Tag Archives: husbands and wives

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn Books; 416 pages; $25.95)

husband secretIt’s every widow’s worst nightmare.  You are going through your deceased husband’s desk to find an envelope, addressed to you, with the foreboding words: “To be opened only in the event of my death.”  But imagine if you were still a wife– not yet a widow, with a husband very much alive–a devoted mother, and a fixture of the community.  Imagine if your life was just about perfect.  This is exactly what happens to Cecilia Fitzpatrick, the main character in Liane Moriarty’s engaging and, above all, human fifth novel aptly titled The Husband’s Secret.

What would you do?  Do you open it?  Do you risk everything?  Do you really, truly want to know the possible deep, dark secrets held within?  And once you know—what then?  Once the secret is out, it can never be taken back.  Can’t you just see the story in the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” section of one of your mom’s old Ladies’ Home Journal Magazines?

Cecilia has already discovered the letter when Moriarty opens her narrative.  It’s not until page 144 that Cecilia finally opens the missive to read the secrets held within.  I think she showed incredible restraint.  Moriarty tends to ramble as she shows us Cecilia’s inner struggles—to open the letter or not to open the letter.  The author’s tactic is purposeful and full of meaning.  Cecilia’s once orderly and careful world changes rapidly, literally within seconds.  She has gone from the woman who had everything together to a directionless, unsettled person.  After all she has been through, who wouldn’t be all jumbled?

Moriarty superbly compares Cecilia’s opening the letter to Pandora opening the jar from which “all those dreadful ills would go whooshing out to plague mankind forevermore.” Willpower loses out to natural curiosity in most instances.  In this way, The Husband’s Secret is very real and relatable.  We’re all human, and Moriarty puts both a human and humane spin on this tale.

So many different scenarios spun through my head as I wondered exactly what the husband’s secret would be.  I admit I have a very active imagination.  Okay, here we go.  He’s got to be a terrorist, and he decides he will only confess after his death.  Or this: He’s planning on assassinating the president.  I mean—come on, he does have three names after all—classic future president killer.  Or yet: He has to be in the witness protection program.  He’s hiding from the Mafia.  Or still: He is leading a double life, with another wife and family.  For me, the latter seemed to be the most common scenario, and I cheered when none of the above came to fruition.  Moriarty manages to keep her premise fresh and different, and she succeeds in engaging the reader and keeping her guessing.

The Husband’s Secret a pure joy to read.  Moriarty creates an honest rendering of a marriage, of a life, and of a family.  So many moriartyemotions permeate these pages, and Moriarty captures each and every one of them perfectly.  We’re all imperfect and heavily flawed.  We’re all human.  We just cannot resist letters or even jars, despite what they might contain.  And that’s all part of the fun of life.  The Husband’s Secret will surely be a hit with book clubs as the story will resonate with women of all ages.  I suspect many women will take the discussion from the book club back home to the bedroom.

 The Husband’s Secret is the September Book Club Selection of She Reads.

For other reviews of the novel, fun giveaways, discussions, and more, visit She Reads!

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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).

Description:

sea creaturesWhen Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

My Thoughts

Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along.  Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized.  I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders.  I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns.  He sometimes sleepwalked.  “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed.  It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary.  Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”

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Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism.  This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me.  Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.

Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage.  Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.”  As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.

Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer.  Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel.  “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….”  Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.

I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent.  Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years.  Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville.  Those passages just hummed with energy.

683af41910938771f187ff55921f44d6I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance.  Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot.   Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years.  But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.”  Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters.  For them, everything changed.  Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.

Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature.  The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.

