This is the third book featuring retired detective Kermit William Hodges. The first was MR. MERCEDES, and at first glance this book reads like its seqThis is the third book featuring retired detective Kermit William Hodges. The first was MR. MERCEDES, and at first glance this book reads like its sequel. New readers will not feel lost by reading this book first. In fact, they may be at an advantage. While MR. MERCEDES was a crime thriller, END OF WATCH is more in the vein of a sci-fi horror novel.
The book opens in a way that captures all readers, regardless of their previous experience with the series. The year is 2009. Two EMT's are rushing to the grisly scene where a psychopath has plowed into a crowd gathered since well before dawn hoping for a lucky break at a big job fair. Their arrival permits a view of how chaotic a scene of mass casualties is. The EMT van must thread its way through a crowd of people staggering from the scene. No systematic triage is in place yet, so it is blind luck that a policeman waves them over to a severely injured woman. A Level I trauma center is 15 minutes away but fortunately, traffic is still light. She is also lucky that she will be one of the first to arrive at the hospital. It's a sobering thought to realize how much luck determines who will survive. This woman, Martine Stover, will survive, but as a quadriplegic.
The timeline jumps forward to 2016. Retired police detective Kermit William Hodges has gone into business as a skip-tracer, the closest he can get to private detective work without a license. Holly has made a lot of progress in fighting her mental issues, including a severe anxiety disorder, and is now his partner. Author Stephen King has created a comfortable rhythm between the two. Thanks to Holly, Hodges' cell phone emits the raucous sound of a cheering crowd accompanied by the crack of a baseball bat and a shattering window whenever it receives a text message. Technology challenged Hodges is unable to modify the phone's programming. Other familiar characters emerge as the story proceeds. Jerome, Hodges' friend and former lawn trimmer is spending the summer on a Habitat For Humanity project. His sister Barbara is in high school. Psychopath Brady Hartsfield is still vegetating at the hospital. Hodges' old ex-partner Pete is on the verge of retirement. Uncharacteristically, Pete calls Hodges to consult on one last case. It appears to be a murder-suicide, but the victims are Martine Stover and her mother. “ 'Why would you want an old carthourse like me at a murder scene?'” Hodges asks. “ 'Because this is probably my last case, because it's going to blow-up big in the papers, and because — don't swoon — I actually value your input,'” Pete replies. (p.18) Holly has a much simpler explanation: “ 'Pete only called you because he was spooked.'” (p.41)
So far, the book sounds like a crime thriller similar to MR. MERCEDES. However, King's dedication is to Thomas Harris, creator of the character Hannibal Lecter. (There's even an eerie scene reminiscent of the popular misquote from the film Silence of the Lambs: “Hello, Clarice.” Here, the line is “Hello, Nurse Scapelli” (p.81)) The book is drifting toward horror territory. An assortment of elements are introduced to support that mood. An unethical neurosurgeon administers doses of an experimental drug designed to regenerate damaged neural connections. (view spoiler)[In addition to the creepy science, photosensitive epilepsy induced by a video game, telekinesis, subliminal suggestion, telepathy, mind control and possession are stirred in. (The possession element reminded me of the movie Fallen, starring Denzel Washington). (hide spoiler)] Collectively, these elements have a diluted effect. Brady himself is evil, but the explanations of his growing powers felt not just unconvincing, but rationalizations to fuel the plot.
Nevertheless, King is never a boring writer. I continued to love the three characters: Hodges, Holly and Jerome. The finale is climactic, and King adds a satisfying theme of closure to the narrative. His characters also voice opinions that might be his own. A detective reminds Hodges of Lester Freamon on The Wire, “the only cop show Hodges can watch without wanting to throw up.” (p.162). Doctors do not come off looking very good in this book. “...the doings of such lesser beings as nurses — even head nurses — are far below their lordly gaze.” (p.58) Was that inspired by his hospital stay after the accident that left him seriously injured?
I read this book immediately after reading MR. MERCEDES, so it was disconcerting to find that King was going off in a totally different direction with this book. For me, there was a huge credibility problem. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
You drive through Iowa. You expect to see corn fields, you see corn fields. You drive through Arizona. You expect to see cactus, you see cactus. AmidYou drive through Iowa. You expect to see corn fields, you see corn fields. You drive through Arizona. You expect to see cactus, you see cactus. Amid today's chaos and constant change, it's soothing to have simple expectations that are met with simple regularity. MR. MERCEDES is a crime thriller and King has assembled the familiar elements that meet just those sorts of expectations. There are suspenseful ticking clock scenes and moments of barely averted danger. The main character is a morose police detective who has trouble adjusting to retirement. He's divorced. Alcohol doesn't sedate the way it used to. He's lost his sense of purpose. The perp is a psychopath. He fits a profile familiar to any avid viewer of TV crime dramas: young male loner, no girlfriends, lives with his mother, intelligent but underemployed, twisted sexual proclivities, traumatic childhood, narcissistic. A year ago, the killer stole a Mercedes and rammed through a crowd. He killed eight people including a young mother and her infant, and left countless others maimed for life. The detective was unable to solve the case. The psychopath sends the retired detective a gloating letter. His goal, however, is not to provoke a cat-and-mouse game, but to seduce the detective into committing suicide. The letter has the opposite effect. It rejuvenates the detective's sense of purpose.
In Stephen King's capable hands, none of these events feel like tired tropes. King is an efficient writer, and he engages the reader's interest almost immediately. In Chapter One he introduces the reader to two of the characters destined to die. They are not just anonymous victims. They are young, unemployed, lined up in the cold wet weather well before dawn, hoping to change their luck at a city-sponsored job fair. King paints a sympathetic portrait of the detective as well. Descriptions of his despondency are sharpened by details like the loaded revolver he toys with while marking time with the TV flickering, it's insipid contents a rebuke to his lethargy. This is in marked contrast to the phone call he makes to his former partner Pete Huntley for any updated information on the unsolved “Mercedes Killer” case after he receives the letter. King writes some of his most enjoyable dialog in the ensuing scene between the retired detective Kermit William Hodges and Huntley. Their greetings are a complicit ritual of masculine teasing and off-color humor. “They click and drink. Pete asks about Allie [Hodges' daughter] and Hodges asks about Pete's son and daughter. Then wives, both of the ex variety, are touched upon (as if to prove to each other — that they are not afraid to talk about them) and then banished from the conversation. Food is ordered. By the time it comes, they have finished with Hodges' two grandchildren and have analyzed the chances of the Cleveland Indians, which happens to be the closes major league team.” (p.50) Pete assumes Hodges is curious about former colleagues and the short list of cold cases they worked together. Hodges is thus able to mask his interest in that one particular case while concealing any information about the letter. It's a great scene. Hodges demurs. He's only mildly curious, he says. Pete, fortunately, is eager to rehash the details of their investigations, to fall back into the old pattern of talking shop. King provides several plausible reasons why Hodges prefers to conduct his own investigation, going from merely withholding evidence to impersonating a police officer and deceiving his ex-partner. However, the reader needs little persuasion. The solitary detective operating outside authorized boundaries is a fixture of the genre.
