportunity to spend some time alone. Rather than take in the Van Gogh museum or absorb the atmosphere of a charming coffee house, Kate winds her way down the dark streets of the red light district, on a mission to purchase a black market Beretta with a skill that is clearly practiced.
In the end, relations snarl and danger lurks, all circumstances that Kate is trained to manage. Kate knows that Bill and Julia are not who they seem, and she begins to suspect that Dexter is hiding a few secrets of his own. Everyone lies. Except in this case, Kate’s lie is one that has the power to stop the heart of the man she loves as surely as a sniper’s bullet. His big lie could have the same effect on her. There are more plot twists in The Expat than this review can do justice to; but if you like a good mystery, and harbor a yen for Europe, this book will not fail to please.
Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Seattle native Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel onThe Corner of Bitter and Sweet is just about one of the saddest novels around. It isn’t sad in the heartbreak and romance vein of Nicolas Sparks, nor is it afflicted with the hard institutional sadness of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Langauge of Flowers. Ford’s novel is sad because it chronicles a dark period of American history, the time when during World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American citizens of Japanese descent were removed from their communities and held in detention camps.
Ford’s novel is narrated from the perspective of a young boy living in Seattle’s Chinatown and doing his best to blend in with the other kids at his school. But Henry Lee has a tough time of it, even when he wears the pin foisted on him by his father that declares “I’m Chinese” as a sort of talisman against prejudice and persecution.
Still, Henry’s days are filled with the tauntings of malevolent school bullies, who single him out with a special focus. Henry endures his days at school, the relentless teasing, the unpleasant jokes, because it is his father’s dream that Henry attend the “best school” even if it means he has to attend ‘on scholarship.’ Part of the dues Henry pays for his admission to the all-white Rainier School is to work in the kitchen. Henry accepts his kitchen duty quietly, suffering through lunch hours serving food to an endless line of mean kids until the day another student, a Japanese girl, is also assigned to the serving line. With the arrival of Keiko Okabe, Henry’s world changes forever.
Henry’s father is loyally Chinese and vehemently hates anything to do with Japan, so Henry is forced to hide his blossoming friendship with Keiko. For her part, Keiko is proudly American and declares herself openly as a citizen. Her parents are sophisticated, elegant, modern. They warmly accept Henry as part of their daughter’s world. Henry is ashamed to have to hide Keiko from his own parents. His disgrace deepens as the war escalates and he watches as Keiko’s family and others like them are systematically stripped of their civil rights. Even as citizens, they lose their homes, their jobs, their money; and finally, their freedom.
Before the Okabe’s are exiled and in a final act of betrayal to his parents, Henry agrees to hide some Okabe family heirlooms until they return. Henry’s deceit is discovered and his relationship with his own parents is ruined. But even then, to Henry’s view the worst has already occurred.
They’re taking them away, Henry thought. They’re taking all of them away. There must be five thousand Japanese. How can they take them all? Where will they go?
Though Ford’s novel is a history lesson brought to life by the intersection of two young innocents, in the end, Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet is about love and redemption. Spoiler alert: though Henry and Keiko are separated during the war years and beyond, brave hearts will celebrate that they are not separated forever.
reviewed by cynthia firstname.lastname@example.org
The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture has nothing on a flower, in the end. Flowers are the language of love in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers.
Set mainly in San Francisco, The Language of Flowers is the coming of age story about a girl who has lived her entire fragile life in the foster care system. Oh sure, Victoria Jones does not seem anything like a frail flower, but that is because she has been abused and starved; hit and shuffled from one disastrous foster care situation to another. No fool, young Victoria constructs a wall around her heart to protect herself from the very people and system that are intended to protect her, but instead fail her like clockwork.
