Claire Fuller’s ‘Bitter Orange’ Is A Haunting, Cerebral Tale of Isolation

bitter-orange-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Claire Fuller‘s eerie new novel Bitter Orange comprises a heady mix of isolation, paranoia, guilt, and a hint of gothic when a troubled couple and a lonely, middle-aged woman are hired to survey the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Lyntons in the English countryside. The novel begins 20 years after the summer of 1969 and the events of the novel’s main narrative. Frances Jellico, a bookish spinster, recalls this brief period from a hospital bed where she will soon die. The vicar who sits by her side knew Frances and the couple, Cara and Peter, during that time. He seeks answers to a question that develops early in the novel: Why did Frances do it?

From her attic room at Lyntons, Frances initially dives into her work. She spent years caring for her ailing mother after her father left. Her mother’s recent death gives her a newfound freedom. But when Frances meets Cara and Peter, she becomes enmeshed in their mysterious world. For Cara, Frances is a person with whom she can share the story of her past without the fear of Peter’s judgment. She is beautiful and close to nature as well as capricious and superstitious — an Irish woman from a Protestant family raised Catholic who believes she became pregnant through divine intervention. Frances listens closely to the story of how she met Peter and this holy child with fascination. She knows it cannot be true — that details of Cara’s story must be fabricated. But it enthralls her.

Peter, on the other hand, understands Frances as a practical woman and seems to be drawn to what he sees as stability. He asks her to keep an eye out for Cara who he suggests is mentally unable due to the loss of her baby. He resents her superstitions, her wild storytelling, and her desire for more than he can give. He will not divorce the wife who gets most of his money, so he and Cara are left in limbo, traveling from place to place.

Frances relishes the approval and attention she receives from both of them. But the cracks in the idyll they’ve made for themselves slowly expand, morphing their friendship into something subtly malignant. Fuller incorporates elements of suspense and mystery with the gothic dread that inherent to the English manor house. It is the house’s presence as its own character that drives the tension between the trio. Sinister objects, glimpses of faces in windows, and the air of decrepitude that surrounds them moves the narrative arch to its horrific ending.

A novel of this nature — one that rests upon the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator as she attempts to remember and navigate the threads of a tenuous, complex relationship — would likely have fallen flat in the hands of a writer less in command of this story. Fuller uses the full scope of her ability in to weave a tale of betrayal, guilt, and the decay of paradise, in the process making it a story that fits squarely into the era it portrays while also acting as an outlier with its sinister overtones.

Just as they say the revolutionary summer of 1969 ended with the murder of Sharon Tate, so too does Frances Jellico’s brief, happy summer.

Robert Rorke’s Debut Novel ‘Car Trouble’ Is a Poignant Coming-Of-Age Story

robert-rorke-car-trouble-review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Robert Rorke‘s debut novel Car Trouble brings us back to 1970s Brooklyn—a pre-gentrified bastion of the working class that would not be considered fashionable for at least another 30 years. For Nicky Flynn, a Flatbush teenager from a large Irish Catholic family, the 1970s means more than the shifting social and political mores of the time. In the Flynn household, Nicky’s only concern is Himself—the drunken, occasionally abusive, old-fashioned racist he gets to call dad.

Patrick Flynn’s alcoholism defines much of Nicky’s adolescence. He, his mother, and his four sisters are hyper-aware of their father’s behavior at all times, always picking up on the way his eyes get glassy and his gait staggers slightly when he’s had a few too many, and perpetually holding back comments that might send his backhand their way. Nothing in Patrick Flynn’s life is spared the fallout from his disease. The only consistency Nicky observes in his father over the years is the slew of cars Himself brings home—one jalopy after another bought at NYPD auction. Each vehicle—one more garish and impractical than the last—provides his life with a veneer of glamour, however fleeting and marred by hardship. From Nicky’s perspective, each car is a milestone in his adolescence. New cars, new experiences. Good and bad. Terrifying and joyful.

I read the book’s back cover and initially got the impression that I wouldn’t like it. It’s a safe bet that anything to do with cars won’t be my cup of tea. Also, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a novel with this setting — a parade of muscle cars — to rely heavily, if not solely, upon nostalgia to carry the story’s coming-of-age narrative. But Rorke is a much better writer than that.

