Friday, November 19, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman

I'd Know You Anywhere, one of Laura Lippman's stand-alone novels (she also writes the Tess Monaghan mystery series), is a psychological thriller that finds its tension in the interplay between a woman and the man who kidnapped and raped her 20 years earlier.

Eliza Benedict and her family have just moved to the DC suburbs after six years in London when she receives a letter from Walter Bowman, the man who kidnapped her, held her captive for 40 days, and raped her when she was a 15-year-old known as Elizabeth Lerner. Bowman, who is soon to be executed for a murder that occurred while he was holding Elizabeth, wants to talk to Eliza. Understandably, Eliza, who has spent years trying to stay out of the spotlight, is at first resistant. But over time Walter and a rather strange anti-death penalty activist named Barbara LaFortuny wear her down. Believing Walter is going to confess to other unsolved murders, Eliza agrees to meet with him. Meanwhile, Walter has a plan to get Eliza to recant the testimony that helped convict him. As these events progress, Lippman fills in the back story, providing details of Eliza and Walter's early lives and the crime that linked them.

While this book is certainly not the most nerve-wracking thriller I've ever read, it is an interesting look into one criminal's mind and the impact of crime on victims and their families.

Favorite passages:
She imagined her body covered with little Post-its, each one marking a specific area of decline--the creaking knee, the popping hip, the stiffening shoulder. She pictured a suit of Post-its, sharp yellow edges riffling in the breeze, at once stiff and pliant. She would like such a suit, an outfit that would announce her edges to the world.

She was appalled that Iso was one of those popular girls who derived power by excluding others. But, still--was this grounds for suspension? Children needed a little grit in their lives, environments that fell somewhere between velvet-lined egg crates and Lord of the Flies.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Getting to Happy, by Terry McMillan

When Waiting to Exhale was published in the early 1990s, I enjoyed the story of four African-American thirty-somethings who were "casualties of love" (perhaps because, at the time, I was in the process of getting divorced and shared their views on the generally dog-like nature of men--and the book was funny). So I had some hope that Terry McMillan's return to the four friends--Savannah, Bernie, Robin, and Gloria--would be equally resonant with my now 60-year-old self. Unfortunately, I found it more soap operatic than insightful.

Each of the women, now about 50 (the book is set in 2005, apparently so the women can be appalled by and responsive to Hurricane Katrina), has a problem. Savannah, married for 10 years to a contractor, is bored in her marriage and angry that her husband has an apparent porn addiction. Bernie, betrayed by her second husband, pops tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Robin, a single mom with a boring career in insurance, has a shopping addiction. And Gloria's world is shattered when her husband Marvin is an innocent victim of a gang shoot-out.

Not much really happens as the women try to find their way to happiness that is less rooted in men than in self-realization, and their experiences don't add anything new to my understanding of what makes a rewarding life. While McMillan is a competent writer, the fact that the chapters from two of the women's perspective are written in first person and two in third annoyed me (I don't remember whether Waiting to Exhale was written similarly).

Favorite passage: None

Sunday, November 7, 2010

World and Town, by Gish Jen

Hattie Kong is a in her late 60s, living in a small New England town where she has retreated following the death of her husband and best friend (whose sarcastic voice rings in Hattie's head) and her retirement as a public school teacher. She was born in China to a Chinese father and American missionary mother and was sent to her mother's family in Iowa at age 17 because of the danger posed by Mao's revolution. Ever since, she has felt like an outsider, a feeling reinforced by the betrayal of her first love, Carter Hatch, when she was trying to establish herself as a research scientist.

Sad and lonely, Hattie becomes interested in the family of Cambodian refugees who have recently moved in down the hill from her. The family is clearly struggling, and Hattie reaches out to help them, but her help is met with varying degrees of acceptance. At first she is most successful with teenage daughter Sophy (we later learn two other daughters are in foster care in another state), to whom Hattie offers Chinese lessons, cookies, and a dog. But Hattie is not the only one who takes an interest in the girl; Ginny, a member of an evangelical church, targets Sophy and the community cum family that the church offers appeals to the girl, whose own family is struggling. Meanwhile, Ginny has left her husband Everett, who is not taking it well. Sophy's brother is expected of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. And Carter Hatch has moved to Hattie's town.

