Casey McQuiston’s ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ Is A Summer TBR Essential

Red-White-Royal-Blue-Casey-McQuiston-Review-1This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In the acknowledgments section of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White & Royal Blue, the author cites (among many things) Mitski’s “Texas Reznikoff” as a source of inspiration. This song—the kickoff track to Bury Me at Makeout Creek—distills the purest elements of McQuiston’s book: “But I’ve been anywhere and it’s not what I want / I wanna be still with you,” lilting and melancholic in its longing, then giving way to a raucous closing verse. It is a sketch that captures the niche every pair of lovers hopes to find, a secret place where they can “keep their socks on in bed.” Something ridiculous and hopeful like that.

Red, White & Royal Blue can claim all the above-used adjectives: pure, raucous, melancholic, ridiculous and hopeful. With it, McQuiston has given us an uproariously funny and beautifully crafted romantic comedy which also serves as a no-holds-barred indulgence for what could have been if the events of 2016 had happened differently.

Alex Claremont-Díaz, son of the United States’ first female president (yes, it takes us there), has only ever wanted to pursue a career in politics. His manic high energy and fierce intelligence charm everyone, making a name for himself as a man about town and a member of the White House trio—a formidable triptych consisting of Alex; his sister June, a budding journalist; and Nora, their best friend/Veep granddaughter/wunderkind of data analysis. Media outlets hail them as the pinnacle of high-achievement and effortless cool—the who’s who of millennial success. Everyone wants to know them.

Despite the constant press attention and the pressures associated with being a part of the First Family, Alex has no intention of slowing down or avoiding the limelight. Ambition reigns supreme until he reaches his goals. After graduation from George Washington University and a much-coveted stint on his mother’s re-election campaign, it’s upward and onward for the handsome, bold-as-brass twenty-two-year-old. Until, of course, it isn’t.

An invitation to the British royal wedding leads to a run-in with Alex’s arch-nemesis, Prince Henry of Wales, and everything goes up in flames. Upending a $75,000 wedding cake tends to piss off a lot of people, and in the midst of another election cycle, the potential for Revolutionary War Part II could prove disastrous at a time when all parties involved are under constant scrutiny. Until things blow over, the two must pretend to be best friends. Charity events, Wimbledon, polo matches: the goal is to make this one colossal mishap look like a misunderstanding.

What begins as mutual disdain—or what Alex believes to be mutual disdain—begins to give way to something inscrutable. Their charade (miracle of miracles!) turns into real friendship. Henry is not the “stuck-up product of inbreeding” Alex believed him to be. But when everything in Alex’s life can be analyzed, memorized and filed away for future use, the fact he is unable to parse his feelings towards Henry is troubling.

When the trio hosts their New Year’s Eve gala, the flood gates open. Henry kisses Alex, and, like the most banal eureka moment of all time, Alex realizes the “prickling, unsettling annoyance” he felt all these years was actually longing. The relationship that develops between Alex and Henry invites all manner of calamity, essentially sealing their death warrants if anyone were to find out. What they have grows in pitch and fervor over eight months.

The stumbling, ebullient thrill of the new comes accompanied with the disorienting levels of obsession that so easily expel all rational and cohesive thought for the sake of endless cataloging. The inexplicable shock to the system that transforms lovers into seasoned archivists: every inch of flesh, every breathing pattern, every embarrassing tic, every sour mood—all collected in a whirl of sensory overload. Then, as the pressure surrounding their circumstances builds even greater, it shifts to the incandescence of a love like sleep, as John Green famously described it—something that happens slowly, and then all at once. Despite their best efforts, Alex and Henry cannot quit each other, and what starts as a fling turns into unadulterated devotion.

The tricky part of any novel such as this is moving past the romantic bits. So many of them end with the lovers coming together after a game of cat and mouse, but such is not the case for these two. The latter third of the book exemplifies McQuiston’s true prowess as she reveals Alex and Henry to themselves and to us as readers when they are forced to decide whether or not they can pursue their relationship.

Can the half-Mexican son of the first female president go public with such a relationship without destroying his parents’ political careers as well as ending his own nascent ambitions? More pressingly, can Henry unshackle himself from the pillory of monarchic tradition and allow himself happiness?

