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

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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.

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.