The plight of women

I didn’t know what to expect when beginning A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum, although the title of course gave me clues. And having read it, I’m not sure what exactly I was able to take from it.

The story is an intergenerational saga about Arab women. The two main protagonists are Isra, and Isra’s daughter Deya, separated by 17 years but experiencing many of the same life choices. Isra was born and raised in Palestine in a restrictive, traditional home, with a mother obsessed with getting her married off properly at the youngest age possible. Although Isra realizes her life is not ideal, in Palestine she has at least the beauty of the landscape in which she lives, and which she loves. But when her mother picks the suitor from America, whose family is visiting Palestine to find him a bride, Isra can’t help letting a tiny bit of excitement surface about what her new life might be like in America. She envisions certain freedoms her parents would never have permitted her, and she hopes to find love with her taciturn young suitor, Adam, the eldest in a family of three boys and a girl.

The reality is far different. Her home is in the basement of her inlaws’ house, with one window that looks out on a street barren of all greenery but a plane tree or two. Her mother-in-law, Fareeda, is every bit as conservative as Isra’s own family—all she wants from Isra is for her to relieve Fareeda from the cooking and cleaning and to produce a male heir for the family. There is no question of college, a job, or even a walk around the block on her own; Isra is essentially a prisoner of her new family’s culture, as stultifying as the old. Fareeda’s obsession with a male grandson prompts pregnancy after pregnancy for Isra, who is “unlucky” enough to bear only girls.

Seventeen years after Isra came to New York, we see the same household, headed by Fareeda, from the viewpoint of Deya, Isra and Adam’s eldest daughter. Adam and Isra are dead, and the girls are being raised by their grandparents. Deya is now the one in the hotseat being exhorted to pick a suitor, and though she has expressed interest in college and some kind of life outside the home and the marriage bond, no one is listening to her…until she meets a strangely familiar woman who urges her to stand up for herself and refuse to perpetuate the life of restriction and abuse experienced by her mother.

I’m really torn by how to react to this book. I feel like the representation rings true, but I’m not sure how widespread is this author’s experience in the context of present-day Palestinian Americans. I applaud the author for taking on the difficult subjects of generational discrimination and family/spousal abuse, but even though the point she is making is that the women who suffer from this are essentially prisoners of a tiny sequestered life, I found myself becoming bored and impatient with the incessant, repetitive details of that life. Despite being the recipient of awards and encomiums from critics, this is not beautifully written literary fiction, but simply a straightforward narrative. There are occasional flights of fancy that draw one in, but it’s mainly kind of a slog.

Also, the usual result of telling a story from the perspective of two generations is that the more recent one has learned something from the experiences of the previous one; but in this book, I feel like in some ways Isra and Deya are almost interchangeable, both in their experience and their thought patterns; neither of them is able to articulate their situations. They dither a lot without drawing conclusions because the basic question, “What do you want?” seems to be so far beyond them, which, while possibly being the point, is also deeply unsatisfying. It made the story both horrifying and boring, and I don’t know what to do with that. I kept reading to the end, and was confused all over again.

I can’t say I’m happy to have read this book, but perhaps I can express gratitude that it’s in the world for those who need it and will benefit by it? It gives a voice to a certain sector of the Arab Muslim community, but its lack of nuance will enrage some, even as they acknowledge the representation.

Don’t ask…

I picked up Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, because it has been so hyped and apparently so beloved by so many; and it sounded like an interesting story.

I have to say I can’t understand why this book gets almost exclusively four- and five-star ratings and rave reviews from everyone on Goodreads. First of all, it was interminably long relative to the story that emerges, which is to say that it was slow. In fact, I’m looking at my Goodreads timetable in disbelief, because it seemed like my reading experience went on so much longer than two days!

There were certainly tumultuous events included in the story, but in between it was a rather mundane accounting, and several times in various characters’ segments I thought to myself, Do I really need to know that about you? Isn’t there something more important or personal you’d like to share? There is a certain degree of soul-searching amongst the many protagonists, but mostly we get the symptoms without the explanation of the root of the problems (or else we are expected to intuit them for ourselves), and several of the characters dwell so obsessively within the symptoms that it becomes wearing on the reader.

