Ariel Zinsky is thirty and living in Manhattan as a self-made man, enjoying his life, his liberty and his football. And his masturbation. Half-Jewish,...moreAriel Zinsky is thirty and living in Manhattan as a self-made man, enjoying his life, his liberty and his football. And his masturbation. Half-Jewish, Ariel is supremely tall (6 foot 8), has been completely bald and hairless overall since he was sixteen (for no known reason), and is scarred from his parents' broken marriage and the physical beatings his father dealt him over the years, whenever he visited. To say he has issues - with women, with being a father, with relationships in general - would be a bit of an understatement. His self-image is a negative one: he sees himself as freakishly tall, freakishly bald and a loser. And a failure. He leaves notes to this effect all over his apartment, mostly to berate himself.
At thirty, Ariel has decided to write his life history. If he could just explain his awful childhood, people would understand him better, surely. Not that anyone seems all that interested. Ariel vacillates between wallowing in self-pity, determined that women will always reject him, and feeling quite pleased with himself. He's managed to follow his dream and make a lot of money out of it, after all. After losing his virginity in his last year of university to a gorgeous girl called Shelagh ("Sheila"), a sexual relationship that went nowhere, Ariel moves to Boston and there meets Diana. But Diana, Ariel's father is convinced, is like all women in that they only want one thing: a man's sperm. They're like praying mantis', he explains: once they've mated, they bite off the male's head and eat him. It's clear - to everyone else at least - that Diana wants marriage and children, but Ariel is perfectly happy having a girlfriend/best friend and would like to just let things continue the way they are.
Is it any wonder, with a father who beat him as a child and who continues to erode Ariel's sense of self-worth or his ability to respect women, that Ariel's own views on relationships are rather messed up? He doesn't ever want to marry or have children. He doesn't want to be a father. His own father has soured him on that forever, and he explains his rationale as dating back to childhood. The only relationship Ariel can really count on is with his mother, Barbara, but after years of boyfriends she has finally gone and got married to a Jewish lawyer called Neil.
As Ariel leads us through his life and all its successes and failures, we come to understand one thing at least: Ariel Zinsky is a lost little boy yearning for the safety of his mother's arms, growing up in the big city jungle and struggling to hold onto his principles and his sense of self within the relationships he forms, and without.
Ariel's story begins in 1980, when he was five and his father left, moving to New Mexico with his new girlfriend Cam, an accountant from his company (years later they have a daughter, Sandra). But the story begins begins the following year, when he was six and his father visits and the physical abuse begins. We follow Ariel through the 80s and his awkward childhood, his self-mutilation and feelings of suicide. We skim through his adolescence, where the highlight was his time working at a nearby supermarket. His story shifts gears at the University of Michigan, where he not only kisses a girl for the first time but also gets dragged into playing basketball. It's at uni that he starts writing his Guide, an annual book of over a hundred pages all about American football, which he tries to sell for five dollars per copy. It's a dismal start really, but it's a start - and the start of something much bigger. Ariel may lack confidence or clarity regarding women and relationships, but he knows football.
This coming-of-age novel has been called "Dickensian" by others; it certainly has that style and flavour, that sense of the absurd in its characters that make it both more realistic and less dull than real life. Ariel himself is an exaggeration: exaggeratedly tall, hairless and awkward. Interestingly, he is not a real social outcast, and he has a great deal of confidence. He may have deep neuroses about women and love and his own attractiveness, among other things, but they never stop him from pursuing women and relationships, from wanting love.
We reached her house. I stood a yard away from her, my back against a lamppost. At that distance she had little reason to anticipate a quick-strike kiss. I ached to hold her face but feared my own despondency in the wake of a rejection. The risk of a failed kiss - and therefore never again seeing her in a romantic context - frightened me as if my life were in the balance. Whereas saving my lip-lock attempt for a later night - or rather, simply gaining consent to call her for a future date - would infuse my life with hope, or the necessary illusion of it, a lottery ticket purchased days before the drawing. [p.165]
It is a highly detailed story, realistic and tangible, and Ariel's voice is recognisable, familiar, believable, real. He is something of an unreliable narrator: while very perceptive in general, he has that skewed sense of self and when his paranoia or fears take over, he has a skewed, childish understanding of others too. He's not very mature, but he's smart in certain areas and reads a lot. In fact, there are a lot of literary references throughout the novel, along with references to American football (I confess I started skipping over those; I have zero interest in American football, which I don't even consider to be a real sport: it's more like a colourful tribal dance), especially The Great Gatsby, considering that's where Ariel grew up, in Great Neck which was renamed West Egg in the book. With his mother he visits the house Fitzgerald used as a model for Gatsby's mansion, and the extract from his fourth-year essay comparing Nick Carraway to Matthew from the Gospels that Ariel includes in his narrative [p. 104] was really fascinating to read.
As an adult, Ariel's relationship to his father becomes even more of a façade, with his father reduced to provoking him verbally with misogynistic comments and Ariel lashing back with references to his own childhood, barely concealed.
"Were you trying to reach my voicemail," I asked, "or did you actually want to have a conversation?" "You know how it is," he said. "I guess you're stuck with me," I said. "So what's up? How's your real family?" "What can I say," he said. "I love Sandra, and I still love Cam, and I can live with the fact that she's not crazy about me anymore, as long as the excess devotion goes to Sandra." "But you haven't tested Sandra's character yet, have you? How can you love Sandra until you see how she responds to a nice kick in the gut?" "Ari, don't give me guilt over how I treated you, okay? Seriously. You sound like those Indians on reservations that are still pissed at the American government. It happened. Life is brutal sometimes. Get over it." [p.113]
There's no denying that Ariel's father, Robert Zinsky, is a complete bastard, and he seems perfectly aware of that fact too. No one's perfect in this book, which makes them all the more familiar, and Mochari has a deft hand at capturing class - especially conservative, upper-middle class (Diana's family made quite the scary impression on me) - though we only really get to know people through Ariel's selfish, egoistic, narrow world view. He has a biting, oft-times witty social commentary, but as with most people who are quick to point out flaws and make a deflective joke about them, they just sound bitter and lonely rather than funny.
I wanted to speak to some of the things I admired about this book before I mentioned my own experience reading it, and I don't think I can put it off any longer. In short, I struggled. It took me days just to get halfway, and I really didn't think I'd be able to finish it at all. It's slow. Ariel doesn't really develop much, as a person, he just gets more entrenched in his outlook and goals, his immaturity and stereotypically male commitment-phobia becomes more difficult to sympathise with.
I felt I'd done nothing incredibly wrong. I was tempted to follow her down the sidewalk, to shout and scream about how sorry I was and how much I loved her. But a part of me wanted her to apologize: for thrusting Gale and Ira in our path, for not being at home when I arrived, and for not giving me some head after my two-hour drive. [p.280]
I have to hand it to Mochari: a lot of the writing is clever and well done. But it's also bogged-down in Ari's introspection (an introspection that never changes tone, being a self-reflection of thirty-year-old Ariel which is very much fixed in place), there's not a great deal of forward momentum, the pacing was at times excruciating, the flow lacking, and at the halfway mark I had trouble caring enough about Ariel to continue reading. There were a few things I wanted to learn about, though, so I stuck with it, and I am glad I did (I'm always glad I finished a book I was struggling with, and even books I don't like a great deal, I still learn a lot from).
In many ways, this book should have been a perfect match for me. It has a lot of elements that I love reading about, right down to Ariel's honesty about his own sexual habits (which are very un-sexy, might I add). The violence - especially towards boy-Ariel as well as the cat - I had trouble with: it was bad enough before, but now I have a child of my own, it has become incredibly hard for me to read descriptions of child abuse. And as an adult, there's certainly no attempt on Ariel's part to make himself likeable - watching him become more and more fixed in his thinking was not surprising but it was rather depressing. Overall, the novel was too long (Ari is a great waffler) and a bit too realistic. Real life, real people, don't make for terribly readable stories; that's the Dickens lesson: tweak your characters with a bit of absurdity and they become more palatable, because they become more fictional. The same could be said of the narrative, the story, itself. It became that I wasn't sure why I was listening to Ariel - considering it really does read like his life story, with its clear goal of making himself heard, I felt I really needed a reason to read it but all I got was Ariel whining to me. It was that feeling of being trapped in your seat on a plane, with the passenger, a stranger, beside you talking your ear off with their life story and you not only have no vested interest in listening, but you can't escape either.
