Elisabeth Thomas Dazzles With Her Debut Novel ‘Catherine House’

catherine-houseThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

There’s something about boarding school stories that captivate readers. Many of us were introduced to the genre via Harry Potter, and that allure — those endless forays into the dark recesses of a school concealing both danger and treasure in its depths — keeps us coming back for more.

Elisabeth Thomas’ compelling debut, Catherine House, is no exception to this standard. If anything, the author molded her novel not only out of the boarding school genre but also from the Gothic tradition of writers like Daphne du Maurier, throwing in elements of Isaac Asimov-driven science fiction. The premise of a highly-selective, elite, private college sequestering its students for three years and immersing them in a mysterious curriculum hooks readers from the opening page. As we follow Ines — a young woman running from her past and for whom Catherine House is a fresh start — the secrets of this prestigious institution come to light, and we must wonder if anyone ever really leaves.

In an environment that is equal parts academic rigor and bacchanalian antics, Ines fully commits herself to the latter, seldom attending classes and nearly failing out of Catherine after her first year. The hazy aspects of her potentially criminal past prevent her from fully engaging with anything as she struggles to get ahold of herself and find her footing at the school. She soon comes to learn, however, that almost everyone at Catherine has a reason for wanting to leave the real world behind for the gilded promises of this fantasy school, even if those golden edges appear to be hiding structures full of rot. For some of Ines’ peers, like Theo and her roommate Baby, the allure of “plasm” — a revolutionary substance found in all matter, and a substance for which the school is infamous — brought them in the first place.

When Ines’ first year comes to an end, and plasm is introduced to new students as a strange Pavlovian grooming tool, her fascination and suspicion of the substance begins to take hold, especially when Baby’s obsession with it leads to her untimely death. In her third year, Ines becomes embroiled in the school’s questionable practices relating to plasm studies, and in the end, there are only two choices: stay at Catherine forever or escape.

In her first turn, Thomas delivers an impressive, eerie debut novel where the shimmering prestige of Catherine House masks a macabre underbelly of secrets and tragedy. What should be a path to healing and self-discovery for Ines becomes a sinister pull of forces beyond her control, inching her closer to confusion and doubt. Once readers enter the world of Catherine House, they too won’t be able to leave until the very last page is turned.

Art As Politics and Politics As Crime in Patricio Pron’s ‘Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets’

Don't Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets Book CoverIn Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets, Patricio Pron transports readers to the final months of World War II where, at the Fascist Writers’ Conference in Pinerolo, Italy, a man called Luca Borello is found dead in the dangerous, partisan-held territory surrounding the city. Borello, a member of the Futurist movement and a former fascist, had been estranged from his friends and colleagues for years following the theft of a deceased friend’s work by another Futurist writer several years prior. But, in April 1945, Borello appears as if out of nowhere, intent on righting what he believes to be the ultimate transgression against the Futurist vision of art.

It isn’t until the late 1970s when a university student named Peter Linden takes interest in the goings-on of this fateful conference that the details surrounding Borello’s death – an event intertwined with the history of Linden’s own family – fall into place. The narrative, comprised largely of interviews Linden conducts with the four writers closest to Borello in his youth, recounts the conference and its players while also capturing the frenetic, violent, masculine energy of Futurism in its heyday. With their retelling of events, Pron masterfully explores the Futurist movement and its indelible link to fascism. At the conference, fascist writers from across Europe convene to discuss, in an increasingly futile manner, the tenets and goals of fascism, even as the Axis powers – the representative force of these fascist philosophies – is on its knees.

How art became politics and politics became crime is the heart of Pron’s novel, best represented by these men searching for artistic purity through violent means – art turned into action. As they recall the events surrounding Borello’s death two decades later, the sputtering flame of youthful conviction allows this group of aging artists to examine what they once believed to be true about their art and its aims. In the stark aftermath of the war, where the philosophies of the Futurists and their ilk are wretched, one writer posits the following:

…Our idea, I now think, was an aesthetic utopia, and those utopias should never transcend the realm of books, maybe they shouldn’t have ever even left the heads of their authors.

