Tag Archives: families

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Book Review: May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes (Penguin Books; 496 pages; $16).

17707741If your family is anything like the Silvers in A.M. Homes’ black comedy May We Be Forgiven, you’re glad the holidays are over.  Homes is fierce and fearless in her depiction of a Twenty-First century family in crisis.  She knows just how to blend satire with realism, just how to mix tragedy with comedy, and just how to make her pages sizzle.

Homes’ characters are deeply flawed people, yet they are nothing but real.  Harold Silver, the novel’s main character, cannot help but be jealous of his little brother, George.  While Harold is a Richard Nixon scholar and historian, his brother is a powerful and wealthy television executive with a beautiful wife, two children, and a gorgeous home.   What Harold doesn’t envy about George is his violent temper.

The dominoes fall one by one when George gets into a car accident, killing a mother and father and injuring and orphaning their young son.  If that were not enough for one week, George snaps when he comes home to find his wife in bed with Harold.  He grabs the bedside lamp and hits her over the head with it.  These are not spoilers.  They happen within the novel’s first fifteen pages.

The story is not about these events anyway: rather, May We Be Forgiven is about how Harold seeks atonement for his part in the tragedy.  He blames himself.  If he had not been having an affair with his sister-in-law, then perhaps he could have averted catastrophe.  Harold becomes the guardian of his brother’s children, Nate and Ashley.  He also feels responsible for the orphaned boy.  As Harold assumes a new life so different from the one he had before, he seeks absolution.

Although Homes’ characters are completely unlikeable and unrelatable, they are strangely fascinating.  Harold is Homes’ most well-developed character.  When he is asked to edit a series of fictional stories written by Nixon, Harold jumps at this opportunity.  He sees Nixon as a father figure.  As Harold tries to atone for his own misdeeds, he seeks to assuage history’s view of the president.  It makes for compelling reading.

In fact, I challenge you to stop reading this story.  Once you start, you cannot stop.  Homes’ pacing is quick.  Her punches are like those of a boxer’s.  Surprises permeate on every page.

Sometimes, though, it is just too much.  It is as if Homes tries to one-up herself on every page, producing an over-abundance of shocking scenes with little or no segue between them.  Reading Homes’ novel can be like running a marathon, leaving you gasping for breath.  Homes, in certain instances, goes too far, most notably when Harold instructs his niece on how to use a tampon.  Shock value is a tool that should not be overused, even when writing a black comedy.  A little can go a long way.

Homes is unapologetically irreverent in May We Be Forgiven.  That’s why this is not a book for everyone.  If you enjoy dark comedies, you will love this story.  If you are not a fan of black comedy, stay far away.

I reviewed this novel last year and it’s now available in paperback.  I absolutely love the new cover!

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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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Q&A with Susan Rebecca White, Author of A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White (Touchstone; 336 pages; $25).

a place at the tableA rich, beautiful novel about three unlikely, complex characters who meet in a chic Manhattan café and realize they must sacrifice everything they ever knew or cared about to find authenticity, fulfillment, and love.

A Place at the Table tells the story of three richly nuanced characters whose paths converge in a chic Manhattan café: Bobby, a gay Southern boy who has been ostracized by his family; Amelia, a wealthy Connecticut woman whose life is upended when a family secret finally comes to light; and Alice, an African-American chef whose heritage is the basis of a famous cookbook but whose past is a mystery to those who know her.

As it sweeps from a freed-slave settlement in 1920s North Carolina to the Manhattan of the deadly AIDs epidemic of the 1980s to today’s wealthy suburbs, A Place at the Table celebrates the healing power of food and the magic of New York as three seekers come together in the understanding that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.

 

If you are a fan of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will absolutely devour Susan Rebecca White’s newest creation, A Place at the Table.  Thanks to the wonderful Alison Law, I was able to ask Susan three questions and here are her answers.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time? How do you know when you can run with an idea and

Photo Credit: Dorothy O'Connor

Photo Credit: Dorothy O’Connor

when you need to shelf it for later and when you should just discard it?

I work on several story lines at once. While writing A Place at the Table I would work on Bobby’s section for a little bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Amelia and work on her section for a bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Alice. That’s probably why I keep returning to the multiple narrator form. I can pick up a different piece of the storyline when I exhaust myself with another.

