Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Map of True Places, by Brunonia Barry

Zee (short for Hepzibah) Finch is a successful psychotherapist in Boston, preparing to marry a very eligible bachelor she was fixed up with by her mentor, Dr. Liz Mattei. But then a patient commits suicide, shaking Zee badly (the similarities with her mother's suicide many years earlier contribute to her debilitating sense of responsibility for the suicide). She attends the funeral, rationalizing that going to Lynn will also allow her to stop in Salem and check in on her father, who has Parkinson's.

When she arrives in Salem, she finds things a mess. Her father has slipped into a delusion that he is Nathaniel Hawthorne and is selling his former life partner's belongings out the window of his home (which he believes is a "cent-shop"). Zee feels compelled to stay, first until she can convince the erstwhile partner Melville to return and then, when that doesn't work out, until she can make a workable plan for her father. The bulk of the book is the story of her summer in Salem, with a rapidly deteriorating father, sad memories of her mother, a stalker who is the dead patient's former lover, and a variety of other complications.

It is sometimes hard to believe that Zee is a therapist--her insight into her self and others does not appear to be keen. However, late in the story, she recognizes that her mother and patient's greatest similarity was that they lied to her and that "The lies or stories that Maureen and Lilly told were not lies they were telling Zee, they were the mythology they were creating for themselves. When they were no longer able to believe their own fairy tales, they lost all hope." This insight helps her find some peace--but Barry is not going to let her off that easily. There will be a violent climax.

At heart, Barry is a romantic, and she tacks on a prologue that wraps up Zee's story with happy ribbons. For me, it wasn't very believable--perhaps an ending that had Zee more fully unraveling her own mythology might have been just as happy and not so saccharine. Still, the book is an enjoyable weekend read.

Favorite passage:
Zee hated tunnels--the darkness, the damp, the dripping from overhead, where she imagined he weight of water already pushing through the cracks, finding any weak spot and working its way through.

(Exactly how I feel about tunnels!)

Monday, October 18, 2010

As Husbands Go, by Susan Isaacs

In her work, Susan Isaacs has frequently combined humor with mystery. She creates quirky characters, throws in a murder, and puts the quirky characters through a variety of humorous situations en route to solving the murder. Sometimes, the formula works. In As Husbands Go, it doesn't.

Oh, the quirky characters, the murder, and the humorous situations are all there. The main character is Susie B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten (even her name is quirky), a Long Island floral designer with four-year-old triplets and a plastic surgeon husband "true by nature." Then husband Jonah is found dead in the apartment of prostitute Dorinda Dillon, and Susie is forced to consider whether she knew her husband at all.

When Dorinda is arrested, Susie is not convinced of her guilt and she sets about investigating the case with the assistance of her grandmother, who has recently become a presence in her life for the first time. (The grandmother is another character with quirks to the max--as is Susie's mother, although mom's quirks are much less interesting that grandma's.) As an example of an event intended to be amusing, Susie assumes her grandmother's identity to interview Dorinda.

For me, the quirks and humorous events didn't mix well with Susie's grief and the challenges she and her children face (the children are remarkably unpresent except when convenient--evidently the twin au pairs do a good job of keeping the kids out of mom's hair) . Perhaps if the murder victim were not so close to the protagonist (if he were, for example, the neighborhood periodontist), the humor would be more effective. As is, however, it feels misplaced. Furthermore, when Susie does figure out the real story behind her husband's murder, the book just fizzles out, with neither humor nor any resolution of the emotional issues she is facing.

Favorite passage:

Life goes on, toots, whether you like the way it goes or not. The best a girl can do is mind her ethics--and eat a nice lunch.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is the story of class and conflict in India, told in a long letter from Balram Halwai, a former driver who we learn early on has become an entrepreneur by murdering his former boss, to the Premier of China Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India as Balram is writing. Author Adiga creates a unique voice for Balram, a combination of innocence, wry insight, and anger, and gives him an interesting story to tell.

Balram's story begins in the village of Laxmangarh, where he grows up as the son of a rickshaw-puller and starts his own working career in a tea shop. Through good luck and craftiness, Balram becomes a servant in the home of one of the three wealthy men in the village. Eventually, he works his way "up" to become a driver and moves with one of the sons of the family to Delhi. The son, Ashok, seems to be living in Delhi for the sole purpose of handling the family's bribes to government officials.

Meanwhile, Balram and the other drivers live lives of servitude, squalor, and boredom. On one particularly terrible night, Ashok's drunken wife of puts Balram out of the car and drives off, leaving him stranded. She doubles back to pick him up, but then hits a child in the road. Ashok's family insists that Balram take responsibility for the accident. It is not difficult to see why Balram starts to consider how he might escape from the servant's life.

The book provides one perspective on India--and, despite the book's comic moments, it's a dark vision of a corrupt society marred by class distinctions. The character of Balram is engaging--but every other character is either laughable or despicable or both. Still, I found myself very interested in Balram's tale until about the last 75 pages, when the story seemed to break down.

Would I have given the book the Man Booker Prize for 2008 (which it won)? No. But would I recommend the book to others? Yes, it's worth reading for its take on India, its dark humor, and its winning central character, even if I found the last quarter of the book disappointing.

Favorite passage:
The road was dead--then two cars went by, one behind the other, their headlights making a continuous ripple on the leaves, like you see on the branches of trees that grow by a lake. How many thousands of such beautiful things there must be to see in Delhi. If you were just free to go wherever you wanted, and do whatever you wanted.

At night I lay in my mosquito net, the lightbulb on in my room, and watched the dark roaches crawling on top of the net, their antennae quivering and trembling, like bits of my own nerves: and I lay in bed, too agitated even to reach out and crush them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Body Work, by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky has written 14 V. I. Warshawski mysteries, but she doesn't crank them out on an annual basis like some creators of series mysteries. The 14 books have been spread out over 28 years--and there was once a five-year gap between Warshawski episodes. Perhaps that helps explain why V.I. remains an interesting character and the mysteries featuring the intrepid Chicago private detective are still entertaining.

In Body Work, the parents of a young veteran who has returned from four tours in Iraq with some major psychological problems hire Vic to prove that their son did not shoot a young woman in the alley behind a club. The woman, Nadia Gauman, regularly came to the club to participate in the performance of the "Body Artist" who sits on a stool, nude, and allows customers in the bar to paint on her as she talks about her art. The unfolding story involves the Ukrainian mob, a civilian contractor with thousands of employees in Iraq, a Latino family in denial about their dead daughter's sexuality, and a host of other characters, including Mr. Contreras, Sal the bartender, Vic's cousin Petra, and the loyal pooches Mitch and Peppy. The mystery is complex and, while perhaps not entirely believable, well-put-together. While Paretsky does have to do a bit of "explaining" at the end, as mystery writers often do, at least it is done in an unusual setting!

Favorite passage:
I was so tired that the bones in my skull felt as though they were separating . . .