After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leaveAfter more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has 'run its course'.
Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he's ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.
Despite Connie's announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie's mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas's inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.
Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home - thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie's eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won't leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.
But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man's quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn't be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic - if not entirely likeable - man facing a major upheaval in his life.
In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don't always work out how you planned. It's a story about personalities, and making room for other people's characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.
The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas's voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements - voice, style, plot etc. - that, together, either work for you or don't. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.
Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow - Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) - and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There's a quote from John Updike's Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:
He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.
As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable - and often unpleasant - in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you've experienced them or not. There's skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn't be dismissed.
But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas's mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I - who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes 'partying' and finds socialising exhausting - could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we've remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it's just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas's relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That's never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can't apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn't necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it's better that it doesn't. I like to think I'm not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference - our own perspective - to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people's choices, and not just get irritated that they didn't do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
Amira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boyAmira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boys) are fourteen and the four women see much less of each other. Amira, a teacher and single mother, has taken Tess with her on a year-long teaching exchange in Kalangalla, a remote Indigenous community outside Broome, Western Australia. With only a few months left and a big decision to make, Amira invites her old friends - and Tess's old friends, Bronte and Janey - to stay with them for a few weeks. What should be a relaxing and enjoyable holiday is strained by the changed personalities of the girls as they enter womanhood, and the pressures and stresses of approaching middle age for their mothers. When Morag's sixteen-year-old stepdaughter Macy joins them, having been suspended from school, the dynamic changes yet again and tensions come to a head.
Delving into the heart of mother-daughter relationships and the fraught friendships between adolescent girls, Mothers and Daughters also touches upon some of the issues faced by our Aboriginal population and the inherent racism in the country, as well as bullying, envy, growing up and figuring out what you really want in life. Ladd writes with intelligence and wit, and the novel resonates with warmth, humour and realism.
From the opening scene at the airport in Melbourne, at the opposite end of the country, the friction as well as the love between the characters is apparent. Fiona is acerbic and sharp, witty but tired, with a husband who doesn't seem to respect her - or any women - and an older son who is following suit. She drinks a lot and is loud with her opinions. Fiona captures the views of mainstream white Australia towards the Aborigines, and doesn't care who overhears. Her daughter, Bronte, has had a growth spurt and feels ungainly and enormous. When a modelling agency scout approached her, Fiona scoffed at the idea that her daughter could be a model. Bronte hasn't started her period yet and is shy; she lets her mother browbeat and criticise her and she hasn't yet learned to stand up for herself. For a long time she was friends with Janey and Tess, though on the outside, but Janey has moved to a private school and Tess left for remote WA, leaving Bronte struggling to fill the gaps.
Janey is a self-absorbed, unlikeable girl who loves her own body and spends her time glued to her mobile phone - when she's not swimming. Her mother, Caro, has put in hours of her own time, driving Janey to practice and meets - and driving Janey to be the best. Yet it always feels like her two girls love their Italian father more, who travels so much and comes home with presents, leaving Caro to do most of the active parenting. Or maybe it's that she's jealous of how much he loves them. Caro is a bit obsessed with appearance, and looking neat and attractive, and has led a largely protected life.
Morag, an aged-care nurse, left Scotland for Australia in order to be with Andrew, a man she'd met and fallen in love with while young, but who went on to marry someone else and have a daughter. He later divorced and tracked Morag down, and they had twin boys, Callum and Finn, and later a third boy, Torran. Morag left behind her ageing mother in Edinburgh, who she visits infrequently, and after years of living in Australia, it finally catches up with her:
She wasn't hungover, Morag suddenly realised. She was homesick. For years she'd lived quite happily in Australia. She'd made her peace with it, she thought - this was where her husband was, her children, her future. Coming north, though, had shifted something. Broome and Kalangalla were so different, so foreign to her, that they magnified the strangeness of this continent, made it all seem new again. New and overwhelming and completely alien. Her mind went back to a home visit she'd done one winter's day over a decade earlier - Newhaven, she thought, or maybe North Leith. There was a hostel next door to the flat she was visiting. It was snowing, and a black-skinned family - refugees, she'd guessed, asylum seekers from North Africa - were standing in the garden with their pink-palmed hands out, catching the dirty flakes, a look of total bewilderment on each of their faces. That was her, she thought. That was how she was feeling right now. [pp.249-250]
Unlike the other three women, Amira is less urban, more open-minded and adaptable. She and her daughter, Tess, fit in well among the Aborigines at Kalangalla, a community free of alcohol that has kept up the more traditional lifestyle of the local tribe. Tess runs around barefoot with her new best friend, an Aboriginal girl called Tia. Amira is reluctant to leave for the city again after her year is up, but it's not a decision she'll make without Tess. Tess has started exchanging romantic correspondence with Callum, Morag's son, but when Janey finds the letter Tess learns just how mean Janey can be, and how different their paths now are.
