Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

In her fourth mystery, Tara French once again picks up a secondary character from her previous book and makes him the protagonist. In this case, it is Scorcher Kennedy, the homicide detective who tormented Frank Mackey in Faithful Place. Kennedy is the lead detective on a horrific case--father Patrick Spain and children Emma and Jack have been killed, mother Jenny severely injured--that just happens to have taken place in a new development (abandoned when half-built) constructed at the beach where his family spent their vacations when he was growing up. And, oh, yes, where his mom committed suicide when he was 15. Kennedy and the rookie partner he is mentoring disagree about the most likely suspect, and their disagreement ends up producing some major screw-ups in their handling of the case. Also weaving her way in and out of the narrative is Kennedy's mentally ill sister Dina.

Obviously, Kennedy has the required number of family secrets for a French character--not to mention the necessary dark side and difficulty sustaining relationships. Perhaps equally obviously, I've about had it with Tana French. I found the Spain family crisis that  provides the backdrop for the crime ridiculous (almost as ridiculous as the premise of The Likeness) and am growing weary of the tortured cop characters. While I have admired French's way with words (particularly in In the Woods),  I got through Broken Harbor with no pages marked--and there are a lot of pages, 450 to be exact.  Frankly, nothing about the mystery nor the psychological aspects of the story merits that many pages.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage (I made myself find something near the end):
. . . cause and effect isn't a luxury. Take it away and we're left paralyzed, clinging to some tiny raft lurching wild and random on endless black sea. If my mother could go into the water just because, then so could theirs, any night, any minute; so could they. When we can't see a pattern, we fit pieces together until one takes shape, because we have to.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Not long after we first meet House of Mirth's protagonist, the beautiful 29-year-old  Lily Bart, we recognize that Lily has a penchant for making the wrong decision. While Lily has stellar connections in New York society, she has few financial resources--she needs to marry for money (the book is set in the early years of the 20th century). Several times, she has been close to achieving an engagement that will allow her to live in the manner to which she is accustomed (and although she expresses some qualms about the lifestyle, she disdains unmarried women who have had to make lives for themselves, working and living in small apartments or rooming houses). However, every time she is about to grab the monied husband, she cannot make herself do it; instead, she does something to sabotage the arrangement.

Lily fancies herself in love with Lawrence Selden, a young man in a similar situation to Lily's own: he needs to marry a wealthy woman. At some point in the story, each believes their relationship just might work--but they never hold that belief concurrently. Instead, Lawrence watches as Lily's situation worsens, in part due to her own bad decisions, in part because she earns the wrath of some influential women in her set. As the end of the book approaches, her downward spiral accelerates--slanderous rumors circulated by her "frenemies"  cause her aunt to disinherit her; in an effort to pay back money she accepted from a friend's husband (she convinced herself he was investing for her rather than giving her money he saw as paying for her favor), she takes several jobs, none of which work out well. Living in a boarding house far beneath her notion of her rightful place in society, Lily is unable to eat or sleep. She dies from an accidental overdose of a sleeping medication.

Somehow--despite having ended up with 21 English hours as an undergraduate--I missed reading many of the classics in my formative years. Often, when I decide to improve myself by reading from the canon, I am disappointed (sometimes in the book, sometimes in my own shallowness). House of Mirth does not, however, disappoint.  Wharton's depiction of wealthy New Yorkers at the turn of the previous century is keenly observed (she was a wealthy New Yorker herself), as are the effects of living in that milieu on people of various ranks and personalities. Lily is a prisoner of her upbringing--unable to break out of it, but equally unable to force herself to do what is necessary to remain part of it. She is as judgmental and shallow as the friends who betray her; was her fate not so tragic, we might feel little more sympathy for her than we do for the despicable Bertha Dorset, Lily's chief tormentor. Yet we can imagine a different life for Lily--a life she herself cannot truly imagine. Biases of the time are revealed in Wharton's portrayal of Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman who is trying to break into high society. While some reviewers believe this bias detracts from Wharton's work, I found it lent it even greater authenticity.

I listened to the audio version of the book, beautifully read by Wanda McCaddon (she also read The Secret Scripture but used such different accents, I didn't even recognize her voice). In fact, I think listening to the book may have helped me to appreciate Wharton's writing in a way I might not have had I read the book.