-Excerpt from Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets

And what comes of nations, people, and movements – the members of which are never fully in agreement about anything – forging political landscapes out of “aesthetic utopias”? This striving for artistic purity, as it is transposed onto life, breeds violence – where those who see it will rip the fabric of reality, ultimately tearing flesh to fit the mold of its vision.

In 1945, after the theft of the work Borello was meant to safeguard, Borello retreats into himself and comes to the realization that literature cannot be used as a political tool successfully. To attempt as much is to degrade the principles of Futurist art. This is why he attends the conference after years of isolation. His attempts to convince the other writers of this belief goes unheeded, but his eventual death, according to one of the writers, signified “the end of the idea of fascist literature, or, at least, the end of the idea that it could somehow help governments that could no longer help themselves and had given up trying.”

Peter Linden, the radically left-wing student who questions these writers, must confront the “schisms [their] story has provoked in his life and ideas,” which, ” divorces a certain idea of justice from the conviction that justice can actually be carried out by individuals or even [an] organization.” The story presented to him insists that our deepest held convictions are never as diametrically opposed to those of our foes as we like to believe.

Linden’s father, Francesco, a leftist partisan fighter during the war, confronts the same questions in the months leading up to the Fascist Writer’s Conference when he is saved by Borello who has been living in relative isolation nearby. The section of the novel that concerns the interaction between Francesco and Borello – two men in doubt about the methods of the organizations and movements with which they’ve aligned themselves, movements they once believed to be fundamentally pure and true – shows the gnawing sense of dread that comes with betrayal and the sudden imperative for a reappraisal of moral code, since what was once clearly defined is no longer so and, perhaps, never was.

The uneasy friendship between Linden and Borello is the most riveting part of Pron’s narrative, one where readers are offered a reprieve from the fascist writers and their remembrances. Here, readers no longer have to wade through ideas of theoretical purity but can instead witness purity in practice – a beautifully rendered scene in which two men realize their sense of self and humanity through compassion.

This paves the way for the novel’s final section, which reveals the narrative to be, in part, a generational exploration of affliction. We meet Linden’s son Tomasso, or T., who represents the outcome of his patriarchs’ track record of trying to align themselves with organizations meant to rectify the wrongs of government, “all of whom have had to compare their convictions to the results of their actions.” The three men are “linked by…an uncomfortable awareness of history and the place of individuals,” and T. becomes, perhaps more than anyone else in the novel, the one who sees that the systems in which we live are simply a “replacement ceremony” where generations will continuously become those they despise.

Pron’s novel is a tapestry of styles woven together perfectly to create a novel of unexpected force, one that probes beyond monolithic alliances and shifting moral structures. And like so many Latin American writers, Pron gets to the core of political dysfunction with his own brand of narrative ingenuity. The result is simultaneously unnerving and captivating.

Carmen Boullosa’s ‘The Book of Anna’ Is a Masterpiece of Metafiction

The Book of Anna Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Carmen Boullosa‘s latest novel, The Book of Anna, threads characters from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece into an innovative narrative caper that blends history, fiction, and fairytale. In the tradition of Latin American writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clarice Lispector, Boullosa pushes the boundaries of fiction in a novel that tackles the nature of fiction itself, from the chasm of authorial intent to the presentation of fictitious elements as real objects. The result is an unexpected delight – an oddity that moves within its paces so brilliantly, readers will take each strange turn of events as it comes, knowing Boullosa will lead them to a space of literary transcendence.

In Boullosa’s continuation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s son Sergei must decide whether or not to sell a portrait of his mother to Tsar Nicholas II for display in the Hermitage. His wife, Claudia, is thrilled at the prospect, but Sergei can’t shake the fact that he is Tolstoy’s creation, one who, as much as he tries, cannot escape the shadow of his mother’s shame or that of the author’s legacy. Meanwhile, several servants in the Karenin household have aligned themselves with the movement of Father Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest who organizes a march comprised of laborers and peasants and plans to protest on the grounds of the Winter Palace despite knowing the Tsar will inflict violence on anyone involved. His duplicity and hubris set the stage for a series of events that careen through Tolstoy’s world, Boullosa’s world, the history of revolutionary Russia, and several combinations of each.