I had a bit of trouble with continuity and period details, as well. I have very clear memories of getting my first internet connection and university email address in third-year university. That was the year 2000. Not all that long ago, right? And a mobile phone the following year. Ari refers to email and voicemail much earlier in 1995 (when my school was replacing our old computers with COLOUR monitors!), which didn't ring true to me. I was also confused that someone who had studied accounting at university was so absolutely terrible at balancing the books of his own fledgling business. Being in the red isn't unusual, but he went willingly, deeply into debt to meet orders for his Guide, never seeming to consider ideas as simple as, say, hmm, charging enough to cover his basic costs? Anyway, that's a little thing but for someone as smart as Ariel was supposed to be, it surprised me that he struggled with basic cost analysis.
It's not difficult for me to admire certain elements of a novel and yet be unimpressed by it as a novel. I do think Mochari has created a larger-than-life character, one I will certainly not forget, and often the prose impressed me. But as a story, it lacked in too many areas for me to say I liked it - and when a book feels too much like a chore to read, I know it hasn't succeeded with this particular reader. Others have enjoyed it a lot more than I did, and I'm sure Mochari's second novel will be stronger, tighter, more gripping, less bogged down in minutiae, because it won't be Ariel talking, and Ariel, like all men with his sense of personal worth, his world view and his certainty in his own opinions, really likes to talk (reminds me rather uncomfortably of how I waffle on in my reviews, but hey, these are all first drafts).
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
The Book of Someday is much more than a simple coming-of-age story and it is more than a mystery: it is a story that gives voice to neglected, lonely...moreThe Book of Someday is much more than a simple coming-of-age story and it is more than a mystery: it is a story that gives voice to neglected, lonely children who carry the scars of a dismal childhood at the hands of selfish parents or guardians long into adulthood. It is a story of making mistakes and atoning for them, and of seeking forgiveness - or not. It is a sad but ultimately hopeful story about growing up and becoming a better version of your lonely, neglected childhood self.
In 2012, Livvi is finding a measure of happiness and peace with herself after the release of her first novel, at twenty-six, a book more autobiography than fiction - a fact she keeps to herself. It is a story about growing up with a silent, angry father and an abusive, domineering stepmother called Calista. It is an attempt to take charge of her life, several years after she severed all ties with her father, but she's still the product of her isolated upbringing: naïve and innocent, insecure with the certainty that she's unloveable, and inexperienced in the ways of relationships. When she meets Andrew, a successful PR man in his early forties, the heady heights of passion and love fill the void within her. He is her first in so many ways, so that when she discovers parts of his life that had been kept from her, she is torn between her instincts and her understanding that she can never come first for him, and her feelings that she will never find love again, that this is her only chance.
Meanwhile, also in 2012, beautiful, sexy photographer of worldwide renown, Micah Lesser, has just learned that she has advanced breast cancer. In the wake of this news and a hopeful plan for treatment, Micah has a more pressing question weighing on her conscience: given the grave mistakes of her past, does she deserve the right to fight this and live? Or should she pay for her past mistake with her own life? She begins to search out people she hasn't seen in decades, to find some kind of answer, some sign of forgiveness or redemption, or permission to live. Her journey takes her across the United States, into the murky shadows of her adolescence in which hide the monsters of her true self.
And in 1986, young wife and mother AnnaLee is anxious about keeping her family afloat: her husband, Jack, was a skilled surgeon but lacked the stomach for blood; now he's a lawyer but lacks the killer instinct, preferring to leave the office early and come home to read and play with his daughter, Bella. They live in the house AnnaLee's parents built, a beautiful house full of precious artwork and antiques, which she is being forced to slowly sell off in order to pay the bills. The summer is made more fraught by Jack agreeing to take in his teenaged niece for a few months, a rebellious, rude and wild girl whom everyone has washed their hands of. Only AnnaLee takes the time to slowly connect with her niece, to befriend her and show her that she too is worthy of love and affection - and trust.
These three women, and their lives, are bound by one terrible night, and one terrible vision: the woman in the shimmering dress and pearl-button shoes. AnnaLee has a painting of this woman hanging on her living room wall. Micah is haunted by another, similar portrait, and Livvi has had nightmares of this woman for most of her life. What is the connection, and what will they learn about themselves in unravelling the truth?
You can read The Book of Someday as a tightly woven mystery, a coming-of-age story with a delicious gothic atmosphere, or even as a romance of sorts. It is all of these things, and while the plot provides structure and momentum, it is ultimately a story about people and the relationships we form - or the ones thrust upon us, and the consequences of betraying the trust of a child. The thing that really got to me, as it always does (most especially since becoming a mother myself), is the character of the child who wants to be loved, to be hugged and spend time with their parents, to talk to them and be listened to and to learn from them, but who are denied for one reason or another. Both Livvi and Micah had failed childhoods. Livvi grew up believing her mother was a socialite who ran away, and her stepmother embellished this by telling young Olivia that she left because Livvi was such a horrible child. Micah's mother was a world-famous opera singer who travelled the world and had certain expectations of her daughter, none of which young Micah wanted to fulfil, while her father, his wife's manager, figured the best thing to do was to give his daughter space - without realising that what she really needed was parents who were present and there for her. My heart ached for both of them.
Contrasted to this is AnnaLee, a loving, caring, nurturing woman who showers love on her baby daughter and shares all she has with her niece when she comes to stay, riding the waves of the girl's anger and vitriol and being there for her. It makes what happens all the more heartbreaking, and gives a extra layer of sadness to Livvi's broken, loveless childhood and Micah's bitter, resentful, loveless adulthood. The strength of the novel lies in this juxtaposition of characters and emotion, in the contrast of "what is" with "what could have been".
The prose lends itself well to this emotional, atmospheric tale, though it did take me a while to get used to it. Dixon writes in present tense - the liberal use of which, these days, is a bit of a pet peeve of mine - but with her own writerly style. The occasional use of fragmented sentences - "A sound. Very faint. Is coming from outside. The crunch of tires on gravel. As if a car has pulled into the driveway. And stopped." [p.248] - lends itself well to the construction of heightened drama and tension, that feeling of time stopping or things becoming jarring. Dixon also uses more progressive verbs where usually you would expect simple present tense verbs - "Now her knees actually are buckling. One of them is banging against a cabinet door, and the door's wrought-iron handle is opening a gash on her kneecap." [p.73 - my emphasis] - which I did find a bit harder to read, as it doesn't give you a break from the sense of forward momentum. The use of present tense is also unusual in that the story is written completely from the third person. At first, reading it reminded me of when my toddler pushed some buttons on the remote control and the voice-over narration - like "He opens the fridge", "Some people are staring in the background"; that kind of thing - for the visually-impaired got turned on. But after a while you settle into it and it propels you along, guiding you through the twists and turns of the story.
While it begins with the sense of three completely unrelated stories and a great deal of mystery, it gives the reader an active role to play in piecing it all together - and I always much prefer to be an active reader than a passive, or excluded, one. You connect the dots at a slow pace because of how things are revealed, which enables you to focus on the story without being thoroughly distracted by the mystery side of things. The characters are never overshadowed by the plot, but are richly fleshed-out and realistic. I did find myself a little frustrated with Livvi - she has a lot to learn over the course of the novel and while she does find strength in herself, she reminded me a little too much of Christine Feehan's vapid innocent heroines (I would have been more sympathetic toward Livvi if I hadn't read a Feehan romance novel in my life, I'm sure), a contrast all the more acute because she's so drastically different from Micah, who is strong, selfish, successful, confident, arrogant, superior, greedy. I liked Micah more as a character, because she was less obvious, more complex, and the sympathy I felt for her was harder won, gradual and full of shades of grey.
As in Livvi's published novel, the ending of Dixon's The Book of Someday is rather ambiguous. I know which way I want it to end, but I have to give credit to Dixon for presenting Livvi with a legitimate dilemma. I just hate to think of her giving up true happiness only for the sake of giving a neglected child the love and attention she had lacked in her own childhood - I'm not a fan of martyrs, clearly. It's a powerful story that made me fight back tears, a compelling narrative of love, loss and grief as well as the need for redemption.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Ruby McMillan's pleasant life comes to a stinging halt one Saturday morning when her husband Walter announces that he's leaving her. Ruby is stunned,...moreRuby McMillan's pleasant life comes to a stinging halt one Saturday morning when her husband Walter announces that he's leaving her. Ruby is stunned, humiliated and outraged. Not only does Walter abruptly tell her he's unhappy when she thought they were doing fine (though to be honest, she admits she never really thinks about it much), but he doesn't even tell his two children, sixteen year old Colleen and fourteen year old Kevin, leaving Ruby to handle the whole thing. But the worst thing about it, as far as Ruby can tell at this early stage, is that he's not even leaving her for a much younger, prettier woman with perky boobs. No, Walter is leaving her for Cheryl, a work colleague who's also in her forties.