Definitely recommended!

Favorite passages:
Mrs. Penniston always sat on a chair, not in it.

He was like a traveler so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he was hardly conscious of his bruises.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Bee Branch is an eighth-grader, a successful student who is on track to go to boarding school (Choate) for high school.  Bernadette Fox, her mother, was an architect who won a MacArthur genius grant after designing just two buildings in LA some 20 years ago; she has not worked for years, hates Seattle, has a mild case of agoraphobia, and goes on rants about a variety of irritants. Elgin Branch, Bee's laid-back father, is a Microsoft team leader who gave the fourth-most-watched TED talk of all time. The family lives in a crumbling house--actually an abandoned school for wayward girls--that is symbolic of the mess their family is in.

Bee decides to take her parents up on a "you can have anything you want for graduation if you have a perfect record in elementary school" promise and ask for a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette and Elgin agree and schedule the trip--but Bernadette is actually in something of a panic at the thought of enforced socializing with others on the boat and the nausea-inducing Drake Passage. She hires a personal assistant in India to handle all of her errands, including massive ordering of supplies for the trip. Meanwhile, ongoing tiffs with her neighbor lead to a series of events that make Bernadette look like she is totally losing it. When Elgin schedules an intervention, Bernadette disappears.

The book is structured as Bee's attempt to find out what happened to her mother (and she does unravel the mystery in an ending I found rather contrived). It includes Bee's narration, as well as many documents--emails, newspaper articles, memos, Christmas letters, press releases, and more. I liked the structure and the humorous commentary on the way we live our lives in the 21st century was on point. The farcical aspects of the book grew wearying, however (I don't last long with movies that are farces either)--some good editing might have produced a tighter, funnier book. Still, the book was a fun read.

Favorite passage:
The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless.

Of note:
Maria Semple is friendly with Carol Cassella, the author of this year's One Book, One Broomfield choice. She uses Cassella's doctor persona in the novel and in the acknowledgments thanks Cassella's daughters for providing models for the character of Bee.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

This Bright River, by Patrick Somerville

Ben Hanson and Lauren Sheehan are thirty-somethings who have retreated to their small hometown in Wisconsin. Both have been betrayed--Ben by his girlfriend and business partner, Lauren by her husband. Ben was also an addict, who wasted a substantial trust fund and spent time in prison. His wealthy father talks him into returning to St. Helens to fix up his late uncle's house for sale (the parents moved to the Chicago burbs after Ben and his sister Haley were grown up). While cleaning up the basement of that home, he comes across some papers that belonged to his cousin Wayne, who died mysteriously at a cabin on Michigan's Upper Peninsula some 18 years ago. He begins to look into his cousin's death--and to become involved with Lauren.

Lauren was a medical resident who spent time in Chad working in a refugee camp. After seeing an mass killing at the camp, she and another doctor leave Chad for Switzerland. Despite some misgivings about him, Lauren marries him. A year later, she flees her husband, suffers a breakdown, and returns to St. Helens, where she works at a coffee shop and interns at a veterinarian's office. Ben is the first person to whom she feels any connection.

Enter her husband. First Ben and Lauren run into him--perhaps coincidentally--in Madison. Then he follows them to the cabin on the UP, where Ben is supposed to be disposing of his uncle's ashes. A violent confrontation occurs. Meanwhile, Ben also unravels the mystery of Wayne's death, which also results in the uncovering of several family secrets.

The review of This Bright River that appeared in The New York Times described the book as treading the "middle ground between the pot-boiling, page-turning mystery and the novel of Big Ideas." For me, the book tread that ground for awhile, but the ending pushed it over the pot-boiling ledge. In addition, the way in which Somerville handled his shifting narrators was confusing (and I generally like books with multiple narrators)--at one point he even inserts parenthetically "(This is Lauren,) What? Is this supposed to suggest to us that Lauren and Ben are co-authoring a book? There's no other clues to such a conceit, so I have to conclude this is just major awkwardness!

Favorite passage:
I suppose I had come to believe the opposite of what moving on implied: there is no actual flight from history, and trying to eliminate it does nothing but increase the speed at which it chases you.