While my description makes World and Town sound like a soap opera, it's actually much more. Told from the perspectives of Hattie, Sophy, and Everett, the story is an exploration of family and community--of what it means to belong. While Hattie gets more "air time" than the other narrators, all three are rich characters that the reader cares deeply about.

Recently, I seem to be finding a lot of books too long--and this one was no exception. The first 350 pages drew me along, while I felt like I was slogging through the last 30, only to find the ending just a bit too pat.

Despite my misgivings about the ending, I enjoyed the book, the characterizations, and the dark wit with which Jen infuses the story.

Favorite passages:

A call! Will everything involving her child remain an event forever?

In what you are proud of, Lee used to say, you can see in what way you are nuts.

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

Late in By Nightfall, gallery owner Peter Harris and his brother-in-law Mizzy (short for "The Mistake," because he came along nearly 20 years after his three sisters) enter a client's home, described as "a perfect imitation of itself." Peter, the protagonist of Cunningham's new novel, might be similarly labeled. Peter appears to be a happy 44-year-old with an art gallery, a loft in Soho that is a "great space" bought before real estate prices skyrocketed, an accomplished wife Rebecca, a problem daughter, and a large social circle. But unhappiness is Peter's "realm," and the happy facade is just that...a facade.

Peter wants to be deeply moved by the art he sells, but representing artists who produce foul-smelling installations made of glue and horsehair or paintings displayed in brown wrapping paper is not rewarding. Thus, perhaps we should not be surprised when Peter feels himself drawn to Mizzy. Mizzy is an aimless twenty-something with a drug habit, but he also has a "pale, princely beauty." How Peter decides to handle his feelings is somewhat startling, however.

Most of the book takes place in Peter's head--with forays into his childhood in Milwaukee, his brother's death of AIDS in the 1980s, the first time he met Rebecca's family, and other seminal events. In the present, the book takes place over just a few days while Mizzy is staying with the couple. As readers, we come to know Peter well--and, although it's hard to actually like him, I could empathize with his angst about his career, his marriage, his role as a father. Rebecca and Mizzy we know less well, of course, and yet the "surprises" that they spring on Peter at the end of the book seem not exactly predictable, but logical within the way their relationships with Peter are depicted.

As with all Cunningham's novels, there are many literary references--Gatsby and Death in Venice prominent among them--but they are not as central to the book as Mrs. Dalloway was to The Hours or Whitman's work was to Specimen Days. Here visual arts assume a central role; fortunately, you do not need sophisticated knowledge of modern art to understand Peter's ruminations on beauty, creativity, and significance. While the construction of the novel is perhaps not as complex as either of those earlier Cunningham works, the writing is just as beautiful. As a character study and an examination of how a person might be affected by the lack of beauty in his/her life, By Nightfall is successful.

Favorite passages:

Peter has gotten better over the years at dressing as the man who's impersonating the man he actually is. Still, there are days when he can't shake the feeling that he's gotten it wrong. And of course it's grotesque to care about how you look, yet almost impossible not to.

Here is the terrible, cleansing fire. Peter has been too long in mourning, for the people who've disappeared, for the sense of dangerous inspiration his life refuses to provide.

They do, of course, each of them, carry within them a jewel of self, not just the wounds and the hopes but an innerness, what Beethoven might have called the soul, that self-ember we carry, the simple fact of aliveness, all snarled up with dream and memory but other than dream and memory, other than the moment (crossing a street, leaving a bakery); that minor infinitude, the private universe in which you have always been and will always be buzzing along on a skate board or looking or coins in the bottom of your purse or going home with your fussing children. What did Shakespeare say? Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.