As the protest in St. Petersburg comes to a tragic end, Sergei and Claudia are preparing the portrait of Anna Karenina. Sergei wishes to leverage the tsar’s offer into a lucrative position away from St. Petersburg where he can be free of Anna Karenina’s legacy and Tolstoy’s machinations – a place where he can, ideally, forge a self that belongs to him alone, one that exists in the world outside of fiction. Claudia balks at the idea of leaving the city behind and hopes to give the money to Sergei’s sister Anya. As they continue to debate each other and an angry, dream-world Tolstoy, Claudia discovers a box in her attic containing two manuscripts by Anna Karenina: the first, a morality story for children that was lauded by a publisher in her lifetime, and the second, a rewrite of the same story that turns out to be a kaleidoscopic feminist fairy tale written under the influence of opium.

This manuscript, the long lost “Book of Anna,” reveals a woman torn between worlds and how to be. The highly wrought constructed “self” morphs over the course of the fable and ends with something that resembles happiness. A much better fate, readers will agree, than Tolstoy’s Anna. But, in a cruel turn of events, as the revolution chugs forward (not unlike another fateful train, if you’ll excuse the easy parallel), an anarchist called Clementine and the distraught brother of a servant killed in the protest march plant a bomb in the car carrying Anna Karenina’s portrait and her manuscripts to the Winter Palace. All of her selves are destroyed in one instant.

The sheer innovation of Boullosa’s multi-layered narrative presents the reader with a nesting doll of fictions and histories – threads that intertwine questions of self-hood, artistic creation, and the many-layered voices of political change. The Book of Anna marks the rare achievement of a writer who balances the weight of Tolstoy’s complicated genius with her own interpretation of events, real and fictitious, with unmitigated brio and a touch of mischievous whimsy. It will surely become a modern classic.

Rick Barot’s ‘Galleons’ Examines Love, Identity and Colonialism

the-galleons-rick-barot-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In his latest poetry collection, The Galleons, Rick Barot explores identity, love, aging, knowledge, and sight within the context of post-colonialism. With the consistent, steady pattern of couplets—a mark of Barot’s attempt to impose what he calls “muscular logic”—the reader experiences a rendering of the world that ranges in scale from the heavy-bellied Spanish galleons of empire to the indulged son making wooden models of galleons in his basement. Barot’s “grudging faith / in the particular” leads to a meticulous effort to name things—an imposition of order on the distinctly human cycle of paradox, violence, and grief that marks the passage of time. His ability to pinpoint specific moments or elements within larger phenomena, and vice versa, shows a poet committed to sight—to noticing and putting down on paper the ways in which our personal histories intertwine with nature and the universe at large.

In his poem titled “The Marrow,” Barot writes, “I saw things / mostly as they were, which meant a kind of health.” In this sense, it’s easy to consider the poems in The Galleons as an exercise in healing. Barot devotes a significant portion of the titled Galleons poems, of which there are ten, listing stolen items from Spain’s colonial rule in the Philippines. When “research is mourning,” and when what we’re capable of doing differs from that which we want to do, the ability to recognize what exists and what has passed becomes a crucial part of identifying the self. We see this in “The Galleons 6″—a poem in which Barot makes an inventory of ships used by the Spanish empire from 1564 to 1816, and again in  “The Galleons 8” where the personified ships yearn for that which is lost to them.

Similarly, in the collection’s quieter moments, we see the poet lose faith in the “romantic notion” of overarching narratives when attempting to understand what defines a life.  He observes, “The shard and not the whole / comprises a life, the image and not the narrative,” pointing to world-shattering moments in which the smallest details remain clear in the mind rather than knowing as it occurs that the moment itself will change everything. These shards—these small defining moments that Barot strings like pearls throughout the collection—speak to the sense of relief that comes with being able to remember and give names to that which animates our existence.