It’s hard to know, from chapter to chapter, what—or whom—the book is about. It begins with two young rookie cops, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson, on the beat in the Bronx, but it only dwells on their work lives for a minute. Then it focuses on the fact that they both decide to move to a suburb known to be hospitable to those “on the job.” There is a lengthy description of the quiet, rather barren and empty vibe of Gillam by Francis’s wife, Lena, who would have preferred to stay in the lively and friendly heart of the city. Bill and his wife, Anne, then move in next door; but all Lena’s hopes for companionship and the raising of their children together is dashed by the cold aloofness of Anne despite all Lena’s friendly overtures. At this point in the book, I thought the story was going to be about this isolated and specialized town of cops, perhaps exploring the corruption or the bigotry that results from this false association of all one “kind” of people. But after Lena’s narration is done, not another mention is made of that aspect of the town, throughout the rest of the book. It felt to me like a complete false start, and I had to consciously reorient myself from that point in the story to see what the rest of it was about.

Despite Bill’s wife’s coldness and sense of superiority, their only son Peter ends up being best friends with Francis and Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate until, in the year they turn 14, everything goes off the rails in a volatile and ultimately tragic way. Then we get the years of estrangement from several points of view, detailing what happens to each of the characters, although this is quite uneven and gives vastly more attention to some than to others. It seems, despite everything that has happened between their families, that Peter and Kate are both adamant they are a match not to be broken, and they end up together. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the book description.) And then we get the details of their joint life and how everything plays out, influenced by the tragedy and drama of the past.

Again, I felt like I was reading several separate books. There’s the parents’ story, together and separately, there’s Peter’s story and Kate’s, there’s Peter’s and Kate’s together…and at each turn I felt at a loss to say what this book was about. Is the point of the story that true love prevails no matter what? Is the point that a person’s upbringing has lasting effects that reverberate throughout his life, even if he thinks he is fine and the past is the past? Is the point that people can recover from anything, given time and space and an occasional helping hand? Is the point that you’re stuck with your family, no matter what? Is the point that living in the suburbs is the kiss of death to a fulfilling or exciting life?

Many other reviewers noted that the book was a masterful character study, and I guess I could admit to this; but when I think back on what I actually know about some of these characters, it’s hard to say, based on the dearth of personal feelings they reveal. Peter’s character, in particular, has upsetting feelings that he is completely unable either to express or explain. So…what’s the point of an outsider dwelling on them? If I, as the reader, have insight into Peter that he doesn’t share, what does that benefit the story?

There was a comment in the book about things being very different in the 1970s than they were 25 years later in terms of therapy, shame, avoidance, and all the other ways to deal with mental illness or addiction, and that this reticence to talk about or even bring up the subject had a profound effect on people who suffered from or were associated with it, but I didn’t understand this as the point of an entire book. There is a resolution of sorts in the end, but it felt so anticlimactic and like such a platitude that I turned the last page with resentment for having had to go through every step with these characters to get there.

One reviewer compared this book to Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, a book I read with enthusiasm and reviewed positively, finding it smart, witty, and suspenseful. Perhaps the disconnect with Ask Again, Yes is that I failed to find a home with any of the characters, to identify with one sufficiently that I cared about what happened to them. All I can say is, if you enjoy a character-driven plot (and aren’t put off by a somewhat disjointed story arc), you might love this book.
I did not.

The English teacher

After being completely bowled over by Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, I decided to check the library for others of her books I could immediately access with my Kindle, and discovered The English Teacher.

The story is about Vida Avery and her 15-year-old son, Peter. Vida (pronounced Vee-dah) showed up 16 years ago at the Fayer Academy, an elite private school housed in the mansion formerly owned by her grandfather. She was pregnant, and there was no sign of a father’s presence for the baby; she took an entry-level job and began slowly working her way up through the grades and positions until she came out where she wanted to be, which was as the best and most revered English teacher in the school, instructor to honors students and seniors. She and her son live in an old gardener’s cottage on the grounds of the school, so they are both cocooned by this small academia, socializing only with other faculty members and students, eating most meals in the cafeteria, and hardly ever leaving the grounds.