All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey.  Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”

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Spotlight on The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Releasing July 16 from Scribner

the violet hourA pitch-perfect, emotionally riveting debut novel about the fracturing of a marriage and a family – from an award-winning young writer with superb storytelling instincts.  Life hasn’t always been perfect for Abe and Cassandra Green, but an afternoon on the San Francisco Bay might be as good as it gets. Abe is a rheumatologist, piloting his coveted new boat. Cassandra is a sculptor, finally gaining modest attention for her art. Their beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, is heading to Harvard in the fall. Somehow, they’ve made things work. But then, out of nowhere, they plunge into a terrible fight. Cassandra has been unfaithful. In a fit of fury, Abe throws himself off the boat.  A love story that begins with the end of a marriage, The Violet Hourfollows a modern family through past and present, from the funeral home in the Washington suburbs where Cassandra and her siblings grow up to the San Francisco public health clinic where Abe and Cassandra first meet. As the Greens navigate the passage of time—the expectations of youth, the concessions of middle age, the headiness of desire, the bitterness of loss—they must come to terms with the fragility of their intimacy, the strange legacies they inherit from their parents, and the kind of people they want to be. Exquisitely written, The Violet Hour is the deeply moving story of a family suddenly ripped apart, but then just possibly reborn.

Bookmagnet Says: Told from multiple and very distinctive viewpoints, The Violet Hour knocked me over with its intimate portrayal of a family’s past and present.  Hill knows how to keep readers turning pages.  Utterly beguiling.

O, The Oprah Magazine loved it, too.  They chose it as one of “Ten Titles To Pick Up Now” in the August issue:

A bittersweet tale of breakup and forgiveness, this debut novel begins at the end of a marriage and journeys back through time to explore why the relationship frayed.

I will be reviewing The Violet Hour next week, so stay tuned!

 

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Book Review: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio (Plume; 320 pages; $15).

                Blackberry Winter, the new novel from Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow, is the October She Reads Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book, comment on reviews, meet Jio, and find out how she came up with the premise of the story by going to the She Reads web site.  There are some yummy giveaways you don’t want to miss either!

Click here for discussion and giveaways!

Jio is a novelist who knows how to pull at her readers’ heartstrings.  She draws you into a story, and, suddenly, you forget everything else around you.  The rest of the world falls away; you are immersed in Jio’s world.  That is how it was for me when I read her two previous novels.  Jio is back, and she has not lost her gift.  In fact, Blackberry Winter is now my favorite of her works.  Blackberry Winter is a mystery/love story with appealing characters, a strong plot, and a setting Jio knows well: Seattle, her home.

In Blackberry Winter, Jio focuses her narrative lens on two women, born decades apart, who have experienced deep loss and heartache.  Vera Ray trudges home to her three-year-old beloved son, Daniel, early one May morning in 1933.  Vera is struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the Great Depression.  Fresh from her shift at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel, she steps out the door to a late-season snowstorm, or “blackberry winter” as it was once referred to.  To her horror, Daniel is nowhere to be found.  More horrible still: no one seems to want to help her find her son.

Fast-forward to present-day Seattle and to Claire Aldridge, a reporter for the Seattle Herald.  Her boss assigns Claire to cover their own blackberry winter.  Like Vera, Claire is struggling.  She recently suffered a terrible accident and endured the death of her baby.  Her marriage is falling apart.  She is unhappy to be given such a fluff piece and searches for an angle.  When she discovers Daniel’s disappearance, Claire is intrigued; she has her story.

In alternating chapters Jio tells the story chiefly from the first-person perspectives of Vera and Claire.  The “I” definitely made the novel more intimate.  I do not think Blackberry Winter would have had as much of an effect on me if Jio had told the story in the third person.

Initially, I was no fan of Vera’s.  I detested her inaction.  She is a woman who does not act; rather, she waits for other people, namely men, to act.  I wanted to shake her.  The more Jio delved into Vera’s character, though, the more I came to understand her.  Vera lived in the 1930s, during a time of economic crisis much worse than our own.  As a single mother, she had to work; she had no other choice.  Yet, many scorned her for working.  Upper-class women looked at her with contempt.  But they didn’t have to walk in Vera’s shoes, riddled with holes.  Vera’s story is truly a tragic tale and reminded me of the 2008 movie The Changeling, based on actual events.  In 1928 Los Angeles, a woman was reunited with her son who had been missing.  When she adamantly told the authorities that the boy was not her son, they vilified her and deemed her an unfit mother.

Claire, for me, was the star of this story.  I loved her spunk and her drive.  She really is Jio’s most likeable, relatable character.