Yet, worse is to come. Ruby can handle the fact that all the women she knows in the small town community of Pelican Point, California, are now snubbing her - because while Walter dumped her on Facebook, everyone else is reading his messages of finding new love on board Cheryl's yacht - and the financial woes of her cake shop are nothing new. But when she meets her new mortgage broker, handsome divorcé Jacob Salt, she learns that Walter hadn't paid the mortgage on the house, that he's planning to declare bankruptcy, and that the house is scheduled for foreclose, making her and her children homeless.
Ruby has a couple of options remaining: she can fall apart and let life unfold as it will, or she can put up a fight and climb her way out of this mess. She has an inheritance tucked away that she had planned on surprising Walter with one day, with a trip to some exotic locale, but now she dips into it to save her house and give herself a few months' breathing room. Her business partner and best friend, Izzy, has a couple of money making ideas that could save the bakery, including taking on a cooking class for the local community college and even going on the TV show Cake-Off! where top cake decorators have eight hours to assemble and decorate huge fancy cakes. Ruby at first baulks at both ideas, due to the simple fact that she is rendered useless by a spotlight - useless and incontinent. But they start small and the cooking class goes well.
And Jacob Salt, who seemed to stiff and formal at first but who gradually unwinds as Ruby gets to know him better, seems to have her corner, ensuring that she is the one who will make the big fancy cake for his company's 50th anniversary celebration. More than that, Jacob does things to Ruby that she's never experienced before. She's always been calmly rational, pragmatic, practical, the kind of woman who wanted a simple, safe life, no fireworks, had never felt regret at not getting into the kind of passionate, explosive and ultimately doomed relationships that her friends had. Her time apart from Walter and her growing feelings for Jacob give her the time and clues she needs to really examine the life she's led, the decisions she's made, and in the end give her both the strength and the self-awareness to make one very important decision.
Sweet Nothings was a real pleasure to read. It's chick-lit, but not as humorous as the British kind; it was also a surprise for having some steamy kisses and a sex-scene, which you don't normally get in chick-lit. But this is the story of Ruby's belated coming-of-age, a heady, messy time of figuring herself out, keeping her family (her and her kids) together and saving her business without compromising her sense of integrity. A detailed sex scene gives you that deeper window into a character's psyche, which makes Ruby someone you really get to know and understand, sympathise with and care for, much more so than I would normally feel about a chick-lit heroine.
I loved the focus on food. Each chapter bears a food-related title, connected to what's going to happen next, and Ruby has this rather fun habit of thinking of people in terms of dessert. Walter "always seemed like shortbread to me. A simple cookie. A reliable cookie. Ordinary yet hardy. Made from three universally loved ingredients. The kind of cookie you can bring to any occasion and everyone will eat one and like it, although they probably won't remark upon it later, because it's not a triple fudge brownie. I realize this comparison might sound unflattering, but honestly, I love shortbread." [p.13] And really, her descriptions - the way she breaks the food down to its base elements, the way she connects the different layers or parts or texture of a food to a person's character - it really is quite ingenious and hugely entertaining.
I've always loved making cakes. And biscuits and slices. I still have just as many flops as I have successes, but I love the process of making something, and the satisfying feeling of producing something. It's a feeling that's sorely lacking in our world and society these days, with our stationary desk jobs and our paper-pushing, sign-here, file-this jobs. No wonder we get so depressed, by and large. And angry. But make something, from scratch, now there's a good feeling. I loved the descriptions of Ruby's food, her food experiments (which she calls "stressipes" as she comes up with unusual ingredient combinations when under stress, many of which don't work out), and her cake decorating. And having the story end with a Cake-Off! episode, that was a brilliant ending. Cake-Off!, which airs on the Food Network in the book, is modelled on The Ultimate Cake Off, a TV show that airs on TLC (a channel I always thought stood for "tender loving care" - especially as they show those kinds of heartfelt, weepy reality TV show - but which actually stands for "The Learning Channel", of all things!). I have actually watched a few episodes of this show - in general I absolutely hate the prevalence of food/cooking competition "reality" TV shows that are pretty much the only food-related programming on these days - you don't learn a thing about how to cook, the only thing you learn, consciously or sub-consciously, is that cooking is really stressful and people are just going to criticise you no matter what you make or how much effort you put into it. The Ultimate Cake Off is much as it's described in the book: teams of people who in real life run small businesses of cake decorating etc., have 9 hours to assemble and decorate massive cakes for special occasions. The time limit, the judges and the cameras clamouring for drama and disaster make for one very stressful competition, but what makes me watch it is my fascination for seeing what they create, and my interest in how they make it. Not that you learn all that much, but still.
Thomas doesn't take any short-cuts with her story of Ruby: Ruby is a very real woman who feels very human and who you really come to care about. The way events play out had good flow, and only a few minor things felt a bit contrived, or a bit too silly. I have trouble understanding why people would shun a woman whose husband had left her - that I don't get, and I don't know how realistic it is. I also struggle with the concept of calling someone who makes cakes for a living, a "baker". To me, a baker is someone who makes bread. They get up every day at 4 and bake loaves of bread and other yummy things, then crawl back into bed for some sleep until they have to get up and do it all over again. And a bakery is a shop that sells, primarily, bread. If a shop doesn't sell bread, it's a cake shop, or a cafe, or a patisserie (to use the "correct" French word). I've seen professional cake makers called Confectionary Chef or pastry chef or even just cake decorator. I'm not saying it's incorrect to call someone who makes cakes a baker, it just doesn't sound correct to me because of how I learned the word "baker". Just one of those things.
This is a simple story about a simple woman trying to sort her life out, rediscover herself and her own long-dormant passions, and follow her slowly-waking heart; but like all such stories, it is deceptively simple because it's such a human story, familiar not for the situation as such but because it's about love, life, the home, family and making things work, the struggle to overcome obstacles and difficulties, and all these themes are ones we live with every day. Accompanying Ruby on her own personal journey through all this was both touching and entertaining, and a fair reminder that it's never too late for love, or for following your dreams - and excelling at them.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Jac L’Etoile has returned to the States from France, leaving behind the love of her life, Griffin North, and facing an uncertain f...moreGiveaway on my blog!
Jac L’Etoile has returned to the States from France, leaving behind the love of her life, Griffin North, and facing an uncertain future in terms of lost motivation and a lack of direction. In Connecticut, her old therapist and mentor, Malachai, shows her the secret and ancient rock formations on his family's estate that appear to be Celtic; the revelation helps jolt Jac out of her fugue, but more so does the letter she discovers Malachai has been hiding from her, a letter from her friend Theo Gaspard whom she knew at the Blixer Rath clinic in Switzerland. Jac was at Blixer when she was fourteen, sent by her grandmother to see if Malachai and the other therapists could hep her with her hallucinations. Theo was two years older, and while they never fit in with the other teenagers at the clinic, they became close friends. But Malachai sees Theo as a danger to Jac, and warns her against him.
Theo lives on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, an island full of caves and ancient Celtic sites. In his letter, he asks Jac to join him in searching for evidence of the Druids, and Jac is all too eager to oblige. There are mysteries within mysteries in Jac's life: she and Theo have an unusual connection which neither of them really understand, and Theo has an ulterior motive in calling Jac - whom he hasn't seen since he abruptly left Blixer Rath well over a decade ago - to Jersey.
At Wells in Wood, the very old, rambling stone building the Gaspards have lived in for generations, Theo discovered a letter from the celebrated French author, poet and statesman Victor Hugo to his ancestor, Fantine Gaspard, in which Hugo mentions a journal hidden in a cave only the two of them know of, that will tell a story no one has heard before. A story about the Shadow of the Sepulcher... also known as Lucifer.
Since the loss of his wife, Theo has perhaps an unhealthy obsession with finding Hugo's journal and learning more, and amongst all these Celtic ruins and ancient ritual sites, Jac is easily drawn into the mystery. The layers of mystery only deepen, and the truth becomes more complicated, as the past threatens to overtake the present and obliterate the lives of Fantine's descendants.
I wasn't at all aware, when I agreed to review this, that Seduction was part of a series. Having read it, I can tell you that it doesn't make all that much difference. The previous book, The Book of Lost Fragrances, is also about Jac and this book does mention some details from her summer in Paris, the setting of the other book, but it made no real difference that I hadn't read it or any of the other books in the series, all of which feature different characters (as far as I can make out).