Victoria enters adulthood on her eighteenth birthday, when she is emancipated from the foster care system. Despite her state-sponsored homes, or perhaps because of them, the girl is positively feral. When she gets the boot from her final group home, she ends up homeless, living under the bushes in a park in the middle of San Francisco. Among the plants, she feels safe. Among the plants, she is understood. But even Victoria knows she can’t live in the park forever, and so she devises a plan, which naturally involves the only living things she fully understands.
In the parallel back story, we learn that when the girl was nine, she found herself in a foster home that gave her the first real taste of family, with a mother as damaged as she was, and who loved her with everything she had. Elizabeth taught Victoria about gardening and flowers, and the subtle messages that flowers were capable of delivering. Peonies for anger, sage for good health, and tulips to declare love everlasting. After a year, Elizabeth was supposed to have adopted Victoria, but it never happened. Instead, something terrible happened, and the girl was shunted back into the system, fated this time, to stay until she aged out.
The Language of Flowers would be too hopeless a tale, too sad a story, if it wasn’t for the flowers that speak from a place that Victoria understands better than anything. First, she negotiates a job with a neighborhood florist, and then slowly builds a reputation for creating bridal bouquets not just of flowers and fragrance, but of messages and meaning. Next, she finds a boy. Or rather, he finds her, and they stumble headlong into love. Not that Victoria makes it easy for the boy to love her. But he does wear down her resistance and she allows his love in. Remember however, Victoria may have a heart that has been tamed, but at her core she is still a wild thing.
When Victoria discovers that she is pregnant, you hold your breath and hope for the girl. After all, sometime, at some point, she deserves a break. Your heart bleeds a little for this girl who hungers for love, yet has been hurt by it so many times she may never let it get close again. Not that you could blame her for it. Does she finally let love in? You’ll have to find out for yourself. The Language of Flowers is a powerful read. I suggest you let yourself fall a little in love with it. You won’t be sorry.
reviewed by cynthia email@example.com
It seems impossible that it was 44 years ago that Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California democratic primary, but it is true. It seems impossible too, that in that in a decade of churning social change, there also existed so much hope. What David Rowell manages to capture in his premier novel, The Train of Small Mercies, is a snapshot of those times in America, that now seem like as foreign as Mars.
The Train of Small Mercies is a collection of stories connected by the event of Kennedy’s assassination, but moreover, they occur in places that will observe the train transporting the fallen hero’s casket from New York to Washington, DC. As a novel, the narrative arc of The Train of Small Mercies takes place on the day that the funeral train will traverse communities from New York to DC, and it is a reminder that we are all connected despite apparent separations.
There is Maeve McDerdon, the Irish girl staying over in Washington, DC, who was to have been interviewed by the Kennedys for the position of nanny for Ethel Kennedy’s new baby, but now has no clear idea of what she will do. There is awkward Edwin Rupp from Delaware, who has wanted nothing more in his timid life but to build a swimming pool in his backyard. On the day of the trains crossing his state, he and his wife, Lolly, are hosting friends at the inauguration of the gargantuan above ground pool he has constructed, and in the process Edwin makes a tragic pass at his best friends’ girl. Lionel Chase, home from college for the summer, is navigating his first day as a porter on for the railway, and is assigned to the train carrying Robert Kennedy. Delores King is an oppressed housewife who escapes the watchful eye of her husband to watch the train pass by heir Pennsylvania town, much to Arch King’s disapproval. Sadly, Delores misses the spectacle of the train and ends up in the ER instead, with her young daughter in a near-coma. Young Michael Colvert is with a group of his pals, scouting the trees in an empty field for the best viewing position. Michael is doing is best to focus on the train and forget about the month he and his father spent camping out and fishing in Michigan in what turned out to be a kidnapping, and ended with his father’s arrest. Finally, there is Jamie West, an angry Vietnam veteran who returned home to Maryland missing part of his leg who doesn’t care much about anything, especially a dead politician speeding by the family home on a trip to the grave.