As you come to know the women and their girls, you definitely come to care for them, too. Ladd has captured four women representative of our mainstream, middle-class, white society, and four girls similarly representative. They feel and sound like real people, as do the Aboriginal characters they meet and interact with. As much as I found the novel entertaining, well-written and absorbing, it also felt just a bit contrived. It is far too easy to conjure up a similar scenario of four women with representative personalities (though much less realistic): Sex and the City. Caro was definitely reminiscent of Charlotte, for instance. And the girls, too, were fairly standard characters. While it did work, it also required me to put aside certain niggles like this, when I'd rather not have them in the first place. Fiona and Morag were perhaps the best characters in the sense that they felt quite natural and normal (even if you don't agree with Fiona's opinions - and I rather hope you don't - she's still a natural, identifiable character, whereas Caro seemed like a caricature to me). The issue isn't with realism, it's with putting a bit to much into the one book. Trying to capture too many perspectives. Trying to connect with all readers and their varied personalities. It didn't need to be quite so representative in order to work. You can still have conflict when the characters are less dissimilar.
But time, and how things change with it, how our relationships - all kinds - can fall fallow or fade, and how nostalgic we can be for the past is at the forefront of this novel, and how the characters interact. Societal issues and pressures form the details that create conflict or force people to face up to things, but at heart this is a story about four women hitting middle-age and not quite handling it all that well, and their daughters who are hitting puberty, wanting to exert their independence and embark on the start of their own lives - something that is often in conflict with their parents' wishes, which stem largely from nostalgia.
Despite the niggling feeling that Mothers and Daughters was trying to capture too much, I loved this book. I especially loved the inclusion of issues surrounding Indigenous populations here in Australia, as well as the classic urban-rural divide. Most of the characters are sympathetic and likeable (the exception is Janey), and their time in the remote Aboriginal community of Kalangalla provides a wonderful backdrop to the playing-out of their relationships. This is a story of contemporary life for Australian women of this demographic, warts and all. It's about what it means to grow up - how we must go through a "coming of age" process more than once, and how we transition from impatience in adolescence, to resistance in our forties. A heartening and, at times, heart-breaking tale of love, friendship and resilience, Mothers and Daughters is a wonderful story....more
The question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it iThe question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it is not the answer that matters, but the fact that there is a question at all. For Shandi Pierce, she has spent the last four years in denial, so fiercely omitting the truth of the night she got pregnant that she's convinced herself she had a virgin birth. The illusion comes crashing down on the day she moves from her mother's mountain home to Atlanta, where her father lives, to continue her degree closer to campus. En route with her best friend, Walcott, and her three year old son, Natty, they pull over at a little petrol station because Natty is car sick. Going inside to get a drink, Shandi spies a handsome older man, who she pins as being divorced. Her parents divorced when she was very young due to arguments about how to raise their daughter (her mother is Catholic, her father is Jewish), and Shandi has had a few boyfriends since Natty was born who are all much older men.
The suspected divorcee is William Ashe, and he isn't divorced. He is in mourning, though, so when a drug-addled man enters the Circle K with an old gun and proceeds to rob the place, William sees it as destiny. Here is a way to end it all. Shandi reads William's reaction differently: she sees the way he moves between the gunman and her son, and thinks he is deeply protective - the quality all women want in their male partners when children are involved. She's sexually attracted to him, and being in a hostage situation, adrenalin pumping, only seems to heighten it. When William says "Destiny," she thinks he means them. She falls in love.
But William is deep in his own love story, the love he has - or had - for his wife, Bridget, and their two year old daughter, Twyla, who died in a tragic car accident exactly one year to the day of the robbery. William is autistic, though as his best friend Paula points out, he "learned how to pass." A genetic scientist, he's built like a football player and makes origami animals to keep his fingers busy while he thinks. When Shandi turns up at the hospital after the robbery, Natty in tow, she asks for his help in finding the boy's real father. Things changed for both of them that day at the Circle K; for Shandi, she killed a miracle. Now she has to find the truth, and hopes to find love along the way.