McQuiston delves into all this and more while remaining pitch-perfect in her balance of comedy and emotional turmoil throughout the novel. Her command of character development, plot pacing and narrative give the impression of a writer who has several novels under their belt rather than one. The fact that this book has caught on like wildfire is testament enough to her abilities.

Despite my initial reservations upon reading the book’s description, this novel never feels like wishful thinking, though many might suggest the imaginative haven McQuiston creates is just that. It is certainly something to retreat into when everything seems so existentially bad all the time. Yes, it is, at its core, a gooey, queer love story, full of foul-mouthed Texans and icy monarchs and millennial jargon, but this re-imagining of what could have been can just as easily foment a desire for real change in some unsuspecting reader.

It goes without saying that the concepts of “dissent” and “resistance” should extend beyond the use of the words themselves in casual conversation. McQuiston’s goal with this novel was certainly one of comfort. Of course. Surely we needed it. But Alex and Henry were able to obtain freedom for themselves through action and the support of a close-knit community, so the idea at the heart of this book—that those in a state of precarity can eschew the restraints of political and social tradition for what is actually moral—can inspire the movement from vision to reality. Like the final verse of “Texas Reznikoff”, such freedom is their raucous exit music, something demanding to be heard.

 

Richard Roper Delivers A Funny, Heartwarming Debut With ‘How Not to Die Alone’

Richard-Roper-How-Not-to-Die-AloneThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In  How Not to Die AloneRichard Roper explores loneliness and isolation as a modern phenomenon from the perspective of a man in pursuit of his own happiness. Fascinated by a news piece about government agencies responsible for burying those who die alone, Roper tells this story from one such government employee named Andrew—a 42-year old who spends day in and day out bearing witness to the lives of the poor and lonely. Some of the people Andrew deals with have been dead for months before anyone realizes, and those who come around afterward claiming to be friends of the deceased are often opportunists hoping to stake a claim on anything they might have left behind.

Every year his department sees an increase in these lonely deaths, but no one is worried about Andrew. Everyone knows he has a wife and kids to go home to every night…at least that’s what they believe. For five years, Andrew’s been harboring a secret. A misunderstanding during the interview for his position becomes the lie that he’s too embarrassed to rectify. When his boss suggests the department staff bond by visiting each other’s houses for dinner, Andrew is faced with the weight of his lie and the mortification that will come when people find out he doesn’t actually have a family. The wife and kids he made up in his interview don’t actually exist.

Over time, he creates intimate details about his imaginary family, creating endless fabrications about who they are as individuals and the goings on of their daily activities. Allowing himself to fall into that world is a comfort, one that bars him from the reality of his life. The relationship with his only living relative—his sister, Sally—is strained at best. She feels obligated to call him every few months out of guilt over their shared past and a trauma that she has never been able to help Andrew get over—a trauma he refuses to address, but which he is triggered by often. When Sally dies, he’s forced to contend with her leftover guilt and the ways in which he never allowed himself to open up to her.

It’s the constant proximity to the reality of living life alone that forces Andrew to take comfort in the little things he places around himself as a shield—his nonexistent family, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and his model train collection. The only substantive personal interaction he has on a daily basis is with the other model train enthusiasts he chats with on an online forum. Such is Andrew’s life until Peggy comes along.

Peggy is funny and genuinely warmhearted. She tries to comfort Andrew after Sally dies, even as she struggles with the tragedy of their work and her own marital problems; she befriends him even when he makes doing so difficult. Interacting with others is difficult for him, but he soon realizes that it’s easy to talk to Peggy. They develop a routine—house inspections together and lunch at the pub on Fridays. Like a brick to the face, he comes to understand one day that he’s made a friend.

But how can he be a friend? Peggy is honest with him, and Andrew continues to hide from his past and has yet to reveal the hoax that is his family.