Jio brings her dual time narratives together in the end for a very satisfying conclusion.  What she writes is unexpected, yet always plausible.  Once you start reading, you will want to finish this in one sitting.  The story is engaging; the characters are compelling; the setting is timely.  Jio’s themes of maternal love, loss, jealousy, redemption, hope, and healing will resonate with readers.

Blackberry Winter is a well-timed, beautifully told story from one of the masters of the dual time narrative.  I highly recommend it for fans of Sarah McCoy, Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton, Jenna Blum, and Tatiana de Rosnay.

 

 

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Book Review: Perfect is Overrated by Karen Bergreen

Perfect is Overrated by Karen Bergreen (St. Martin’s Griffin; 308 pages; $14.99).

                Most authors do not know how to use humor in their storytelling.  Their attempts at comedy fall flat or come out all wrong.  Karen Bergreen, though, is not like those writers.

Bergreen is a stand-up comic who has appeared on Court TV, Comedy Central, Oxygen, and on Law & Order.  That is just her “second” career.  She is a former attorney who also clerked for a federal judge.  Bergreen is smack-dab in the midst of undertaking yet another vocation: author.  Her latest laugh-out-loud murder mystery is called Perfect is Overrated; she previously wrote Following Polly.    

                In Perfect is Overrated, Bergreen’s comedic timing is impeccably spot-on.  After the mother of one of her daughter’s preschool classmates is murdered, Kate Alger remembers meeting her for the first time.  The mothers and their daughters were sitting in a waiting area of the preschool’s admissions office.  Beverly offered her daughter, Bitsy, some hummus.  Molly, Kate’s daughter, thought the woman would offer her some, too.  “She’s not sick, is she?” Beverly asked, anxiously.  “Bitsy doesn’t like germs.”  Beverly made it clear to little Molly that the food was for Bitsy and she could not have any.  Kate instead offered Molly old saltine crackers from her purse.  Beverly was horrified, “Ooh, you do salt?”  Beverly then turned to Bitsy: “Bitsy, sweetie.  Mommy is going to help Bitsy out of her stroller.  And then Bitsy can give Mommy a kiss.  Mommy loves Bitsy.”  And then Bitsy threw up on Beverly.  “Molly took the second saltine out of its plastic wrap and handed it to the little girl.”  See what I mean?  Bergreen knows instinctively where to position humor in her storytelling.

But Perfect is Overrated is not all punch-lines and laughter.  Kate once had the perfect life.  She was an assistant district attorney who loved her job and was married to Paul, a gorgeous cop.  The couple was overjoyed to be expecting their first child.  Molly’s premature arrival and her touch-and-go first weeks of life irrevocably changed all that.  Kate developed postpartum depression, and nothing, not even Molly, could pull her from the black depths of despair.  Paul knew how to deal with perps but he had no clue how to handle an emotional and despondent wife.  They divorced.  He moved into an apartment right above his ex and their daughter.

Kate finally finds a cure for her postpartum blues when someone begins murdering the wealthy, snobby, seemingly perfect moms in Molly’s class.  Paul and Kate’s old boss are on the case.  Kate is hungry for information and launches her own investigation, which includes breaking into Paul’s computer and doing some snooping in her old boss’ office.  Kate gets more than she ever bargained for, though, when she discovers she could be next.

Because Bergreen knows the law, the plot to Perfect is Overrated is true to life.  She knows the ins and outs of police procedure and how to build a case against a perpetrator.  Because she also knows comedy, the story is funny, too.  Case in point:  when the killer is finally in police custody, the accused describes one of the murders.  “She answered the door in a stupid Chanel suit, which, I’m sorry, is so over.  Coco is dead, lady.  Buy de la Renta.”  I think I can honestly say that I have never read a funnier mystery.

Bergreen’s two careers, law and comedy, come together in this novel.  It’s a good marriage, one that I hope is long-lasting. May she never stray.

 

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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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Book Review: The Light between Oceans

The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Scribner; 384 pages; $25).

 

There are times when I lose myself in a novel.  I am certain this has happened to you, too.  I disappear into the rhythms and cadence of a good story.  The characters I meet become like friends or family members.  The settings of these tales are places I have physically never been, yet I could tell you everything about them.  These are the stories that stay with me, novels I read and reread over and over again.