Then widower Tom Belou encounters and is smitten by Vida (or by a version of her that he sees at an emotional moment), and soon comes the thing for which Peter has prayed his entire life: Tom asks Vida to marry him, and for her and Peter to become a part of his family (he has three children). Peter has dreamed of having a father (Vida never lets a word about his pass her lips) and siblings and a real family home where meals are made in the kitchen, people sit down together to eat them, and experiences are shared. It’s too bad for Peter that married life doesn’t change his mother one iota, and his hopes are largely unfulfilled. And soon he begins to observe that Vida, far from being happy in her new life, is exhibiting strange signs of disconnection, not just from her changed circumstances but from all parts of her life, including in the classroom where she formerly ruled.

This was a weird one, coming off King’s other book, which I adored. Although this, too, was a character study of a person in transition, the thing that initially put me off about it was the very thing I loved about the other—the protagonist. As much as I loved Casey, that much and more did I dislike Vida. I had the sense all through the book that there was something deeply damaged about her, that it would come out, and that I would then discover some empathy for her; but for a large percentage of the book she was simply repellent. I pitied her, but I didn’t like her at all until about the 85-percent mark! (Remember, I’m reading on Kindle, so we go by percentages, not pages.)

It was a good story, revealing and proficiently told, and the parts that were attuned to Peter kept me going, but it was a hard one to sit through in some ways. I’m glad the book wasn’t longer, and that it started to resolve just as I thought I couldn’t hang in there any more.

Lily King is an expert writer who always searches for and finds the perfect word, and whether I liked or loathed Vida, this ended up being a worthwhile experience. I have placed a hold on her book Euphoria at the library. It’s apparently popular—I’m #410 on the wait list!

Wings

As with her book The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh has found a nature-based analogy to support the story in We Never Asked for Wings. The theme of birds and their migratory habits is connected to more than just the immigration part of this tale in which people cross over the border between California and Mexico each for his or her own reasons, or in some cases try to avoid re-crossing that border at all costs. There is a fact about migration that sums up the actions of at least one of the protagonists:

“Migrating birds reorient themselves at
sunset. The exact reason is unknown,
but at twilight, just when the sun
drops beyond the horizon line,
birds flying in the wrong direction
correct their paths all at once.”

vanessa diffenbaugh

Although she has born two children—Alex, now 15, and Luna, just six—Letty has in many respects been an absent mother for most of their lives. Only 18 when she became pregnant with Alex, she chose not to tell the father, who had a bright future with which she didn’t want to interfere, instead essentially handing over the baby to her own parents, who raised first Alex and then Luna while Letty worked three jobs to support the family and send money back to relatives in Mexico. She spent the rest of her time partying like a perennial teenager (which is how she ended up with Luna).

Suddenly, everything changes: Letty’s father makes the decision to visit Mexico and, while he initially allows his family to believe he will return, he doesn’t. Once Letty’s mother realizes he’s not coming back—whether by choice or because the “coyote” they paid to bring him was no good—she leaves San Francisco, her grandchildren, and Letty, with a freezer full of pre-made meals, a bunch of notes on how to do all the parenting tasks so foreign to her daughter, and a belief constructed almost entirely from her own wishes that everything will be okay with them.

Everything is emphatically not okay—they get off to a rocky start and, as the story progresses partly through Letty’s eyes and partly narrated by Alex, their existence becomes increasingly complicated and precarious. But all of them are given the opportunity, like the migrating birds, to correct their paths, and it’s the chronicle of these struggles to do right that makes up the rest of this engaging story.

Diffenbaugh deals in this book with a lot of themes—immigration, parenting, bullying, responsibility, and love—seriously, but with a light touch. The book held my attention throughout, and I enjoyed the change of voice between Alex and his mother and their different perceptions of what was going on in their lives. I can’t say I enjoyed it quite as much as I did The Language of Flowers, but it’s definitely a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre.

Appended note: The cover is sadly inappropriate. The child is too young to be Luna; they never (would never) have a bird in a cage; and I can only conclude that whoever designed it didn’t read the book. The cover on the Italian version, depicting a worried-looking young woman who could be the frantic Letty, is a better fit, but why not do something with the grandfather’s beautiful traditional feather art or include some migratory birds? A big miss.