Reincarnation is a theme, and an integral part of the plot, but there are so many layers to this novel that it's hard to say what is the main theme. Victor Hugo plays a role, and a convincing one at that, as he recounts, in 1855, certain episodes from his time living in exile in Jersey, where he held over a hundred séances - at first to ease his grief after his eldest, Didine, drowns, but it becomes a kind of unhealthy obsession that worries at him, especially after they make contact with Lucifer - the Shadow of the Sepulcher - who offers him a deal: restore his reputation in poetry and he will bring Didine back to Victor. But as Hugo learns, the Shadow's methods are abhorrent: he lures young girls away from their beds at night and brings them to the brink of death, at which point Hugo finds them and the Shadow tries to get him to let the girls die so Didine's soul can take their place.
In the present, Jac's story of her time at Blixer Rath, her unusual friendship with Theo and what it means that she hallucinates things from Theo's life - and his previous lives, not that she believes in reincarnation - weaves in and out of the narrative, gradually adding blocks of knowledge to the foundation of mystery that this novel rests on. There is another side to the story too: a Celtic family in 56 BCE facing a horrific situation, the three players in the drama playing out their tragic roles down through the ages until, finally, it reaches the Gaspards and Jac, with her unique ability to see Theo's past life, learns the truth behind the strife between Theo and his younger brother, Ash, and Theo's wife, Naomi.
There are so many layers to this gothic-horror, mystery-suspense novel, it's a wonder that it works at all. If I untangle them slightly, there are two plot-lines: Victor Hugo's encounters with the Devil and the bargain he offers, and the search for the lost journal; and Jac's ongoing problems with hallucinations, her resistance to Malachai's belief in reincarnation, her visions from 56 BCE and Theo's past life. Somehow Rose weaves these together to make one solid story, but I'm not entirely convinced they fit together all that well.
I was engaged by Victor Hugo's story, which was full of spooky atmosphere and chilling details, and brings that wonderful sense of Victorian Gothic Horror to the story - which is nicely linked to the present through the rather oppressive and monstrous Gaspard mansion which is perched on the edge of the cliff, and even the Victorian house hidden away in the woods that Ash lives in. Jersey itself is a vivid setting, full of dark woods you can get lost in, precipitous cliffs, mist and even wolves. All the more apt for the spookiness of Jac's visions and the slightly menacing atmosphere between Theo and Ash, the Gaspard brothers. There's also their great-aunts, Minerva and Eva, who have their own secrets. This is certainly a book about airing the past and healing old wounds.
As interesting as the story was - and the multiple layers or dimensions to it did appeal to me - I struggled a bit, reading this. Rose's prose is perfectly competent but her style, her "voice", isn't one that really worked for me. It's hard to say why, it's just one of those things. We all have our own unique brain patterns, the rhythms of our mind and our own voice, even if we're not writers, and sometimes we find authors whose own voice, or style - their "way with words", how they construct sentences - aligns well with our own, or balances it or engages or stimulates or what have you. And other times an author's voice jars, or annoys, or bores us. Rose's voice just didn't quite engage mine, so that I too-often found my mind wandering. It's not an easy thing to explain, especially when I can't say that there's any particular reason why I didn't "click" better with this novel. It has so many elements that should have completely engaged me, but that didn't. Perhaps part of the problem was that there was so much going on here, and for a while I simply didn't know what story I was reading or where it was headed. It's not going to be that way for everyone, obviously, so I don't want it to detract from anyone's interest in reading this. But, this being my personal review, it's important to note it.
Seduction has many strengths, not least of which is the depth of Rose's research - into Victor Hugo, the Celts, the art of creating perfume and any number of other things. It's rather exhausting to think of it. Rose has created a deeply atmospheric, multi-layered novel of mystery, suspense and gothic horror, weaving the lives of centuries into one complex tale. There is a scene at the end that I found to be horrific and tragic and that still makes me want to cry just thinking about it, but that just made the revelations all that much stronger, and caring about a novel's characters makes the reading experience linger for a long time. I may have struggled to connect with the characters and the story in some ways, but it isn't a story I'll forget in a hurry; as for the characters, so will it echo and resonate over the years with me.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via France Book Tours. (less)
From the snappy, edgy dialogue to the snootiest streets of Melbourne, Sunni Overend takes readers into the heart of Australia's fashion scene as we fo...moreFrom the snappy, edgy dialogue to the snootiest streets of Melbourne, Sunni Overend takes readers into the heart of Australia's fashion scene as we follow Apple March's struggles to overcome the past and follow her dreams in this hugely entertaining and fast-paced first novel.
Apple was once the top student at the famous Emmaline Gray Academy, where she won over Emmaline Gray herself with her distinctive fashion designs. But these days, Apple is twenty-nine and working as manager at VoVoChe, a boutique clothing shop where she can hide from anyone in the fashion world who still remembers what happened all those years ago, but where she can still work with clothes. Her boss, Veronica, is in her sixties and still prowling for a man, and her co-worker at the shop, Jackson, is a mouthy, in-your-face but elegant lesbian with a gorgeous girlfriend, Arabella. Apple rents a disused fire station-turned-apartment with her friend Chloe and Chloe's sausage dog, Frankfurt, and casually sleeps with a handsome Swiss, Henri, who lives off his father's money. She has an old car that routinely breaks down, which is when she gives a call to her croquet-playing friend Charlie, heir to a jewellery company based in Melbourne, who comes to whack the engine with a croquet mallet.
Through Charlie, Apple gets invitations to illustrious events where she rubs shoulders with Melbourne's richest and snootiest people - and her most arrogant and crazy too, it sometimes seems. She meets Noah, a friend of Charlie's, and is turned on by his blokey, dominating ways. She also meets Charlie's long-standing girlfriend, Heidi, who comes from another wealthy, well-established Melbourne family, and discovers what everyone already knows: Heidi's a real cow. It's hard for Apple to see her down-to-earth, friendly, kind friend Charlie with a woman like that, but it's not for her to interfere, and she's got her own life to sort out.
Her older sister Meena is getting married and wants Apple to design and make her wedding dress. Her mother, Ginny, has heard from their father, an abusive man who left them when the girls were very little and from whom they've never heard from since. Now he calls Ginny to tell her he's dying and that he wants to reconnect with his children, but none of the women want anything to do with him. When he dies, leaving a lot of money to his younger trophy wife in Sydney, the sisters are torn by the option to contest his will and lay claim to some of the money.
It's when Apple puts aside her misgivings over the past and goes to Sydney to compete for an exclusive internship with a high-end couture fashion house, that the past confronts her with a loud slap, bringing her rapidly back down to earth. Then, the chance to design shoes for VoVoChe seems like a dream come true and the start of something new, but Veronica has other ideas. It is only Charlie who continues to subtly support her and her dreams of designing clothes, but the truth of why she had to leave the Emmaline Gray Academy continues to haunt Apple, and hold her back. If she were to take charge of her future and follow her dream, what would she be risking? For Apple, it might be time to stop hiding and take charge.
First of all I have to apologise for the messy and poorly-written summary above; I'm finding it hard to concentrate today and it shows. But I really needed to get this review out before too much time goes by, as I finished the book over a week ago. I really, really enjoyed this book: it not only satisfied my deep scars of homesickness, it was a real joy to read too.
I've recently learned this about myself, that after years of not reading Australian fiction until signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year - which made me pick up and read some of the books I already have, and seek out new titles - and reading a lot of American writers, as well as Canadian and British (and others, in the minority), I've learned that while our cultures may be similar, and we may all speak English, we are actually quite different, culturally speaking, and I definitely connect to Australian fiction more than American fiction. The stories and the characters are more familiar, they make sense to me, from their actions to the way they speak: it clicks. I don't necessary like everything I read that's Australian - that would be unlikely - but I "get" it. There's always been something that creates a bit of a barrier between me and American fiction - not so much Canadian or British, because I grew up on a diet of British TV and books so it's more familiar to me, and I've lived in Canada for nearly 8 years. I feel like I get American fiction, to a degree, but that's about it. The characters don't resonate with me in quite the same way Australian characters do: they're just that little bit too foreign. I don't have the same cultural or social context. So some of the Australian books I've read this year have really worked for me, making me realise just what has been missing from the American books I've been reading.
I wanted to speak to that because that's where I'm coming from when I talk about March. This felt like a distinctly Melbourne book. I lived there once, for nearly a year, and it's a very fashion-conscious, hipster-esque place. It's got old and grand, it's got new and flashy, it's got grungy and edgy. It's a very "happening" city, no doubt about it. The kind of people Apple spends time with here are upper-class Melbournites, an old-school, old-money lot for the most part, while Apple herself comes from a more down-to-earth middle class background. I've never known people like that, personally, but it rang true to me all the same: it felt familiar.