I am not entirely sure how it is that I ultimately decide which storylines stay in the final novel and which are jettisoned. I write a lot more than is ever actually published. I probably wrote 1000 pages of text when putting together A Place at the Table, but only 300 + made it to the final draft. I am a big believer in spilling material and then tidying it up during the editorial process. Often I think of writing as excavation. The story is in there, but I have to dig it out of me. And I dig it out by writing.

In your opinion what is good fiction?               

Good fiction disrupts the tidy narratives that we create about our lives and exposes something deeper, darker, and ultimately more authentic. Good fiction excavates if not The Truth then deeper truths about who we are. Ultimately good fiction connects us to each other. There’s an adage “the more specific, the more universal.” By paying exquisite attention to specific characters on the page, seeing who they really are beneath the well-rehearsed stories they tell of their lives, we begin to question our own tidy narratives, our own delusions. Good fiction makes you acutely aware of being alive when you are reading it, even though you are reading about someone else’s story. And in that regard good fiction does what we ask of religion: It takes us outside of ourselves. It helps us transcend our own limited perspectives. Good fiction also grabs us, makes us want to know what happens next, makes us want to turn the page.

How would you respond to those who claim women writers do not write “serious” fiction?

Hmm. Well, first I would want to give that person the middle finger, but being a nice southern woman I’d probably refrain. I guess I respond by giving a big eye roll, shaking my head at ignorance, rolling up my sleeves, and getting back to work.

 

Learn More about Susan:

susanrebeccawhiteauthorphotoBorn and raised in Atlanta, Susan Rebecca White earned a BA in English from Brown University, then moved to San Francisco, where she taught and waited tables for several years, before moving to Virginia to earn her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. At Hollins, she was a teaching fellow and the recipient of the James Purdy prize for outstanding fiction.

Susan’s debut novel, Bound South, received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for theTownsend Prize. Bound South was followed by A Soft Place to Land, also critically acclaimed and a Target “Club Pick.” Susan’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is receiving early praise and is on the American Booksellers Association “Indie Next List” for June of 2013. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) selected A Place at the Table as a 2013 Summer “Okra Pick.

Susan has been invited to festivals and book events around the country and has been a speaker at numerous academic and cultural institutions, including SCAD Atlanta, the Carter Center, the Margaret Mitchell house, and Birmingham’s Hoover library. Susan appeared in the February 2011 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in a photograph and accompanying essay celebrating women authors living in Atlanta. During the summer of 2011, Susan lived in Manhattan to gain on-the-ground knowledge of the city and research in greater depth the history of Café Nicholson, the real-life restaurant that inspired Café Andres in A Place at the Table.

Susan currently lives in Atlanta, where she teaches creative writing at Emory University. During the winter of 2011 she was the writer-in-residence at SCAD Atlanta. She is married to Sam Redburn Reid, also an Atlanta native, meaning she and Sam both grew up eating Varsity hamburgers and riding the pink pig at the Rich’s downtown.

Did you know?

Susan and Lauren Myracle are sisters.  Myracle, a New York Times bestselling author, writes books for tweens and teens.

Susan Rebecca White’s Website

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Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).

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            Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

Hattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

 

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

 

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

 

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

 

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

 

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.  

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

 

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

 

Mathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

 

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing; 273 pages; $24.99).

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            If Edie Middlestein, the main character in Jami Attenberg’s hefty, hearty novel The Middlesteins, had a favorite commercial, it would surely be the one about chocolate chip cookies.  You know the one.  A grandmother bakes cookies for her granddaughter’s soccer team.  The girls devour them after their victory and look lovingly at the grandmother in gratitude.  One of the girl’s mothers gets an idea to bake her college-age daughter chocolate chip cookies when she is home from school.  Mother and daughter bond in the kitchen over the gooey, delicious goodies.

The commercial’s message conveys the same sentiments that Edie learned from her parents as a child.  “Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.”

In the minds of Edie’s parents, withholding food from their child, who weighed 62 pounds at age five, is akin to starving her.  Edie’s father had starved during his journey from the Ukraine to Chicago years previously and “had never been able to fill himself up since.”  Neither Edie’s mother nor her father have the heart to deny Edie food, even though the child is tired all the time from her extra weight.