Impersonation

Impersonation, by Heidi Pitlor, is described as a book about a professional ghost writer, Allie Lang, who is hired to write a memoir. The subject (and supposed actual author) of the memoir is Lana Breban, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate with (it turns out, big surprise) aspirations to run for office. Her “people” have concluded that her tough image needs softening, and what could be better than a tell-all about her experiences as a feminist mother raising a son?

What this book is actually about is much less clear—in fact, it’s a bit muddy. First off, Allie, who has made a minor career working as a ghost writer for those who can’t write their own, is less memorable for her experiences in this arena and more as regards the perils of trying to live your life as a freelancer when you are a single mother. Given her status—sole support to herself and her boy, Cass—one would expect her to be tougher, feistier, more proactive about standing up for herself. This is a major disappointment of character development.

When she first gets the gig writing Lana Breban’s book, she’s excited—Lana is a sort of heroine to her—and she fantasizes about all the time they will spend together while Lana recounts her motherhood stories so Allie can craft them into a powerful narrative. The actual events, however, are far less satisfactory—Lana is too busy with the rest of her life to give Allie any time, and (oddly) refuses to divulge the details about her life as a wife or as Norman’s mother. Allie garners a few facts, but it’s like pulling teeth, and Lana basically tells Allie to do her research, put together some materials on feminism and boys, and cobble it all together with a thin strand of relevant detail.

Unfortunately, neither Allie’s editor nor her publishers are satisfied with the conscientious research approach, and Lana’s own people concur—they want the personal, not the educational. But Lana still won’t budge, and Allie is caught in the middle. This is where the book really begins to fall apart for me. Allie takes up her difficulties and reservations with both her agent and her contact at the publishing house, explains that she can’t do her job properly without more cooperation from Lana, and is basically told to get it done no matter what she has to do. They both essentially give her the brush-off. I found this part of the plot to be wholly unbelievable—surely at least one of them would be willing to take it up with Lana, or at least with her people, and give Allie some support.

The rest of the book talks unendingly about Allie’s problems—with the book and in life—but Allie never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself. Admittedly, people of Lana’s class and stature (the truth that begins to emerge is that her son has been raised by a nanny and never sees his mother) don’t understand or care about what people of Allie’s class go through when it comes to personal privations experienced in trying to make ends meet, no matter what lip service they pay. But there are so many points in the narrative at which the reader (or at least this reader) just wants to shake Allie and scream, Are you crazy? Do this! Don’t do that! SPEAK UP! When she finds herself in an unresolvable predicament, I felt like it was her just desserts.

The book explores such themes as class blindness, economic instability, how to raise empathetic sons, the MeToo movement, the distress of seeing Trump elected President, conflicts between mothers and daughters, and more. But all this “topicality” overpowers the story line and ensures a lack of connection with its main characters, who end up being both boring and unlikeable.

I have probably given too much away for a reviewer, but honestly, I kept reading waiting for a payoff that was so minor and with an ending so odd that I regretted not paying more attention to the fact that the majority of ratings on Goodreads were two or three stars. I feel like the title unintentionally gives away more about the book than was meant—it’s impersonating an important read, but really it’s just some sad people coping poorly with life. It is characterized in its publisher’s description and in author quotes as satirical, timely, insightful, and bitingly funny; of all of those, I could maybe agree with insightful. The satire, if such it was, was painful, the timeliness is contained in the context but not in the details, and I failed to find the humor.

Maybe I was just having a bad week…but I don’t think so.

Procedural, no police

I just finished reading Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. (I don’t know why she ever bothered to use a pseudonym, since she outs herself right on the first book cover flap, but whatever.) I’d almost like to make that statement (I finished!) twice or three times, because at 944 pages, this was a gargantuan achievement!

At that many pages, I also expected it to be an achievement that cost me some labor, and to be saying afterwards that she needs an editor—but I’m not going to do that. I loved the entire book. I didn’t find anything extraneous I wanted to cut.
I enjoyed reading it 40 or 50 pages at a time at the breakfast table or during my middle-of-the-night intermission from sleep, wherein I wake up and need to separate myself from my dreams, get a glass of water, and redirect my mind with good fiction, and I was reluctant to finish it.

Just to deal with this up front, there is absolutely no transgender character (or scandal) here. If you have heard that, you have been misinformed. In one instance, a killer puts on a wig and trenchcoat to disguise himself. That’s it. If you want to argue about this, go somewhere else. I’m tired of all the ugliness.

