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 “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

51JStdvqDJL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

During the latter half of 2017, Gail Honeyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine gained a lot of attention both in literary circles and mainstream media. Even my boss recommended that I read it. It’s commonplace for new writers to produce fresh, buzz-worthy novels, but I wondered, after reading the book’s description, how it came to resonate so deeply with people. Surely the story of a 30-year-old socially awkward office worker sounds like a Bridget Jones spin-off—something that would read like a light comedy of errors…

Alas, Honeyman offers us something altogether different in her debut. Yes, Ms. Eleanor Oliphant is a painfully well-mannered outcast in the accounts payable department of an ad design agency. She follows the same routine every day—lunchtime crossword puzzles and carefully chosen sandwiches. Same bus route, same outfits, same radio programs.

Eleanor is such a firm narrator that we barely even notice the strangeness of the facts she gives us about her life, like the fact that she’s near fluent in Latin and won prizes for her studies in classics; or that she has burn scars on her face; or that her weekends always kick off with a pizza from her beloved Tesco’s and vodka. Quite a lot of it. Enough to blur the edges of nightmares that haunt her in ways that become clearer as the novel progresses. Enough so that she can handle her weekly conversations with “Mummy,” an emotionally abusive narcissist who did something horrific in Eleanor’s past, though Eleanor protested to know what happened.

Eleanor sticks to her routines without fail until she falls helplessly in love with a musician she sees one night out in Glasgow. She knows nothing about him but firmly believes they are meant to be together and will fall in love once they meet. In preparation for such a meeting, Eleanor embarks on a personal project, deciding to make some (mostly cosmetic) changes, including a cringe-worthy encounter during an appointment to wax her undercarriage…

Slowly but surely, other things in her life begin to change as well. In the nascent days of her newfound love, Eleanor meets Raymond—one of the IT guys in her office. Nearly everything about him repels her; he’s slightly overweight, smokes often, and wears nothing but t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. But what probably would have been a one-time encounter blossoms into an odd friendship after they assist an elderly man named Sammy who stumbles on the street.

Now, the loneliness of Eleanor’s life shifts into days that are sometimes filled with places to go and people to see. Through her conversations with Raymond, Eleanor confirms what the reader has suspected since the beginning—that she has experienced unimaginable abuse at the hands of her mother and her one and only boyfriend, and that the only real social interaction she’s had in her twenties is with social workers and an employee at her local market.

Having a few friends seems to benefit Eleanor, but the darkness of her past lies just beneath the surface of her simply crafted life. The novel—separated into Good Days and Bad Days—takes a sharp turn about halfway through. One moment we are with Eleanor as she’s about to attend one of the rock star’s gigs, the next we find her naked on her kitchen floor with self-induced alcohol poisoning and a display of tools with which she can kill herself.

Such is the range of Honeyman’s staggering book. Readers are endeared to Eleanor’s strange ways from the beginning, maybe even recognizing some of our own tendencies in her. She is awkward—often painfully so—even though she thinks she’s being proper. But she is charming in her way: a lover of animals, books, Tesco’s, and mismatched furniture. We see her transition from a broken person to a recovering one—surrounded by unexpected friendships and caregivers.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a stunning, heartbreaking story of healing that is often darkly funny and full of sharp observations. Honeyman moves her narrative at a steady, digestible pace without missing moments that infuse the text with transcendent bits of introspection in the mind of Eleanor—so much that one cannot help but reread certain passages and covet the new talent springing forth from these pages.

On “The Grandmothers” by Doris Lessing

Even though I have a mountainous stack of library books to get through before I accrue enough fines to bankrupt the Queen of England, I often take great pleasure in reading random short stories or novellas just to change things up. I had not read any of Doris Lessing’s work prior to “The Grandmothers,” and I had no intention of doing so at present…But the version of this short story that I found at my library–published as “Adore” for the 2013 film adaptation–had an image on its cover of gorgeous looking people lying on a wooden platform, floating on a clear, blue body of water.

