Tag Archives: Atlantic Ocean

Good Girls and Bad Choices

I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff (5 Spot; 432 pages; $13.99).

 

            Cinderella had a stepmother, so did Snow White.  Fairy tales, movies, and books often portray stepmothers as cruel, evil, ugly, and jealous women.  In I Couldn’t Love You More, Jillian Medoff dispels stereotypes and simultaneously dazzles us through her protagonist, Eliot Gordon.

 

Eliot is a thirty-eight-year-old daughter, sister, mother, stepmother, and wife.  But she is not married to Grant.  Confused? So was I in the beginning, but it’s only semantics.  Eliot refers to Grant as her “husband,” although they are not married.  They have been together five years and raise three girls: Hailey, their four-year-old daughter, and Charlotte and Gail, fourteen and seven respectfully, Grant’s daughters.  Grant has never asked Eliot to marry him, but they live like husband and wife.  Eliot treats Charlotte and Gail as if they are her own children, especially since Beth, their mother, is flaky and clueless.  Eliot loves all her girls, even the ones she did not give birth to.

 

Medoff tells the story from the first person perspective of Eliot.  Her portrayal of Eliot is intimate.  Medoff does a superb job of bringing her characters to life on these pages, but none more so than Eliot.  She is very real and achingly relatable.  Her strengths stand out; her flaws, though, are what really drive this story.

 

Eliot, by her own admission, is a “good girl.”  Yes, she is.  However, Eliot makes some bad decisions throughout Medoff’s story.  Some condemn Eliot for her actions, while others sympathize.  At its heart, this is a novel about the choices we make and their consequences, both short-term and long-term.

 

An old boyfriend resurfaces.  The sparks fly.  The presence of Finn distracts Eliot.  Everyone notices, especially Charlotte.  Eliot believes a week at the beach with her mother and sisters will help ease tension between her and Grant.  While the girls play in the ocean, Eliot’s phone rings.  It is Finn.

 

Her back is turned for one minute, maybe two.  The unthinkable happens.  Eliot is forced to make a choice: who should she save? Her real daughter?  Or her stepdaughter?  Medoff writes, “And this is what I know: I can swim in only one direction, toward one child…but I must make a choice and I must make it now.”  Whatever the case, nothing will ever be the same again.

 

Despite its grim subject matter, Medoff intersperses humor throughout her novel.  The hilarity in no way distracts from the story; instead, it adds to it.  Sometimes, even in the grip of despair, life can be funny.  Medoff makes me laugh and cry, once at the very same time.  Never has mowing, pooping, or eating dog food sounded so funny.  I applaud Medoff for telling the story in such a way.

 

Eliot is not the only character who stands out in this book.  Her sister, Sylvia (named after Sylvia Plath), is often a scene-stealer.  Eliot’s mother, Delores, is another of Medoff’s characters who demand your attention.

 

This is a story about love and family.  But the novel is also about sisters.  It matters little whether they are full, half, or even step.  A sister is a sister for life.  Medoff makes this only child wistful of the sisterly bond that Eliot and her sisters share.

 

I Couldn’t Love You More is women’s lit at its finest.  This is a far cry from chick lit.  Do not get me wrong: I am not disparaging chick lit in any way.  This is a story for women.  The issues Medoff writes about are subjects in which women deeply care about.  This tale is about women written for women that happens to have been written by a woman.

 

I predict I Couldn’t Love You More will be the read of the summer.  Medoff’s novel will be as essential to beach bags as sunscreen and beach towels.

 

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Saving Grace

Saving Grace

 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).

The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal.  The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill.  The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving.  Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life.  Sometimes it’s sink or swim.  Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat.  Sometimes we are in danger of going under.

 

Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive.  Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat.  The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer.  Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.

 

Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die.  The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.

When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder.  Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred.  She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary.  Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.

 

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra.  People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats.  Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow.   Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story.  Far from it.

 

Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….”  A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child.  This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is.  There is a detachment to her.  Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.

 

Many people are alive in the water.  Three swimmers approach the boat.  On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars.  It is truly every man for himself.  The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”

 

Mr. Hardie emerges as leader.  This makes sense given he knows the water.  Grace has confidence in his abilities.  In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.”  The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him.  Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions.  Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.

 

Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink.  The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38.  In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.

 

The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone.  Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers.  Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths.  Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah.  Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child.  She calls him a brute.  Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”

 

A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by.  Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters.  It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best.  She will cheer whoever has the advantage.  Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.