What is wrenching about each of the stories is how involved everyone is in the story of Robert Kennedy’s promise, and the violent ending of his life. To every character in Small Mercies, Kennedy’s passing is a deeply personal matter. The Train of Small Mercies contains an ensemble cast of seeming misfits, but they all have a place in this story. They are ordinary people living their quiet lives and in their own way are touched by this massive historical event in a way that no one really quite comprehends.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryfirstname.lastname@example.org
Barb Barrett is having a bad year. After years of dancing around the soft porn edges of marital abuse and in a dazzling moment of clarity, she leaves ‘the experson’ as she calls him, more out of fatigue than actual courage, and strikes out on her own. This bold maneuver has its immediate downsides. First, she doesn’t really think her exodus through and gets arrested for “camping” with her children far beyond the bounds of camping season. Second, the experson is able to convince the court in their small town that Barb is an unfit mother, and gains custody of their two young children.
Leslie Daniels’ debut novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House, is a wonderfully frank novel about the small joys, hidden sadness, and completely ridiculous insights of a mid-life divorcee. What a perfect finale to the summer reading list.
As she begins her new life, about the only thing Barb has going for her is her meager part time job answering correspondence for a local dairy. That, and the sheer dumb luck she stumbles over like a naughty curb when she buys what turns out to have been the house that, according to legend, where Nabokov lived when he wrote Lolita.
While cleaning her house one day to avoid the devouring ache of missing her daughter, Barb discovers what appears to be a pack of index cards containing the notes of a novel. She knows of the famous writer who occupied her house. It seems possible that the writing belonged to him, was somehow lost in the back of a bureau, and left behind. The narrative of the notes focuses on baseball and love, a Babe Ruth tale of romance. With a job that she doesn’t love nor hate, a manuscript of possible literary importance, an agent, and a plan to win her children back, Barb’s life begins to take on more meaning than it has for a long empty stretch of years.
Nothing happens magically in Daniel’s novel. In fact, the pacing and transitions of Barb’s transformation are slow and tangible. Barb turns out to be you or me, and we love her for her goof-ups as much as her strengths. With an unexpected gift of cream from the dairy, as a practical matter, she makes butter. She allows five year old Darcy to steal her pocketbooks and then borrows them back for important meetings. She encourages son Sam to express his culinary talents despite the fact the boy’s father thinks he’s going to grow up to be a fatty. We love that Barb has one pair of dress slacks that she calls ‘the pants’ and which she dons to impress both literary attorneys and university faculty of the importance of the found manuscript. We love that she finds meaning in writing letters about ice cream. We especially love that she recruits athletes from the local college to staff an exclusive ‘spa’ catering to the very special needs of Lake Onkwego’s matrons and which incidentally, generates the cash flow necessary to bankroll the recovery of her life. What we love most of all is that when Barb wins back her children from the ex, she does so with a generous helping grace, and without a drop of malice.
We like to see our heroines win, but not too easily. And in this, Cleaning Nabokov’s House delivers. It is a classic tale of redemption and is every bit as satisfying as bowl of homemade ice cream on a late summer’s day.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryemail@example.com
To really earn its cred as a good summer read, a book has to perform several functions at one time. First, it must amuse. Second, it must spin a tale of adventure without veering into territory that requires too much thinking while the reader flips pages poolside. Finally, a good summer read must linger like a mouthful of sweet-tart sorbet, dissolving slowly, giving you something to think about. The Girl in the Garden, by Kamala Nair is such a novel.
Nair’s first novel is part coming of age story, part fairytale. The story begins in the present as twenty-something Rakhee is about to leave her fiancé with a note promising she will return when she has taken care of the one shameful thing from her past that she has hidden from him. Who can’t love a beginning like that? From the start, Rakhee is on the run and the reader must follow or be left wobbling in the young woman’s wake.