Even at five, Edie “breathed too heavy, like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal” and “hated taking the stairs; she begged to be carried up the four flights to their apartment, her mother uchhing, her back, the groceries, a bag of books from the library.”  Her parents do nothing about Edie’s weight problem.  “If Edie, their beloved, big-eyed, already sharp-witted daughter, was big for her age, it did not matter.”  They could never refuse her food because that would be like holding back their love.  “Because how could they not feed her?”

As Edie grows up, she also grows out.  She marries and has children, who grow up and have lives of their own.  Food is still a constant in her life, more than a constant really–Edie needs food.  For Edie, food provides everyday sustenance and survival, yes, but she also uses food as a crutch to cope with the deaths of her parents, her own insecurities and problems, and a painful separation from her husband, Richard.  Food thus becomes her solace.  Food never abandons her; food never complains about her weight; food never tells her she’s not good enough.  Doctors warn Edie that her alarming obesity is killing her, but she pays them no mind.

The Author

The Author

Family members do their best to help Edie.  Robin, her daughter, wants her father to pay for leaving her mother.  Rachelle, Edie’s daughter-in-law, fears Edie may be beyond help when she follows her one day from McDonald’s to Burger King to a Chinese restaurant and watches in horror as Edie gorges herself on these take-outs.  When Edie is forced to undergo surgery, it is her son, Benny, who stays up all night making sure his mother does not eat after midnight.  Benny knows she cannot resist food, even when it means life or death.

In The Middlesteins, Attenberg puts a real face to our nation’s obesity epidemic.  Attenberg’s unflinching portrayal of Edie is wholly empathetic.  She lays Edie bare before us and forces us to acknowledge something surprising: Edie’s addiction to food is not that different from all of our fixations, be they shopping, sports, fitness, gambling, sex, alcohol, or drugs.  Edie’s obesity is just more noticeable because it is a physical manifestation of her addiction to food.  In other words, we can see the evidence of Edie’s overeating while we are often blind-sided by the hidden compulsions of others.

Attenberg’s The Middlesteins is a robust, warm-hearted, and hugely entertaining story of love, family, food, and loss.  With elegant and clever prose, Attenberg makes a hot-button political topic a very personal one.  The Middlesteins is poignant, enormously big-hearted, and universally appealing.

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Book Review: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (Viking; 480 pages; $27.95).

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If your family is anything like the Silvers in A.M. Homes’ black comedy May We Be Forgiven, you’re glad the holidays are over.  Homes is fierce and fearless in her depiction of a Twenty-First century family in crisis.  She knows just how to blend satire with realism, just how to mix tragedy with comedy, and just how to make her pages sizzle.

Homes’ characters are deeply flawed people, yet they are nothing but real.  Harold Silver, the novel’s main character, cannot help but be jealous of his little brother, George.  While Harold is a Richard Nixon scholar and historian, his brother is a powerful and wealthy television executive with a beautiful wife, two children, and a gorgeous home.   What Harold doesn’t envy about George is his violent temper.

The dominoes fall one by one when George gets into a car accident, killing a mother and father and injuring and orphaning their young son.  If that were not enough for one week, George snaps when he comes home to find his wife in bed with Harold.  He grabs the bedside lamp and hits her over the head with it.  These are not spoilers.  They happen within the novel’s first fifteen pages.

The story is not about these events anyway: rather, May We Be Forgiven is about how Harold seeks atonement for his part in the tragedy.  He blames himself.  If he had not been having an affair with his sister-in-law, then perhaps he could have averted catastrophe.  Harold becomes the guardian of his brother’s children, Nate and Ashley.  He also feels responsible for the orphaned boy.  As Harold assumes a new life so different from the one he had before, he seeks absolution.

Although Homes’ characters are completely unlikeable and unrelatable, they are strangely fascinating.  Harold is Homes’ most well-developed character.  When he is asked to edit a series of fictional stories written by Nixon, Harold jumps at this opportunity.  He sees Nixon as a father figure.  As Harold tries to atone for his own misdeeds, he seeks to assuage history’s view of the president.  It makes for compelling reading.

In fact, I challenge you to stop reading this story.  Once you start, you cannot stop.  Homes’ pacing is quick.  Her punches are like those of a boxer’s.  Surprises permeate on every page.