Everything about March felt natural and realistic; it has that realistic edge to it that reminded me strongly of some great TV shows like Love is a Four-Letter Word (from when I was a uni student - god, that dates me!) and Love My Way, also old now (7+ years! hard to believe it's been so long since I last lived there!). I don't know how to describe it, but like with books, we do television (and films) differently too. It's in the way characters interact, the way drama plays out - I never would have actively noticed it before living in Canada, but now the contrast is stark, vivid, and acts like a siren call to me.
Take Jackson. The way she speaks is true to her character, and never felt contrived to me, and the way people react to her rings true too. Basically, they're not offended, they just take her in stride. Here's a scene from the first chapter to give you an idea:
"Girlies," Veronica leant back in her chair. "I have a product launch thingy tonight. I'm desperate and dateless. Join me?" "Gah!" Jackson said. "I was just telling Apple how annoying you are, you've got to stop hanging out with us. The natty old investment banker you're hoping to snag won't take a second glance at you if we're there, take your own sorry arse out, you'll thank me." Apple laughed out loud. "Jackson, you're vile!" "Yes. You're starting to sound like the lanky, bitchy, faux lesbian that you are." Veronica smiled and pulled out a cigarette. "It's not my fault I fell in love with my business and not with a man. Speaking of love, how is the girl-on-girl action working out for you?" "Hottest sex ever. Arabella's a babe." "Oh," Veronica screwed up her face. "Please." "Well," Jackson said, "if you're as desperate and dateless as you say, follow my lead. Men have never been so available. Get yourself a lady friend and a man friend will soon follow." [p.10]
(Ha, having typed that out, I can see comparisons to Sex and the City coming in, but if conversations like this have a similar vibe, the comparison doesn't stretch much farther.)
The story manages that fine balance between realism and exaggeration, between the familiar and believable and that slight tinge of the ridiculous. The ridiculous is, of course, in the snobby elitists that Apple meets, characters like Heidi Huntingdon, and even in Charlie and his friends, some of whom are those classic obnoxious, chauvinistic Aussie males who are the new bloke. I loved Charlie, he was harmless in that sense, and quite a gentleman and very sweet, but making him a character who not only plays but wins at croquet, well that just made him seem more like someone who lives on another planet.
Oh I'm not doing very well at articulating what I enjoyed about this book am I. I kinda just want to quote it a lot, because there are so many good scenes and snappy dialogue that just rolls so naturally, everything comes together so smoothly - not that Apple's story isn't without hiccups, it has plenty of those, but that nothing feels contrived or forced or out of character. The pacing is just as smooth and fairly fast; this is a book you can read quite quickly because it moves along so well. It wasn't entirely predictable, perhaps because of that realistic feel to it, but it does have a fairly conventional ending that ties it up neatly.
If anything, I would have loved to have seen a more rounded Apple: I got to know her and yet I never felt as close to her as I wanted to. I loved the scene where her mother gets out the scrapbook she made as a girl, full of photocopies of a Cabbage Patch doll on every page, over which Apple had designed different costumes. It was a lovely glimpse into Apple and her lifelong love of fashion design, but I wasn't sure what else there was to her character. I never felt completely familiar with the way her mind worked, the choices she made - or which way she was going to turn. It certainly kept me from getting bored, but it also made it hard for me to feel friendly with Apple. Or maybe it was because she held onto her secret for so long, and without knowing that it was hard to understand her other choices, which were influenced by the past. Still, it worked with the story, to have that revealed only at the end. In the same way, I would have liked to know Charlie a bit more thoroughly, though what I did know of him I liked a lot. March has some great moments reminiscent of rom-com movies, British style, that gave the story a bit of juice.
Finally, I love the cover and the book design. Overend, who has studied design herself, has created a book that's beautiful to hold and look at and read. It makes what happened to my lovely copy all the more cringe-worthy: I dropped it. Outside. After it had been raining. In the mud. The pages now have some distinct stains on the edges and it looks like, well, it looks like it was dropped in the mud. But the cover cleaned up well! There are some typos, especially around dialogue punctuation (as you can see from the quote above), but other than that the writing is very good and matches the tone and style of the story to a T.
If you're looking for a fresh new voice in the chick-lit department, I highly recommend Sunni Overend's debut, March. It wasn't just fun to read, it also took me back to Melbourne in a way that not only satisfied my cravings for home, but transported me to someone else's life in a truly escapist sense as well. I loved the natural way the characters talked to each other, and I greatly enjoyed Apple's story as she grows into herself, faces her own fears and the humiliations of the past, and takes charge of her own life. Almost a perfect story.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
When Emmy arrives at Heartland Academy, a school-slash-mental institute for teens struggling with a wide range of mental health issues, she thinks her...moreWhen Emmy arrives at Heartland Academy, a school-slash-mental institute for teens struggling with a wide range of mental health issues, she thinks her parents are happy to have finally found a way to get rid of her. In denial about her anorexia, she sees it as a needless punishment for refusing to apologise to the boy she bullied via Facebook - something she won't do because of the reasons why it all started, which she certainly can't tell anyone about. She's always thought it was just a matter of time, anyway, since she's the kid they adopted from China just as they discovered they'd managed to get pregnant the natural way, resulting in her younger, but much taller, beautiful sister Jocelyn.
Also new at Heartland is Justin, who has never really got over his dad leaving when he was little and never having any time for him. Depression led to him taking a bunch of Tylenol and ending up in hospital, followed by a "holiday" with his dad who made no effort to spend time with him or even really talk to him. When he met a girl at a fun park and took her back to the apartment, his dad walks in on them in a compromising position and BAM! before he knows it, in what he considers a complete knee-jerk reaction, he's locked up at Heartland with some vague nonsense about his poor attitude toward women (just because he can't remember her name, sheesh!).
These are two messed-up teens, struggling with daily life, with fitting in and believing that they're loved and wanted, who can't or won't voice their thoughts and feelings and who rewrite the silences to fit the dark thoughts in their heads. But they're not alone. At Heartland, they form unlikely friendships with each other and the other teens in their anger management class: silent Jenny, who hasn't spoken since her father fed her her own pet pig; Mohammed, who claims to be a survivor of the Civil War in Sierra Leone but who is actually a pathological liar; Chip, from Ohio, who's addicted to computer games; and Diana, a doll-like girl with violent tendencies.
Given the group project of going a week without getting into a fight or doing anything against the rules, they begin to slowly bond and support each other, finding strength not just in being accepted for who they are but also in being able to open up and share some of their darkest, innermost thoughts.
A Really Awesome Mess has a lot going for it: funny, wise-arse adolescent characters who talk in a realistic way; a nice balance of humour and gravity, it knows just when to take an issue seriously and when to play for laughs; a wide range of diverse, complex characters who all felt very real; strong narrative (first person) voices from Emmy and Justin, who take turns telling the story from their own unique, individual perspectives; and a story that tackles head-on some very important issues facing teens today (and some that can occur irrespective of period or place). Anorexia, depression, sexual abuse, parental neglect, bullying, identity crises, acceptance issues, attempted suicide as a cry for help, underage sex as a way to fill a void, numb pain, feel something or convince yourself that you are loved - these all ring true and even if you've never directly experienced such things yourself, it's a great window onto how these teens really feel and why they do what they do.
The problem is that it tackles SO MUCH and in such a short novel that there's no space to really explore these things to the kind of depth they deserve. It follows a fairly classic formula, a kind of Breakfast Club scenario: misfits lumped together form unlikely friendship and end the day stronger than when they started. And it works, it's great to see these poor lost kids find the support they really needed amongst people who are just as scarred and troubled as they are. I think this was the author's goal: to show teen readers that they're not alone, that much of what they think and fear is a product of miscommunication or no communication at all, and that if they can learn to open up they can free themselves of at least part of what ails them, even if they struggle with mental health issues all their lives (coping mechanisms is what I'm getting at).
The story's strengths lie in the characters of Justin and Emmy, who are messed-up and confused and having to deal with things that they feel ill-equipped to handle, and so respond in negative ways. Their narrative voices are distinctly adolescent, though I didn't find that they were unique in and of themselves: the chapters are titled with their names, which is good, but just flipping through it now I can't tell who's "speaking" from the way it's written. There is a bit of romance between the two, but it's a gradual thing and shy, it's not the point of the story at all - though I actually felt it was quite unnecessary and would have worked just as well without it at all. (I'd hate to think YA authors felt compelled to add romance to their novels just because there's an assumption that teens only want to read romance or something.)