The narrative of the story quickly shifts from adult Rakhee to ten-year-old Rakhee, whose parents are from India but meet by mutual acquaintance once both are in America. The tale begins to spin during the summer that Rakhee’s parent’s shaky marriage threatens to fall apart and divorce lurks in the shadows of every room, tormenting the girl who prays for nothing more than her family to remain together. Rakhee’s Amma is emotionally unstable and grows increasingly agitated until just as school lets out for the summer, her Amma decides to flee middle America and incidentally, her husband, to travel to her ancestral home in India, taking her daughter with her. It’s just a vacation, she insists, but we never quite believe her promises.
An American girl from the get, Rakhee’s initial experience at the extended family’s compound is a shock. There are suspicious cousins, scary aunts, a harmlessly alcoholic uncle, a semi-lucid grandmother, and a sinister near-relative, all of whom are insane or unhappy or both, and nearly all are guarding family secrets. There are also ghosts, and a jungle that looms at the edge of the family property that harbors the biggest secret of all. There is a girl in the garden, but her existence is wrapped in lies and Rakhee is told to never venture to the garden because it is dangerous, but Rakhee ignores that lie too, and befriends the girl.
As the summer treads on, Rakhee grows accustomed to India and begins to love her cousins. She pulls at threads of the tattered family secret until it begins to unravel and she comes to know more than a child should of the family shame. She secretly befriends the girl in the garden, and makes plans to help her escape. But then everything begins to spin out of control and her cousin is forced into a marriage to save the family’s fortune, her mother plans to run away with a man from her past, and tries to persuade Rakhee that living in India would be more fun that returning to Minnesota for school in the fall.
Sometimes exotic, sometimes sentimental, The Girl in the Garden is a story of love and survival. What more could you want for a good summer read?
Review by Cynthia Gregoryfirstname.lastname@example.org
It’s not really giving anything away to say that the debut novel by Todd Johnson, The Sweet By and By, will make you cry. Maybe this says more about the reviewer than about the book, but still, the fact remains that the subject matter of The Sweet By and By is tear-worthy. It’s about friendship and loyalty and big end-of-life issues like dignity and happiness and who really loves you for sure.
Lorraine is a church-going, God-smacking woman who has made a career out of taking care of other people. She is a caregiver at the Ridgecrest Nursing Home, and little gets by her. Lorraine has equal measures of patience and endurance, which she exercises each day as she looks after Margaret and Bernice, the two brightest spots at the home. Margaret has a sharp tongue and high standards, and Lorraine bears Margaret’s rebukes and criticisms with calm mother-patience. More than helping Margaret to dress and bathe, Lorraine preserves the dwindling strands of dignity that Margaret clings to.
Bernice provides comic relief in what would otherwise be too sad a story to bear. Bernice is a happy ditz and reliably out of her mind most of the time. She is Margaret’s constant companion, and they look after each other is a way that is endearing and practical. Bernice carries a stuffed monkey with her everywhere and treats him as a real person. Except of course when she hides bootleg booze deep in his throat where no one of the nursing home staff, even Lorraine, would think to look.
Rhonda is at the home by accident, if you believe such things. Rhonda survived being raised by a hateful grandmother and has grown into a decent person. As a hair stylist, she endeavors to make the world a more beautiful place. However, it is for cash that she applies to Ridgeview, never expecting to like it, much less fall in love with the ladies who line up outside the beauty parlor door each week. Despite any intention to get in, do her job, and get out, Rhonda is adopted by both Margaret and Beatrice, who see the goodness in the girl and provide the mother-encouragement for which she had been starved as a child.
One of the delights of The Sweet By and By is that it is set in North Carolina, where eccentricity is as natural as sunlight and sweet tea. This lovely bit of fiction is not nostalgic; it takes an unflinching view of who we are, what connects us, and what’s important, without being preachy. In the end, we realize it is Lorraine’s story, and Johnson leaves her narrative not with a nice neat bow, but with faith that everything will somehow work out:
“I used to hope that if I went to church long enough, all my inside weight would go away. That ain’t right. Jesus may have come to take away our sins, but he left our feelings right where they’ve always been. I still have inside me some of what I’ve always had, built up over a lifetime. I just keep adding to it, every day, like everybody else, and hope the stew gets better the more ingredients I put in.”