King introduces the “Mercedes Killer”, Brady Hartsfield, with the letter. It's long, written with style and pointedly directed at its audience of one. It reveals Hartsfield knows a lot about Hodges, has perhaps even been stalking him. The letter also gives the reader an opportunity to watch how Hodges' mind works as he analyzes the letter. The rest of the book alternates between Hartsfield's and Hodges' lives, a technique that adds further suspense.
King creates a number of interesting secondary characters as well. Jerome is the teenager that trims Hodges' lawn. He's pretty much Hodges' closest thing to a friend. Plus he's bright — undoubtedly Harvard bound — computer savvy, and is on the same wave length as Hodges regarding the investigation. Holly is a problematic character. It's as if King did not stumble on to her potential until much later into the story. As a character, she's a keeper. At first we see a mentally disturbed young woman with obsessive habits, an irritating lack of affect and severe anxiety issues. However, as the story progresses, she becomes more formed. She develops a friendship with Jerome, and comes up with intuitions that pan out, and we see her develop a nascent sense of assertiveness.
From familiar material King has written a suspenseful and entertaining novel perfect for some escapist reading. I was primed for this kind of book, and as I have come to expect, King delivers....more
Mirror, mirror on the wall, Hide my secrets large and small.
Speaker: Male or female? It jars to even ask that question, doesn't it? I pose this as a hyMirror, mirror on the wall, Hide my secrets large and small.
Speaker: Male or female? It jars to even ask that question, doesn't it? I pose this as a hypothetical to focus attention on our assumptions. That's the crux of this book — assumptions.
This is a story about women, but it's not “chick lit”. Competitive moms, complicated families and appalling secrets are elements. Yet, the book is truly funny at the same time.
Chapter one opens in the parlor of an aging cat lady, Mrs. Ponder. Well, she only has one cat, Marie Antoinette, but she is talking to it. Actually, she is a warm and capable woman, a retired nurse formerly stationed in Singapore. She's a minor character, and the reader is introduced to her because her house overlooks a primary school where the real action is unfolding. It's Trivia Night, an annual fundraiser. Mrs. Ponder is startled to hear raucous shouting pouring out into the damp night air. Then, she hears a loud scream. The chapter ends with the ominous announcement: “This is a murder investigation.” (p.7)
No, the book is not really a murder mystery. Readers will spend much of the book puzzling out the identity of the victim, not the perpetrator. Even more intriguing will be the question of what was going on at the school that night. The real story begins six months earlier and moves forward like the inexorable countdown of a blastoff. Despite the voices of dozens of characters, there are only three main characters. Madeline, age 40, is fretful about aging. She is outgoing, emotional and impulsive. Her part-time job doing marketing for the community theater is a great fit but makes for testy relations with her brooding difficult teen-aged daughter Abigail. Her ex-husband Nathan walked out on her and Abigail when Abigail was born and Madeline is still bitter about that. Nathan is “not that guy” anymore and has remarried. An awkward situation is made even more so by Nathan's all too imperturbable wife Bonnie, a devotee of yoga, meditation, veganism and benevolence. Obviously, Abigail idolizes Bonnie. Jane, although the youngest of the three women, has a faded look about her. She eschews makeup and fashion and is an unwed mother who recently moved into the area. Celeste is the charmed one. She's beautiful, rich and glamorous, but always seems preoccupied, and seems perpetually startled to find herself back in the present. Her husband Perry is some sort of high-flyer in finance. Despite their differences in wealth and situation, these three women become close friends. All three have young children enrolled in kindergarten. That unlikely friendship is further cemented when Jane's son Ziggy is accused of bullying a little girl in the class. Amid wildly circulating gossip, a group of parents coalesce against Jane and Ziggy. The inflamed gossip is captured by the insertion of quotes from various parents, apparently at the prompting of a journalist, and their wild speculations serve to prompt the reader's curiosity.
Moriarty tells her story with refreshing candor. Who hasn't walked into a new situation and felt like an outsider? Who hasn't been conscious of the not so subtle cliques that exist in every large group? What's amazing is how funny this book proved to be. There are commonplace crises: Madeline twists her ankle on her stiletto heels; Jane loses the class mascot, a stuffed animal named Harry the Hippo; Abigail comes up with a startling idea to help Amnesty International. The crises are punctuated with the exclamation: “Oh, Calamity”. It's a line from a children's book Madeline had read: “It was a very contagious phrase.” (p.12). Our family adopted a similar phrase from ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY. Ironically, the line was “I think I'll move to Australia.” (BIG LITTLE LIES is set in Australia).
Moriarty relies on our instinct for schadenfreude to fuel this humor. It's funny when it's happening to someone else; not so funny when it's happening to you. The vantage point gives the reader the freedom to absorb rather than be repelled by the darker dynamics in the book.
“Show, don't tell,” caution innumerable texts on writing, as if great writing were really all that simple. What does that mantra even mean? A reader s“Show, don't tell,” caution innumerable texts on writing, as if great writing were really all that simple. What does that mantra even mean? A reader seeking to explore the concept might do well to look at THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES. Herrera shows desolation in dozens of ways.
The viewpoint of the narrative is that of an initially unnamed character (later referred to as “The Redeemer”). That anonymity promotes a sense of disembodiment. The lines between sleep and wakefulness are blurred by the slow methodical pace, and dregs of mezcal indicate the blurred boundary of hang-over stupor. The Redeemer's actions are sluggish reflexes. The declining condition of the “Big House” with its squalid sub-divided rooms and the eerily empty streets are consistent with an ever-shrinking prospect for the future. Stagnation is suggested in the lean language of the opening paragraph:
“A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air. Eyeing the third of mezcal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day. He had no way of knowing it already was, had been for hours, truly awful, much more awful than the private little inferno he'd built himself on booze. He decided to go out. He opened his door, was disconcerted not to see the scamper of la Ñora, who'd lived there since the days when the Big House was actually a Big House and not two floors of little houses — rooms for folks half-down on their luck — and then opened the front door and walked out. The second he took a step his back cricked to tell him something was off.”
The story line of this dystopic novel is simple. The Redeemer is a “fixer”, a former ambulance chaser now hired to dispose of embarrassing situations too delicate for overt violence. In this story he has been hired to effect an exchange. The Dolphin's son Romeo Fonseca is being held by a rival family, the Castros. In retaliation Romeo's sister The Unruly has abducted the Castros' daughter Baby Girl.
An ebola-like epidemic has spread across the city (the reason for the empty streets). It's a problem the authorities, for all their thuggish violence, are helpless to combat. It is evident that the social fabric was torn even before this newest calamity. How else to explain The Redeemer's indispensability. Neediness and favors owed, not friendship, connect him to the other characters in this book. Most of what he banks on is his understanding of human nature. It's a wordless understanding, and that's just as well. Words lead to lies and in any case, surgical masks have now become a standard part of daily attire.
Herrera uses casual profanity and inventive slang in the conversations between his characters. It's a language of euphemism eliding an underlying vulnerability and deep layers of personal pain. The language also transports the reader into this hybrid world of alien and familiar. Words like “scurvy” are familiar, but he uses them in unfamiliar ways. The same is true for “redeemer” and “transmigration”. Their spiritual connotations are incongruous in this world of bodies and blood.