This book was such a wonderful adventure or exploration of all the ways two dedicated and stubborn people solve a mystery by following every lead, reading every note, re-interviewing anyone with any potential involvement, however small, and keeping their minds open and churning up ideas and solutions. It’s the first time that Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott have tackled a cold case, let alone one more than 40 years old, but their innate curiosity leads them down the path of one of the most fascinating mysteries they have ever encountered—the disappearance of Dr. Margot Bamborough. They are simultaneously tending to three or four other clients’ cases at the same time, aided by their contract hires Barclay and Morris, and organized by new secretary Pat; and their personal lives, both apart and together, are also on display. Robin is hoping that her unexpectedly acrimonious divorce from Matthew will conclude soon, while Strike is still dealing with the fallout from his ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who married someone else and gave birth to twins but still texts him wistful (and manipulative) messages in the middle of the night. And both of them are all too conscious of some significant moments they have shared that could mean more, if either of them chooses to act.

This is the ultimate in police procedurals, without having the police involved. Because of some good contacts, some clever thinking, and some helpful people, the detectives are able to get their hands on a good part of the police record, but the complication is that the original lead detective was suffering a mental breakdown while conducting the case, while his successor was more interested in devaluing everything his predecessor had done than in actually breaking new ground. So in some ways they are looking at the case not only with fresh eyes, but with attention to details that no one previous had seen in the same light.

As usual, Rowling also provides great side characters, who give both darkness and whimsy as their contribution to the main story she is telling. Robin’s relationship with Morris and Strike’s interactions with Pat, as well as the background of Cormoran’s family problems, provided great context and cushioning for the rest.

I don’t know what it was about this book—whether it was the book itself or simply the way I approached reading it, a little at a time rather than an all-out binge-fest—but I never got impatient with any red herring or tired of their continued speculations to one another about the various aspects. Part of it, of course, is the way Rowling writes the interactions between the partners, and the excruciatingly slow build she has given their relationship through multiple volumes that keeps you reading for any hint of a shift. There are some in this book, but I’m neither giving them away nor hinting at how extensive they might be. All I will say is that I felt completely satisfied by the resolution of the case, and that I have no doubt that the next chapter in the Cormoran-and-Robin show will be interesting!

Guns and diversity

itendsWhile scrolling through the Los Angeles Public Library’s e-book offerings, I came across a young adult novel that had been hyped to me, and it was available so I checked it out and started reading. The book is This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and I was curious to see how it would explore the incendiary subject of school shootings.

One of the reasons that several people encouraged me to read this book is that it is written by a “We Need Diverse Books” member, and has two female lesbian protagonists (and one is also Latina), a prominent character who is Middle Eastern, and so on. But what I found was that this was more of a problem than an advantage, because the author gave their credentials as if she were cherry-picking specific examples of ethnicity and sexual identification to appear in her novel for the sake of that alone. I guess what I’m saying is, not only did their diversity make no significant difference to who they were in the context of the story, but it seemed to further accentuate “otherness.” She stereotyped them.

The basic plot of the book is that a boy, Tyler, who dropped out of school the year before, is scheduled to come back and try again, but instead, while the first student body assembly of the year is taking place in the auditorium with only a handful of students and a couple of teachers missing, he locks all the doors from the outside, enters through a stage door, and begins shooting people.

The story is told from four points of view, two of them in the auditorium and two of them outside trying to figure out what is happening and hoping to help their siblings and classmates to escape. There are also some other viewpoints represented via a few students’ texts to one another and one boy’s entries on his blog.

The narrative jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present moment. The protagonists are all related in some way to the shooter—one is his sister, one is his ex-girlfriend, one is his sister’s girlfriend, and the last is that girlfriend’s brother. All have a history with Tyler, and each of these, as recounted, gives perspective on their interactions with him. You do gain some knowledge in this way about what may be some of Tyler’s issues, but because there is never any internal, first-person view given by Tyler, most of that is left unexplored, and this becomes a huge flaw. Tyler is largely painted as an evil guy, and since he isn’t allowed to speak for himself, we never find out the nuanced details that brought him to this place. I’m not an apologist—I realize that not every kid who is abused or friendless or bullied turns into a murderer. But this book had the opportunity to explore that, and instead Tyler is a smiling, vindictive, one-dimensional jerk with a gun. And the protagonists, despite the sharing of their back stories, are also one-dimensional to the point where the two female characters’ narratives sound so similar it’s easy to get confused about who is speaking.

