Revisiting “The View From Saturday” by E.L. Konigsburg

viewLast July, Jia Tolentino published a retrospective review of E.L. Konigsburg’s 1996 masterpiece The View From Saturday. Her thoughts on the novel regarding its subtleties and the author’s clear, spare language encouraged me to read the book again. I must have been in 4th or 5th grade when I read it for the first time, slightly younger than the cosmically strange protagonists of the story, and I loved it. The idea of four precociously intelligent 11-year-olds bonded by an indescribable energy fascinated me at the time. Undoubtedly, I believed myself to be just like them, when, in fact, I was no where near as clever or formal.

The four students–Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, aka “the Souls”–represent Mrs. Olinski’s 6th grade academic bowl team. They decimate the competition and find themselves in the finals. No one can understand how these four random students outwitted teams of 7th and 8th graders. Even Mrs. Olinski can’t quite identify what drew her to her team. As the novel progresses, the narrative doubles back on itself with pieces of the story fitting into place as each character’s perspective is told.

As with all good novels, Konigsburg manages to say a lot through very little. She writes cleanly and clearly, but there’s an element of mysticism or magic (sometimes overt) in the way she tells the story. In many ways, the spareness of the book’s sentences convey the preternatural clearsightedness of the children and their ability to understand the things about themselves that those around them cannot.

So many of the details in this story would have been lost on me as a child. I loved the story, and I understood the idea of it. I thought it was perfect at the time. Nevertheless, the deftness of Konigsburg’s writing paired with the intricacies of the story’s plot never would have occurred to me.

When I read it for the first time, I was focused solely on the four kids, wholeheartedly wanting to be them. Mrs. Olinski’s realizations throughout the book didn’t register with me as much as they did when I read it as an adult. Her character seemed perfect, then, and wise. But there’s a moment when she goes to Silington House for the first time and she is overcome by jealousy at the family interactions going on around her. It’s a striking moment of rage that exemplifies just how masterful Konigsburg is as a writer.

On “The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory

proposalOne of my greatest flaws as a reader is loyalty. If I’m unimpressed by an author’s debut novel, I will continue to read the next two or three books they publish just to make sure the first wasn’t a fluke. Such is the case with Jasmine Guillory’s contemporary romance novels. Her first–The Wedding Date–had a handful of standout qualities: one of the romantic leads is a POC, the love scenes are functional if not a little derivative (but that’s to be expected. How original can you get with that sort of thing?), and the plotting is well paced. When I finished it, I thought my lukewarm reception had to do with the fact that I’m not naturally inclined to enjoy romance novels unless they’re of the Nora Ephron variety.

I picked up Guillory’s debut more or less because I enjoy quick reads when I’m in between books that take up a lot of my attention. I decided to read The Proposal out of sheer curiosity–I wanted to see where she would take the interwoven story line. I’ll admit I became invested in the characters enough to want to know what happens to them. If you really loved her debut, then you will certainly love the second book, because she follows The Wedding Date formula to a tee. It was, par for par, exactly the same as the first one, except The Proposal has more of an emphasis on female friendship and the nature of toxic relationships, which I thought was good.

To be clear, Guillory’s writing is not bad, but it is repetitive. Books of this nature tend to follow such a stringent formula that readers have to turn to the nitty-gritty details for substance, and there isn’t a whole lot of that in this book. But I also knew when I picked this book up it was likely to be the same as Guillory’s first, just with different characters. Her focus on diversity within the romance genre is reason enough to read her work, but I guess I was hoping for more? There was a little too much of the “I’ll show you my scars and you show me your scars and we’ll cry about it” kind of thing, but without any nuance or irony.

On the other hand, I think this book was doomed from the beginning in my eyes because I read Josie Silver’s One Day in December just a week or so ago. Boy was that a page-turner. It starts with a life-altering moment that leads to an unalterable series of events–a series of events that the reader cannot help but be invested in completely from the start.