Herrera is particularly eloquent at conveying silence: “He returned to the Bug [VW] and rolled down the window so as not to hear the silence between Vicky and Neeya, but the silence of the street slipped in instead: a stubble field of frantic signals emitted from the antennae that fear had planted in people's heads.” (Location 711) Later, he reflects: “Everything was so quiet you could hear Baby Girl's silence, as tho she'd absorbed every sound in the room. It was hard and yet formless, that silence. How to describe what isn't there? What name can you give to something that doesn't exist yet exists for that reason precisely?” (Location 1102)
Reading this book was like walking through a desert. It's difficult to stagger forward in such a bleak and hostile world. There's only the thinnest thread of a plot to prod the reader on. Instead, words and sentences are like grains of sand to be reconfigured by the reader into a meaningful landscape. We learn little more about the main character than when we started except for the single fact: almost against his will he is still able to feel and act on his compassion. This is not a likeable book, but I reluctantly give it 4 stars for the forcefulness of the writing.
One of the pleasures of small town life is the surprising connections. Meet someone new and surprise! The two of you have a close mutual acquaintance.One of the pleasures of small town life is the surprising connections. Meet someone new and surprise! The two of you have a close mutual acquaintance. Here, the small town is Crested Butte, Colorado. It's just north of Gunnison (population around 5000+). Characters are introduced and in the same casual way their connections are revealed.
The story opens in the shuttered Sad Café. (The name is literary, an illusion to Carson McCullers' BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFÉ). Twelve year old Carson is trying to anchor his family after the suicide of his father Wily. It's a remarkable opening chapter. Carson's mother Judith has like countless previous nights been drinking. She sits before a scrabble board, but the words that emerge are grim reminders of her husband. She has learned Wily was having an affair, but now, the anger steels her resolve to move forward, to move what remains of her family forward. She will re-open the café; rename it the Roadrunner Café — the Roadrunner always triumphs, doesn't he? The reader can only admire the force of will this grieving woman summons.
Later chapters introduce other interesting characters. Easy is a rootless 22-year-old employed for the season as janitor/maintenance man at a nearby ski resort. His father died prematurely of a heart attack. Drinking helps numb some of his bitterness. Norwood is over 40, a recovering alcoholic afraid to take the next step in a serious relationship: start a family. Gordon is a Vietnam vet haunted by memories of the war and a sensitive observer of the troubled people around him. Georgie is Carson's 16 year old sister looking for a way to fill the emptiness left by her father. Helyana lives with her grandfather Seth. Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was four. Sally White is the woman Wily loved.
Zerndt seamlessly connects these people. His pace is unhurried but not slow. 'Simply watch and listen,' he seems to tell the reader. We listen not just to what these characters say but to what they are thinking. Through them we learn much about Wily, a man with a romantic, painfully sentimental bent. In the yard he planted trees. There is one for each family member and his tree now reminds them of his absence. He wrote poetry. Was he a frustrated writer? Maybe, or maybe writing was another of those impossible imaginings that dissolved under scrutiny like Wily Coyote's foothold when he looked down and found himself standing on air.
Zerndt writes without ostentation. It makes his occasional expansiveness all the more effective. Here is Deana, Norwood's girlfriend, recounting how she came to yearn for a baby: “Babies were for people who had empty lives....And Deana never had much time to worry about that seeing as she was always working. But then, one day, there it was. First it was just the word: baby. It set out a lawn chair along the sidelines of her brain somewhere, content at first just to watch the usual parade of thoughts passing by. But, over time, it slowly ceased to be just a word. It became a feeling. A longing for a person she'd never met but suddenly couldn't wait to.” (Location 1155)
Zerndt leavens his story with humor. He sets one scene in a pasture during Cattlemen's Days. A betting pool is in progress. It entails cow patties, a cow with the unsuitable name of “Rocket,” and Deana. As if the situation weren't amusing enough, Easy plays an unexpected part in helping Deana.
One plot element of the book, however, felt forced. Helyana, Carson's close friend is incompletely developed as a character. Throughout the book she has been a catalyst, provoking Carson with just enough curiosity to leave the confines of the house. However, Zerndt tacks on an implausible event and invokes mystical elements that simply didn't fit.
Despite it's flaws, I'm glad I read this book. Although it dealt with grief and loneliness, it also presented characters determined to confront their fears. This was a free book and I was pleasantly surprised by the understated style and strength of the writing. On that basis, I have given it four stars. NOTE: Apparently, this book has undergone several revisions. I downloaded this book in July 2016....more
As I read this book, published in 1908, I was reminded of Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1897). Both feature victimized young women made sympathetic by theirAs I read this book, published in 1908, I was reminded of Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1897). Both feature victimized young women made sympathetic by their Victorian perfection: demure, passive and virtuous. Both feature an evil entity with hypnotic powers applied to arouse dangerous sexual appetites.
Unlike Stoker's book, THE MAGICIAN's plot moves forward at a lugubrious pace. The first quarter of the book is devoted to introducing a number of less than riveting characters. Margaret Dauncey is engaged to be married to her guardian, Arthur Burdon, when she turns 19. They plan to set up a household in London and start a family (and presumably, live happily ever after!). In the interim Burdon encourages Margaret to enjoy her youthful freedom. She has come to Paris to study painting and live with her former teacher, Susie Boyd, a 30 year old spinster. Margaret impresses the reader as the perfect decorative accessory to any man's life.
Susie enjoys observing but not participating in the eccentric milieu of the artist community. Her thoughts are quite conventional: “She believed privately that Margaret's passion for the arts was a not unamiable pose which would disappear when she was happily married.” (Location 207). Privately, Susie laments her own unmarried situation. She consoles herself by shaping Susie's sense of fashion and values, a kind of vicarious pleasure.
Margaret's fiancée Arthur Burdon is a skilled surgeon, rational in every aspect of life except his romantic expectations of marriage to Margaret. His father was the intimate friend of Dr. Porhoët who spent his active career imbibing the cultures of Egypt and the Middle East where he was posted.
Of the four, Porhoët is both the most interesting and, unfortunately, the least visible. While his medical training has made him well versed in science, his travels have exposed him to many strange and unexplainable phenomena. These experiences inspired a life-long study of the history of occultism, which had led to his acquaintanceship with the eponymous Oliver Haddo. Porhoët is the closest to a reliable observer in this story. Arthur is blinded by his stolid rationalism, and Susie is blinded by her own conventional values.
Maugham admits that the character of Haddo was modelled after an actual person, Aleister Crowley. A perusal of Crowley's biographical sketch points to a charismatic crackpot. I was dismissive of the character until I dug further and learned that in 19th century England and France occultism was a significant intellectual current. Its elements ranged from speculations about the afterlife, hypnotism, numerology, Eastern ecstatic religious sects, mind-altering drugs, secret societies, a Romanticist infatuation with mythology, and, at least in Crowley's case, the attempt to reconcile homosexual and bi-sexual yearnings with the rigid legal and moral codes of the day.