The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, a native Australian, is just such a novel.  Stedman now lives in London, and her debut proves she is an author to watch.  Clear your calendar, because you will not want to do anything else once you begin reading The Light between Oceans.

Stedman sets her story primarily on the formidable isolated island of Janus Rock, off the western coast of Australia.  A lighthouse station, built in 1889, sits on the island like a sentinel.  Like the god the island is named for, Janus Rock “looks in the direction of two different oceans, down to the South Pole and up to the Equator.”  The god Janus has two faces, “back to back.”  The island also has two faces: beautiful one minute and ugly the next.

For a lightkeeper, life on Janus Rock can be a nightmare.  Stedman illustrates the utter isolation he can feel, especially when alone on the island.  Often, the only visitors are the supply boat.  It is a lonely existence.  So much so that Trimble Docherty, the light keeper, went crazy and had to be replaced.  Enter Tom Sherbourne and, later, his wife, Isabel.  Tom takes over the light.  The job is difficult–difficult enough to make or break people and make or break marriages.

One day, a small boat washes ashore on Janus Rock.  Inside is a dead man and a living baby.  Isabel believes the child is a “gift from God.”  She urges her husband not to signal the authorities, or at least not yet.  Give it a day or two, she begs.

The appearance of the baby is a prayer answered for Isabel.  In heartbreaking and affecting passages, Stedman describes Isabel’s two miscarriages and one stillbirth.  I was overcome to see Isabel wash the body of her dead child.  She is a broken woman, longing for a child.  Suddenly, one appears out of nowhere.  Isabel wants to raise the baby as hers and Tom’s.  The mother, Isabel thinks, must have drowned before the boat landed on the island.  She wants this baby girl more than anything else in the whole world.  Stedman writes, “In a place far beyond awareness, the flood of chemicals which until so recently had been preparing her body for motherhood, conspired to engineer her feelings, guide her muscles.”  Isabel’s instincts “rushed back to life.”  This fact is not lost on her husband.

Tom is Stedman’s strongest character, even more so than Isabel.  A former World War I soldier, Tom is serious and steadfast.  “The idea of honor,” for Tom, “was a kind of antidote to some of the things he’d lived through.”  A meticulous record keeper, Tom records everything in his logbook.  It is part of his job.  “A lightkeeper accounts for things,” Stedman gently reminds us.  “Every article in the light station is listed, stored, maintained, inspected.  No item escapes official scrutiny.”  He is not one to take liberties with the logbook.  Tom, in fact, “relishes the language” [of the logbook].  “When he thinks back to the chaos, the years of manipulating facts, or the impossibility of knowing, let alone describing, what the bloody hell was going on while explosions shattered the ground all around him, he enjoys the luxury of stating a simple truth.”  Tom is not a man to break rules.

Isabel throws Tom’s honor in his face.  “But what are those rules for?  They’re to save lives!”  When Tom says he just cannot lie about the dead man and the baby washing ashore, Isabel explodes: “How can you be so hard-hearted?  All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.”  Tom finally acquiesces, in part because he feels responsible for the miscarriages and stillbirth.  He is the reason they are on the rock, after all.  He does not mention the dead man and baby in the log; instead, he buries the body of the man and pushes the boat back out to sea.

Isabel and Tom raise the baby as their own.  Tom, though, carries around such guilt.  One day, it is abundantly clear, he will no longer be able to live with what he has done.  One day, it will be too much for him to bear.  One day, the secret will come out.

The Light between Oceans moves at a fast clip.  Although Stedman’s two main characters are Tom and Isabel, she also introduces other characters into the story.  Her ability to get us into their heads is masterful and even unexpected, especially when it comes to the struggles of a grieving mother.

Honestly, I felt like I was complicit in Tom and Isabel’s crime.  I fervently hoped they would keep the baby.  I urged Tom to lie.  I felt as if I were aiding and abetting criminals.  I rationalized with Tom; I sympathized with Isabel.  But then I felt the guilt, just like Tom.  Stedman drags the reader into this moving story and does not let go.

