On “Marlena” by Julie Buntin

51n+GHTDlNL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buntin‘s debut novel, Marlena, examines the nuance and power of young female friendship, the lasting effects of guilt, and the rampant drug abuse present in rural areas of the United States. It’s quite a lot to tackle in less than 300 pages, but Buntin isn’t any other author; every line is crafted to a sharp point that digs deep into the aspects of adolescence that haunt us long into adulthood. I’m not sure that many authors would have been up to the task, but Buntin’s unsentimental prose and pitch-perfect characterization comprise an affecting novel that—as many great books do—encourages rereading.

It’s hard to overstate how influential adolescent friendships can be on an individual’s development, especially a young woman. Countless authors, from Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, to Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, have explored that nearly unbreakable bond between women who are drawn to each other for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. But it is that particular strength of adolescent attachment that Buntin navigates with astounding acuity.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Cat as a 15-year-old who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the tantalizing web Marlena weaves, and Cat as an adult, pondering how her brief time with Marlena has changed her life irrevocably. Young Cat has the observer’s intelligence of an avid reader. She looks at the world with a level of maturity beyond her age, and Marlena’s presence makes her even more aware of the dark lining that wraps around beautiful things—like Michigan, like Marlena.

But Cat’s perspicacity isn’t enough to right Marlena’s increasing dependence on prescription pills, and her eventual (inevitable) heroin use. Marlena’s ill-fated tale of addiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, functions as a microcosm in its depiction of a larger phenomenon. It seems now that nearly everyone knows someone who has made the leap from prescription drugs to heroin. It’s cheaper and makes for a faster high. Pharmaceutical companies—the world’s most powerful kingpins—make a killing (literally) peddling pills to people in the country’s poorest communities.

And yet, Marlena believes she is doing the right thing in avoiding meth—the substance that has sunk its claws into everyone around her. Her father and boyfriend cook it, and it caused her mother to leave. To Marlena, pills are what doctors prescribe to people anyway. No harm in that, right?

As an adult, Cat seizes the moments in hindsight when she could have done something to save Marlena, but she was too enraptured with her, too dependent on the feeling of being part of a whole. Their friendship is the propulsive force that moves her, sharpening her senses to take in a world that can only exist in their rural section of Michigan—a dead end town that somehow contains multitudes.

When Marlena’s little brother Sal calls Cat to tell her he’s in New York and wants to talk about everything that happened in the past, she is forced to take stock of just how much Marlena’s brief presence in her life has changed who she’s become—someone who often drinks to excess, who has a strained relationship with her father and brother, who feels an innate empathy for outsiders and addicts.

In some ways, the “Peter Pan” effect has taken hold of fragments of Cat’s memories of Marlena, which is generally the natural way of things; Cat grows older, Marlena will always be a teenager. Building that dynamic into a narrative successfully without making Marlena seem like a tragic hero is a difficult task, one that Buntin handles brilliantly.

Yes, Marlena possesses a disarming, feral beauty; consciously understated intelligence; and a beautiful singing voice. But Cat also remembers Marlena’s mercurial nature, her occasional condescension, her secretiveness, and her unwashed hair.

Buntin begins the novel with a scene that becomes even more poignant once the reader finishes the book. It’s Marlena speeding dangerously towards the lake in their town, not showing any signs of stopping. Cat is screaming, afraid. But Marlena keeps driving, foot pressed down on the pedal, deep in one of her drug-induced manias. And Cat hates her in that moment.

Even though those negative feelings never last, they become a dark lining on all their happiest moments—the moments Adult Cat looks on with regret for not having done something more for Marlena.

In the end, Buntin has strung together a novel that is equal parts a love story, a tragedy, and an ode to the harsh beauty and danger of Michigan. But Marlena is primarily about guilt; how to deal with it; where to lay blame; how to make peace with the past. I’m not sure the answers are clear-cut, but the questions themselves are enough to jolt the reader into awareness.

On “The Royal We” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

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Like me, I’m sure every asocial hermit with more than a touch of Anglophilia loves nothing more than to sit around on a lazy Saturday morning drinking tea and reading Kate Middleton fan fiction…No? That’s just me? Well, if you do share my proclivities, or just enjoy a breezy beach read, look no further than The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. This dynamic duo has produced the dishiest, compulsively readable romantic novel in recent memory.

The Royal We has all the right ingredients to make a great love story that blissfully excludes the heavy handedness of most romcom-esque novels; there’s usually quite a lot of formula and very little depth, but Cocks and Morgan have conjured that most coveted mix of romance, comedy, and blunder to produce summer reading gold.

The story unfolds on the morning of Rebecca “Bex” Porter’s wedding day as looks back on her relationship with Prince Nicholas of Wales. Sectioned off into the significant years of their relationship, Bex starts at the beginning—her year abroad at Oxford where Nick is the first person to greet her, at which time she makes a comment about the royal family having syphilis. (An amazing moment. I laughed like an idiot.)