Sometimes, though, it is just too much.  It is as if Homes tries to one-up herself on every page, producing an over-abundance of shocking scenes with little or no segue between them.  Reading Homes’ novel can be like running a marathon, leaving you gasping for breath.  Homes, in certain instances, goes too far, most notably when Harold instructs his niece on how to use a tampon.  Shock value is a tool that should not be overused, even when writing a black comedy.  A little can go a long way.

Homes is unapologetically irreverent in May We Be Forgiven.  That’s why this is not a book for everyone.  If you enjoy dark comedies, you will love this story.  If you are not a fan of black comedy, stay far away.

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Spotlight on May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

I am reading May We Be Forgiven by the amazingly talented A.M. Homes. It’s an irreverent and provocative work of black comedy.

From the jacket copy:

“Harold Silver has spent a lifetime watching his younger brother, George, a taller, smarter, and more successful high-flying TV executive, acquire a covetable wife, two kids, and a beautiful home in the suburbs of New York City. But Harry, a historian and Nixon scholar, also knows George has a murderous temper, and when George loses control the result is an act of violence so shocking that both brothers are hurled into entirely new lives in which they both must seek absolution.

Harry finds himself suddenly playing parent to his brother’s two adolescent children, tumbling down the rabbit hole of Internet sex, dealing with aging parents who move through time like travelers on a fantastic voyage. As Harry builds a twenty-first-century family created by choice rather than biology, we become all the more aware of the ways in which our history, both personal and political, can become our destiny and either compel us to repeat our errors or be the catalyst for change.

May We Be Forgiven is an unnerving, funny tale of unexpected intimacies and of how one deeply fractured family might begin to put itself back together.”

It’s the perfect Thanksgiving read!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Little Sinners, And Other Stories by Karen Brown

Little Sinners, And Other Stories by Karen Brown (University of Nebraska Press; 208 pages; $17.95).

 

            Author Karen Brown has won several awards for her fiction writing.  Reading her new tightly-knit, intimate collection of short stories entitled Little Sinners, And Other Stories, it is easy to understand why.  Brown’s first collection, Pins and Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.  Her stories have appeared in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 and The Best American Short Stories 2008Little Sinners recently received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  When you read Brown’s work, you know you are in the hands of a skillful craftsman in her prime.  Little Sinners is seductive and captivating as it explores the complicated and complex world of domesticity.

 

Although Brown features male characters, most of her principal personalities are women.  Brown’s world is a woman’s world, one in which females defy stereotypes and carve out places and roles of their own.  Unexpected consequences ensue, and the women must always pick up the pieces in the aftermath.  All of Brown’s stories are very true to life because, as women, we know that is often the case.

 

Her vignettes are slices of domestic life, written with passion and, above all, realism. Some tales are erotic; some are suspenseful; all are compelling.  Among the strongest stories in the collection are the title story “Little Sinners,” “Swimming,” “Stillborn,” “The Philter,” and “An Heiress Walks into a Bar.”

 

An adult woman remembers a horrible trick she and her best childhood friend played on a little girl in “Little Sinners.”  “We weren’t bad girls,” the narrator insists.  “We were feral, unequivocally vicious, like girls raised by the mountain lions that occasionally slunk out of the wilderness….”  The girls never expected what happened next, and the woman still carries a great amount of guilt many years later.

 

In “Swimming,” a married woman and her lover swim the pools of her neighbors in the dark of night.  When they are seen, they become the talk of the neighborhood.  The woman, though, is in for a big surprise when she catches her daughter and a boy in the family pool.

 

“Stillborn” is my favorite of Brown’s short stories and also her best.  Diana, who is six-months pregnant, and her husband move into a cottage on the Long Island Sound.  He has cheated on his wife but promises it won’t happen again.  Diana seeks solace in the garden.  She digs in the dirt only to discover small bones buried there.  “Femur, fibula, humerus, clavicle.  Tiny bones, delicate and dirt-stained,” Brown writes.  Diana “stopped digging, the bones uncovered.”  She thinks, “I’ve dug too deep.”  The bones are of a baby.  Diana assumes the child was stillborn; the parents, she guesses, buried the dead infant in their yard as was the custom in earlier days.  However, when Brown shifts perspective from Diana to her neighbor, Mrs. Merrick, we see a different, and darker, side of the story.  This is truly where Brown shines as she shows domestic relationships, like plants in a garden, can have blights.