Maugham's depiction of Haddo's charisma is heavy-handed. He embeds Dr. Porhoët's story of an Arab conjuror to lend credibility to the idea of mysticism. He juxtaposes contradictory impressions — effusive, secretive; coarse, entertaining; irresistible, repulsive; pompous, popular — as a device to persuade the reader of Haddo's mysterious attractiveness. Not one but three instances of his terrifying effect on animals are provided. However, it is only when Haddo is permitted to speak for himself that the reader gains a sense of his extraordinary allure.
Through his acquaintanceship with Porhoët, Haddo insinuates himself into the company of Susie, Margaret and Arthur. He contrives to isolate Margaret and seduces her in an extraordinary monologue voicing the aesthetics of Walter Pater. It is an aesthetic that celebrates subjective reaction to art and it releases an emotional permissiveness and erotic imagination in Margaret which were previously hidden from her conscious thoughts. Quoting from memory much of Pater's own writings about familiar paintings, he is able to implant sensual images into her mind as if they were her own: “He loved the mysterious pictures in which the painter had sought to express something beyond the limits of painting, something of unsatisfied desire and of longing for unhuman passions. Oliver Hoddo found this quality in unlikely places, and his words gave a new meaning to paintings that Margaret had passed thoughtlessly by.” (Location 1234) The entire episode reflects back on an earlier observation by Dr. Porhoët that it was impossible to truly love without romantic imagination, a view he had aired when contrasting the difference in temperament between Margaret and Arthur. The story should have ended here, but Maugham cannot leave well enough alone. He follows this powerful scene with a drug induced hallucinatory episode to seal the deal. What could have been a powerful psychological insight is transformed into a mundane but sinister parlor trick, substituting fake terror and victimization for unleashed conflicting desire. Everything that followed felt predictable and stagey.
Haddo is described as a man with the curious appearance of looking through people rather than focusing on the person at hand. It is a good description as well of how a reader might view this story. Maugham appears to be exploring the interaction between the theory of aesthetics voiced by Walter Pater and a view about life. His brutal caricature of Crowley, however, points to an intent to satirize the occult movement. Or, was his intent merely to write a gothic potboiler, a tepid derivative of the genre? Should the book be read from a modern perspective as a prescient criticism of a society that limited women's aspirations to dilettantism and matrimony? ( "It seemed to her that a comparison was drawn for her attention between the narrow round which awaited her as Arthur's wife and this fair full eixstence. She shuddered to think of the dull house in Harley Street and the insignificance of its humdrum duties.") (Location 1478) Or should the book be read as a precursor to Freudian psychoanalysis?
Even at 200 pages, the book felt overly long. I wonder how the writing in this early novel compares to Maugham's writing in his more famous works.
Mira Jacobs examines family tensions exacerbated by diaspora in this narrative of the Eapen Family, emigrees from South India. A prologue establishesMira Jacobs examines family tensions exacerbated by diaspora in this narrative of the Eapen Family, emigrees from South India. A prologue establishes the present day timeline, June 1998. It is a literary snapshot providing the reader with a glimpse of their tenuous dynamic: one that's conscious, formal, safe, prescribed, and emotionally repressed; and one that's explosive and brutally candid, to be expressed only under the guise of abnormality: sleepwalking or mental aberration. Amina lives in Seattle rather than returning to the family homestead in Albuquerque. She is unmarried (despite countless blind dates set up by her mother without her permission), and not much of a cook ( “A collection of takeout boxes slumped together like old men in bad weather” in her refrigerator. (p.5) Still, she remains connected to a sense of ethnic identity. Her best friend is Dimple, another Indian from Albuquerque. They went to school together and they are so close they refer to each other as cousins. Dimple's parents are like an extended family to her own. Kamala is almost a parody of the ethnic mother. In addition to her obsession with marrying off her daughter to another Indian, she devotes herself to cooking. Biryani, pickles, chutneys, breads, stews and dips flow from her kitchen. The radio, TV and tabloid headlines appear to be her main connection to the world outside her kitchen. She supplements this with her own outrageous opinions voiced with a tenacious dismissal of opposing arguments. Jacob exploits this with often humorous results. The third character we view is her husband Thomas, a neurosurgeon who keeps late hours and chooses to spend his time isolated on the porch tinkering with whimsical inventions and succumbing to the soporific comfort of alcohol. The question Jacob appears to be addressing is how did this family become this way. The opening chapter provides a partial answer. The time jumps back to 1979. Amina is 11; her older brother Akhil is 14. The family makes a disastrous visit to Thomas' mother and his younger brother in India. His mother Ammachy is hardly loving. Instead we view a tyrannical matriarch unhappy at her inability to control events. For her the past was wonderful; everything afterward was downhill, beginning with the urban sprawl that now surrounds her house. She is angry that Thomas rejected the marriage she had arranged with Kamala's lighter skinned (in her eyes more desirable) cousin. She wants him to return to practice in India and attempts to manipulate him into accepting a position at the newly established rehabilitation center. For her dutiful son Sonil she has nothing but complaints and belittlement. The situation explodes. Thomas and his family leave despite Kamala's objections. It's the last time he sees his mother, and it leaves a permanent rift in his relationship to Kamala.
After such a dramatic opening, I was expecting the story to resume with Amina's reluctant return to Albuquerque. In the prologue Kamala had called, complaining that Thomas was talking to his dead mother. She is able to guilt-trip Kamala without actually asking directly for her help. However, this thread is interrupted with the backstory of Amina's career in photography. She had been a successful photojournalist, but has retreated into events photography — weddings, funerals, graduations and the like. Book 3 makes another time jump. It is three years after the disastrous visit to India. Amina is now 14 and Akhil is 17. The focus switches to Akhil's troubled adolescence. Along with the time jumps there will be shifts in points of view. We follow Amina's problems, her adolescent observations of Akhil, and her observations both past and present of Thomas. Unfortunately, although Jacob ties all of this together, these pieces never coalesced for me into a satisfying whole. It was as if Jacob was trying to cover too much ground. Grief, alienation, vulnerability and the price of sacrificing duty for happiness all seem to compete for the reader's attention.
On the positive side, Jacob has created some memorable characters. Thomas was especially vivid with his outgoing exuberance, off-beat sense of humor and intensity. The author mentions in an interview that this character was modeled after her own father who passed away during the course of writing the book. Kamala is irritating and humorous. The author takes great pains to explain that the character is NOT modeled on her own mother. Individual sections such as the explosive family conflict in India were unexpectedly sad. However, at 500 pages, I found this a difficult book to finish.
I purchased this book on an online flash sale. I was particularly interested because of the Albuquerque setting. ...more
On a rare family outing to the Art Institute of Chicago, I remember watching my dad peer BEHIND one of the paintings. I was mortified. He was examininOn a rare family outing to the Art Institute of Chicago, I remember watching my dad peer BEHIND one of the paintings. I was mortified. He was examining the construction of the picture frame! Memories like that kept popping into my head as I read Anne Tyler's multigenerational narrative of a 20th century family. She captures with uncanny accuracy the details that make the Whitshank family feel both familiar and unique.