I was a bit dismayed by Heartland Academy itself and all its rules; I can understand that they're trying to mitigate risk and that some of these kids have an actual desire to self-harm in various ways, but it's been proven that things like caring for animals and gardening (like growing your own veg) are very therapeutic. I couldn't help but think that these kids needed some clean air to breathe (the academy is located in the country surrounded by corn fields but the kids never get to go outside), to experience having a purpose and being needed, and the immense satisfaction you get (as a human) from producing something. Justin does have a cooking class but it would have been more inspiring to see the kids growing the food, preparing it and then serving it to everyone for dinner. The words "well adjusted" come to mind. It was disappointing to me to see just how, well, institutional the place was, and how quite a few of the rules were clearly not benefiting the patients/students.
Both Justin and Emmy are teens in denial, especially Emmy, and watching her face up to what she was doing to herself - and to the humiliation of past acts - was both sad and heartening. (As with losing weight, there are no short cuts to getting better.) Justin's case was less clear-cut than Emmy's, and took a while to piece together, but depression does tend to be an anti-climactic, less "glamorous" illness than something like anorexia or feeling like your adoptive parents consider you an ugly burden. It's hard to even articulate what's wrong, so the authors did a good job of capturing Justin's inner feelings.
This is a pretty well-written, realistic, fast-paced story about a group of teens figuring themselves out and learning how to deal with the shitty hand they've been dealt. I found the ending a bit sudden and while I liked how it didn't feel the need to resolve everything or have everyone all cured - that wouldn't be realistic! - it didn't quite feel finished exactly, either. If I remember correctly it takes place over the course of just a few months, and went a bit fast for me: I would have found it more absorbing if it had taken place over a year or so, giving the characters more time to adjust, sort things out, and so on. The pacing was just a bit too rushed. But making a story about mental illness entertaining without cheapening what the characters were going through is a strength - and humour in such situations is a pretty common coping mechanism, too. Overall, a highly readable story about a very important subject matter, told by two teenagers who will really make you feel for them, no matter how horrible they are to others. It's not the only YA novel to tackle such issues or take place within a mental institute, but it's strong enough to stand on its own amongst them.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)
In the summer before their last year of university, three lifelong friends, Kate, Vanessa and Dani, party it up at Dani's father's beach house in Aval...moreIn the summer before their last year of university, three lifelong friends, Kate, Vanessa and Dani, party it up at Dani's father's beach house in Avalon, New Jersey. But the holiday ends in tragedy when Kate's twin brother Colin is found dead in the bay. Each girl harbours intense guilt alongside their grief, and carry the secrets they each hoard throughout their lives in the years that follow.
Now, eight years later, Kate's engagement to the man she met at law school, Peter, has broken off - on the same day she learns that she's pregnant. Dani has been fired for the twelfth time since she graduated from uni, this time from a bookshop in San Francisco, as she wiles her time drinking and taking drugs instead of writing the novel she's been working on ever since Colin died. In New York, Vanessa is torn between the love she feels for her two-year-old daughter, Lucy, anger towards her handsome husband, Drew, who admitted after Christmas that he kissed a colleague, and her desire to return to work at an art gallery.
When Vanessa and Dani learn of Kate's broken engagement, they decide to turn the bachelorette party in Vegas into a girls' weekend in Avalon, something they haven't done since that fateful holiday when Colin died.
It is also the first time in years the three of them have been together - the last time was Vanessa's wedding three years before. Vanessa and Dani are still hardly talking to each other after some big blow-up in the past that neither will talk about, and they each come to Avalon with their secret and their guilt churning just beneath the surface. They each feel that it's time to 'fess up, but none of them could have suspected what the other knows about the past and that night Colin died. Can their friendship survive the revelations? Can they move on with their lives and finally find peace, and the chance to follow their dreams without the guilt?
All the Summer Girls is a light but fairly serious read, a short novel told in alternating chapters from each woman's perspective. We are given a clear idea of each woman's character, from their own viewpoint and that of their friends. Kate, the lawyer, talks a lot, is neat and tidy, and likes to live by a schedule - something that started to bother Peter. She talks to her food, loves dogs, and thinks laws are a wonderful thing.
Vanessa is the beauty of the threesome. Half black, half white, she's glamorous and fashionable with cheekbones to die for. The other two feel that she plays with men and likes to leave them hanging; even Vanessa freely acknowledges that she and her husband play a kind of game with each other, relishing watching the attention and admiration the other gets, knowing that they won't act on it but will return to each other. That changes when Drew kisses another woman, and Vanessa also struggles with her deep maternal feelings for her daughter and that feeling of having lost herself in motherhood.
Dani is the free-spirited one, the writer and reader who "lives the dream" but in reality makes a terrible mess of it, is no closer to achieving her dream than before, and is wasting her life away on binge-drinking, pot and pills. Her mother left when she was little and never wanted her; she married another man and had two sons with him, whom Dani's never met. She grew up with her father, a surgeon, and plenty of money, but now has too much pride to ask for help when she can no longer pay her rent. She had planned to move back in with her dad, but that option dies when she suddenly meets his much younger fiancee, Susanne.
The three women are very different from each other, but their shared pasts and experiences are strong enough to hold them together. Still, cracks have appeared and their friendship is struggling as they've each moved in very different directions, in different parts of the country. They each feel like they were the one who held the friendship together, as children and teens, and that they continue to do so now. Perhaps this belief, and the sense of being needed that comes with it, is what keeps them together now. They know each other so well, they can't hide from each other.
I liked this story, but I didn't love it. It was quite a simple, straight-forward story, and fairly short. I confess I read it a bit quickly, and didn't really take the time to slow down and appreciate it. But it just wasn't really my kind of story. I like these stories, I do, but this one was a tad too simplistic for me, a bit predictable, and a bit lacking in depth and substance. The characters were laid out rather flat, presented neatly - especially Kate and Dani - and I found that this way of telling me all about them created a kind of distance and a lack of curiosity in me that I couldn't overcome. Vanessa was a bit more ambiguous, and I could relate to her because I too am a first-time mother of a (nearly) two year old, and I know what she means about loving spending the time with her child while also feeling that she's lost a part of herself, and doesn't quite know who she is anymore. That resonated with me; I'm sure it's pretty widespread. She was also a bit more interesting because she had more layers to her, making her seem sometimes quite ordinary and "normal", and other times of a different class altogether. It was her psyche that I would have liked to delve into more.
Donohue didn't belabour the point, she didn't over-emphasise things like Dani's lifestyle and the new opportunities, a kind of "second chance" of turning her life around, that she finds in Avalon. But it wasn't very subtle either, and things were just a bit too pat. I also didn't really care for the way the perspective shifted around. It's really not necessary to title chapters by the character's name, there's something about that device that has long annoyed me. It's not the shifting of perspective that irks me, but the chapter titles. It always feels too contrived, too leading-by-the-hand, too "look there!" too forced. Simply omitting the chapter headings and I feel that a story flows better from one chapter to the next, and it's easier for me to sink into a story. It won't bother all readers, but it's a device I've never been keen on.
I'm also not a fan of present tense: it's hugely over-used these days, like the latest fad in writing fiction and genre fiction, and few writers use it well or even accurately. I didn't take issue with how Donohue used it, only that it wasn't a good fit here or even necessary. It didn't add to the story or its rhythm, and the transitions between past tense, when recounting a previous scene, and the present were like bumps in the road, making me stumble so that I would have to re-read a sentence or two to get the right rhythm again.
Overall, this is a finely observant story that presents three women and their decades-long friendship with a clear eye, and it is a frank story about the mistakes we make, the choices we face, and the future that can scare us. It wasn't a story that made any particular connection to me, emotionally or otherwise, but I liked it well enough.
Poppy Wyatt, a physiotherapist who works at a private clinic with her two best friends, Ruby and Annalise, is just ten days from being married to hand...morePoppy Wyatt, a physiotherapist who works at a private clinic with her two best friends, Ruby and Annalise, is just ten days from being married to handsome university professor, Magnus Tavish. His parents, Antony Tavish and Wanda Brook-Tavish, are also professors, the kind that appear on television, say controversial things and have numerous books published. They completely intimidate Poppy, who's not stupid but is no academic genius, either. Half of what they say goes completely over her head, and she constantly feels like they're deeply unimpressed by her and disapprove of the match - and of Poppy wearing the family heirloom engagement ring, an emerald surrounded by diamonds, which Magnus had retrieved from the vault.