The overarching theme of the car as a symbol and unifying element of Nicky Flynn’s adolescence falls to the wayside as the novel progresses. At times I forgot about the cars as the descriptions of his father’s vehicles and the experiences he’s had in them take a back seat to the family dynamic that breathes life into Car Trouble.

As a narrator, Nicky is clear-eyed and levelheaded when recounting the tales of his youth. We see moments of compassion, rage, confusion, and fear filter through his composure, which, combined with his family’s resilience, offsets his father’s destruction.

That resilience from Nicky, his sisters, and especially his mother is the most poignant and moving part of Rorke’s novel. Despite the never-ending calamity that follows Himself like a shadow, Mrs. Flynn and the children form a protective barrier around him that is borne from love, fear, and self-preservation. If they don’t keep moving forward, the earth will fall out from beneath them.

It is this quiet efficiency that builds the backbone of Car TroubleEven as Nicky struggles to find himself and nurture his newfound talents, the reader cannot help but notice that, like most all teenagers, his identity is still wrapped in his family’s identity. Being a part of that efficiency is like being in a group of unsung heroes, and for better or worse, it is the springboard off which he becomes himself.

Much like Colm Tóibín‘s  Brooklyn, Car Trouble is an impressive novel that captures the essence of an era without fanfare or sacrificing the craftsmanship of a good story. It is refreshing, cathartic, and thoroughly readable.

Family Secrets Unravel in Liz Nugent’s ‘Lying in Wait’

Lying-in-Wait-Liz-Nugent-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Liz Nugent‘s latest novel Lying in Wait is a masterclass in dissecting the ripple effects of murder. In the fall of 1980, Annie Doyle is murdered by a wealthy Dublin couple. We know the how, the where, and the why early in the novel. These driving murder mystery elements play no role in this story. Instead of pursuing a breadcrumb narrative to and ending of truth and resolution, Nugent makes the reader an omniscient observer — presenting all the details of this sordid tale through the perspectives of three separate characters. In doing so, we, the voyeurs, must watch in horror as Annie’s death leads to a lifetime of poison and malice for all those who remain living.

Annie’s murderers — Andrew and Lydia Fitzsimmons — avoid suspicion by wielding their wealth and social status as a shield. Nobody would suspect an upstanding judge and his pretty, unassuming wife in the death of a junkie prostitute, but a few key details catch the attention of one astute detective and the Fitzsimmons 18-year-old son, Laurence. Lydia, incapable of empathizing with anyone outside her class feels little remorse over her role in the murder and attempts to shade over her crime as an unfortunate mishap that Annie was asking for by virtue of her status as a guttersnipe.

Andrew, on the other hand, does not deal well with his crime. Who knew a history of angry outbursts would lead to him strangling a woman he hired to carry his baby so Lydia could finally have another child? On top of his business partner running away with the family money, the guilt becomes too much to bear. Meanwhile, Laurence is piecing together the events of that night and comes to the realization of what he believes to be solely Andrew’s crime. Their already strained relationship becomes further damaged as the mounting anxiety and disdain begin to seep into every aspect of their lives.

Fast forward to five years later. Andrew is dead. He made it only six weeks after the murder before having a heart attack. Laurence is still obese and subdued — resigned to covering up his father’s crime, which his mother now knows he’s aware of. Lydia — the darkest and most sinister character in Nugent’s story slowly reveals more about her past. Her killing blow to Annie’s head wasn’t her only act of violence, and that act has left her in a limbo between perpetual childhood and suffering motherhood. Even as Laurence makes attempts at living an independent life, Lydia’s relationship with him grows ever more toxic and dependent.

It seems like they’ve struck a hopeful balance when Laurence find work as a government employee and begins dating a mousy young woman named Bridget. It isn’t love, but Laurence is relatively content even though the shadow of Annie Doyle, and his obsession with her, still covers life like a veil. When he meets Gerry Doyle, the insidious notions of class and wealth passed on to him by Andrew and Lydia begin to recede. Gerry separated from his wife after Annie’s disappearance, blaming him for her broken life. When she was a teenager, Annie became pregnant. Gerry sent her to a mother and daughter home — a notorious institution run by the Catholic Church where women are renamed, forced to perform manual labor, and eventually give up their children. Unable to escape those years of her life, Annie fell into drug and alcohol abuse.