With this naming comes precision and a clear sense of narrative purpose. Barot’s efforts reveal a reckoning with the past, personal and historical. The awareness that comes with forging these observations into art allows for hope and beauty to enter spaces where they had not existed. He writes, “And the window within the eye, / which you don’t see until you see, is white as a winter sky, / though you know it is joy that is held there.” Barot gives us the gift of sight in The Galleons, and with it, the power to capture hope.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s ‘The Remainder’ Explores Grief and Reckoning

The-Remainder-Alia-Trabucco-Zerán-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her introduction to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s groundbreaking new novel — recently shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize — Lina Meruane frames the narrative as an exercise in “mortuary maths,” asking how we reconcile the number of people born with the number of those who die in a country stuck in the shadow of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Meruane suggests The Remainder, and other examples of post-memory literature, respond to a specific need: “the need for a kind of grief that manifests in the counting of dead bodies and the recounting of stories.” These stories, Meruane observes, question whether or not “borrowed or imposed memory [can] be separated from one’s own memories,” or if the cut will lead to another kind of death.

Told from the dual perspective of childhood friends struggling with the weight of this collective memory, Zerán explores the ways in which those coming of age in the wake of a dictatorship attempt to forge their own identities out of sustained trauma — a cycle that any number of careful calculations will almost certainly fail to undo. Yet they persist, as all characters of Latin American fiction are wont to do, searching for a cure to what ails the progeny of colonialism: the original sin.

In The Remainder, Felipe, Iquela and Paloma, the children of former militants, embark on a journey to recover Paloma’s mother’s body after it is diverted away from Santiago. Their attempt to repatriate her forces them to reckon with what they remember of the past–the brutality and grief threaded into every inch of recollection, whether experienced directly or as a product of the strange osmosis that permeates their shared stories.

We see this as the book’s narrators, Felipe and Iquela, build the story through alternating passages, effectively representing the duality of the questions Zerán attempts to answer. In Felipe’s countdown to zero–the end goal in which all of Chile’s dead have been accounted for–we see a manic, hunger-panged reaction to grief. Felipe’s is a form of suffering in which the whole and all its parts are seen at once. Nothing can be unseen, therefore, nothing can be forgotten. Everything flows from him in a wild rush of sensory overload. His passages, which go on for several pages, contain only one long stream-of-conscious like sentence. Iquela, on the other hand, is tethered firmly to reality, preoccupied with imposing her own memories (interspersed throughout the text in parenthetical asides) on the narrative of her life, and in doing so, forging a new language. In childhood, both narrators inflict and endure physical pain in an attempt to feel something that is their own–”a pain that was visible and mine,” as Iquela remembers it.

Paloma’s arrival forces the trio to examine the past and finally put it to rest, allowing them to arrive at zero. She leads them to the cure, the final reckoning, by allowing Felipe and Iquela to join her in recovering her mother’s body. It becomes an offering, which we see in Iquela’s final passage as she faces the prospect of returning to Chile:

…Only by ridding myself of it all would I be able to face going back, only by shaking off the “scars,” “grief,” “sorrows,” and repaying, syllable by syllable, that incalculable debt, a debt that would have rendered us mute…I’d walk toward my mother, gazing at her affectionately, carrying the weight of all the things she’d ever seen (carrying remains, debts, sorrows). And in an old voice–no less mine for being inherited–using frail and untranslatable syllables, final words which, once spoken, would leave me empty and alone in a desert full of new lines (to be spoken in a timeless language), I would say to her with a hint of sadness, ‘I’ve brought you Ingrid Aguirre, and here is Felipe Arrabal.’ And I would hold her (her skin so close to her bones and her bones so close to mine), and only then, from within the perfect parenthesis of our interwoven bodies, would I open my mouth to tell her: ‘Mother, I’ve done all this for you.’

excerpt from The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

The pain Felipe, Iquela and Paloma carry with them — that which was passed along to them and which they inflicted upon themselves — will pass. Holding onto it will not repay the “incalculable debt” of loss, from those who disappeared to those who were killed or forced to flee. There are too many deaths to square, but the return of one body–Ingrid’s repatriation–is the key to being at peace with their ghosts.

