Monday, July 29, 2013

Tapestry of Fortunes, by Elizabeth Berg

Cecilia Ross, a middle-aged motivational speaker, has recently lost her best friend to cancer and decides rather precipitously to change her life. She sells her house and most of her belongings, moves into a house with three women she doesn't know, puts her career on hold, and begins volunteering at a hospice. When she receives a postcard from a long-lost love, she decides to take a road trip to visit him, and her roommates opt to come along. Two of the roommates are also hoping to connect with people from their pasts--physician Lise with her ex-husband and advice columnist Renie with a daughter she placed for adoption 18 years ago. The fourth roommate, Joni, decides to go along when she quits her job as sous chef at an upscale restaurant. Of course, the four have folksy adventures and eventual success with their missions, confirming the cliches that Cece spews in her motivational talks.

The first two Elizabeth Berg novels I ever read--Talk Before Sleep and Range of Motion--were beautifully written and emotionally rewarding explorations of how people deal with illness and death. Lately, her books have disappointed, and Tapestry of Fortunes falls into the disappointing category. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is utterly ridiculous, and the writing tends toward the platitudinous (making one character a motivational speaker and another an advice columnist almost guarantees the writing will be trite). I may have to give up on Elizabeth Berg.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

I am a major fan of Pride and Prejudice; I reread it every few years, not to mention repeated viewings of the BBC version starring Colin Firth. I also like Emma and Persuasion and have read each twice. All three of these Austen works have strong female protagonists and interesting male counterpoints; each satirizes upper class British society while concluding, somewhat ironically (but satisfyingly for the romantic reader) with a happy marriage.

After listening to three women writers discussing Austen's work, I decided I should give Mansfield Park a second chance and . . .  this book is tedious! I can't even bear to describe the plot. Suffice it to say that heroine Fanny Price is priggish and "insipid" (quoting Austen's mother), and her beloved cousin and eventual husband Edmund is insufferably moralistic (yet falls for a shallow flirt). While Austen suggests that Fanny is a better person than her upper class cousins and their social circle because she spent her early childhood in poverty,  poverty does not seem to be improving the majority of Fanny's siblings and Fanny herself, after a visit to her poverty-stricken family, cannot wait to return to the genteel life at Mansfield Park.

Reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time would have been more rewarding.

Favorite Passage:

. . . but Mr. Yates, without discernment to catch Sir Thomas's meaning, or diffidence or delicacy, or discretion enough to allow him to lead the discourse while he mingled among the others with the least obtrusiveness himself . . .   [I like the alliteration, but the careless use of pronouns referring to both Mr. Yates and Sir Thomas is annoying.}

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin

As this novel opens, we meet Josephine, the title character, an enslaved teenager who works for Lu Anne Bell, a sickly woman who fancies herself an artist. Among Josephine's many jobs is "fixing" Lu Anne's paintings. Josephine has tried to run away previously, but she was about to give birth to a child, the product of serial rape by her "master," Lu Anne's husband. Thus, she was forced to return to the Bell plantation to give birth to a child born dead. Four years later, on the day in 1852 when we meet her, she is planning to run again.

The narration then shifts to Lina Sparrow, a young associate at a Manhattan law firm circa 2004. She is finishing up a brief, only to have it dropped in the trash by her supervising partner, who announces that the case has been settled. He tells her that he has an exciting new case for her, a lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery. Lina's job is to find an appealing lead plaintiff.  By coincidence (there are many in this book), Lina's father, a noted artist, takes her to an exhibit of the work of Lu Anne Bell, which a leading art critic has recently announced were really painted by her slave Josephine. Lina decides that Josephine's descendants would be good plaintiffs and begins to research the family. Meanwhile, her father is about to mount a show of new work featuring paintings of Lina's mother, who died when she was 4.

The perspective continues to shift between Josephine and Lina, with Lina's sections including (phony) historical documents she uncovers as she delves into Josephine's life. These documents include letters from the daughter of a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a narrative written by a slave doctor (a physician who patched up captured runaways so they could be resold). The book's ending brings new information and a new direction for Lina and tragedy for Josephine.