Of course, she has no idea who he is at that moment, but they soon begin spending more and more and more time together. They bond over trash TV and American junk food and drink their way through all the pubs in Oxford. But he’s a prince. Bex knows it can’t be more than a flirtation. Plus, she’s already hooked up with their mutual friend, and one of Nick’s closest allies, Clive.

Things are tricky, and Nick is already under immense pressure from his domineering father, Prince Richard. He must be present at elite gatherings, emitting just the right amount of charm and wit without seeming too glib. Bex can see Nick has mastered his public façade. But what’s beneath it?

After a whirlwind series of heated moments, the pair decides to become a couple, but only their closest friends know. Keeping their relationship a secret from the public turns out to be difficult, but not as difficult as it becomes when Nick reveals their romance to the royal family, and the pair becomes an “unofficial” item to the press. Bex must be her best at all times, and worse, her twin sister Lacey still continues to make a spectacle out of herself in public for the sake of attention.

As life becomes more difficult for the two at the hands of the press and Nick’s growing list of duties, they must make a decision about the future. Will they really get married, or it back to Iowa for Bex?

Cocks and Morgan build the narrative beautifully. It’s seductive, charming, hilarious at times, and impeccably well written. Even if people think the novel is a cheap rip off of the Will and Kate courtship, it’s still extremely well done. More than that, readers are forced to think about just how much they consume the type of tabloid press that exposes the lives of these individuals for the whole world to see.

On one hand, we often say these high-profile people get what’s coming to them, but Nick was born into his life, and Bex…well…Bex has to decide if she can go along for the ride for the rest of her life—the future Queen of England. Every lighthearted moment the couple shares comes at the cost of intense of public scrutiny when they leave the confines of their sanctuaries. It also doesn’t help that Lacey is running wild and some members of the couple’s friend group seem to be turning against them.

It’s all a matter of empathizing with the people whose lives we consume as entertainment, and the authors explore these fabricated (but very familiar) lives with care, dignity, and the humor that comes along with everyday life.

There were moments in the story where I could see the obvious parallels between the novel and the real British royal family, but it’s always done with a hint of good-natured ribbing. And, more than that, those hints never mask the obvious talent Cocks and Morgan have when it comes to developing plot structure and imbuing each character with carefully crafted personalities that never cease to grow along with the main characters.

I cannot recommend The Royal We highly enough to readers looking for a fun, fast read for the summer. Of course, you have to read it to get ready for the upcoming film adaptation—just pop on some sunglasses and park yourself in a beach chair. And don’t forget the sunscreen! Once you’ve started Cocks and Morgan’s brilliant novel, you won’t want to stop until you’ve turned the last page.

On “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold

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David Arnold‘s 2015 novel, Mosquitoland, is everything any person who feels out of place would want to read. 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone (or “Mim” for short) is a variation of every young person who feels like the very chemistry of his or her being is wrong, that it does not bode well with the universe at large.

Alas, Mim claims herself and everything she loves with unabashed kookiness and fervor. Nothing and no one will stop her. In this case, her sights are set on getting out of Mosquitoland—the Mississippi town that her father and her stepmother moved her to after Mim’s parents divorced. Just like that, she was forced to leave behind everything she knew in Ohio for a life forced upon her by her overbearing, condescending father and her well-meaning, but aloof stepmother.

Mim is not okay. For weeks, she hasn’t heard from her mother, and she has a sneaking suspicion that her stepmother is hiding her letters. She decides to leave Mississippi on the next Greyhound bound for Ohio. Her mother is the only person that understands Mim. And she knows—unlike Mim’s dad, that she doesn’t need to pop an anti-psychotic pill every day to be okay, to function.

Along the way, Mim meets a cast of characters that help her on her journey from sweet Arlene–an elderly woman who loves Mim’s funky sneakers, to Walt–a kindhearted homeless teenager who loves Mountain Dew and the Chicago Cubs. They travel with her on her journey to the truth, guiding her with their kindness and humor. Nothing can stop her.

Or can it? Arnold writes Mim as a fearless young person who won’t hesitate to assert her individuality and strength at any cost, but there is a sinister undertone to her exuberance. Something happened in her past that affects the way Mim looks at the world and caused her father to clamp down on her life. The reason behind the medication.

In a series of letters to someone named “Isabel,” Mim lists her ticks, neuroses, and defects–her displaced epiglottis that causes her to vomit randomly, the blindness in one eye that she got from staring at the sun during an eclipse, the way she spaces out sometimes and loses herself in memories. Arnold builds this correspondence towards an ultimate confession–towards the heart of the thing that made Mim who she is.