So Silver’s debut was by threshold for acceptability going into this. Ultimately, it doesn’t really mean anything because I know I’m going to read Guillory’s third novel, which is coming out in June. I think the next one will be better than The Proposal because it introduces tension between its central characters at the beginning of the novel rather than near the end as the first two books have done. And since it features the same cast, the reader can expect a nice sense of familiarity. Maybe loyalty isn’t such a flaw after all…

On “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer

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Courtesy of imdb.com

I haven’t kept up with award show season this year, so it was quite a fortuitous surprise that the legendary Glenn Close should win a Golden Globe last night for her performance in Bjorn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolizter’s 2003 novel just as I finished reading it. The film wasn’t a must-see for me, nor was it the reason behind my decision to pick up the book. I chose to read it after listening to BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read” podcast hosted by the inimitable Harriett Gilbert. Comedian Lolly Adefope picked The Wife as her good read for the segment.

While reading the novel–the first I’ve read by Wolitzer–I was struck by the timelessness of the story and the bare-bones truth of its central theme: everybody wants a wife. In the book, Joan Castleman–the wife of literary superstar, Joe Castleman–has decided she is going to end her marriage after four decades. From the beginning, the reader understands how unhappy Joan is. The source of her deep-seeded resentment is revealed over time.

Joe has just won a prestigious award bestowed by the Finnish equivalent of the Academy of Arts and Letters, though, as Joan points out, it is not as prestigious as the award the Swedes hand out every year. This grand fete thrown in Joe’s honor pushes Joan to the end of her rope, causing her to look back on the course of their relationship and the events that let them to the present.

Joan expresses the sentiment that everyone must want a wife because she has done everything for Joe over the course of their marriage, and in return he has done nothing. He is childish, preening, and mildly stupid. How does this type of man publish such great work? We can suspect what the real source of his success is from the beginning. But even when Joan reveals the truth, readers will be shocked.

Wolitzer is a master of layering her narrative and moving back and forth through time. She renders, in perfect detail, the minutiae of the Castlemans’ failed marriage, getting to the heart of the ways in which men leech power from those who support them.

Ottessa Moshfegh Celebrates the Weird in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’

my-year-of-rest-and-relaxation-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Ottessa Moshfesh has distinguished herself as one of the most accomplished writers of this century. Her novel Eileen and the short story collection Homesick for Another World showcase her natural affinity for the weird. Moshfegh’s latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is no exception.

The story is told through an unnamed narrator who we learn is a beautiful, wealthy young woman, orphaned several years prior to the events of the book. She has all the fixings of a comfortable life among the Manhattan milieu of which she’s a part, but in reality, she has only one goal: to sleep for one year. More than sleep, she wants to completely shut off all conscious thought. She quits her job, squares away her finances, and prepares to remove herself from society.

After locating the worst psychiatrist known to man, she gluts herself on an impressive cocktail of psycho-pharmaceuticals to achieve her utopia of complete withdrawal. Unfortunately, the master plan isn’t quite foolproof. Reva, the narrator’s friend since college, visits regularly looking to confide in the narrator and jealously muse over the wealth and beauty she herself does not possess. The narrator observes Reva as something of a circus side-show, bearing witness to her problems while also judging her for her vacuity and resenting her presence.

As the novel progresses, the narrator realizes even the powerful drugs she consumes aren’t enough to erase certain memories and urges. She remembers the aloofness of her parents and their eventual deaths, her father’s by cancer and her mother’s by suicide. And she remembers the degrading relationship she maintained with an older man named Trevor who treated her poorly, but whom she still calls in drug-fueled blackouts. The narrator views these memories unsentimentally, though they irk her for their incessancy. She relies on the final tool in her arsenal—a drug that blacks her out for days at a time—finally putting an end to the thing in her for which she has no name: grief.

Moshfegh’s deft and humorous account of the narrator’s quest for rest and relaxation explores the ways in which we mourn and preserve ourselves in the face of immense sorrow. The misanthropic malaise evidenced in the narrator’s need for oblivion parallels our modern collective urge—the atavistic impulse—to withdraw from a society that requires our digital presence at all times. We also see the stirrings of late-capitalist criticism in the way the narrator vivisects her own entitlement, beauty, and luxury, Reva’s need for entitlement, glamour and wealth, along with society’s exploitation of art for commercial gain. In this way, Moshfegh presents the malignancy plaguing her narrator as something both personal and communal. Even if the events of the novel take place nearly twenty years ago—in the months leading up to 9/11—the themes Moshfegh expresses are strikingly relevant.

Moshfegh builds this story with her trademark wit and precision along with an unflagging sense of the hilarity in being weird.

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.