The House Girl is jam-packed with interesting topics and issues--slavery, the Underground Railroad, what happened to runaways who were captured, reparations, art and how the authorship of works can be established, the strictures of being a wife and mother, coming of age (in a rather delayed fashion) . . . and on and on. If Conklin had focused more narrowly--perhaps eliminating Lina's character altogether and using a variety of perspectives to tell Josephine's story--the book might have been more effective. As it is, I found the narrative too scattered, the plot rife with too many coincidences, and Lina's story ridiculous.

Favorite passage:
It is not much that I need for happiness.  . . . I will strive in my own way for the abolitionist cause. I will assist others as I can on the Railroad, and this is really all that I ask.  To be a good wife to Jack, to work alongside him, to find comfort where I may, to give comfort to others as I am able. Is it too much to wish for such a life? Is it too little?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Humanity Project, by Jean Thompson

The first characters we meet in The Humanity Project are Sean, a construction worker who has hit hard financial times, and his teenage son Conner. The two are about to lose their house, and Sean is distracting himself by looking for women on line, an activity that will prove disastrous. Next we meet Linnea, a teenager who is arguing with her stepsister Megan in the bathroom of their high school. They, too, are about to be beset with disaster--a school shooting in which Megan will be killed and Linnea will be emotionally scarred to the point that her mother can no longer handle her. Her mother sends Linnea to California to live with her father Art, a middle-aged part-time teacher who has no idea how to parent a child he does not know. Linnea and Conner meet and become friends in just one of many coincidences that mark The Humanity Project.

The book takes its name from a nonprofit foundation started by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Foster. Mrs. Foster employs Conner as a handy man and hires her former visiting nurse Christie (who just happens to be Art and Linnea's neighbor) to head the foundation. The foundation's goal is to spend Mrs. Foster's money in ways that will help poor people and heighten humanity in general. One of its first major projects is hosting a conference on "Investing in Our Better Selves," which will explore the connection between economics and spirituality.

Despite the book's title, the foundation is a relatively small part of the many intersecting stories in the novel, most of which feature people whose humanity has been undermined either by the terrible circumstances they have faced (Connor, Sean, and Linnea) or by their own poor choices (Art, Christie, and Sean). Connor and Sean's story is especially well-told; while Linnea's story should be moving, it somehow fails to grip the reader--and perhaps it also failed to grip Thompson, as she seems to let Linnea slip away until the last chapter, something of an epilogue in which Linnea describes what happened to a number of characters.

Although The Humanity Project has gotten a number of positive reviews, I found it to be seriously flawed. The theme of how circumstance and decision-making can make us less human is worth exploring, Thompson's novel is too cluttered with extraneous characters and subplots to do the theme justice. In addition, the ending is weak--it's a bit too neat, and the device of the retrospective epilogue is trite (and ineffective).

Favorite passage: None

Friday, July 12, 2013

Being Esther, by Miriam Karmel

Esther Lustig is an eighty-something widow who lives in Chicago. Her daughter wants her to move into an assisted living facility, but she is resisting as hard as she can. She does not want to go to the "land of the living dead"--even though she knows she's not as sharp, physically or mentally, as she once was.

Esther has lived a conventional life--she married a nice Jewish boy, moved to the suburbs, had two children, and moved back to a city apartment when the children were grown. She hangs out with a childhood friend she reconnected with following her husband's death. She loves her granddaughter Sophie, but is not sold on Sophie's know-it-all boyfriend.

Not a lot happens in Being Esther, but many of the scenes have humorous aspects (Esther rams her grocery cart into an obnoxious woman shouting into a cell phone at the supermarket).  Perhaps because I am fairly old and have a mother in her eighties, this didn't feel like fresh territory, but judging by the reader reviews on Amazon, other readers found it insightful.

Favorite passage:
Now, waiting for her friend to call, Esther looks up from the obituaries and sees, as if for the first time, the vitamins, the sugar bowl, the ruffled edging on the blue quilted placemat. Such homely objects. Yet each has a sense of prupose. The longer she stares t them, the more they mock her with their specificity. They know what they're about. They aren't sitting around, conjuring the few taglines that might explain the meaning of their existence.

. . . lately more and more people do just that [talk down to Esther], as if age has shrouded her in stupidity.