The book initially confused me as to its power, because it is written on a breathless timetable in which minutes are literally counted down (one chapter being the action taking place between 10:00 and 10:06 a.m., etc.), and that gives the book a pace and a tension that builds on initial foreboding to boost the reader onto an emotional high. The countdown and the jumps between narrators keep you enthralled as you wait to see what’s happening inside the auditorium while you’re outside, and what’s happening outside when you’re inside. It took arriving at the end of the book and feeling strangely let down (and also emotionally manipulated) to make me realize that although the pacing pushed me to the end, once I got there I was devoid of answers, or even of much content. The book is so thoroughly focused on the events of 54 minutes that it fails to provide sufficient context to explain them.

The charitable interpretation of this book would be that the author was well intentioned but simply overwhelmed by the scope of the issue and therefore told it as best she could but without diving below the surface. This problem was accentuated by the time frame she set herself in the plot—I feel like the need to keep the tension at a certain pitch precluded her flashbacks from going into sufficient detail to satisfy. The less charitable would be that this topical subject was sensationalized for the sake of book sales.

hatelistMy recommendation would be that you read Jennifer Brown’s Hate List instead, a book that is successful at breaking down the barriers between victim and villain in its shooter, at explaining the survivor’s guilt of the people who knew him best, and in showcasing the dark thoughts that everyone has but most never act upon.

 

Little Fire

I just finished reading Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I have had the e-book on reserve at the library for two months, because I saw that there was going to be a television show based on it on Hulu, and I always like to read the book first. But there were so many people trying to do likewise that although I reserved it in March, I didn’t get the book until May 1st, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist watching the show.

I’m going to say something that I’m not sure I have ever said in my history of reading: I liked the show better. Much better. I expected to enjoy it, given that it stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, both of whom I admire and respect as actors and also as producers. But the changes they made to the script that differed from the book made the story come alive in a way that it just didn’t on the page.

LittleFiresmatches

Elena Richardson is a “legacy” citizen of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her ancestors were among the people who dictated the layout, rules, and boundaries of what kind of town it would be, and despite an initial passion in her teens to make a name for herself as a journalist, Elena settled instead into the comfortable and expected lifestyle of an upper-class wife and mother by marrying a lawyer, having four children in five years, and working part-time as a reporter for the small daily newspaper.

Mia Warren is an itinerant artist, a single mother with a teenage daughter, who has spent the past 15 years moving from town to town as whim, art, or necessity bade her. She has come to Shaker Heights partly for the sake of her daughter, who yearns for a more settled lifestyle; Mia has heard good things about the educational system and thinks that perhaps they could stay for a while, maybe until Pearl graduates from high school. Mia and Pearl rent a duplex from Elena Richardson, and from this point the lives of the members of the two families become increasingly tangled, first by the children and later by the adults.

A story within the story, a custody battle over an abandoned Chinese baby, becomes at least partially the issue that tears the families (and to a certain extent the community) apart, but it’s only a catalyst for what’s really happening, which is all focused on the issue of motherhood: what it is and isn’t, what it should be, the despair in the face of the lack of it, and the kinds of love that exist between mothers and children.

The thing is, it’s a good book. The characterizations are interesting and thorough, the issues are targeted, there is a lot of nuance, and Ng has a beautiful command of language that ups this into literary territory. It is not a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with a suburban setting—it’s a deliberate piece of fiction focused on middle-class ethics that requires the reader’s attention to detail. But I titled this review “Little Fire” on purpose, because in comparison to the TV show, the passion is lacking.

Some might say that I’m showing my preference for soap opera over real content, but I don’t believe that is the case. The TV show, by specifying that Mia and Pearl are black, opens up a whole different atmosphere and theme not present in the extremely low-key and nonspecific text, and makes racism a huge topic of the story. When questioned about this change, Celeste Ng said that when she was writing she didn’t feel capable of adequately portraying black experience, since it wasn’t hers; but the effect of what she did instead, which was to leave you constantly wondering exactly what the differences were that came between these families, watered things down for me.