 

The most disturbing and chilling of all the stories in Little Sinners is “The Philter.”   Kit, a troubled housewife, meets Sarah in a grocery store.  Sarah’s mother has disappeared; the teen confides in Kit and practically drags her to her home for dinner.  When Sarah shows Kit how she spies on her own house, the duo see way more than they bargained for.  There is a voyeuristic quality and an illicitness to this piece.  Brown focuses on silences, what is unspoken, and on body language.  I was just as uncomfortable as Kit seemed to be.  It becomes clear that there is more to the disappearance of Sarah’s mother.

 

In another favorite story of mine, “An Heiress Walks into a Bar,” Esme is diagnosed with the same kind of cancer that killed her mother.  She grapples with her own mortality and the absence of her father, who disappeared years before.  When she was twelve, “her father put on his pale blue pinstripe suit, custom-made for a previous trip to the Bahamas, and left, never to be heard from again.”

 

Brown’s emotional stories cut to the quick.  They wound; they scar.  The stories in Little Sinners are intelligent, dark, deep, and murky, much like a woman’s soul.  Brown has a keen sense of what works.  At only 194 pages, Little Sinners is short, but its issues are weighty.  I dare you to read Little Sinners and come away empty.

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People Get Weird At Weddings

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf; 320 pages; $25.95).

 

            There are weddings, and then there are weddings.  Destination weddings.  Weekend weddings.  Lavish weddings.  Small weddings.  Weddings where drunken bridesmaids sleep with equally inebriated groomsmen.  Even Shotgun weddings where no one has to guess “is she or isn’t she?”  The wedding of Daphne Van Meter features a little of all of the above in Maggie Shipstead’s strong, hilarious debut novel Seating Arrangements, part social satire and part serious examination of a man’s mid-life crisis.

Shipstead is a California girl who sets her story on an exclusive New England island.  Although a wedding occurs in her tale, Shipstead’s story is not really about the ceremony itself; Shipstead is concerned with the events and details that lead up to the big day.

Daphne’s wedding is the social event of the season.  Daphne, though, can lie back on her beach towel and relax.  She is no blushing bride; Daphne is seven months pregnant.  Both Daphne’s parents and the groom’s parents pushed the couple into walking down the aisle pronto.  If his daughter had a child “out of wedlock,” Winn Van Meter “would die.”  If it had been up to Daphne, though, she would not have gotten married so soon. “If I really had my way,” Daphne confesses, “We’d wait a while so I wouldn’t have to be pregnant in the pictures.”  More than anything else, Daphne does not want to be a “fat bride.”  However, she acquiesces to her father, because she knows how much appearances matter to him.

Winn is truly the novel’s main character.  Winn Van Meter is a 59-year-old, Harvard-educated, wealthy WASP enduring a mid-life crisis.  As Shipstead writes, “people get weird at weddings,” and that is certainly true of Winn.

Shipstead, a 29-year-old woman, ably gets readers into the head of Winn using flashbacks and streams of consciousness.  She uses Winn to satirize New England’s upper-crust culture, but her writing turns serious and somber when we realize how alone Winn feels and how he just wants to be liked.

Seating Arrangements, in my view, is a metaphor.  Seating charts at weddings are complicated affairs.  Just ask Winn’s wife, Biddy, who agonizes over the seating arrangements.  Preparing them means enemies and exes may find themselves seated next to each other, although this is to be avoided at all costs.  Some guests will be downgraded to the “leftovers table.”  Winn prepares his own kind of seating arrangements in this novel as he takes stock of the people in his life: how they have rewarded him, remained loyal to him, disdained him, slighted him, and excluded him.  Nearing sixty, he places them in certain niches, exactly where he thinks they should belong.

Above all, Winn appreciates exclusivity; he yearns for it, in fact.  For that reason, he “summers” on private Waskeke island.  Only the very best will do for him and his family.  Tradition is important to Winn, just as it was imperative to his father.  While at Harvard, Winn joined the elite club called the “Ophidian.”  He worries an old rival, Jack Fenn, who did not get into the Ophidian, may be blackballing his acceptance into the “Pequod,” a privileged golf club.  “People,” Winn knows, “will go to great lengths for revenge on those who have excluded them.”