My dad would have had something in common with Junior (Junius Roy) Whitshank, part of the generation that grew up during the Depression. Junior appreciated craftsmanship. He became a builder in a time of high ceilinged houses, dovetail joinery and varnished hard wood wainscotting. Powerless in so much of his life (the early death of his mother, a large poverty-stricken family, implicit class barriers), he transmuted these imprisoning bars into a gilded cage of sorts. Perhaps it's untrue that he loved the house more than he loved his wife, but at least he understood houses. At least he had some control. He didn't want children; Linnie Mae his wife did. They had Merrick (1936?) and Red (1938?). As the story unfolds, we learn he originally built the house for the Brills, an upper middle class Baltimore family. But from the beginning, he considered it his house. He made certain that the Brills were politely but firmly steered away from any decorative choices that met with his disapproval. Even after its completion, he made sure that the Brills depended solely on him for all maintenance. When the opportunity to buy arose, he seized it and uprooted his own family from their old familiar neighborhood to live in this perfect house. His son Red and Red's wife lived there, raising their own family.
The story opens in 1994. Red and Abbie are settling in for the night. Their third child, Denny, is the difficult one. He's moody and uncommunicative. At 16 he “eloped” with a girl he barely knew — they were under the mistaken impression they could get married. A stint with a therapist and later, boarding school didn't help him. He had taken off for the summer without leaving either an address or phone number. It's a familiar motif: Worried parents, directionless adolescent. It's a typical situation for Tyler to extract humor. One night Denny calls. He tells Red he is gay and then hangs up. Poor Red gets raked over the coals by Abbie. Where was Denny? Who was he with? Did he say that he was gay or did he say that he thought he was gay? Did he say he needed to tell you that or that he wanted to tell you that? What exactly did he say? Poor Red. He's just a regular guy who happened to pick up the phone. How was he supposed to divine all these nuances? This is the stuff of any male/female argument. In the end, it turns out Denny isn't gay. He was just yanking their chains. When he comes home for Christmas, Denny unloads another bombshell. He's dropped out of college. Of course Abbie and Red don't learn this directly from him. They find out from a letter they receive from the college.
Denny has three siblings. Amanda became a lawyer and Jeannie became a carpenter working in their father's construction company. Stem is younger than Denny and is the most compatible with Red. Stem works for the construction company as well and appears destined to carry on the business after Red retires. They are a generation of sympathetic characters seemingly captives to an unalterable family script that includes Denny's erratic appearances and disappearances, tolerating Abbie's unannounced invitations to down-on-their-luck strangers, occasional outbursts and uncomfortable silences. Even their vacation is a summer ritual — one week at the same rented beach cottage.
Tyler's exposition does not unfold chronologically. Part One begins in 1994 and moves forward in time. Part Two occurs in the late 1950's. Red's parents Junior and Linnie Mae are viewed through Abbie's eyes. Part Three jumps further back in time and the exposition recalls the events that brought Junior and Linnie Mae together as well as the story of the house. Part Four resumes in the present where Part One left off.
Although this story appears to trace the history of the Whitshank Family, we see the indelible influence of the women who married into it. Linnie Mae seems so docile and accommodating when seen through Abbie's eyes. There is little hint of the steely will that lies beneath. The adult Abbie we meet seems so flighty and flustered. As a child, however, we see a moral clarity and sense of justice unfazed by adult authority. That certainty will make her the guardian of many family secrets. Even when her memory seems to be shorting out, the old memories, the ones that are truly important, stay fixed. With such a setting, I began to wonder about Nora, Stem's placid church-going wife. Other members of the family assume she's not too bright. She is irritating to both Abbie and the reader with her insistence on calling Abbie Mother Whitshank. By the end of the story, however, the reader suspects that the observant and capable Nora has unplumbed depths.
The Whitshanks will endure. Seven grandchildren have yet to grow up and create their own stories. I found Abbie to be the thread of continuity. Her secrets link the past to the present. Denny's resistance to her orbit occasion some of the funniest passages in the book. His anxieties resonate perfectly with a current generation of underemployed 20-somethings, many forced to move back in with their parents.
I loved this book. It was so subtle that I had to re-read it to savor some of the misleading impressions Tyler seeds only to puncture them with surprising disclosures. There is a perfect mix of humor, compassion, and jaw-dropping shock. ...more
What audacity! Author Lauren Groff conjoins comedy and tragedy through the shifted perspectives of a single story, the story of Lotto and Mathilde's mWhat audacity! Author Lauren Groff conjoins comedy and tragedy through the shifted perspectives of a single story, the story of Lotto and Mathilde's marriage. Her opening paragraph describes the young lovers as if from a distance. It's a gauzy Kodak moment, shaped by the reader's expectations. She maintains that third person voice but quickly shifts to Lotto's point of view, for this is his story and it fills the entire first half of the book (“Fates”). Why begin with Lotto? Groff is cunning. She contrasts the two lovers. Mathilde is so perfect, so quiet, so good; Lotto is the shining one. The attraction is more than his boyish innocence and expansive exuberance. He exudes a charisma that people absorb and imagine to be their own. Groff is actually withholding the more interesting story, but we cannot know this until the second half of the book (“Furies”).
Is Lotto a sufficiently interesting character to fill half a book? Yes and no. He is re-invented at least twice by chance convergences: At 15 plunged into despair by the death of his father (aneurism); withdraws from his smothering mother Antoinette and is embraced into a fragile fraternity with three somewhat older kids, all outsiders — Gwennie, her twin brother Chollie and a half Asian named Michael; youthful lust; boarding school and more loneliness; epiphany (is it the magic of “The Bard's” poetry or the thespian panache of Denton Thrasher, a substitute teacher?); confidence-fueled Dionysian revelry; Mathilde and all that came next. Lotto is an entertaining character but his flaws are frustrating. He forgets to pick up his 8-year-old sister Rachel at the airport, and she is delivered to his door by a pair of strangers. Careless! He imagines the fellowship of his partying friends will replace his lost family. Imperceptive! He breaks his leg exiting a plane when he pauses, oblivious of the surging crowd of passengers behind him (maybe he shouldn't have charmed the stewardess into giving him that second bourbon). Self-indulgent! But above all, there is that enormous narcissism. It's both mesmerizing and repellant, the unifying link to the events of his life. His flirtatious banter with Mathilde is witty without revealing to the reader any depth. His idealization of her comes off as maudlin.
It is Groff's writing that will carry the reader through the first half. It is complex and ambitious. A New Year's gathering occasions three concurrent moods. First there is the false joviality of a song. Phrases are interspersed with Aunt Sallie's unspoken disappointment: “How ordinary he was becoming, she'd thought. He was turning banal....Mathilde could save Lotto from his own laziness, Sallie had thought, but here they were, years later, and he was still ordinary. The chorus caught in her throat.”(p.74) Meanwhile, outside, a stranger pauses. The singing and apparent cheerfulness imprint a snapshot he will forever after treasure. “All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like.” (p.75)
The book is filled with allusions to Latin and Greek classical poetry. Groff signals her eclecticism by creating breathless medleys. Hermes (Greek), Minerva (Roman), Aphrodite (Greek), Saturn (Roman). It's a reminder of how much the same material has been adapted and re-interpreted over the centuries. Bracketed authorial commentary feels like the cautionary intonations of a Greek chorus. A re-working of the story of Antigone is the basis for an opera Lotto imagines. A later work (Telegony) is a twist on the Oedipus theme. Sustained metaphors reverberate throughout the book. (view spoiler)[ “Fates” concludes with a repetition of the opening scene — this time seen through Lotto's eyes as a distillation of his life. “[The thread of song has been measured to its bare spool, Lotto. We'll sing the last of it to you.]” (p.205) The final coda is a nod to Charon. “Serrated coin of sun on water. Face turned skyward: is this drizzle? [It is.] Sound of small shears closing. Barely time to register the staggering beauty, and here it is. The separation.” (p.206) (hide spoiler)]
Groff ends Chapter 15 with a line spoken by Volumnia in Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS. She elaborates: “She — steely, controlling — is far more interesting than Coriolanus. Alas, nobody would go to see a play called Volumnia.” (p.312) Groff seems to be acknowledging here that Mathilde's story is the more interesting of the two but it is at the same time dependent for its power on Lotto.