 

The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker.  At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat.  Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat.  Blood runs down their chins.  Such a thing is implausible to me.  I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.

 

You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator.  She often tells half-truths and even lies.  “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides.  If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal.  It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative.  Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals.  Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman.  If you guess he came from money, you are correct.

Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel.  When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say.  Grace’s memory and history are at odds.  Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat.  She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.”  Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events.  Then again, maybe it is her plan all along.  One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.

 

The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head.  Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial.  Rogan writes this with suspense.

 

It is interesting that three women are on trial.  If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder.  It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life.  Not take it.  People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?

 

A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel.  Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels.  They are places of refuge and salvation.  In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense.  It becomes a deathtrap.

 

I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic.  I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here.  The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking.  It will literally give you goosebumps.

 

More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself.  Grace never gives up.  Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something.  Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.

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Ah, the Power of Salt

The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker (Grand Central Publishing; 372 pages; $24.99).

 

 

Throughout history, salt has been an important commodity.  Some argue it can be included as a contributing factor in the development of civilization.  Salt preserved food and was a highly sought-after trade item.  The Romans even built roads to make transportation of salt easier.  We cannot then overemphasize its role in our society.

When salt gets in a wound, it stings.  Yet, interestingly, mineral bath salts can help ease sore muscles and a variety of skin conditions.  Salt can hurt and it can heal.

 

Jo and Claire Gilly, the two main characters in Tiffany Baker’s second novel The Gilly Salt Sisters, know this all too well.  Jo and Claire are sisters, and their family owns a salt farm on the Cape Cod village of Prospect.  Every December’s Eve, one of the sisters throws a packet of their salt into a bonfire.  The color of the fire tells the town’s future for the upcoming year.  “If the fire flashed blue, it meant the town would prosper in the coming year.  If it flared yellow, some kind of change was on the horizon, and a puff of black was too terrible to contemplate.”

 

Not surprisingly, many townspeople think the sisters are witches.  They are not.  Neither Jo nor Claire are psychic, they do not cast spells.  They do not tell the future, rather the salt does.  Both are complicated, complex women with both polish and grit.

 

The sisters have a difficult life and react to their circumstances in very different ways.  A horrible accident leaves Jo and Claire estranged.  Obligation and betrayal tears them apart.  One sister still bears the mark of their separation.  Because Baker tells the story from the point of view of both sisters, we are able to understand both perspectives.  Each sister stands firm in her disdain for the other.  Without the addition of Dee, the two might never reunite.

 

Baker, though, introduces Dee, a teenage girl whose mother has died and whose father relocates her to the village.  Unwittingly, Dee is the force that brings Jo and Claire back together.  It is curious that Baker also tells the story from Dee’s point of view as she alternates among Jo, Claire, and Dee.  Dee is not a Gilly sister.  Yet her role in this tale is just as significant.  Without her, the story would have a very different ending.

 

There are a lot of women in The Gilly Salt Sisters.  The female characters in the novel are strong and well developed.  The same, though, cannot be said for the men.  I wonder if this is not a deliberate tactic on Baker’s part.  Only women can touch the salt on the farm.  Only women can cast the salt into the fire.  Thus, Baker puts the fate of her novel into female hands.  Gilly men seem to be cursed.  For example, Mr. Gilly becomes an alcoholic and flees the farm, never to be heard from again.  Henry, Jo’s twin brother, meets a horrible fate while helping bring in the salt one day, a task he was not even supposed to be doing.  Baker never explains why men cannot touch the salt.  Perhaps she wants to add mystery to her novel, but it feels like a gimmick.

 

Still, Baker manages to achieve the perfect sense of place in Prospect.  Her characters are salt-of-the-earth New Englanders with a no-nonsense attitude.  She is at her best, though, when she describes the Gilly salt farm.  I can almost smell the brackish air.  I can almost taste the salt.  Baker writes about the pull of the salt.  Indeed, the salt has a kind of magnetism not just on the Gilly sisters but on the whole town as well.  The salt even mesmerizes the reader.

 

We take salt for granted today.  I know I do.  But Baker reminds us salt is the stuff of life.  She is a master at telling this quirky tale, just as she was with her debut The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyThe Gilly Salt Sisters far surpasses her first novel.  I recommend it to fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Aimee Bender, and Brunonia Barry.  It is a story of love, loss, family secrets, rivalry, greed, redemption, and forgiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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