Worst of all, Winn fears his exclusion from the Pequod may have something to do with his younger daughter, Livia.  Since he spends a great deal of time worrying over what is correct and proper, he cannot help but wonder if his daughters are disparaging his good name.  Just look at Daphne, seven-months pregnant on her wedding day.  A similar, yet different, thing happened to Livia.  While at Harvard, Livia got pregnant by her boyfriend Teddy Fenn, the son of Winn’s would-be nemesis.  Winn went through the roof.  In the end, Livia got an abortion and Teddy broke up with her.  Winn worries this incident will forever bar him from gaining acceptance to the Pequod.  How he wishes for sons when he thinks of all his daughters have put him through.

Despite Winn’s preoccupation with appearances, he contemplates a fling with Agatha, one of Daphne’s bridesmaids.  Agatha is in her twenties and woos and is wooed by Winn.  For Winn, Agatha is like “the fountain of youth.”  He describes any romance the two would have as a “May-December” one.  Winn feels as though Agatha truly likes him and understands him, qualities he appreciates, especially in a young, beautiful woman.  He and his wife have grown apart, and he idolizes Agatha just as much as he idealizes her.  Agatha, though, has a roving eye and roving hands.

Hilarious scenes such as when Winn and Livia catch Agatha with a groomsman inflagrante delicto contrast sharply with the novel’s serene island setting.  Hoopla abounds in this tale, whether it is when Winn gets run over at the golf course and wonders if he can take advantage of the accident to get into the Pequod or when the groom’s brother causes a dead whale’s carcass to explode.  The whole novel makes for good social satire.  Shipstead’s intention is to make your mouth fall open agape while reading what someone said or did.

Interestingly, one of Shipstead’s characters also responds to the Van Meters in this way.  With uncanny and masterful ability, Shipstead shifts perspective in one chapter, showing how a situation or issue looks different based on one’s viewpoint, age, gender, and class.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when Shipstead writes for Dominique, a bridesmaid from Egypt.  Dominique has known Daphne and her family for years.  She knows how the Van Meters and others like them work: “They were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors’ servants.”  Dominique was “surprised Winn had not leapt from a bridge or gutted himself with a samurai sword after his daughters got knocked up back to back.”  “Daphne’s condition,” Dominique thinks, “would be grandfathered into the boundaries of propriety by the wedding, but Livia’s phantom pregnancy, the missing buldge under her green dress at the front of the church, was a void that could not be satisfactorily filled in and smoothed over.”  In her view, Winn “had the Pequod to take his mind off things” and “set out on his quest for membership like Don Quixote without a Sancho.”

Dominique’s reaction is our reaction.  She is, by turns, fascinated by them and repulsed by them.  So are we.  But, Dominique does her duty.  She will be the supportive bridesmaid and keep her judgments to herself.  Perhaps Dominique’s character also symbolizes Shipstead herself.  Shipstead graduated from Harvard and met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Van Meter-like families.  Maybe Dominique’s take on the Van Meters was exactly what Shipstead thought of the New England families she came into contact, obsessed with social status, elitism, and correctness.

            Seating Arrangments is THE read of the summer, but this is no fluff piece.  Shipstead constructs a many-layered story in the same way a baker creates a layered wedding cake or a designer sews a wedding gown.  There are layers upon layers, and we must peel them back chapter by chapter. There are debut novels, and then there are debut novels.  Messy, disorganized jumbles lacking cohesion.  Unrealized characters with nothing to drive them.  Settings that fall flat.  A plot that isn’t.  This is not one of those debut novels.

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Book Review: The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon; 336 pages; $25.95).

 

            Marilyn and David Frankel, loving parents to four adult children, are living their worst nightmare in Joshua Henkin’s new novel The World Without You.  Their son, Leo, a journalist, was captured in Iraq, accused of being a U.S. agent, paraded before cameras, and executed on July 4, 2004.  It was almost too much for his family to bear.

President George W. Bush only made matters worse when he called Leo an ally in the war against terror.  Marilyn wants to “spit on Bush.”  “The nerve of that man,” she says, “to claim my son as his ally.”  Leo “hated that war” and was never “political.”  Leo’s parents still struggle one year later as the whole family reunites for his memorial service.