Someone Else's Love Story is a snappy, intelligent, engaging read, fast-paced enough to swing you along with it as it explores the characters' neuroses and conflicted states of being. For "conflicted" they are, and if it weren't for Shandi's slightly sarcastic, slightly ironic observations, it would slip into melodrama. The other thing that saves it from self-indulgence (that quality I can't stand) is Jackson's ability to see and explore the ways in which faith works for us as individuals, without ever coming across as having picked a side. William is, frankly, incapable of believing in God or anything else, and so the character presents a balance in that way. Shandi is seemingly neutral, or undecided, while Bridget was in training to be a nun. It's the push-and-pull between faith and everything (and everyone) else that matters, the way the characters work their way to an understanding that allows them to love and be loved. It's not just the concept of "religious faith" that the book deals with: more prominently, it explores the idea of faith in a non-religious context, too. Faith as in trust and understanding.
One of the things I liked about this book was its blend of cliché and originality. There are the characters: slightly-unlikeable yet oddly-likeable heroine, Shandi, caustic Paula and too-good-to-be-true Bridget, and distant, hard-to-reach but honourable William, plus gangly bean-pole Walcott who is so clearly in love with Shandi before either of them realise it (not to mention he's already pretty much Natty's father), and Shandi's Hollywood-esque rich dad and evil stepmother, Bethany. William does, of course, bring to mind Don Tillman from Graeme Simsion's highly entertaining 2013 novel, The Rosie Project; Don has Asperger's (though doesn't believe he does) and is a geneticist who helps a younger, attractive woman (Rosie) find her father via DNA sampling. In Rosie, there is romance between the two; in Love Story, there is Shandi's desperate attempts at romance that largely go unnoticed.
This isn't a story of new love, but of new beginnings to old stories. Often, they are other people's love stories, and Shandi has stumbled into them rather blindly. This includes her own parents and the truth of their unhappy marriage, which provides such an important lesson for their daughter. At its hearts, it's a story about being a parent, and the love parents have for their children - and what they sacrifice, or destroy, when love becomes a weapon. Jackson strikes true on many fronts, and what held me back from loving it is purely a subjective, personality thing. That magical relationship between reader and writer via the prose style, which no one can control. That magic relationship wasn't quite there for me with this book, though it's a successful story in so many ways. It also didn't help that I find the cover off-putting: too pinky-purple, too ugly-pretty with its loud, obvious daisy, too trite and commercial. I don't even like to look at it, but I hope it doesn't put anyone else off from reading this.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
If you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of HowIf you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here - the young, working generation's struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks - at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she's ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, "But what are you going to do? You're in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can't make cookies your entire life." Yet that's exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend's wise words, despite her mother's theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she's done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she'll need, and followed a connection from Dez's husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love - of which he has plenty of experience - and lets Becca know that he's available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca's Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected - and unpleasant - surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren't for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what's going on between Jennifer and another of the firm's lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can't see is the truth in front of her: that there's a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who's perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking - I don't seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don't they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That's not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca's ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it's true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn't experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I'm also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day - making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I'm not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it's described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca's focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer - which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly - was an interesting plot tactic, not something I'd read before, and used as justification for Becca's personal interest in Jennifer's life. Not sure I'm entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story - the one character you can't help but love and appreciate from the beginning - is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca's mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones's Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca's perspective, are that he's a womaniser (which is just an impression she's picked up) and that he doesn't have a "real job" - and when you're white and middle class, that's important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he's reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal's none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it's just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It's not original, but it's a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. - you'll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It's a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and 'let's be serious for a minute here folks', though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca's couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too - or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
The word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (argThe word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (arguably) metaphorical circus of the media, or politics. Coupled with the concept of a circus as a performance for the sake of entertainment, is entangled the concept of a feeding frenzy, a loud, seemingly chaotic ambush of a multitude of gazes. The freak shows of the 19th century may have officially ended, but our rapt attention to 'reality TV' shows - featuring people at their worst as well as their best - is testament to our ongoing love, obsession and fascination with the strange, the flawed, the bizarre or simply anyone who makes us feel better about ourselves. Paddy O'Reilly's latest book, The Wonders, does a superb job of shining a light on the blurred lines between what is normal and what is not, as well as our own rabid interest in creating the 'Other' as a way to position and understand who we are, collectively and individually.