I miss Janus Rock.  I miss Tom and Isabel.  If you get caught up in Stedman’s debut, you will miss them too.  Stedman seduces the reader into helping cover up a crime.  The Light between Oceans mesmerizes the reader.  It truly does.  What is right and what is wrong?  Is everything black and white?  Or do grey areas really exist?  In a web of lies, can the truth ever come out?  The Light between Oceans is like a siren’s song–beautiful and impossible to resist.

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Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller

Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller, Author of Brand New Human Being

Jaime Boler: Thanks, Emily, for letting me ask you these questions.  I really appreciate it.  You have worked in journalism and you have an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida.  What is your first love: environmental studies or writing?  When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?

Emily Jeanne Miller: I always wanted to write, but I didn’t know what. I think that deep down I always wanted to write fiction but I didn’t know how to begin, and moreover I was afraid to try. Growing up, I loved the outdoors and I loved books. I worked as a journalist for a while after college then went to grad school in Montana, where I took an elective class on James Joyce. When we read the short story, “The Dead,” something burst open for me. I had to write fiction. So I did. I started there, and have been at it ever since.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Brand New Human Being?

EJM: The original inspiration for the book was a father and son I saw late one night, when I was at hot springs resort in the middle of nowhere in Montana. Something about them struck me; I wondered what they were doing there, just the two of them, so late at night. I’m not sure I thought about them again until 2001, after I’d left Montana for Florida, where I went for my MFA. For a workshop, I wrote a story based on the father and son from at the hot springs. It wasn’t a great story, and I rewrote it a bunch of times over the next several years–well, nine years. I was still basically rewriting it when I sat down in the fall of 2009 and started what would become Brand New Human Being. The father and son from that night are now Logan and Owen. The hot springs scene is still in there, though now it plays a pretty minor role.

JB: In Brand New Human Being, Julie is working on a big asbestos case.  You covered a wide range of topics when you were a journalist.  Did you ever write about asbestos cases?

EJM: I did not write about asbestos cases, but a huge one was in the news all the time, so I was reading about it constantly. A friend of mine made great documentary about it called “Libby, Montana,” that really intrigued and amazed me, particularly on the human level–the impact environmental problems can have on the lives of individuals and families, and over generations. I also did work for the Clark Fork Coalition, a non-profit group devoted to cleaning up the Clark Fork and nearby rivers, mostly from mining-related contamination, so I was learning a lot about that.

JB: You set your story in Montana, a state in which you have lived.  As a writer, do you believe it’s easier or better to write what you know or is it more difficult because it’s familiar?

EJM: Both can be true. I didn’t write about the West until I’d moved East. I seem to have trouble writing about the place where I’m living, but then something about leaving a place brings it into sharper focus. I guess I tend to write about what I know, but from a distance.

JB: Logan is angry in this novel. He’s angry at his father for dying, his wife for being distant and overworked, his friend for wanting to sell the store, and at his son for sucking his thumb and wanting to “be a baby.”  Is Logan the real problem here?

EJM: Definitely–and that’s a big part of what the novel’s about: Logan getting out of his own way. He has to let go of a lot of the old anger he’s carrying around to be able to move forward in his life.

JB: Despite the distance with which Gus raised Logan, Logan desperately wants to be a good father.  In fact, one of my favorite things about Brand New Human Being is the father-son bond between Logan and Owen.  Sure, Logan’s not perfect, but readers can feel how fiercely protective Logan is of Owen and how much he loves him.  How difficult was it to write this father-son bond–something we women can never experience?

EJM: I didn’t find it very difficult, maybe because I just thought about people/animals/things I love fiercely, and went from there.

JB: I love the title.  Early on in the book, Logan talks about Owen’s birth and how he was this “brand new human being.”  In the end, though, Logan has become a brand new human being himself.  He’s come to terms with his father’s death and realizes he’s not the one that died.  What came first for you: the story or the title?

EJM: That’s so eloquently put! Actually, that line’s been in the story since almost the beginning, but the book went through several titles before landing on that one. My original title was “Gold,” which my agent nixed for its vagueness. Then we decided on “After Augustus,” but that didn’t work for a few different reasons. We considered about a hundred more, until finally my editor’s assistant came up with “Brand New Human Being,” which I think is really catchy, and works well for the story (for exactly reasons you describe).

JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story?  Is any character most like you?

EJM: I have a favorite character–I like them all for different reasons, which I think has to be the case if they’re going to feel multi-dimensional and sympathetic to readers. One character I would have liked to spend more time with, though, is Donna Zilinkas. She plays a peripheral role in the story, but she was surprisingly fun to write.

JB: Can you describe your road to publication?  When did you begin work on the novel?  Did you receive any rejection letters?

EJM: I started working on the novel in the fall of 2009. I worked every day, hard, for almost a year. Then I revised it a couple of times–major revisions–and then I sent it to a couple of writer friends to read. I did one more revision based on what they said, and when it was as strong as I believed I could make it, I contacted several agents in early February 2011. After that things happened quickly. My agent, Lisa Bankoff, took me on on Valentine’s Day; the next week she sent the manuscript out to a handful of houses. Two were immediately interested, so I spoke with those editors, and the next day I accepted a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Which is not to say I haven’t received rejection letters. Over the years, sending out short stories, I’ve received plenty of those.

JB: How do you deal with both good and bad reviews?  Does one bad review dampen all the good ones?

EJM: Since this is my first book, I’m learning as I go. It’s really gratifying when someone says the book resonated with them. So far, I haven’t been too upset by anything a reviewer has said. One thing that does irk me, I’ve found, is when a reviewer gets major factual thing wrong about the book, and in the next turn criticizes it.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Brand New Human Being and what was the most rewarding?

EJM: The most difficult part was the discipline to keep at it. Some days I really, really didn’t want to sit down at the computer. Like, at all. That’s hard—you just have to. There’s no way around that. The process of finishing, finding my agent, and selling it was thrilling—and I don’t mean financially. So much of writing is solitary, and it can fill you with self-doubt. Producing a book that even a few people like and take seriously feel very, very good.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this novel?

EJM: One thing I learned was that I could do it—I mean actually write a book. I had no idea whether or not that was the case.

JB: Please tell us what a typical day of writing is like for you.

EJM: While I was writing Brand New Human Being, I tried to stick to a 4-pages/4 miles daily quota, which meant I would try to be sitting at my desk by 8:30 a.m. If I had to do things (like pay bills, or do other work, or interact with a sentient being aside from my dog), I’d try to schedule those around lunchtime. After lunch I would go back to work, and around my dog’s dinner time (4 or 5p.m.) I’d get up and tend to him. Then I’d go for a run or walk, during which I’d think about the book, and then I’d sit down once more to jot down what I’d thought about, for the next morning. And then I’d leave it alone for the night. (Except when I would think about it, going to sleep.)

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

EJM: I love being outside (except this time of year in DC, when it’s scorching): walking, running, hiking, swimming. I love dogs. I read a lot. I love a good TV drama (Friday Night Lights and Deadwood are my all-time favorites), though I tend to get obsessed and gorge myself on them. I think I watched the entire Season One of Game of Thrones in a week.

JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are some of your favorite authors?

EJM: Writer-wise, I love William Trevor and Alice Munro and John Cheever; his story “Goodbye My Brother” astonishes me every time I read it. As for novels, I re-read The Great Gatsby regularly. I also adore Richard Russo. Two of my favorite novels I’ve read in recent years are “A Month in the Country” by JL Carr, “The Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk, and “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt.

JB: Any chance of this getting made into a movie?  If so, who do you see in the lead roles?

EJM: No word yet from Hollywood, but I’ll keep you posted. I do love the “who-would-play-whom” game. I’m thinking Kirsten Dunst or Claire Danes could make a good Julie. And how about Jake Gyllenhal or even Seth Rogan as Logan?

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Brand New Human Being?

EJM: I hope they feel as if they’ve spent some time in the company of good, complex people who are doing their best, if not always doing very well. And I hope they enjoyed the experience!

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

EJM: Yes, I’m working on another novel. Too early to talk about specifics, but it’s safe to say this one will be about a complicated family, too. And chances are they’ll have a dog.