Annie family never stopped hoping for her return. Especially her sister, Karen — the ultimate link between past and future. But the cops never do much to investigate, and they’re told to simply move on. Karen marries young, and works in a dry cleaner until she’s discovered by a modeling scout who’s son was none other than the detective who had suspicions about Andrew Fitzsimmons five years prior. Through her, she learns that Annie is most certainly dead, which sends her on a mission to find the killer.

When Laurence meets her, past, present, and future are set in motion towards one of the most twisted endings to ever grace the pages of a thriller. Nugent paces each character’s narrative to a steady rhythm of dread, misplaced trust and rage. Laurence, Karen and Lydia inch closer and closer to each other, drawn inexorably towards a cataclysmic end.

But Nugent isn’t solely interested in the ways a murder can bend the course of events over time. Lying in Wait also bears the mark of Ireland’s troubled history of shaming women in the name of religion, fostering a culture of abuse by men and those in power, and the way undesirable members of society are subjugated into silence.  Annie, who falls prey to these forces, avenges the atrocities of her life in death.

Unfortunately, not all is redeemed, and in the end, we find the cycle has continued.

Jeanne McCulloch’s Riveting Debut ‘All Happy Families’ Hits Home

all happy familiesThis paid review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jeanne McCulloch‘s poignant debut memoir, All Happy Families, examines the precarious nature of familial life and love in the wake of her father’s fatal stroke on the eve of her 1983 wedding. The family’s excitement suddenly shifts into a haze of shock and numbness, but there is never any question about the wedding continuing as planned. Jeanne’s imperious mother, Pat, has only one instruction for the hospital on the morning of August 13: “If anything happens to my husband this evening, do not call this house. We cannot be disturbed…We are having a party.”

McCulloch hones in on dialogue like this and connects it to past and future moments throughout the narrative, deftly exploring the incidents that stem from that day in August. She chronicles the ripple effect of her father’s death without judgment, moving from her childhood on Park Avenue and her father’s descent into alcoholism to the courtship between her and her husband, Dean, and the tentative position she holds within his family.

If McCulloch’s memoir could be defined by any one line or moment, it would come from something her mother says during a hurricane season while the family is living in their Hamptons vacation home — a place that exists as its own character in the narrative. She says: “We live on such a perilous dune. All of this could just go, like that.”

Not only does Pat’s simple observation pinpoint the all-encompassing fact of our transience as human beings, but also the small ways in which love and the halcyon days of youth morph over time.  McCulloch points to the happy moments of her childhood when her father, John — an immensely wealthy hyperpolyglot — would take his daughters on trips all over the world, a chance for him to practice one of his many languages; or days after school when she and her sisters would style his hair into outrageous designs while watching sitcoms that would make him snort with laughter.

Looking back, though, McCulloch recognizes that her father was at the beginning of a steady decline as his dependence on alcohol worsens. Even the childhood stories John made up for his children featured an octopus named Franklin who frequents a bar and orders drinks for all eight tentacles. Nevertheless, the lucidity and precision with which the author recollects her past and deconstructs the multiple perspectives that layer each remembered encounter successfully avoids the hyper-sentimentality that often accompanies similar stories.

Yet it isn’t entirely clinical, either. There are moments when I wonder what she’s thinking or how she manages to keep herself together or she’s communicating with her husband during certain scenes since she positions herself as an observer in almost all situations, but she never dips into self-indulgence — everything pieces into the atmospheric and thematic prose that she’s weaved together. Best of all, the text never lacks for humor and grace in the midst of bad circumstance.

With spare and economical writing, she elucidates the ways in which the “perilous dune” crumbles. Whether we want it to or not. The point — which she gets at without making too much of a fuss–is that people go on anyway. Because that’s what life is.

A House of Mirrors: On Jane Delury’s ‘The Balcony’

balconyThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jane Delury‘s debut collection of short stories is a heady, atmospheric exploration of the comings and goings of a manor house in the French countryside. Set in the fictional town of Benneville, The Balcony weaves together the lives of those connected to the fabled Lèger mansion and its spectral grounds. Delury’s stories are not ghost stories, but they concern the lives of ghosts. From the Belle Époque to the present day, those who have touched the house remain tied to it in often inexplicable ways.