The relationships themselves are much more intense, because more personal, in the show than in the book, particularly that of Mia with her photographer mentor, of Elena and Pearl, of Mia and Izzy, and in the subplot involving Bebe, the natural mother of the abandoned infant, May Ling / Mirabelle. The argument could be made that the characters of Elena and Mia are more polarized and therefore more stereotypical in the show; but this decision also allows for three or four of the best moments on TV, as white privilege is skewered in a way I have seldom seen, and a few sharp lines decimate attitudes that have taken centuries to build. There is a lot of “calling out” in the show, but in the context of the story it doesn’t feel like a history lesson, it feels like some sharp, intelligent people seeing through some lazy, careless, unaware ones. And no, it’s not all about race by a long shot—there are so many other forms of privilege that are exposed here.

Celeste Ng is a producer on the series, but she is one of many, and the show is obviously the child of Witherspoon and Washington. I wonder, given that she has no writing credit on any of the episodes, whether she went along with the changes reluctantly or was enthusiastic about the expansion of her work into some new realms. The book is thoughtful, well written, descriptive, expressive, and worthy of your attention; but the show is something more.
Whoever’s vision held sway, the Hulu production is a masterful accomplishment as the melding of written and visual arts by some talented, insightful women.

 

More Kemmerer!

After completing and thoroughly enjoying Brigid Kemmerer’s Call It What You Want earlier this week, I was positively compelled to read two of her other contemporary realistic teen fiction novels: Letters to the Lost, and More Than We Can Tell. Previous to 2015, Kemmerer was apparently known for her “Elementals” series about four brothers with paranormal powers, but when I read the descriptions, I wasn’t enticed to read one. I can’t say the same for her contemporary realistic novels, which I have practically inhaled one after another without stopping, becoming incensed when my Kindle ran out of juice at 2:30 in the morning about 40 pages from the end of the last one!

These books remind me of a few other authors—Dessen, Caletti, Rowell—because their books also contain that ideal combination of relationship and life events that propels the story. Even though there are elements of romance to each book, the primary motivation is understanding, empathy, and relationship. Although I have seen some young reviewers on Goodreads remark on the swoon-worthiness of various protagonists (as do some of the other characters!), most recognize that they are not reading these books for the romance but for the real-life transformations that occur as a result of the connections made by the people in Kemmerer’s books.

letterslostLetters to the Lost is, as one might assume from its title, an epistolary tale. While working his community service gig at the local cemetery by clearing up the debris left by its visitors and then mowing the plots, Declan Murphy finds a letter left by one of the headstones. When he picks it up and reads it, he feels a surprising affinity with the feelings expressed by its author and, in an impulsive moment, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket, appends the words “Me, too” to the end of it, and lays it back on the grave, never dreaming that the original writer would come back to find his alteration of her letter.

Juliet Young, who has been heartbroken for four months since the death of her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run, is outraged when she sees that someone has dared to appropriate her grief, and writes another, indignant letter addressing not her mom but the encroaching P.S. person. This is the beginning of both a correspondence and a friendship that grows faster than either could have dreamed, as they each feel free in their anonymity to express some of their deepest feelings and fears.

The truth is, Declan and Juliet are not complete strangers to one another; but the public personnas they wear at school have blinded each other and almost everyone else to who they are or have the potential to be. It takes some extraordinary events to bring them out of hiding, for one another and with all the other people in their lives with whom they need to clear the air.

moretellIn More Than We Can Tell, one of the significant sidekicks from Letters to the Lost gets his own tale, which is a more than satisfying happenstance for those who loved the first book. He was an intriguing and important character in the first story, but although we gleaned bits and pieces of his history, there was so much more to tell. As in Letters, and also in the book I read earlier, Rev Fletcher gets a counterpart, Emma Blue, to help him reveal his story while dealing with the fallout from her own, and together the two are able to transition some difficult events with all the ambivalent feelings they stir up.

Rev has loving adoptive parents who took him in 10 years ago at age seven, and adopted him a few years later. He has for the most part put the effects of his troubled early childhood aside, but when he turns 18 and receives a letter from the father who abused him both mentally and physically, it sends him into a tailspin from which he is having a hard time recovering.