Leo’s death threatens to tear his family apart.  Marilyn and David’s forty-two-year marriage is on the verge of collapse.  They no longer talk like they once did.  Marilyn channels all of her grief and rage into anti-war op-ed pieces she writes for newspapers.  They tell their remaining children (Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle) they plan to separate.  Marilyn tries to explain their reasons for splitting up: “We lost our son.”  Leo’s death, Marilyn says, “ruined” them.  The more Marilyn vocalizes her grief, the more silent David becomes.  He stages a “mute protest” and furiously prepares their vacation home for its eventual sale after their divorce.

The Frankel sisters are having a difficult time themselves.  Eldest daughter Clarissa desperately wants a baby, but conception is proving difficult.  Throughout the story, Clarissa remembers holding Leo when he was an infant.  She thought of herself as “Leo’s second mother.”  “In a lot of ways,” Clarissa reveals, “I thought of myself as his first mother.”  Not until his death did she truly want a child; now, it may be too late.

Lily, the second sister, has been with her boyfriend for over a decade.  They are happily unmarried and childless, although everyone has a hard time accepting this fact.  Her father asks Lily about it and she tells him that if she and Malcolm “were to have children, we probably would be married, just because it would be easier on them if we did.”  For Lily, if it happens, it happens.

Noelle is Leo’s third and least likeable sister.  Noelle, former wild child, became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel with her husband, Amram.  They have four sons.  Amram recently lost his job.  The constraints of their religion threaten their marriage.  Noelle seems uncertain who she is anymore and who she wants to become.  Amram disappears after an argument, and his absence weighs heavily on Noelle and her sons.  One of the boys forgets his toilet training.  It all becomes too much for her: “It’s Amram’s fault, yet it’s her fault, too; she might as well not be able to keep her own bladder in check.  Sleeping with whatever boy came her way.  What good is her newfound modesty when she can’t control things any more than she ever could?”  Noelle cannot “control her husband and she can’t control her children, and what good is she if she can’t do that?”

Thisbe, Leo’s widow and the mother of his son, also attends the memorial service.  She is a graduate student in California.  During her visit, Thisbe struggles with two secrets of her own.  She tries to navigate the choppy waters of a family she married into but no longer feels a part.  Thisbe felt like being in the presence of the Frankels was like “being swallowed by a many-tentacled beast and made into a tentacle” herself.  When she and Leo married, Thisbe thought his sisters became hers.  When Leo died, Thisbe felt like she experienced a two-fold loss: her husband and her newly-acquired sisters.

The Frankels truly are a bereft, heartbroken family.  The passage of time has not healed their wounds.  There is a gulf between family members, and this chasm is ever-widening.

Henkin’s narrative underscores how loss makes people do strange things.  Each person experiences grief in his or her own individual way.  A grief manual for dummies does not exist.  Henkin ably illustrates how Leo’s death affects his parents, his sisters, his wife, and others around him.  The themes Henkin focuses on in his story are universal ones, such as love, loss, war, redemption, and forgiveness.  Henkin ably tells the story from many different perspectives, allowing the reader to understand one person’s grief process is distinct from another’s.  There is strong anti-war sentiment to this family’s heartwrenching tale.

Marilyn, especially, is vitriolic against Bush and blames him for her son’s death.  Through Marilyn, Henkin shows the depth of a mother’s love for her son, the bonds mother and child share, and how her whole world has crumbled.  For her, life without Leo is bleak.

The gloom in this novel is as thick as New England fog or cloud cover: “It’s like we’re going through this cloud cover, and then there’s more cloud cover and more cloud cover and it never stops.”  Despite the dark climate of Henkin’s story, there is always hope.  That hope comes in the guise of Leo’s 94-year-old grandmother.

The World Without You is a tension-filled, character-driven account of the downward spiral of an American family.  Just when things seem darkest, though, sometimes a ray of sunlight shines through the storm clouds.  Henkin’s story will engage you.  His characters will linger long after you finish the novel.  What’s more, his story will force you to put yourself and your family in the Frankel’s place.  How would you react to such tragedy?  How would you cope?  I daresay everyone would unravel.  Everyone would come apart at the seams.  That makes the Frankels and Henkin’s story very real.

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