Each of the stories in this collection moves back and forth through time, but are placed in such a way that the reader discovers new information as they read; threads fall into place connecting people and places from one tale to the next. Some of the events that take place in Benneville and the mansion connect to larger tragedies–World War II and the Holocaust, the stigma of unwed motherhood, a sunken oil tanker in the Bay of Biscay.

But Delury’s finest exhibitions of craft exist in her depiction of the small tragedies within that broad scope: The lady of the house, once renowned for her sensuality and beauty, jumps from her balcony, making one last show for the young worker who is enamored with her; the sidelong glances that almost lead to affairs; the playing ground of young lovers.

Delury makes an admirable attempt to string the details of each story into a sustainable whole, and while many of The Balcony’s moments are beautifully done, the finished product doesn’t live up to the book’s ambitions.

The most important elements of the short story rely on what isn’t said — not so much a painting as a piece of wood whittled down to its most essential parts. Thematically, the book is cohesive: often dark in tone, its characters usually out of place or maladjusted in some way. Everyone has one foot firmly stuck in Benneville, and I think this conceit is what puts me off as a reader. I kicked this year off by reading Maryse Meijer‘s Heartbreaker, and it ultimately spoiled me on the short story front. Each story in that collection was fundamentally different from the next, but the sweeping darkness and yearning of the work as a whole made it completely unforgettable.

Delury relies much too heavily on the manor house and Benneville as connective tissue. There are hints of the fantastic, as in “Eclipse” when the story of a character’s suicide ends with her husband wandering the manor’s grounds during a solar eclipse. But the imagery that accompanies it does little to suit the potential richness of such a plot device, a recurring pitfall. She writes,

He called out again for his wife, louder this time, and continued through the courtyard, past the topiary, toward the rose garden. Something sharp grazed his heel. He cursed but didn’t stop. Behind the pergola, a wall of bushes grew at his side, barbed and shapeless, as if they had never been trimmed.

That is how “Eclipse” ends. This type of heavy-handed metaphor appears fairly frequently, but Delury sprinkles enough pretty lines throughout the book that the reader can sometimes forget that the prose too often plods along. The stories would have come across better had the writing been sharper across the board, but I suspect this is a matter of personal preference. I, for one, need good sentences to go along with my broody characters and French manor houses.

A collection of short stories that has the type of conceit that The Balcony does should delve more deeply into the unknown, touching on more than the varying shapes of tragedy. Delury hints at the unknown, occasionally building the sinister into the details of the house and its grounds, but it isn’t enough to mark the book as a worthwhile achievement. Quite simply, I wanted more.

All in all, reading The Balcony was an okay experience. I don’t believe it accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it is generally entertaining and quick to read. It will also help you brush up on your elementary school French, which could be a win for those of us who actually speak a lick of it. A.k.a., not me.

 

On “Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

9780399562471This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

At least once a month for the past couple years, I’ve entered Goodreads giveaways to no avail. I expected nothing different when I requested an advanced copy of Jojo Moyes‘ final installment in the Me Before You trilogy, Still Me.

I was sad to hear that Louisa Clark’s story would be coming to an end, but nonetheless eager to see how her story would unfold in New York City. As luck would have it, I finally won. It doesn’t escape me that this will probably be the last thing in my life that I win (unluckiest girl in the world, at your service!)…but I’m happy my one-time good fortune brought me this book.

This is an ARC review of Jojo Moyes’ Still Me, which releases January 30, 2018.

*Special thanks to Penguin for allowing us to read and review ahead of publication.

In Still Me, we find Louisa beginning her new job in New York after a whirlwind two years back in England. She met and fell in love with Will Trainor, who ultimately decided to take his own life in Me Before You, and she learns to pick up the pieces of her life in After You — finding solace and companionship with Will’s daughter, Lily, and Ambulance Sam, a new romantic interest.