I absolutely loved O'Reilly's previous novel, The Fine Colour of Rust; while The Wonders is written with the same light touch, and there are some moments of humour, these are two very different books. The Wonders is a more serious, more issues-based examination of society and its foibles, as well as our insecurities, fears and obsessive natures.
The story centres around Leon, whose heart began to give out when he was twenty-six; a year after his first (of many) heart attacks, he's given a new heart, but his body begins to reject the transplant. Living with his mother again while he waits to die, at the bottom of the heart transplant list because it would be his second transplant, Leon is contacted by a surgeon offering a possible chance at life - a highly illegal, unauthorised chance. The doctor, Susan Nowinski, and her husband, Howard, an engineer, have a radical plan to install a mechanical heart in Leon's chest. An excruciating procedure over the course of a year is followed by a recovery in isolation, until a local GP spills the beans after a routine check-up. Leon is contacted by many in the media (the expression 'media circus' comes to mind early on in the book, in the sense of a noisy, persistent menagerie), offering him money in exchange for his story, or from scientists and doctors wanting to study him, but it is a call from an American woman that draws him down to Melbourne to hear a more unique offer.
Rhona is a wealthy entrepreneur behind many successful shows, and her new idea is a winner - if she convince Leon to sign up for it. Not a conventional circus, to be sure, but it would require him to be on display, to be looked at. Rhona already has two others in the show: Kathryn Damon, an Irish woman "whose gene therapy for Huntington's had cured the Huntington's but left her covered in wool" [p.15]; and Christos Petridis, a performance artist from Greece who had special implants put into his back that enable him to bear - and flex - metal wings. After a few months of training and working out at Rhona's large home, called Overington, which is also home to rescued and ex-circus animals, they are introduced to the world as 'the Wonders', appearing at private dinners for exorbitant prices.
But fame always comes at a cost, not least for these three who are so different. They are both highly visible figures, and hidden, secluded ones, enveloped in a façade of disguise and illusion. Yet, that, too, is an illusion. Just as they cannot take off the very identities which have made their names - Lady Lamb, Seraphiel (which later changed to the more simple Angel), and Clockwork Man (later, Valentino) - neither can they be protected from the craziness in humanity that responds to difference.
Where The Wonders really delivers is on the themes and issues at its heart. The novel is deceptively light and easy to read: much like what we see on TV, on the surface at least it doesn't require effort to 'watch' what unfolds. But unlike with TV, O'Reilly constantly (and gently) encourages us to think, and question, and wonder. The wondrousness of life, the sparkling beauty of an individual and an appreciation of our differences is present, but juxtaposed against an encroaching darkness, a manic edge of fear, insecurity, greed and fetishistic obsessiveness. There are a few places where humanity's complex nature is explored overtly, such as when a group of disabled people - veterans, victims, unfortunates - ambush the Wonders after a show and declare their anger at what they see as shameless exploitation, calling the Wonders 'whores in a peep show' [p.136] and not contributing to society in a meaningful way. Kathryn, never one to back down or keep her own thoughts quiet, responds just as aggressively, but being faced with 'real' disability makes Leon feel empathetic.
Rhona tugged at Leon's sleeve and pulled him further into the passage. The gesture made Leon think about how no one would dare touch the empty sleeve or the hard gnarly stub of the man who waited below. If the man was not married, he probably felt the same loneliness Leon had been experiencing since he was implanted with his brass heart. It was more than sexual frustration. It was a deep ache of physical loneliness. A hunger. Wanting to be gripped by the wrist when a friend was making a point, or to have a hand pressed against his back as he was guided through a doorway. Leon was nervous of being touched and yet he craved it. And he knew from experience how disfigurement caused such discomfit and, at the same time, such fascination in most people that they were afraid to touch you even though it was the one thing they longed to do. [pp.136-7]
[caption id="attachment_20618" align="alignleft" width="193"] I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out in February 2015.)[/caption]Lingering at the periphery of such scenes - encouraged by the circus parallels - is the constant question of what is real and what is fake, what is illusion, disguise, and what is the 'real deal'. Christos, a self-absorbed artiste, changed his body for art - willingly, and with intent. Leon allowed others to experiment on his body on the slim chance of a second life. Kathryn, though, has become a true freak through no fault of her own, and has a truly horrible pre-Wonders past: her husband took advantage of her, taking demeaning photos of her, subjecting her to scrutiny in an attempt to make money, and even now that they're divorced, continues to harass her and Rhona, demanding a share of her income from the Wonders. What they each show, individually, and together, collectively, is just how complex humans are, how complex our lives are: the more we try to define, categorise and label in an attempt to understand and, ultimately, judge, the more difficult it becomes to do just that without distorting perception.