In the midst of winter, it seemed perfect.

My lack of familiarity with Lessing’s style of writing hindered my enjoyment at the beginning. Her narrative structure took some getting used to, but I really enjoyed the way she transitioned between perspectives throughout the piece. After about 30 pages or so, the mark of her greatness began to reveal itself in the way she was able to navigate several fully formed characters and build a gorgeous setting–something that is really a character in its own right–in just over 100 pages.

The naturalness of her four protagonists–Lil, Roz, Tom, and Ian–rolls off the page in waves. I almost went into a trance reading about their adventures in the sea and sun…And there’s this indelible, deliciously intoxicating image of the boys licking dried sea salt off of their mothers’ skins as children that has stayed with me for days now.

I found there was nothing but beauty in the narrative. The taboo of two older women sleeping with each other’s sons isn’t something I needed to grapple with in order to digest the story Lessing was trying to tell. Ultimately, “The Grandmothers” is seductive, hypnotizing, and deftly executed. If you’re like me and need a break from your regularly scheduled reading, it’s a beautiful distraction.

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.

On “Holding” by Graham Norton

31364727One of my favorite pastimes on days when I cannot concentrate on anything or sleep more than a few hours is to watch The Graham Norton Showa slightly ostentatious, mildly campy chat show that features major Hollywood stars and musicians who go on to talk about their work. Graham Norton, the eponymous show’s host, has a knack for navigating the personalities that settle on his red couch for the evening—expertly pivoting between guests in order to make a cohesive, often hilarious, show.

So when I found out the same Graham Norton was turning his hand to fiction, I was surprised. The solitary act of writing fiction seemed like the antithesis of something Norton would do. But as he explains on the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “Books and Authors,” he has always wanted to write a novel and seized the opportunity when it came along.

After already having written two acclaimed memoirs, So Me (2004) and The Life and Loves of a He Devil (2014), Norton strays from using autobiographical content in his debut novel, Holding, though he does return to his native land to tell the story.

Set in a small Irish town called Duneen near the city of Cork, Holding explores the lives of those lifelong residents who, for one reason or another, find themselves stuck there. Sergeant PJ Collins—the town’s sole police officer—is overweight and has nothing else to do but dispense parking tickets. Brid Riordan, Duneen’s resident alcoholic, will not admit that she has a problem even though her family is slipping away from her. And Evelyn Ross—beautiful and composed—lives with her spinster sisters in their family estate, refusing to abandon each other after their parents’ untimely deaths.

When skeletal remains are discovered at a construction site on the old Burke farm, these three—and the entire town—are thrown into the past. Finally, PJ can put his skills to use; his time to shine. But the police lieutenant from Cork who supervises the case questions his competence, secretly referring to him as “Sergeant Sumo.”

They come to believe that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a boy no one has seen or heard from in twenty-five years. For Brid and Evelyn, the reemergence of Tommy Burke dredges up painful memories. Right before Tommy disappeared, he had been engaged to Brid. He did not love her, which Brid knew, even then; he valued her family’s farmland. But she’s never been able to get past the idea of what her life could have been like with Tommy instead of her husband, Anthony, who looks at her with disgust more often than not.

Evelyn was in love with Tommy and believed he was in love with her as well. For twenty-five years she’s mourned a love that never got the chance to form. She’s lived a half-life instead. Just like Brid. Completely loveless.

Norton’s story hinges around the discovery of a body, but its primary function is to explore the psyches of Duneen’s residents. They wonder what life could have been if things had been different in their youths—if they had only had the chance to leave. If, perhaps, love had come easily for them.

One of Norton’s greatest strengths in Holding is the exploration of solitude as it relates to never attaining love. For his characters, love has been lost, stolen, killed, buried by circumstance, or, quite simply, never found in the first place.

It’s the exact opposite of what people would expect from the public persona Graham Norton puts forth, but this novel exhibits his keen ability to dissect the inner workings of human turmoil. Any reader who is fond of simple little mysteries will enjoy this book. Though Norton’s fans might be hard-pressed to find the entertainer’s personality displayed obviously, they will be able to find his humor in the slight details. It’s well worth a read.