Her story is told in a series of non-sequential flashbacks. It is a story of acute awareness, unflinching honesty and fierce retribution that blurs the line between justice, vengeance, and vindictiveness. Groff throws in an additional irony. The van Eyck panel, stolen in 1934, which she finds in her uncle's closet is the one entitled "The Righteous Judges".
Through Mathilde a more rounded view of the secondary characters emerges. Antoinette's protectiveness of Lotto is exerted with honey-tongued ruthlessness. Chollie, Lotto's best and oldest friend, is more than a crude buffoon. Aunt Sallie and Rachel hold powerful secrets. Mathilde's story will leave the reader struggling to reconcile her many contradictions. These characters are depicted from the perspective of their hidden influences on Lotto's life.
FATES AND FURIES proposes an unconventional aesthetic. Groff introduces it initially as an academic view: “ 'It's a question of perspective. Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you're seeing.'" intones the English teacher Denton Thrasher.(p.26) Chapter 3 turns to a philosophical contemplation: “A question of vision. From the sun's seat, after all, humanity is an abstraction. Earth a mere spinning blip. Closer, the city a knot of light between other knots; even closer, and buildings gleamed, slowly separating.”(p.39) Uncharacteristically reflective for Lotto. The idea is re-worked again later in an ironic authorial aside: “[Tragedy, comedy. It's all a matter of vision].” (p.196) (view spoiler)[ Mathilde comes to conclude: “With the gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision.” (p.390) (hide spoiler)]
This was a challenging book to read. I didn't really become engaged until I read the second part. After that, I felt compelled to re-read the entire book, identifying clues, linking co-occurences, and re-interpreting seemingly casual remarks. The numerous literary allusions were also a hurdle for me. Why has Groff written in such a opaque way? She seems to answer that question through Mathilde: “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” (p.244) Groff detonates more than one bomb in this perplexing novel. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Like a fun-house mirror with its absurd distortions, the Church of Marvels, a Coney Island carnival, parlayed in illusion. Instead of beauty transformLike a fun-house mirror with its absurd distortions, the Church of Marvels, a Coney Island carnival, parlayed in illusion. Instead of beauty transformed into grotesquerie, however, the grotesque became a form of beauty. Spangled performers, graceful flirtations with danger, the hint of exoticism all made this a charmed circle, a haven for the outcasts of turn of the century New York (1895). There was Aldovar the shy man/woman. There was Leland the feckless dwarf. There was Friendship Willingbird Church, a woman who disguised herself as a boy and fought in the Civil War. There were Friendship's imperfect twins, Odile and Belle, so dissimilar physically but so similar in spirit and in their fierce protectiveness of each other. “You are me and I am you. When they were girls they used to hold their index fingers, hooked like crescent moons, up in the air and try to divine each other's thoughts.” It was a oneness only twins might share.
The body of the book is told from a third person point of view; the Prologue and Epilogue are narrated in first person by an unnamed mute woman. It was these two sections that I found the most moving with their intimate tone and intimations of secrets and lost dreams. I was drawn to this voice. I wanted to hear more from her. Instead, the book abruptly shifts both in time and in viewpoint. The chapters jump among three separate narratives. In the first, Odile is frantically searching for Belle who left for Manhattan without explanation after a fire destroyed the Church of Marvels. Among its many victims was Friendship, the source of strength and guiding spirit of the carnival. The survivors are bereft. Another narrative follows the desperate efforts of an amnesiac named Alfie who finds herself confined in a brutal and demeaning asylum for insane women. She is obviously not insane, but the reader immediately discerns that her hope for rescue by her husband is futile. A third narrative introduces the reader to Sylvan, barely out of boyhood, toiling as a night-soiler. Good luck for him is hustling up a bare-knuckle boxing match. At least in the ring he has the slim chance of winning. Sylvan rescues an infant from one of the public privies his crew is cleaning. He resolves to discover the identity of the mother who would abandon her child in such an appalling way. Each narrative is propelled forward by its own set of questions. Why did Belle leave? Is she in danger? How did Alfie come to be placed in the asylum? Will she be able to escape? What kind of mother would abandon her baby? What do the disturbing fragments of information Sylvan gathers mean? Finally, how will these three stories connect with each other?
Unfortunately, none of the main characters in these narratives is as riveting as the voice heard in the Prologue. Their backstories aroused sympathy and their situations piqued my curiosity. Connections, however, are forged through a series of coincidences. (view spoiler)[ Odile journeys to Manhattan and almost immediately stumbles upon the building described in her sister's last letter. Sylvan just happens by chance on a key character in an opium den, and steals the man's jacket. Odile seems to find Sylvan — again, by chance — overhearing his inquiries in the opium den. (hide spoiler)] Scattered clues fill in random bits of plot. This is the stuff of melodrama.
At many points in the book, I found myself asking if I really cared enough about connecting the dots to continue reading. It did not help that the chapters chopped up the action, so much so that any hope of continuity was lost. This books is entertaining mainly for its convoluted and cleverly laid out plot. Prospective readers would be well-advised to keep notes on the three subplots in order to recognize the progression of disembodied clues and surprising reveals. I never felt truly immersed in the world Leslie Parry was trying to portray, and for me this is a fatal flaw in a historical novel.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
After a humiliating defeat in war, the nation casts about for scapegoats, and finds a convenient target — Jews. An artillery officer is accused of espAfter a humiliating defeat in war, the nation casts about for scapegoats, and finds a convenient target — Jews. An artillery officer is accused of espionage. There is a closed-door military trial in the name of national security. When conviction of the accused appears uncertain, incriminating documents surface and are secretly passed on to the judges, but not revealed to the defense team. Again, the pretext of national security is used. The officer is found guilty, humiliated in a highly public ceremony covered by all the papers, and condemned to solitary confinement on an island prison opened solely to guard him. An officer in the intelligence community finds evidence that the man is innocent. There is overwhelming evidence that another officer may have been the spy, and that the incriminating documents were forgeries. The intelligence officer urges his superiors to reopen the case. This would-be whistleblower is dispatched to a dangerous backwater posting. He is also threatened with a court martial should he speak to anyone about his findings. He is further reminded that he had signed a non-disclosure compact when he secured his intelligence position. These events may sound like the unfolding of yet another contemporary scandal, or perhaps the stuff of the newest spy thriller. Instead, they are the main elements of the Dreyfus Affair, a chapter many have relegated to the bin of ancient history, or at least an anomaly of period and place.