The characters are tangible, memorable and interesting, helping to propel the story forward. There is only minimal foreshadowing, and some backtracking into Leon's ground-breaking surgery, to break up the chronological flow. It is a coming-of-age story for Leon, who must grow as a person, let fame get to his head and then become grounded once more, but he must also learn how to let himself feel. For the man without a beating heart (it really would be freaky, not having a pulse!), Leon realises he can still feel, but more than that: that it is necessary to let others know that you feel, especially if they're to accept you as human.
While the idea of what it means to be human - or who is human - is at the heart of The Wonders and is brilliantly handled, I found that the style and structure of the novel itself was where I was slightly, ever-so-slightly, disappointed. Perhaps it is testament to O'Reilly's ability in crafting generous, fascinating and believable characters, but I felt cheated at the story's narrative style: it skims along the surface, dipping down into a scene and then coasting along the surface again, covering weeks and months in the space of a breath. It was partly because of this that I felt confused and not very convinced by Leon's relationship with Minh (and perhaps because of the context in which she's introduced into the story, I was suspicious of her too, which didn't help). I never really got to know Kathryn and Christos to an extent that would have satisfied - they remained displays, figures made up of their personas, people you couldn't touch. Maybe that's the point, and maybe it's a point too far, if it is.
Quite likely it will improve for me with further readings; I've learned from previous experience that those novels written in a deceptively simple way hold onto their secrets and their wonders - pun intended - for longer than those written in fancier language. Despite the unevenness of my initial reading experience, this is a subtle, layered tale, combining classic circus stories of showmanship, subterfuge and illusion (I couldn't help but be reminded of Angela Carter's excellent, and mind-bending, Nights at the Circus), as well as family, loyalty and generosity of spirit, with a perceptive social commentary on 21st-century attitudes, obsessions and prejudice. I heartily recommend The Wonders, which is a book that will satisfy in many ways, even if it didn't quite satisfy me, personally, in all of them. ...more
Georgie McCool is a television writer, working with her partner, Seth, on a popular sitcom that they both detest. When they successfully pitch a new TGeorgie McCool is a television writer, working with her partner, Seth, on a popular sitcom that they both detest. When they successfully pitch a new TV show to a producer - their own show, that they will have creative control over - they're over the moon, but suddenly they have just nine days to write four episodes before their next meeting. Georgie is beyond excited: it's what she and Seth have been working towards since they first teamed up after uni. But now she has to break the news to her husband, Neal. It's not the possibility of a new show that will upset him, but what the deadline means: missing Christmas with his family in Omaha.
While Georgie's sure they still love each other, a part of her is reluctant to share this news with her husband of fourteen years, because deep down she knows there are cracks in their marriage that could become fissures. With her mobile phone out of action, and the emptiness of their house too much to bear, Georgie stays at her mother's place where she finds her old rotary phone in her childhood bedroom, plugs it in and calls Neal. Only the Neal she talks to at night is not the Neal who packed their two girls, Alice and Noomi, into a taxi for the airport. It's not the same Neal at all: it's the Neal she first fell in love with, nineteen years ago, who almost broke up with her when he went to Omaha for a week but instead came back with an engagement ring.
What is she makes everything worse by talking to this younger Neal? What if she should use this opportunity to free him of a marriage she's almost convinced herself he doesn't want, is in fact smothered by? But what would happen to their two little girls then? What would happen to her? Suddenly these nightly phone calls into the past are all she can think about, as Georgie begins to reassess her life, her ambitions, her priorities and her family.
If I wasn't as in love with Fangirl as I'd have liked, Landline delivered that Rowell magic I so crave. Landline has the sharp, realistic banter of Attachments and the gentle, honest insights of Eleanor & Park (which I read - and still think of - as an adult novel). Plus that magical realism twist, which I wasn't actually expecting, mostly because I got a copy of this as soon as it came out simply because it's a Rainbow Rowell book and I love Rainbow Rowell books; I didn't read the synopsis.