The Sweet By and By is perfect summer reading. It’s weighty enough to matter, but manages also to take itself lightly.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryemail@example.com
There are certain professionals that seem to be the darlings of fiction: lawyers, doctors, cops, writers. In The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman takes great glee in shining a light on journalists, and as the title of his debut novel implies, they are best at their worst.
Newspapers are not what they used to be. And certainly, Rachman’s unnamed global English language newspaper launched from Rome in the 1950s, is no exception. Before CNN and the Internet and iPads, there were newspapers. If you wanted hard, cold, facts, you got them printed in black and white on newsprint and by gum, there were people who ate and breathed deadlines to bring them to you.
Newsmaking was a noble profession. It was gritty and real and yet, there was something a little glamorous about the paper and the men and women who made it run.
This fact however, bears little relevance to Rachman’s book. None of his characters are quite likeable. Their noble profession is to deliver the news of the world, and to that extent, they are quite good. And yet personally? Well, it’s probably best not to look too closely.
The Imperfectionists is more a collection of short stories than a novel in the traditional sense, with all stories related by the terribly important international English language newspaper printed in Rome. Stringers in Cairo and Paris, Davos and Nairobi, feed the ravenous paper its content. Devoted editors and tyrannical staffers ensure that all twelve pages of the paper are crammed with the activities of the world and presented daily, to a circulation of 10,000. They are all perfectly imperfect, smart and sassy people giving their all to do something meaningful and right. Beyond news however, the paper is just an item on the balance sheet of the newspaper’s corporate owners, nitwit offspring of the original founder, nested safely in far away Atlanta.
Meanwhile in Rome, Herman Cohen has created an encyclopedic style guide with which he tortures his editors. Editor in chief Kathleen Solson enjoys the sophisticated patina of living abroad, even as she discovers her husband having an affair. Copy editor Ruby Zaga is a spiteful, friendless staffer who secretly hungers for connection. Business editor Hardy Benjamin is so desperate for a boyfriend that she supports her loser of an Irish lover to shield herself from living alone.
The terribly important international English language newspaper is fading by the hour. It’s gushing red ink. Its loyal readership is dying off. It’s not even on the Internet, for pity’s sake! The ship is going down, yet each character has a vested interest in believing that the ship is unsinkable. At a publishing conference at the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome, Kathleen Solson is asked if the newspaper will survive.
“Absolutely,” she tells the audience. “We’ll keep going, I assure you of that. Obviously, we’re living in an era when technology is moving at an unheralded pace. I can’t tell you if in fifty years we’ll be publishing in the same format. Actually, I can probably tell you we won’t be publishing in the same way, that we’ll be innovating then, just as we are now.” Unfortunately for Kathleen and her crew, the paper is doomed. Fortunately for the reader, it’s a heck of a ride down the rails.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryfirstname.lastname@example.org
I love a book that includes landscape as an important character almost as much as I love a story with an unreliable narrator. I also adore Italy, so for me From The Land Of The Moon, written by Milena Agus and translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, is the trifecta of great literature.
A small book, From The Land Of The Moon is a big story of love and belonging. Our heroine remains unnamed throughout, and this is important because without a name she is no one and she is everyone. Significantly however, she is the grandmother of a girl who traces her family history as she is about to be married and create a family of her own.
Grandmother was eccentric and beautiful, and who at thirty remained shamefully unmarried. This was scandal enough to Great-Grandmother, but to make matters worse, the daughter was also a poet. She prone to kidney stones and what we would now call depression, and probably she was a little mad also. A sensitive artist, Grandmother had survived World War II in her native Sardinia, but had been unlucky in love. To her family’s great relief, a widower from Cagliari came to the family home one day, and they married their troublesome daughter off to the stranger as quickly as possible, effectively removing the taint of crazy from the family name.
