Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home follows members of the Erickson family for 30 years, from 1973 to 2003. Their lives reflect societal upheavals--feminism, wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the farm crisis of the 1980s--as well as personal struggles. The story unfolds in a series of what are almost vignettes, each focusing primarily on one family member; the vignettes jump ahead in time irregularly--some chapters take place only a month after the events of the previous chapter, some as much as three years later.

Among the book's multiple narrators, Ryan Erickson feels like the central character. This may be because he is the narrator of the first chapter, which takes place at his sister Anita's wedding, or because he is the character who seems to most fully leave his hometown and thus serves as a foil for the family members who stay in small-town Iowa. Ryan is eager to get away from that milieu, and he does so, going to college and then settling down in Chicago, where he eventually achieves financial success in the high-tech world. His personal life is more problematic, and his separation from his Iowa roots is incomplete, as he invests in various properties in his home town in ways that seem designed to rescue family members in trouble.

Older sister Anita is the beautiful girl who always dreamed of being married. But she finds motherhood challenging, and her husband is a bit of a lout--a banker with a drinking problem. While she breaks out of the housewife mold, that break is as incomplete as Ryan's with his hometown.

The youngest sibling, Torrie, has one of the most interesting stories in the book. When her older siblings have all left home and she feels herself to be a victim of her over-involved mother, Torrie mounts some minor rebellions, one of which has disastrous effects. Yet Torrie is able to rise above her circumstances and achieves the most thorough intellectual break from her childhood (not without some irony, however).

Blake is the sibling who plays the smallest part in the story, overshadowed by cousin Ray (known to the family as Chip). Ray was an outsider as a child, joined the military to become "a man," and spends his years after Vietnam floating from place to place, engaging with a variety of shady people and activities.

The book's multiple narrators allow Thompson to explore a variety of social concerns, and the irregular way in which the story lurches forward reinforces the notion that change was occurring in a similarly irregular yet inexorable fashion. The downside of this structure is that the "plot" does not develop in a traditional sense: I was not surprised to learn that Thompson is known as a short story writer, as the book resembles a series of linked short stories. As a transplanted Midwesterner who was, like Ryan, a political science major who took some abuse for that choice and, like Anita, got married in 1973, much in the story resonated for me. Occasionally snarkiness about the Midwest and Midwesterners did manage to annoy me (it's okay for me to be snarky about the region but not novelists), but Thompson's empathy for her characters overrides that bias. While not a great novel, The Year We Left Home is a rewarding read.

Favorite passage:
It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that testified to their grinding, incessant labor. How hard they had worked, and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of ease, little bit of pride. They had done so much. They had meant to do so much more. Imagine them slipping off to death regretting the task unfinished, the field unplowed, the child unloved. It could break your heart.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

How would the people left behind respond if a Rapture-like event occurred? That is the question Tom Perrotta takes on in The Leftovers, which follows the effects of the "Sudden Departure" (the event is not considered by most to be the Rapture because it did not exclusively sweep up Christians or even believers) on the people of a suburb with the idyllic name of Mapleton.

Perrotta makes an interesting choice in focusing primarily on the Garvey family, all of whose members survived the Sudden Departure. One might surmise that their survival intact would mean the effects on them were less severe--but such is not the case. Mother Laurie, after spending months commiserating with a friend whose daughter was taken in the event, joins a cult called the Guilty Remnant. Its members dress in white, smoke constantly, follow people around town as they go about their daily activities, and do not speak--their motto is "Stop Wasting Your Breath." Son Tom, a college student, also falls into one of the many cults that spring up after the event, the Healing Hug Movement headed by Holy Wayne, whose pregnant teenage "wife" Tom ends up taking on a cross-country trip after Holy Wayne's arrest.

Daughter Jill and father Kevin, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain a normal life in the family home--and it is their struggles that provide the novel's emotional core. Kevin becomes involved with Nora, a woman whose husband and two children were both taken in the Sudden Departure. Nora is dealing with the range of profound emotions one would expect in such a situation and none of her coping strategies have proven particularly successful--including her decision to become involved with Kevin. Jill and her friend Aimee, who is crashing at the Garveys' house, are involved in group sex games, drinking, and skipping school--a fact that the dazed Kevin (who is also the mayor of Mapleton) is aware of but can't seem to cope with.

Perrotta's customary satirical humor and rather dark view of humanity are certainly on display, particularly in his depiction of the cults (not to mention Reverend Matt, who is so incensed that he was not taken in the Rapture--"I should have been first"--that he devotes his life to uncovering the sins of those who disappeared). But I found The Leftovers to be more compassionate than his earlier works (namely Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher). While Kevin, Jill, and Nora have their flaws, we empathize with them and hope that they will be able to remember "what it feels like to be happy."

Favorite passage:
The Garvey clan was like the old Soviet Union, a once mighty power that had dissolved into a bunch of weak and cranky units.

This must be Kyrgyzstan, he thought.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Vanessa Diffenbaugh has been a foster mother to teenagers, which makes her depiction of the emotional life of Victoria Jones, a girl who has recently "aged out" of the foster care system all the more believable. Victoria has been deeply scarred; after not paying her rent in the transitional house she was taken to by her social worker, she ends up living in a San Francisco park, where she tends a garden of plants she has stolen from people's yards. The plants she picks for their meanings (e.g., helenium means tears) rather than their beauty.