Roper’s efforts in this novel are often genuinely warmhearted and funny, especially in its first several chapters. The flashback to Andrew’s interview—and a handful of his other foibles—are laugh-out-loud funny. As a non-fiction editor by trade, Roper has a grasp of economical writing and tells the story with spot-on pacing. As the story progresses, some elements of the story come across as haphazard and hastily drawn within the narrative, e.g. the feud with his brother-in-law and his somewhat relentless obsession with quirkiness. Regarding the latter point—quirkiness is fine. Lovable even. But relying too heavily on, say, Andrew’s obsession with Ella Fitzgerald or his love for model trains—while ultimately essential to the plot—become affected rather than naturally occurring.

Fans of Gail Honeyman‘s wonderful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will find more than a few similarities with How Not to Die Alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roper drew inspiration from Honeyman’s debut, which was a massive success in the UK before hitting shelves here. His efforts are admirable, and a lot of the narrative’s shortcomings are made up for in dialogue and wittiness, but the finesse and the distillation of these novels’ major themes—loneliness, isolation, and the means by which we open ourselves to friendship—is exemplified more wholly in Honeyman’s Eleanor than it is in Roper’s Andrew.

All that being said, How Not to Die Alone is still a nicely done novel that successfully explores the tragic reality of people spending the final years of their life alone. While it doesn’t delve too far into the wider causes of this increasing likelihood—Roper choosing to focus on Andrew’s personal struggles—the topic is done some modicum of justice.

Melissa Rivero Explores the Immigrant Experience in Her Debut Novel ‘The Affairs of the Falcóns’

Melissa-Rivero-The-Affair-of-the-Falcons-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.

The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.

Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?

Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.

In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.

Ruth Ware Meets Paula Hawkins in Lucy Foley’s ‘The Hunting Party’

The Hunting Party Lucy Foley Book Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

What happens when a group of friends travels to a remote estate in the Scottish Highlands for New Years? One would hope for an opportunity to catch up—to reminisce about old times and rekindle the connections that are becoming more tenuous as the years pass. Eight friends whose shared history encompasses more than a decade should be enjoying an exciting and carefree annual holiday. But the idyllic getaway they signed up for almost immediately takes a turn for the sinister as the group’s fault lines begin to shift, revealing irreparable damage just beneath their veneer of perfection.

Lucy Foley takes her cue from the Agatha Christie playbook in her fourth novel, The Hunting Party. We know from the beginning someone ends up dead. Who is the victim? And who among the handful of people staying at this remote lodge could have done it? Among the group of friends, there is the center: Miranda. She is the sun around which everyone orbits, and we quickly learn that she wields a certain amount of power over the others. There is Miranda’s distant husband, Julien; Bo and Nick, the perfect couple; Samira and Giles, new parents to an infant daughter; Mark, who is prone to violent outbursts; Mark’s girlfriend, Emma, the newcomer; and Katie, the shy, illusive watcher. The only other people present are the lodge manager, Heather, and the gamekeeper, Doug — both isolating themselves from the outside world as well as a strange Icelandic couple who show a little too much interest in the gore of hunting.

Like the best mystery writers, Foley reveals over time the circumstances leading up to the victim’s death, dropping breadcrumbs and peeling back layers as she moves back and forth through time in the narrative, which is told from the perspective of five characters: Heather, Doug, Miranda, Katie, and Emma. Geographically isolated and trapped by snow, the festive atmosphere quickly becomes a playing field for shifting power dynamics and the sad, grasping claw of highly-educated professional thirtysomethings in their effort to recapture the days of their youth, not realizing that, perhaps, too much has changed.

Foley examines the subtle shifts in mood—the secrets threatening to leak out—with razor-sharp precision, and infuses the nostalgia and half-baked attempts at fun with subtle hints of sadism, violence, and callous disregard as it flits through her characters’ minds. For Heather and Doug, she plumbs the depths of loss and grief. Most remarkably, the landscape itself takes on a life of its own, as though the freezing Scottish winds are sinking into the lodge fixtures as if through flesh.

Police can’t reach the lodge until the snow clears. With a murderer sitting amongst their numbers and no one else in sight, Heather begins piecing together what happened to the ill-fated guest. Foley paces the dual narrative perfectly until the two finally meet. Her combination of character study and atmosphere become the key ingredients of a tightly-wound, expertly crafted mystery. And once you begin this book, you won’t be able to stop.

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

the wife
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.