Though hers was a loveless marriage, Grandmother’s husband was kind to her. He had a good job and he built her a beautiful home. Still, she felt that she was missing “that essential thing.” This, she reasoned was why she kept getting pregnant and then miscarrying: her life lacked that essential thing.
This all changed, when one year her husband sent her to the mineral springs to ‘take the cure.’ At the spa, she befriended a handsome war Veteran who had also come to take the cure at the mineral springs. Though they spent a very short time together at the spa, Grandmother fell deeply in love, and from then on the veteran played a central role in the grandmother’s life. In him, she felt that she had found what she had been missing.
Upon returning to home, Grandmother discovered that she was once again pregnant, but this time it held, and she delivered a son. She gave the boy everything and when he grew up to be a famous musician and married another musician, he left his daughter with to be raised by his mother. Lucky girl.
“My grandmother was over sixty when I was born. I remember that as a child I thought she was beautiful, and I’d watch, enthralled, when she combed her hair and made her old-fashioned crocchia, parting the hair, which never turned white or thin, then braiding it and coiling the braids into two chignons.”
To the girl, Grandmother was, and had always been beautiful and strong. Grandmother may have been delusional, her history may have been imagined, but her love was real and sustaining, and shines through as the essential thing in this sweet story.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryemail@example.com
History is a funny thing. From a narrow view, we get only a single version of the truth, somewhat like a house with just one window. But when Dolen Perkins-Valdez gave us Wench, she created an historical architecture as big as a resort hotel, thrown all the windows open to astonishing ideas.
Wench is the story of four women born to slavery in the pre-Civil War South, women who by virtues of intelligence, cunning, and beauty carve something beautiful for themselves in a life that is a virtual prison. Lizzie Drayle is a house-slave on a plantation in Tennessee. She lives a life of relative comfort compared to the field slaves, but that luxury comes at a price. When she was just 13, Master Drayle came to her in the night, and made her his lover.
In 1853, reward posters for runaway slave women referred to them as wenches, a half-truth. But in this novel, the term means more than wanton, it refers to slave women who are not merely the commercial property of landowners, but women who are sisters and daughters, lovers and mothers of children. There may be stirrings of abolition and an underground railroad to help slaves escape to freedom, but it is a faint cry, and one of impossible odds.
One year, Master Drayle takes Lizzie to Ohio, to a resort called Tawawa House, a retreat for Southern white men who want to vacation with their enslaved black mistresses. This year, while their owners enjoy the amenities of the resort, the slaves mingle, share stories and histories, tell what they know of where they came from, the families they knew, and the families they create from circumstance. There is Lizzie, accompanying the man she believes she loves and with whom she has two children. Fearless Mawu is a light-skinned, red-haired woman with a mind of her own and a cruel owner who beats her viciously. Sweet is true to her name and a mother of five by her master. Reenie is older than the rest and is captive to her brother-master and mother of a daughter-niece.
Over the course of three summers, the women gather, support one another and watch and wait patiently for the moment when freedom might open like a sly, narrow door. The question is whether they will take the offer of freedom. It seems a simple choice to make, except that the laws are rigid, the consequences brutal, and even a choice for freedom requires tragic sacrifices.
Wench is really about Lizzie. Drayle is kind to her, mostly, though there are conventions that even he won’t challenge. He seems to care for Lizzie, but he also considers her to be his property, just as he does their two children. In the end, Lizzie surrenders her own freedom by negotiating her children’s. When given the opportunity to flee one summer in Ohio, she accepts instead, a life of humiliating bondage, a bargain for the lives of her children.
Wench is a deeply moving story of dignity and survival. It is a story of our shared history, part of who we are.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryfirstname.lastname@example.org