JB: Thanks, Emily, for a wonderful interview!
 

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Book Review: Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 272 pages; $25).

“My name is Logan Pyle.  My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange.  I’m thirty-six years old.  My life is nothing like I thought it would be.”  Thus begins Emily Jeanne Miller’s fast-paced and deeply heartfelt debut Brand New Human Being.

Miller has worn many hats in her life.  At Princeton University, from which she graduated, she studied comparative religions.  She holds an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Formerly a journalist, Miller covered a wide range of environmental topics, such as Indian casinos, nuclear bomb testing, rock climbing, and grizzly bears.  We should be lucky she turned to fiction writing, as her first novel overflows with humor, tenderness, and humanity.

Initially, however, I did not like Logan.  I thought Logan’s biggest problem by far was Logan.  That is partially true, but he managed to win me over.  All the credit goes to Miller.

Logan’s father, Gus, died four months ago.  The son deeply mourns the loss of his father, perhaps more so because it was marked by a lot of distance.  By distance, I do not mean miles.  I refer to the distance of the heart.

Logan’s mother died when he was a child and Gus was a single-parent.  When Logan was in his late teens, Gus remarried a woman only five years older than his son.  Logan still has issues with Bennie, his father’s young widow.

When Miller’s story begins, Logan is husband to Julie, a lawyer, and stay-at-home dad to four-year-old son Owen.  Former grad student, Logan’s status is ABD (all but dissertation).  Home life is far from ideal.

An important case involving workers at a vermiculite mine preoccupies Julie.  When she is with Logan and Owen, her mind seems elsewhere; and it is.  Husband and wife once loved each other fiercely, but her time is short.  Both Logan and Owen miss her.

Owen cries out for attention.  He seems to know instinctively that things are not right in his household.  He just senses something is off.  As a consequence, Owen is “regressing,” sucking his thumb, and wanting to be a baby.  Logan is often short with him and with his wife.

Then, there is the outdoor-equipment store called The Gold Mine that Gus left Logan.  His friend, Bill, helps him run the business.  An unidentified buyer made an enormous offer on the store and the land it occupies.  Bill wants to take it and pushes Logan to accept.

If all those things are too much for one man to deal with, it only gets worse.  Julie’s boss wants to dig up Gus, who once worked in the mines himself.  His body may help their case.  Logan just cannot agree to exhume his father’s body, at least not right now.

For Logan, the final straw comes when he catches Julie kissing another man at a birthday party.  Something in him snaps.  He packs up Owen and his most prized possession, a 1920s Louisville Slugger, and gets into his truck and leaves Julie and his troubles behind.

Or so he thinks.  Bad luck follows Logan, and misadventures seem to follow.  After he gets revenge on the man he saw Julie with, he ends up at his father’s old cabin and finds something unexpected and welcome there, something or someone that could really jeopardize his marriage to Julie.  It is here that Logan discovers his choices–past, present, and future–matter.

By the end of the book, Logan is a different man.  Since his father died, Logan has been fixated on his own mortality and grief-stricken.  Like a lot of men, Logan does not know how to cope with his grief.  But that is no longer an issue for him.  “Somebody did die,” Logan says.  “I guess I just took a while to understand that it wasn’t me.”  When Owen was born, Logan marveled at his son, a “brand new human being.”  Now Logan is a “brand new human being” himself and everyone around him is better for it.

Miller’s story explores marriage, family, death, love, betrayal, and forgiveness.  What stands out most to me, though, is the bond between father and son.  Logan may be sharp with Owen at times and he may want him to act like a big kid, yet it is clear that Logan loves his son and would do anything in the world for him.  Written with humor and poignancy, Brand New Human Being shows us no one is perfect.  No one is without faults.  The secret to life is learning how to accept the deficiencies in others and, most importantly, the ones in ourselves.

Truth be told, if Miller had not chosen to write this novel in Logan’s first person perspective, I do not think he would have ever won me over.  I am thankful she decided to tell the story like she did.  Logan is not perfect, but none of us are.  This novel will compel you to do your best to be a better human being.  Who knows?  You just may be a “brand new human being” too.

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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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