In 1895 Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French artillery was accused and convicted of being a German spy. Dreyfus was Jewish. Whereas members of his family, like many other Jews, remained in Alsace which had been annexed by Germany after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Dreyfus chose to emigrate to France. Dreyfus was victimized by strong anti-semitic sentiment which permeated not only the general public but the military as well. There was also a paranoid hostility toward Germany. Convicted by a secret military tribunal, Dreyfus was spirited off to the grim confines of Devil's Island as its sole prisoner. He was kept incommunicado. His mail was ruthlessly censored; later, even the deliveries ceased. Even after it was apparent he was innocent, the government refused to reverse the verdict. Instead, rather than admit their error, they offered him a pardon, which he accepted in order to avoid being sent back to Devil's Island.
Harris tells his story through the first person narrative of George Picquart, a career army officer. Picquart, like the rest of the military, was anti-semitic and had even had Dreyfus as a student when he taught at the military college. Picquart had all the qualities pointing toward a successful career. His military postings included Algeria and French Indo-China. He was known to be competent, loyal, discreet, and apolitical. Of course he was flattered when the Minister of War and his generals turned to him for candid reports on the progress of the Dreyfus trial. When the incriminating documents suddenly surfaced, they entrusted Picquart to deliver the file in secret to the judges. As a reward, he was promoted to colonel and dispatched to the Intelligence Division (known as the Statistics Group). To his surprise the case continued to be an ongoing obsession of the high command. Dreyfus' wife and brother were both under close surveillance by a variety of paid informants. Dreyfus' mail was censored with unusual harshness. At night Dreyfus was shackled to his bed and not even permitted to communicate with his guards. Picquart reflects: “The tiniest speck of — no, I shall not call it doubt, exactly, let us say curiosity lodges in my mind, and not so much about Dreyfus' guilt as his punishment. Why, I ask myself, do we persist in this absurd and expensive rigmarole of imprisonment, which requires four or five guards to be stranded with him in silence on his tiny island?” (p.71) As he settles into his position, Picquart detects other anomalies. His staff is curiously reserved. Investigating through his own sources, he moves from curiosity to doubt, suspicion, certainty and finally outrage. When he presents his findings to his superiors, their response moves from dissembling to lies to outright threats.
Harris states that he has applied the techniques of a novel to retell a historical event. He is too modest. He has created a dramatization of those events. Each character's physical appearance, mannerisms, motives and pre-occupations are depicted with vivid clarity. He is a master at creating dialogue so convincing we might actually be in the room with Picquart. Here is his conversation with his direct superior, Charles Arthur Gonse, after Picquart exposes the incriminating file as a forgery and argues for Dreyfus' release:
[Gonse]: “Seven judges considered all the evidence. They reached a unanimous verdict. The case is closed.' I shake my head....'The judges only reached a unanimous verdict because of the secret file....' He leans forward, imploring. 'But that's precisely why the integrity of the secret file must be protected at all costs. Suppose we follow your route to this higher ground of yours, and we say to the French people: 'Oh look, Esterhazy wrote the bordereau after all, let's bring back Dreyfus, let's hold some great new trial' — what will happen next? People will want to know how the original judges — all seven of them, mark you — could have got the whole thing so wrong. That will lead straight to the secret file. Some very senior figures are going to be gravely embarrassed. Do you want that? Can you imagine the damage it will do to the reputation of the army?....what does it matter to you if one Jew stays on Devil's Island'” (p.215-216)
Harris does not neglect the political and social backdrop of this story. However, he introduces this material in a way that does not distance us from the very human drama taking place. Dreyfus' plight is described not through intercuts but through the undelivered letters he writes and which Picquart must read in order to report back to the high command. When Picquart reflects on the virulent anti-semitism that coalesces in the public's condemnation of Dreyfus, he adds: “It is as if all the loathing and recrimination bottled up since the defeat of 1870 has found an outlet in a single individual.” (p.22) The alliance France is forging with Russia is alluded to when Picquart's cousin airs his “radical” reservations at a party. When Picquart insists the alliance is necessary to insure France's security, his cousin counters: “'Yes, but what if it's the Russians who fight the Germans and we're the ones who end up getting dragged in?'....[Picquart]: 'It's hard to imagine the scenario in which that might happen.'” (p.193)
Harris has written a vivid account that supplements the many historical explanations leading to World War I and then World War II. His writing brings the characters alive while preserving historical accuracy.
NOTES: Adam Gopnik's article in THE NEW YORKER, Sept. 28, 2009 reviews a different book but is also an essay on the the contemporary relevance of the Dreyfuss Affair: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/200...
There are so many things I loved about PRETTY GIRLS. Where to start? The opening chapters do more than establish the framework of the plot. They shiftThere are so many things I loved about PRETTY GIRLS. Where to start? The opening chapters do more than establish the framework of the plot. They shift in timeline and point of view, creating an ambiguity that immediately draws the reader in. Chapter i. at first feels like a prologue. The disembodied voice of a bereaved father speaks through letters he is writing to his dead daughter Julia. Nineteen year old Julia mysteriously disappeared the night of March 4, 1991. Her inexplicable disappearance, the lack of clues, the lack of urgency in the police investigation (just another runaway...), all culminate in erratic reversals between hope and despair, horror and bewilderment, that destroy the entire family. These letters will be a thread throughout the book and shape an independent narrative of growing tension.
Next, we are introduced to Claire and Paul Scott, married for 18 years and still madly in love. That perfect picture is jarred, however, by a sequence of seemingly unrelated yet puzzling disclosures. The scene is concluded by an abrupt and terrifying act of violence.
Before the reader can process what has just occurred, the scene shifts again. We observe Lydia Delgado, a 41 year old single mother, watching her 17 year old daughter play basketball on the team of an exclusive private school, Westerly Academy. Lydia does not appear the type of woman fits in with this gaggle of well-heeled moms. In fact, she doesn't. She refers to them privately as 'The Mothers' as if they were some sort of alien cult. Lydia has the observant no-nonsense directness one would expect from a woman who manages peoples' pets for a living. She's also a recovering drug addict and single mom. We still don't know the connection between the bereaved father, Claire Scott and Lydia Delgado, but a puzzling thread emerges. Like Claire, Lydia pretends to be disinterested in a sensational news story about a teen-aged girl who has recently disappeared. And, she harbors a barely suppressed bitter rage toward Paul Scott.
I don't want to recap any more of the plot because it's such a perfectly constructed thriller. There are interlocking stories to be followed. A quick succession of unexpected events — “falling dominoes” as Claire calls them — rampage through her formerly safe and comfortable world. It was a world she had devoted her entire life to constructing.