So when, at the Marie Curie Champagne Tea held at a hotel where she's celebrating with her friends (Annalise, Ruby, Natasha, Claire, Emily and her wedding planner, Lucinda and Lucinda's young intern, Clemency), Poppy loses her engagement ring, she's in an absolute panic to get it back. Her friends had been passing it around, trying it on, and then the fire alarm went off and everyone evacuated in a hurry, and Poppy's friends don't have it anymore. It's not just losing a family heirloom that terrifies her, it's Magnus' family finding out and thus cementing their poor opinion of her forever more (she can just picture it, the old "remember the time when Poppy lost our grandmother's ring?" being trotted out at all family gatherings).
Then a second disaster strikes: Poppy's mobile phone is stolen, and gone is her only means of hearing from the hotel, or the police, or all the hotel maids she gave out her number to. So when she sees a phone in a rubbish bin in the hotel lobby, she decides "finders keepers" and requisitions it for her own personal use. There's a company name on it, White Globe Consulting, and someone's name tag in the bin with it: Violet. Small details. But when Violet's boss, Sam Roxton, calls the phone, he's far from pleased with Poppy's decision to take the phone. Poppy agrees to forward on all the emails in exchange for borrowing it, and Sam's left with little choice but to agree.
Aside from losing the ring, Poppy's wedding is coming together in fits and starts. After a mere month-long courtship, Magnus's proposal came out of the blue but Poppy felt she'd met her prince charming. Their wedding planner, Lucinda, is a family friend, but she seems extremely stressed and put out by all the arrangements, and Poppy ends up taking on a lot of the tasks herself. Despite her best intentions, Poppy finds herself reading all the White Globe emails and forming her own opinions about the taciturn Sam. But it's when she starts writing emails to the company in his name that things get really messy.
Which is nothing to the mess Poppy finds herself in when the ring does finally turn up, and she discovers some very startling and unpleasant facts about what's going on around her - and that her perceptions of the people she knows is decidedly askew, including Sam - and herself.
I've Got Your Number is Kinsella's best novel, without a doubt. Okay so I haven't read all of her books, but it was better than the others that I loved (Remember Me? and Can You Keep a Secret?), better than the ones I really enjoyed (Wedding Night and the first three Shopaholic books - Becky Bloomwood can really frustrate me!), and really puts to shame the one that I consider to be Kinsella's worst book ever, The Undomestic Goddess (I couldn't even finish it, it was that bad). With I've Got Your Number, Kinsella has struck gold. It's the perfect combination of interesting plot, engaging and well developed protagonist, not-so-obvious and charismatic-without-trying-to-be male lead, humour that makes me laugh out loud, and even some subtlety.
Poppy is a clear winner of a character. She's trademark Kinsella but without the qualities that have frustrated me in her other books. She narrates - in equally-trademark first-person present tense (Kinsella is one of the few authors who can actually write in present tense) - with that slightly bubbly, slightly cringing enthusiasm and the sense that disaster is always just around the corner. But something about Poppy is different, and refreshing. It isn't until Sam points out Poppy's deep flaw to her that it clicks, and the character takes on a whole new dimension. More than that, she's imminently likeable and sympathetic, whatever her flaws are: you feel sorry for her, not in a pitying way, but in an empathetic way.
I'm back to the black hole of dread. What do I do? I can't keep dodging for ever.
I don't have a burned hand. I don't have an engagement ring. I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scrabble words. I'm a total phoney. [p.121]
The male love interests in Kinsella's novels usually come across as a tad under-developed, mostly because the perspective and narration is all the heroine's and they're always caught up in whatever foolish, idiotic mistake they've made to spare much time to really, intelligently, understand the hero. Sam Roxton somehow managed to rise above all that and figure very strongly in this. He had oodles of charisma without even trying. We get to know him mostly through texts and emails, and the way he comes across whenever he pops up in a scene (and he was a bit of a scene-stealer!). He seems so well-contained, and as if there's a lot going through his mind that he doesn't give voice to. This edge of mystery to him makes him charismatic, and makes you want more of him.
I didn't know Sam had a brother, either. As I sit there, digesting all this, I feel a bit chastened. I've never even heard of Tim or Andrew or Josh. But then, why would I have heard of them? They probably text Sam directly. They're probably in touch like normal people. In private. Not like Willow the Witch and old friends trying to hustle some money.
All this time I've thought I could see Sam's entire life. But it wasn't his entire life, was it? It was one in-box. And I judged him on it.
He has friends. He has a life. He has a relationship with his family. He has a whole load of stuff I have no idea about. I was an idiot if I thought I'd got to know the whole story. I know a single chapter. That's all. [p.326-7]
Magnus you'll be able to see through fairly quickly, though he does seem perfectly reasonable and sweet and loving at first. Kinsella is able to share subtle little details with us through Poppy, that enable us to form new opinions better and quicker than Poppy, thanks to our impartiality.
As well as the characters feeling realistic and believable, likeable but flawed (something Kinsella also did well with in Wedding Night), the plot felt the same way. It all flowed together, all the disparate parts, so that it never seemed contrived or "if Poppy hadn't done X which was so obviously stupid, none of it would have happened" - something I tend to feel when reading a Shopaholic book. I could completely sympathise with Poppy's ideas of Magnus's parents, and Kinsella handled the difference between truth and perception deftly. If Antony and Wanda hadn't been the over-bearing, over-achieving (and very messy) smart-arses that they are, Poppy would have been in less of a panic over the ring, and less opportunistic when she lost her own phone. (Yet where would have been the fun in that?)
Speaking of her phone, Poppy's dependency on it wasn't something I could sympathise with (I do now have a mobile, for the first time since 2005, but while it's useful at times, it in no way has my whole life on it or is a crutch), but I could understand it. It's very, well, 21st-century, I guess.
I'm starting to shake all over. I've never felt so bereft and panicky. What do I do without my phone? How do I function? My hand keeps automatically reaching for my phone in its usual place in my pocket. Every instinct in me wants to text someone, 'OMG, I've lost my phone!' but how can I do that without a bloody phone? [pp.17-18]
It may be a book about things going wrong, but Kinsella can really make you laugh, time and again. This must be her funniest book to date, or maybe I should say, her most ironic. Part of this is achieved by use of footnotes - yes, footnotes! Poppy observes how Magnus and his family are big on footnotes, as a way to say things that aren't directly relevant, and starts including them herself, to superb affect. Humour also comes through in her observations, which are quite astute, though it's the way she words them that has me laughing.
I went over the whole place yesterday, replaced all the old manky bottles of bubble bath and got a new blind for the bathroom. Best of all, I tracked down some anemones for Wanda's study. Everyone knows she loves anemones. She's even written an article about 'Anemones in Literature.' (Which is just typical of this family - you can't just enjoy something, you have to become a top academic expert on it.) [p.41]
As you can tell by now, I absolutely loved this book and have nothing negative to say about it. It was the perfect read when I was wanting something absorbing, funny, intelligent and surprising. It's entertainment that actually perks you up and makes you feel better about the world. If you're after a story that will cheer you up, take your mind off things and make you laugh, this is the book. For sheer entertainment value, I couldn't suggest anything better, but it had the added bonus of providing an engrossing story full of depth, warmth and humour, a story that really came to life for me. I was sorry to have it end.(less)
Ellen O'Farrell is a calm, rational woman in her mid-thirties who enjoys her life and loves her job as a hypnotherapist. She works out of her beachfro...moreEllen O'Farrell is a calm, rational woman in her mid-thirties who enjoys her life and loves her job as a hypnotherapist. She works out of her beachfront home in Sydney, an old house last decorated in the 70s which she inherited from her grandparents. The one thing that hasn't worked out so well for her is her love life. With three serious ex-boyfriends littering her past and giving her secret insecurities, she has big hopes for the man she's currently seeing, a contractor called Patrick whom she met through an online dating site.
When, during a romantic dinner, Patrick says they should have a talk and then abruptly disappears into the men's bathroom for some time, Ellen fears the worst. So when he finally returns and tells her that he has a stalker, an ex-girlfriend whom he broke up with three years ago, Ellen isn't just surprised, she's actually quite pleased. Patrick suddenly becomes a whole lot more interesting to her. After all, it's not just anyone who has their own stalker.
But more than that, Ellen develops a burning curiosity and interest in Patrick's stalker, Saskia. What kind of woman becomes a stalker? What does it take to fall into that cycle and not be able to escape it? Ellen doesn't feel that Saskia is a personal threat to her, she just wants to understand her. She'd even like to meet her, talk to her. What Ellen doesn't realise is that she already has: Saskia is one of her own clients, and she already knows a lot more about Ellen than Ellen had ever realised.