Throughout the novel, Arnold explores all manner of difficult subjects—mental illness, suicide, sexual assault, homosexuality, and the way society treats its lowliest members. Mosquitoland spends a lot of time probing the idea of how we, as humans, pass judgment on each other, and how we sometimes shy away from difficult things in life.

Arnold’s Mim negates fear and self-consciousness with her fierceness, and she works through the heartbreak in her life with a strength that most people do not possess. As a lame, fairly shy teenager, I read this book with wonder and a hint of resentment. Why couldn’t I have been more her as a teenager?

I believe it’s because Mim possesses that level of hyper-intelligence that seems only to exist in YA novels. No one I knew was as smart as that at sixteen, nor as ambitious. But, then again, maybe I led a sheltered life. Arnold’s narrative was enough to make me wish that more people were like her. Strong. Weird. Lover of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Feisty as hell.

Arnold’s innovative, lovable protagonist will likely go down as one of YA’s most iconic characters. Mim’s unconventional story will speak volumes to every outcast looking to make sense of cruel things around them and how to be okay.

On “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

61-1atkJmYL__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

George Saunders is highly regarded as a short story writer, gaining recognition and accolades like the O.Henry Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. When he announced the publication of his first novel, the literary world held its breath in anticipation, wondering what the acclaimed writer would do with his departure from the short story form. What we got—Lincoln in the Bardo—is one of the strangest, funniest, and most heartbreaking novels in recent memory.

The novel, set in 1862, concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln‘s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie. A few long hours leads to a fever that won’t break. Everyone knows young Willie isn’t doing well, but Abraham and Mary Todd are obligated to hold one of their lavish parties anyway. Throughout the night, both parents check on Willie, but it’s too late.

Guilt plagues Abraham Lincoln and his wife as they lay him to rest in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. If only they had forgone the party that night. If only Lincoln wasn’t—at that moment—responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers as the Civil War builds to a frenzy. It takes everything in his power to leave Willie behind and keep moving.

It is only after Willie’s funeral, when everyone has left, that the characters of the Bardo appear. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas comprise the youngster’s slapdash welcoming crew. In this halfway point between life and death, the people of the cemetery don’t really believe they’re dead; they’re just in their “sick-boxes” waiting to rejoin their loved ones.

As the reader finds out, the people here have refused to let go of the “previous place,” where they can’t quite remember what life was like, but they repeat the stories that leave them longing for what never happened in life. Hans Vollman, for example, married a woman much younger than himself. Rather than force himself on her on their wedding night, he took the time to build a friendship with her, which then blossomed into romantic love.

On the day the couple was to finally consummate their union, he is hit in the head by a beam in his workshop, never knowing the love of his dear wife. It’s only in true Saunders fashion that, in the Bardo, Hans Vollman has a constant, unceasing erection from the failure to satisfy his anticipation. The way he does this is subtle, but when you realize what “member” everyone is talking about, it becomes the funniest thing.

Tragically, Roger Bevins III, slit his wrists in the previous place, but he believes he’s still on his kitchen floor waiting for his family to find him. In life, his “proclivity,” as he calls it, was a love for men. But his lover decides to “live the right way” and ends their relationship leaving him despondent. It is only at the moment when it’s too late that he realizes he wants nothing more than to live. In the Bardo, Bevins has ears and eyes that appear at the slightest sensory input because he’s all too eager to take in everything all at once.

Unfortunately, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins know that children cannot stay in the Bardo for long before horrible things start to happen to them. But they cannot convince young Willie to let go.

Saunders’ narrative shifts seamlessly from the surreal to the tragic. Lincoln must grapple the weight of grief, while Willie must come to terms with the fact of his death even though he can’t bear to leave his father behind. The novel’s finest moments show the inner workings of the president’s mind as he weighs the meaning of his sorrow with the overarching theme of death that extends from the Bardo to the battlefields of the war.

What’s incredible about Lincoln in the Bardo is its structure. Many writers have drawn acclaim for their manipulation of conventional form, but Saunders’ work is stunning for the sheer amount of research it must have taken to build the fabric of certain pieces of the narrative. For example, the night of Willie’s death/the Lincoln’s party, Saunders tells the story with excerpts from real primary sources and historical texts along with made up sources and texts. Some of them agree, some do not, but they allow for the reader to see various texts working in concert to form a completely new piece of art.

Even paragraphs in the Bardo scenes are attributed to specific characters, almost as if it were a play. The multiple perspectives from myriad voices are the product of painstaking effort on Saunders’ part.

While it takes a few chapters to get used to Saunders’ style, Lincoln in the Bardo is well worth the effort, and I imagine many people can finish it in one sitting. This compelling story of a father losing his son, fighting with grief and guilt while also shaping the landscape of the United States is unabashedly ambitious and completely unmissable.