Claire is the kind of woman one would ordinarily hate. She's slim, pretty, married to a doting, charming husband. She's the kind of woman who can afford to pick out $36,000 earrings at Tiffany's for her husband to buy for her birthday. Yet, with decreasing subtlety, inconsistencies appear. Her feelings for Paul are genuine. Almost every object or event triggers a flashback about Paul. When the dizziness that precedes fainting overcomes her, the memory of an earthquake they experienced in Napa fills her mind. She can even imagine Paul's voice as he launches into an extended monologue about seismic loading. That was something else she loved about Paul. He was so smart. And she had chosen him. Yet, the first glimpse we have of Claire is a flirtatious conversation with a bartender while waiting for Paul to arrive. We later learn of a casual affair with Paul's business partner. Flashes of self-awareness pierce her thoughts. Although close to melt-down, she can convincingly assure her mother that she's OK. “Claire had realized a long time ago that if you lie with enough conviction, you can usually fool yourself.” (p.49) We learn that Paul wanted a big family, but they are still childless after all these years. An “inhospitable womb” she explains to Paul after a visit to the doctor. Well, it's not totally a lie. Birth control pills and an IUD are hardly “hospitable” to a pregnancy. Claire also has a dry sense of humor. She leads two investigators through the garage which houses Paul's custom built workbench, a bank of matching storage cabinets, a rec room with flat-screened TV, and, oh yes, the Tesla, a BMW and a Porsche. “' 'Holy shit.' Nolan's tone was reverential. Claire had seen men get harder over Paul's garage than they ever got over a woman.” (p.54) Claire is a complicated person. Encountering Claire, Lydia thinks: “Claire had always held on to secrets like a cat. Was she lying?” (p.151) Claire is tossed between anger, fear, guilt, love and vengeance. No wonder it's hard to interpret her intentions.
The secondary characters are interesting as well. Grandma Ginnie was once a mean opinionated old lady. She hated Paul, not for any character flaw, but because of his wealth, which he tossed around so casually. She once sneered that Lydia must be off drugs since she had gained weight. Now, however, she has slipped into docile dementia. Helen, Claire's mother might strike one as just a fussy retired librarian. In action, though, she displays the same tart wit as her daughter and a feisty assertiveness not to be cowed by a police presence. In later chapters she displays amazing resourcefulness. Through other eyes, we learn of a past that included a long period of depression and withdrawal.
(view spoiler)[The material of thrillers has been heavily mined. The loving manipulative husband with his obsession for neatness reminded me of the husband in the film “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The snuff films reminded me of the Nicolas Cage film “8mm.” Conspiracies are another way to ramp up the tension. And we should not forget the obligatory ticking clock climax. Karin Slaughter carefully pieces all of these fragments together into a multi-layered mosaic. As each layer is revealed, she releases a fresh round of paranoia. (hide spoiler)]
Unlike many thrillers, this book does not suffer from a second reading. The characters are entertaining, and the reader will revel in previously unnoticed details that attest to the author's writing skill. I became thoroughly immersed in this book and if there were improbabilities, I didn't care to notice. This book is one of the selections for an upcoming book club meeting, and I look forward to meeting anyone else who absolutely loved this book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
World War II is a problematic time period for the setting of a novel. With witnesses of the period still living, it hardly feels like a historical setWorld War II is a problematic time period for the setting of a novel. With witnesses of the period still living, it hardly feels like a historical setting. Moreover, the events of the period have been documented already from so many viewpoints. There have been films, memoirs, diaries and novels chronicling loss, narrow escapes, death, and starvation; resistance and collaboration, heroism and indifference are the fulcra of many of these stories. For any book set in this period to succeed it must offer compelling characters, stomach-churning moments of suspense, historical allusions that are both fresh and informative, and a visceral sense of locale. Unlike many other reviewers, I did not find these elements in THE NIGHTINGALE.
The story follows the lives of two main characters, and minor characters are sketched in only in supporting roles. Vianne lives in the countryside of the Loire Valley. In 1940 the area will be part of Vichy France. Vianne is apolitical and even a bit naïve. She had voiced certainty that the Maginot Line would hold. Later, she endorses the delusion that the Vichy government would keep its citizens safe. She had relied on her husband Antoine to make decisions, but now Antoine is in a German prison camp, and a German officer is billeted at her house. Her delusions fall away only gradually. First, the German Army compiles lists of communists, homosexuals and Jews. Then, the non-native persons on the list are expelled. Among these are her closest friend and neighbor Rachel. Finally, all the Jews are deported. Vianne's younger sister Isabelle is only 18 when the war breaks out, and fueled by clandestine nights listening to BBC radio broadcasts at boarding school as well as her own rebellious nature, she is much more attuned to the realities of war. When she is expelled from the boarding school and sent away from Paris by her father, she joins the hordes of refugees fleeing south from the Germans. Her patriotic fervor is further fueled by the bombing and strafing of civilians she witnesses in Tours. She is appalled to find the German officer billeted at Vianne's home and is outspoken and obvious in her disapproval.
Because there are so few characters, much of the plot is predictable. Isabelle joins the French Resistance movement. Frightened for herself and her young daughter Sophie, Vianne tries to maintain a position of neutrality and demands that Isabelle leave. Isabelle returns to Paris to play a more central role in the Resistance. (view spoiler)[ Perhaps I'm just getting old. I found the youthful and plucky Isabelle annoying. Her backstory of abandonment is heavy-handed. Repeatedly, her sense of rebellion and independence are attributed to a succession of events. Her mother died when she was only 4. Her father returned from the Battle of the Somme in World War I a depressed man, and sank quickly into alcoholism. He abandoned his paternal responsibilities and sent Vianne and Isabelle to live with a dour neighbor. Vianne escaped through an early marriage and Isabelle was shuttled to a series of boarding schools. Her motive for joining the Resistance is to achieve a sense of belonging as well as the result of her own rebellious nature, and she seems oblivious to the danger she invites not only to herself but to anyone around her. Her ability to avoid detection seems more a matter of luck than guile.
The story is further marred by intrusive feminist references. The Nazis are initially oblivious to the subversive role women are playing in order to aid the Resistance. Later, they refuse to believe that Isabelle, a mere girl, could be the elusive Nightingale, leading downed Allied pilots to safety over the Pyrenees. It seemed incredible that they would accept at face value the claims of her elderly alcoholic father that he was the heroic guide and had made multiple trips across the rugged Pyrenees. (hide spoiler)]
The insertion of a wartime romance between Isabelle and Gaëtan, another Resistance fighter, was an unnecessary distraction. I found the characters lacking in complexity.
The narrative flows along two timelines, and opens fifty years after the war. An unnamed woman is the first person narrator. Unlike the bulk of the story which takes place in World War II France, this narrative felt intimate and poignant. We learn the woman is a French émigré ambivalent about disclosing her past life in France to her adult son. The son is a surgeon and understands that she has terminal cancer. His solicitous caring is both appreciated and tolerated by this woman of hidden strengths. Because this is the opening chapter, the reader wonders why she has chosen to keep so much of her life hidden. That question is a part of the backbone of the story. At the same time, her stoic refusal to look back, to succumb to either nostalgia or mythologizing, gives her aged character dignity. Each time the story returned to this woman's timeline, I was engaged in her story. The opening paragraph of this book is mesmerizing: “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today's young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.”
I read this book because it was a book club selection, and I would have abandoned it midway without that motivation. The concluding chapter, like the opening chapter is poignant and because of the writing in that timeline, I gave this book 3 rather than 2 stars. However, on the whole this was an unsatisfying read for me. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more