One day she happens upon a florist unloading her van and earns some money by carrying things for her. When the florist, Renata, discovers that Victoria can create beautiful arrangements, she gives her a job and finds her a peculiar room (essentially a closet in Renata's sister's apartment) down the street from her shop. Interspersed with stories of Victoria's present are recollections of the year that she spent in the home of foster mother and vineyard owner Elizabeth when she was 8. Clearly, this is the place that should have but didn't become Victoria's home. Meanwhile, back in the present, Victoria meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew, at the flower market, and they become involved. He, too, is interested in the meaning of flowers--but, shockingly to Victoria, he knows an entirely different set of meanings, learned from his mother, Elizabeth's estranged sister. The two engage in a long process of research and debate to arrive at a set of shared meanings. There is also an element of what is almost magical realism, as Victoria becomes known as a florist whose can choose a bloom that will reshape lives and relationships.

As the stories of Victoria past and present unfold, Diffenbaugh explores the damage done by betrayal, loss, and a life lived without love or tenderness. I hope it is not giving too much away to say that the ending is more positive, focusing on the healing power of love and meaningful work. Perhaps it's a reflection on my cynicism that the damage seems more believable than the redemption. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, particularly the role that flowers and their meanings played in Victoria's life.

Favorite passage:
Chamomile. . . energy in adversity.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante

Dr. Jennifer White is a renowned orthopedic surgeon, a specialist in delicate hand surgery. She has been forced into retirement because she has Alzheimer's. As the book opens, she is also the prime suspect in the murder of her neighbor and best friend Amanda, who was found dead from a blow to the head, with the fingers on one hand neatly amputated.

The book is told from Jennifer's perspective, and LaPlante does a wonderful job of conveying what might be happening in the mind of someone with advanced Alzheimer's. Sometimes she recognizes her children, Mark and Fiona, sometimes she doesn't. She has to be told over and over that Amanda is dead. She often remembers events from her past--sometimes believing them to have only recently happened. These recollections make clear that her relationship with Amanda was not complicated, at least in part by the fact that Amanda knew too much about Jennifer's marriage to James, long since dead.

The idea of a mystery in which a person with Alzheimer's is either the perpetrator or a key witness is an intriguing one. Unfortunately, I didn't find this particular mystery--who killed Amanda and why--very interesting. Nonetheless, the look into Jennifer's mind makes the book well worth reading whether the mystery works or not.

Favorite passages:
To love and to grieve and to be unable to confide that grief. It is a lonely place to reside.

Even now, one is leaning over my chair, hand outstretched, trying to pat me on the head. Pet me. No. Stop. I am not a wild thing to be soothed by touch. I will not be soothed.

The room is full of faces I recognize, and if I don't love them, at least I know their names, and that is more than enough. perhaps this is my revelation? Perhaps this is heaven? To wander among a multitude and have a name for each.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

It's hard to see a novel titled This Beautiful Life without thinking the title must be ironic. And, indeed, while the Bergamot family enjoys many advantages, the first member we meet--mother Lizzie--seems to be having difficulty finding a place for herself since the family relocated to Manhattan from Ithaca. Driven to succeed in his new job--a high-level administrative position at a New York university (modeled on Columbia, I think)--father Richard has drifted away from the family. The children--teenager Jake and kindergartener Coco--have both found friends for themselves at their private school. Early in the book, both are at parties--Coco at a sleepover at the Plaza for a friend's birthday and Jake at the home of a girl whose parents are out of town.

Making out with the 14-year-old who hosted the party leads to the events that cause the nearly complete unraveling of the family. The morning after the party, the girl, Daisy Cavanaugh, sends Jake a pornographic video of herself. Shocked, he forwards the message to a friend. The inevitable happens--the video goes viral. By Monday morning, the proverbial shit has hit the fan. The head of school calls Jake's parents--Richard is in an important meeting and cannot/will not leave, so Lizzie goes in alone. The headmaster requires Lizzie and Jake to watch the video in his presence--an indicator of how badly everyone involved handles the problem.

While there are some small surprises as the family deals with the fallout, most of the consequences are predictable. By telling us at the end of the book that Jake's young adult life does not go well, Schulman does not even let readers consider the possible outcomes and how they might be achieved.

This Beautiful Life is certainly a cautionary tale for parents (talk to your kids about privacy and appropriate responses to unwanted sexting), but as a novel, I didn't find it compelling.

Favorite passage:
Sex as a wild and wooly continent, there to be navigated and explored, had been usurped by her son's contemporaries, just as she supposed she and her cohort had once done to their parents--although perhaps a tad less dramatically. Liz thought. Generation after generation of teenagers invading this mysterious and previously "adults only" floating island, laying down the flag of ownership and declaring the previous inhabitants obsolete.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

I am a fan of Laura Lippman. I love her Tess Monaghan series and have enjoyed several of her stand-alone mystery-thrillers. Unfortunately, The Most Dangerous Thing doesn't live up to her usual standard. My first problem with the book was that it uses a tired literary device--the group of adults who, as children, did something terrible that has haunted them and which they now must work through or face dire consequences (in this case, prompted by the literal death of one of the group members in the first chapter). Lippman adds a twist to the story--the children's parents also have a shared secret, and about half of the book is told from their perspective. She also uses a stylistic twist, one that seems to be gaining popularity--the use of first person plural for some of the book.

Despite these twists, the book just isn't very suspenseful or interesting--I simply didn't care what the real story was concerning what happened on the night of the hurricane. And by the time I got to the book-ending revelation of "the most dangerous thing"--I had forgotten that was the title and found Lippman's ominous sounding declaration almost laughable.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
Allowing one's self to be forgiven is just as hard as forgiving. Harder in some ways. Because to be forgiven, one has to first admit to being at fault.