Just as Lou is getting comfortable with her life, she gets a job offer from her friend, Nathan, who helped with Will’s physical therapy. Leaving behind her newfound love and friendships, Louisa has become a companion once again. This time to the second Mrs. Gopnik — the much younger Polish wife of one of New York City’s richest men. Not only must she adjust to a new country, Lou must also adapt her worldview to include the unparalleled wealth of old New York money.

But it turns out New York City is exactly Lou’s kind of place. The sights, sounds, and endless diversity of the bustling streets around her swiftly become home, changing her in ways she does not realize. Her service to Mrs. Gopnik is not quite as simple, however. Even though Agnes is a vivacious, outspoken, and funny woman, she is deeply unhappy in the elite world she has married into. The first Mrs. Gopnik’s cronies are loyal until death and refuse to acknowledge Agnes as a suitable or worthy counterpart. Despite her best efforts, social events are always a trial, and Lou becomes obligated to attend in the guise of friendship.

It becomes clear that Mrs. Gopnik might be hiding something. But despite the warning she receives from Nathan and the Gopnik’s housekeeper, Ilaria, Lou believes she and Agnes are friends. In a whirlwind twist of events, this turns out to be her greatest mistake.

In the meantime, Lou must attempt to maintain a long-distance relationship with Sam as it becomes progressively more difficult to keep their still new love alive. Jealousy and mistrust mar the rare occasions that they can see and speak to each other. And to top it all off, Lou’s life is turned awry when she meets a man who looks exactly like Will Trainor–a well-off corporate striver whose ambition lets nothing get in his way.

Moyes’ effortless storytelling ability does not falter in the final portion of Lou’s story. She perfectly bends the arch of her “coming-of-age” into its natural conclusion without forcing any inorganic plotlines. I had almost forgotten how much I admired Lou’s tenacity and optimism from the previous novels, but Moyes brings her best qualities back into focus from page one.

Despite some flaws in the galley proof and minor plot discrepancies, Still Me is a fantastic conclusion to Louisa Clark’s story that will have you laughing and crying almost at once as we finally see her come into her own.

On Jennifer Haupt’s “In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills”

513m5AoY97LThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jennifer Haupt‘s debut novel In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills tackles heavy subject matter of both the personal and political. It is just as much a story about the large-scale brutality of the Rwandan genocide and the Civil Rights movement as it is about the smaller tragedies of the family unit. The multiple-point-of-view narrative Haupt builds is an all-encompassing tale of love, loss, family, and the horrors of war.

The novel begins with Rachel Shepherd, a 33-year-old bartender, who desperately wants to find out what happened to her father, Henry Shepherd. He left the family when Rachel was eight. For many years she thought that Henry—now a famous photographer—had not bothered to make contact with her at all throughout her childhood and young adulthood. She comes to find, however, that things were not as they seemed. Her mother, Merilee, has just died from cancer, and, on her deathbed, suggests that Henry may have tried to reach out to young Rachel after all. Her jealousy over the bond Henry and Rachel shared, as well as Henry’s constant traveling, made Merilee resentful.

Now, some twenty-five years later, Rachel discovers a treasure trove of postcards Henry had sent to her over the years hidden inside a box Merilee left Rachel after she died. She needs to know more about him, especially since her marriage is crumbling and everything rests on the birth of her baby girl.

Halfway across the world, a woman named Lillian Carlson is running an orphanage in Rwanda for children who have lost their families in the war. She, too, is coping with the loss of Henry Shepherd with whom she’s had an intimate relationship since she was a young woman. For years, Henry had been a constant in her life until he moved to London permanently, effectively abandoning another family.

Rachel reaches out to her with the hope that she will be able to give her some information about Henry and help her get closure for the sake of her own family. From that moment on, the lives of these two women and their allies are bound together by the presence/absence of Henry Shepherd.

Haupt does an excellent job of building a sound narrative driven by the voices of well-developed characters. Their introspection provides moments of profound insight and clarity, exhibiting their greatest passions and vulnerabilities. Though the transition between these multiple perspectives is not always smooth, the plotting of each moment—and the shifting back and forth between time periods—appears effortless for Haupt.

I highly recommend In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills for a story that moves seamlessly through eras, countries, and heartbreaks without breaking stride. It is beautiful, poignant, and immensely readable.