The story is straight-forward, the premise deceptively simple. This isn't a story over-crowded with plot or bereft of character development. It's primarily a character-driven story, in which the heroine - Georgie - gets a second chance at the classic coming-of-age moment. That's what I love about this story: it gets right into the realities of being a parent, a woman with a career, a wife approaching forty with touching and often witty honesty. I also found it to be nicely subtle. When we first meet Neal, we don't know much about him except that he never locks the front door and that there's some weird tension between him and Georgie. Certain early descriptions, of how he isn't usually in a good mood, the messy house and young Alice asleep on the couch - coupled with the unlocked door led me develop an initial picture of him as something of a grumpy flake. Not sure if you can even put those words together, but I was picturing someone who begrudged easily, who was sloppy and unreliable around the house, who was maybe lazy - a stereotype, in other words, that would have been all too easy. The puzzle that is Neal is something that unravels slowly and with care, something that is shown rather than decided early on.
And it matters, it matters a lot, because Georgie is in a position to undo her life, or so it seems. As the reader, you naturally wonder, Is Neal worth it? Is he someone you could love? Should they stay together? You very slowly learn all that Neal has sacrificed for Georgie, all that he's done - and no he's not perfect, he's got edges and flaws too and that makes him all the more human and real and relatable. By the end of the book, I was more than a little bit in love with Neal myself.
Landline has poignancy, nostalgia and humour, especially around Georgie's mother, ridiculously young step-father and half-sister (plus the dogs), not to mention Seth, who first enters the plot as something of a possible love interest or second option for Georgie. But he never feels right, and in fact he reminded me all too vividly of extroverted, charismatic people I've known over the years. Descriptions from Georgie's youth, when she first met Seth and Neal while working on the student paper, are a mix of that classic late 80s/early 90s show, Press Gang, and vague recollections of my own student days (not that I worked on the student paper at uni). With so much dialogue in the story, it reads with a quick pace and lots of energy, making the slower, more whimsical recollections of the past that much more bittersweet.
At its heart, this is a story about that unavoidable shift from adulthood to, well, adulthood - from the fun stuff to the repetitive drudgery, the realities of making a living and supporting a family, the truth that every marriage gets comfortable, and then can become tired and stale or, sadly, broken. It's a story about growing apart as much as growing closer together, about miscommunication and that struggle we so often have between the demands of our families and the demands of our souls to be more fulfilled. As thirty-nine year old Georgie tells young Neal in her head:
You like our house. You picked it out. You said it reminded you of home - something about hills and high ceilings and only one bathroom. And we're close to the ocean - close enough - and you don't hate it, not like you used to. Sometimes I think you like it. You love me by the ocean. And the girls. You say it sweetens us. Pinks our cheeks and curls our hair. And Neal, if you don't come back to me, you'll never see what a good dad you are. And it won't be the same if you have kids with some other, better girl, because they won't be Alice and Noomi, and even if I'm not your perfect match, they are. God, the three of you. The three of you. When I wake up on Sunday mornings - late, you always let me sleep in - I come looking for you, and you're in the backyard with dirt on your knees and two little girls spinning around you in perfect orbit. And you put their hair in pigtails, and you let them wear whatever madness they want, and Alice planted a fruit cocktail tree, and Noomi ate a butterfly, and they look like me because they're round and golden, but they glow for you. And you built us a picnic table. And you learned to bake bread. And you've painted a mural on every west-facing wall. And it isn't all bad, I promise. I swear to you. You might not be actively, thoughtfully happy 70 to 80 percent of the time, but maybe you wouldn't be anyway. And even when you're sad, Neal - even when you're falling asleep at the other side of the bed - I think you're happy, too. About some things. About a few things. I promise it's not all bad.
I wouldn't want to mislead you into thinking this is some sappy, unbearably sweet story about love and finding what's important - it might be about those things, but in a wise, fresh way. At least, I found it to be wise and fresh, perhaps because I don't read too many books that get easily dismissed as 'women's fiction' (there's something inherently patronising in that label, like it's saying: Don't worry about those silly books, men, the real fiction is over here), but really I think it's because Rowell has a real talent for realism, for snappy prose, and for capturing individuals who I can relate to and feel for. There are writers like that for everyone, and when you find one, you hold them close (which is why you want print books over e-books, right, because snuggling an e-reader to your chest in pure glee just isn't the same thing)....more