This was a fantastic book, one of those wonderfully understated novels that's light on plot but heavy on understanding the psychology of its characters. It is not the "breezy summer read [that] will make you feel warm all over" that one of the cover endorsements (from USA Today) proclaims it as; I was rather surprised that anyone would describe this in that way. Yet it's not a dark psychological thriller either. It's more realistic than that, more familiar and more focused on ordinary people and their inner demons and insecurities. It's a character study of two very different yet connected women, as well as a study of life, love, loss, grief, insecurities, neuroses - everything, in short, that makes us human.
Moriarty is an astute social observer who understands people and what makes us tick. I've read a few books over the years whose authors have a knack for digging beneath the skin and teasing out those hidden thoughts and feelings that we have, and laying them bare: I love those kinds of books. Moriarty successfully and skilfully captures the neuroses of her characters, their inner turbulence, their self-doubts, their vanities and insecurities, making Ellen and Saskia vividly real: living, breathing people. Patrick, too, was a tangible, real character, caught between two women and seen only through their eyes - but Moriarty manages to both hide and reveal a great deal about Patrick's character, so that we recognise the obfuscation of the women's own perspectives and glimpse a more honest, less dramatic truth of him in the moments of clarity as when a fog clears.
Saskia narrates her portions of the story in first-person, while Ellen's side of the story is told in the third-person. This works effectively to not only ensure you never get confused or lost in whose story you're currently reading, but it enables us to get right inside Saskia's head as well as showcase Moriarty's enviable talent for creating distinct voices and personalities that clearly delineate the two women. Saskia slowly comes together for us in a visual way but it's not until Ellen sees her and knows her for who she really is (which client of hers she is, coming to therapy sessions under a false name) that we get to really see her. What's interesting about this is how clearly it shows how fragmented we are when it's just the inside of our own heads, as opposed to how solid we become when seen by other people. As if Saskia were just shards of a person, a broken mirror swept into a pile, a collection of troubled thoughts and old hurts with no real form of her own, until Ellen sees her - then she has form, substance, a body, an identity outside of herself.
I came to genuinely love Saskia, precisely because she is so human and so raw and honest with herself. She drifts between knowing what she's doing is wrong, feeling like she's become crazy and completely disengaged from reality, and obsessing over her unhealed hurts. She lost her mother, her only family member, and then just months later she loses Patrick - but not just him, she loses his son, Jack, too. Patrick's wife, Colleen, died only a year after having Jack, and it wasn't all that long after that that Saskia came into their lives. From Saskia's point of view, she and Patrick had been deeply in love and committed to each other. She lived with him and Jack and she was Jack's mother - she made him lunch, read to him, taught him games, and loved him. Saskia never saw the break-up coming, she had had no inkling that there was anything wrong, and she went into shock when it happened. When that passed days later, she found herself completely cut out of Patrick - and Jack's, lives. What really hurts her, as much if not more as losing Patrick, is losing Jack. How could she go from being his mother one day, to being pushed out of his life the next?
I remember waking up in Tammy's room five days [after the breakup] and realising it was Friday morning and that Jack had swimming lessons straight after school, and I always had to remember to pack his things the night before, and who would take him? [...] I had more flexibility than Patrick and I loved picking him up. I was Jack's mother. I didn't mind when I missed out on a promotion because I wasn't working full hours. That's what mothers do; they put their careers on hold for their children.
So I called Patrick, to remind him about swimming lessons, and that's when all this started: my habit. My "stalking" of my old life.
Because Patrick treated me like a stranger. As if Jack's swimming lessons were nothing to do with me, when just the week before, I'd been at swimming, helping Jack adjust his goggles, talking to his teacher about maybe moving him up a class, making arrangements with one of the other mothers for a play date with her son. "It's fine," Patrick had said. All irritable and put out. As if I was interfering. As if I'd never had anything to do with Jack. "We've got it all under control." The rage that swept through me was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I hated him. I still loved him. But I hated him. And ever since then it's been hard to tell the difference between the two. If I didn't hate him so intensely, maybe I would have been able to stop loving him. [p.252]
I found myself, like Ellen, yearning to understand Saskia, and the more I learned about her and what led to her stalking behaviour, her obsession, the more I felt sympathy for her. I couldn't condone it, and like many of the supporting cast in this story, my initial thought was "God, why can't she just move on?" But since when have humans ever been so straight forward? Moriarty probes deeply into Saskia's psyche, rendering her human and thus, understandable. What Saskia can't get over is being cut out of Patrick and Jack's lives, just because she was a girlfriend, not a wife. And Patrick never really understood that either, never considered letting her see Jack or spend time with him; never considered that Jack had now lost two mothers. Because he was a grieving widower, a man in mourning who hadn't worked through his own grief, his own loss, and he was a loving father who wanted to look after his son. It all makes perfect sense, and it's all so messy, and it's almost all a product of miscommunication or misunderstandings or no communication at all, as these things often are. You couldn't find more human characters than these.
I remember thinking that it wasn't fair. If Patrick had been killed in a car accident, I would have been allowed to grieve for him for years. People would have sent me flowers and sympathy cards; they would have dropped off casseroles. I would have been allowed to keep his photos up, to talk about him, to remember the good times. But because he dumped me, because he was still alive, my sadness was considered undignified and pathetic. I wasn't being a proper feminist when I talked about how much I loved him. He stopped loving me, so therefore I had to stop loving him. Immediately. Chop, chop. Turn those silly feelings off right now. Your love is no longer reciprocated, so it is now foolish. [p.317]
There are so many psychological layers to this story. The hypnotherapy sessions were fascinating and gave me great insight into what hypnotherapy is and how it works; I loved reading those scenes. And I loved reading about Ellen. She was completely laid bare, but not in that way where you feel like the author is shoving everything at you with no subtlety. It went so well with Ellen's character, her personality, that her thoughts were open to us readers. I could recognise many of her thoughts, having had similar ones myself, or at least could recognise the realism and frankness in them. She was captured so perfectly, and it was fascinating watching her shift from this neat woman into someone who floundered trying to figure out who she really was.
It was true that she wasn't unhappy about Patrick being a widower. She quite liked the fact that it made things more complicated. It made her feel like she was part of the rich tapestry of life (and death). Also, it gave her a chance to demonstrate her professional skills. She imagined people saying to her, "Do you worry about his feelings for his wife?" and she'd say serenely, "No, actually, I don't." She would understand completely if he still had feelings for his wife. She would know instinctively when to draw back, when to let him grieve for her. [p.46]
She wasn't imagining it. Patrick was definitely talking more about Colleen since their engagement. In fact, she'd started keeping a tally in her head, and there had been at least one reference to Colleen every single day for the last week. [...] If Colleen had been an ordinary living ex-wife or ex-girlfriend, Ellen could have banned all further mentions of her, but as she was dead, and as it was perfectly understandable that having another child would be bringing back memories for Patrick of Jack's birth, and as Colleen was Jack's mother and he loved hearing stories about when his mother was pregnant with him, Ellen felt she not only had to listen politely, but she even had to encourage further revelations about the seemingly perfect Colleen by asking Patrick interested questions with a bright, loving, empathetic expression on her face.
Frankly, it was driving her bananas. [pp.242-3]
Watching Ellen unravel and lose her grip on the kind of person she thought she was, or wanted to be, wasn't exactly satisfying but it was rather riveting. She never came across as superior or uptight in the beginning, but she did seem to be a little too in control, in that way some people are that leaves you thinking that any little rock of the boat could be their undoing, emotionally.
While the story is focused on the characters, there are some plot developments, both in terms of Saskia-the-stalker, Ellen and Patrick's relationship, and Ellen's business. It's just enough to give it forward momentum, but it doesn't suffer from that problem some books have, of starting strong with an interesting premise only to snow-dive towards the end when it seems like the author didn't know where to take it and so threw in a big action climax like an abduction or a car accident or something of that nature, as if the lack of plot suddenly became something to renege on. There is a climax here, a culmination of events that coincides with that freakish, giant dust storm Sydney and other parts of the north-east coast experienced several years ago, but it's not melodramatic, and the ending is satisfying and rather beautiful.
I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially if you enjoy character-driven stories that really lay bare the human soul and all our frailties, our neuroses and the twisted ways our minds work sometimes. Ellen and Saskia are two strong protagonists, vastly different from each other and yet with several things in common, representing something older than this story, something intrinsic about women, about female friendships and the bonds women make, about how women deal with things emotionally and mentally, and how unforgiving we can be of each other. It was hard to say goodbye to them, at the end of this book, after sharing such a momentous chapter in their lives and coming to know them so deeply, like real people revealing their secret thoughts. A thoroughly compelling and beautifully told novel.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)