Zerán’s formidable command of two distinct styles throughout the novel (translated beautifully by Sophie Hughes), her ability to plumb the depths of generational trauma and her ability to engage with and deconstruct the concept of collective memory propels The Remainder to the status of masterpiece. She continues the longstanding tradition of Latin American writers attempting to make sense of political violence by rendering the darkest sins of a country, and the pain of its people, into a beacon of light.

Natalia Ginzburg’s Genius Shines in Her 1947 Classic ‘The Dry Heart’

the dry heartNatalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.

Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.

-excerpt from The Dry Heart

She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.

Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about  Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.

She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.

In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.

The Hip Genius of Rion Amilcar Scott’s ‘The World Doesn’t Require You’

rion__02931_1559325810This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Aspiring writers should proceed with caution when reading Rion Amilcar Scott’s second collection of short stories, The World Doesn’t Require You. One cannot delve into these magnificent, genre-bending narratives without sinking into a pool of envy and wonder at the imaginative power of his craft.  Like Scott’s debut, Insurrections, this collection features the fictional city of Cross River, Maryland, a town founded in the wake of the country’s only successful slave revolt. Its inhabitants—a motley cast of characters, from gangsters, sirens, and robots to two unbalanced professors studying loneliness and a down-and-out musician who happens to be the youngest son of God—battle with religion, deities, the transcendent power of music and the balance of fantasy and reality. Spanning decades from past to future, Cross River envelops all in its mythos and the brutal nature of its origins.

Scott’s writing zips with electricity, melding vibrant dialogue with pristinely structured prose. His linguistic playfulness, manifesting in asides, razor-sharp deployment of AAVE, and—in his novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies—the liberal usage of footnoting and a break from traditional prose structure with the inclusion of PowerPoint slides and photographs, hums with barely contained mayhem. Music comes as staccato bursts on the page, marrying rhythm and language in ecstatic waves—a feat reminiscent of writers such as Junot Díaz and the late Toni Morrison. While Scott allows the world of Cross River to take shape as it must, containing shadow play of the real world, he maintains a formidable level of control over his sentences and narrative structures. Nothing feels out of place as the reader moves from one story to the next, era to era.

Scott’s world-building rests on the specific experiences of African Americans in a Southern border state, but The World Doesn’t Require You fits easily into conversation with the work of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez who created fantastic variations of their own places of origin, namely Yoknapatawpha County and Macondo. Márquez’s particular strand of magic realism—a genre born from centuries of violent political upheaval—presents itself in Scott’s fiction, a frenetic contribution to the “Big Bang” realm of speculative fiction. In this fluid sub-genre, characters often struggle to come into being in the midst of systemic trauma. The collision of forces that brings matter into existence is a gut-wrenching experience, one that leaves those in its wake reeling and overflowing with powerful energy. In “The Temple of Practical Arts,” Scott writes:

Through music, through the land, we were shapers of the world’s destiny, or at least we were training to be. After the Temple we were beggars, wanderers, hustlers, street buskers pitied by passersby and harassed by police, half-formed angels cast from Heaven. We became the stuff of nightmares. None of us, it turns out, were actually the luminous demigods we’d seen gazing from our mirrors…The Kid ruined this place, the Temple. He ruined us. Transformed us all from little symphonies into the faded plucks beneath the bleeding fingers of God the spent guitarist. The last thumps in the dying heart of God.

— excerpt from Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You

These stories are foundational myths—a subtle re-writing of conventional narratives, and Scott’s references are multifaceted. There are obvious markings of certain literary predecessors, but we also see nods to hip-hop, academic discourse, and a subtle homage to the horror stylings of Jordan Peele. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Scott’s masterful command of these elements. And as for Cross River, we can only hope he will bring us there again.

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.

 

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.

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.