On “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote

Summer_Crossing_SmallMy relationship with Truman Capote and his work has always been harried. There is no doubt that he is one of America’s finest writers; Other Voices, Other Rooms and the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s remain staples of our canon. Even the hotly contested In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece of the “creative non-fiction” genre. But, as Melanie Benjamin explored in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote had a nasty tendency toward exploitation and excess. The infamous “La Cote Basque 1965” is enough to explain just how far he would go for fame and attention if he felt like he was falling into obscurity.

The 2005 Bennett Miller film, Capote, explores the personal tumult the author went through while writing In Cold Blood. It shows a man who tells his subjects what they want to hear in order to get information at the great cost of his self-respect and what would be a huge blow to his friendship with Nelle Harper Lee. The film pays especial attention to Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, which was deeply empathetic. In one scene, he tells Nelle Lee, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Later on, he turns to Nelle again for reassurance after Smith and Hickock are hanged. He asks, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” She responds, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

This is who Truman Capote is in my mind–the man who does whatever he must for the sake of a story–for good or evil. He left behind masterpieces but died a lonely, creatively-stunted alcoholic. A bleak ending for the once shiny, gregarious Southern author.

Like a moth attracted to flame, I picked up Truman Capote’s unpublished first novel, Summer Crossing in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the author’s origins. Before he sold his soul for fame and notoriety. The manuscript–believed to have been thrown away–was rescued by one of Capote’s former landlords and eventually sold at auction. The slim text, which was published by Random House in 2005, is a fascinating display of the young Truman Capote’s keen instincts.

The story concerns Grady O’Neil–the bohemian daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family who decides to stay home while her parents go on a “summer crossing” to Europe. It seems that she has found love with a 23-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn named Clyde Manzer–a condition of secrecy for both parties.

Capote builds their narrative from a series of psychologically adroit sketches: Grady making breakfast for Clyde, burning waffles in the process; the push and pull relationship she has with her childhood best friend, Peter Boyd, who has fallen in love with her; the oppressive, sizzling heat of Manhattan at night–the only time Capote’s characters will safely venture out.

So many of these interactions are marked by Capote’s trademark wit and the dissection of human experience that he wields in his later work. The observations are there even if his sentences show the uncertainty with which he lays out the story. Reading his passages can be exhausting, to the point where I had to imagine myself reading out loud to make sense of some of his more circuitous descriptions. I am happy to note that, in his later work, Capote dropped his incessant use of semi-colons.

The only peculiar element to this story is its abrupt ending. Unlike his other pieces of fiction, Summer Crossing pokes at the surface of dread until the novel’s very last paragraph at which time he plunges his characters right into it. It seems, in that moment, that something in Grady snaps. She is pregnant with Clyde’s child, and they have eloped. What should he a happy time is marred by apprehension and distrust. They go for what would be a normal night out until a moment of tension between Clyde and Peter unnerves her to the point where she speeds her Buick along the Queensboro Bridge with the intention of going off the edge and killing everyone.

Clyde’s friend Gump says something along the lines of, “Slow down! You’ll kill us all.” To which she replies, “I know.”

Summer Crossing could be a commentary on any number of things: the unbridgeable gap between classes; the gentle malaise of the bohemian elite; or, the Great Gatsby-like trope of summer addling the minds of those who have everything to lose.

Or–it could be none of those things.

In my estimation, Capote used this story as an exercise, flexing his muscles for future narratives. The paint strokes of Summer Crossing are apparent in his later work, showing the author as someone who is constantly hyper-aware of nuance in behavior and speech.

For Capote fans, this novel is well worth a read. At a scant 130 pages, readers can digest the story in a matter of hours, though I would recommend reading with care. Capote is a tricky one when it comes to building those pristine sentences of his. One misstep and you could fall down the rabbit hole.