Emma has parents who love her, but her mother is hypercritical of Emma’s choice to follow in her father’s footsteps as a creator of video games. To escape the bickering between them, Emma focuses all her time and attention on the perfecting of a computer game she has created from scratch. But when an intrusive and insistent “troll” begins harassing her online, she is reluctant to reveal this problem to a mother who will order her to stop or a father who will be disappointed in her less-than-perfect design security.

Rev and Emma meet, and each serves as an outlet for the other’s private fears. But then issues arise that cause a lack of trust, and it’s not clear whether the budding relationship will survive them.

These books, while sounding formulaic (the alternating points of view, the pairing of two protagonists, the problems they must overcome) are in all honesty totally immersive, nuanced, and redemptive in tone. I can’t imagine a teenager who couldn’t relate to at least one, if not all, of these characters, and the “lessons” that are being taught are not heavy-handed. Some of the messages—that you can ask for what you want instead of passively waiting to be given it; that unkindness should always be resisted on your own behalf and that of others; that talking to people will mostly relieve all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings; and that a moment is just a moment and a day is just a day, always making room for a different choice or change—are beautifully illustrated by these stories.

I do plan to read the sequel to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale retelling Kemmerer has written, and I still maintain hers is one of the better and more original one of these out there, but I think her true strength lies in writing about real teenagers in the throes of their confusing, sometimes difficult lives.

I also have great admiration for her, in that she has written at least a dozen books between the years of 2012 and 2020, while simultaneously being married and having four sons!

 

Contemporary YA

While scrolling through books on bookoutlet.com in the search of a few more to round out my $35 minimum, I came across Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer. The name sounded familiar to me, so I looked her up on Goodreads and realized that she was the one who wrote the fairy tale retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I liked so much, so although it didn’t appear to be fantasy, I decided to try this one, which seems to have been written (or at least published) between that book and its sequel, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, which I also own but have not yet read.

whatuwantHaving read both books, I can see that Kemmerer has created for herself something of a formula, although in this case that’s a good thing. One of the ways that her fairy tale book worked was to tell it from two perspectives—those of the enchanted prince and the commoner girl—and this book echoes that by also giving us two protagonists with story lines that intersect.

The male protagonist, Rob, is a victim of circumstance, although many of his peers think he is more than that. Rob’s father, Rob Sr., a financial advisor, was a mini Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme on his clients that lost them all their money. To add insult to injury, when he was turned in Rob’s father tried and failed to commit suicide, and survived in a vegetative state, needing constant care from his now destitute wife and son. Rob had been working as an intern in his father’s company when all this transpired, and despite his protestations of ignorance, his classmates and their parents who were injured by his father’s actions refuse to believe that he wasn’t “in the know,” causing him to become a pariah at his high school. He’s basically putting his head down and trying to survive for the rest of his senior year until he can get out of town.

The female protagonist, Maegan, has her own issues: Despite being an honors student with high grades, Maegan questions her abilities and makes an impulsive decision to cheat during her SAT test. She is caught, resulting in 100 other kids’ tests being invalidated and discarded. So Maegan has her share of abuse to survive, and is likewise walking around school in a solitary bubble. Fun fact: Maegan’s dad is the cop who arrested Rob’s dad.

The two share a calculus class, and when their teacher pairs everyone up for a class project, Rob and Maegan are the two conspicuously left standing, ending up together. Neither of them is happy about this and both consider asking the teacher to change the assignments, but with the prospect of having to be third wheels on teams who don’t want them, they resign themselves and tentatively try for a way to work together.

Kemmerer does a brilliant job of first investing you in their situations and then illustrating how these two closed-off teens are gradually able to open up to one another and seek sustenance in an unlikely friendship. Prior to Rob’s family’s “fall,” he was one of the privileged, über-popular lacrosse stars, while Maegan’s family is from much humbler blue-collar origins, although Rob and Maegan’s sister, Samantha, share a love of lacrosse that bridges an initial gap. The sub-plots in the book, involving Rob’s former best friend, Connor, who is determined to constantly remind everyone of Rob’s supposed culpability, Rob’s new and unexpected friend, Owen, with whom Rob conceives of a “Robin Hood” plan to assist the have-nots, and Maegan’s sister Samantha’s secret pregnancy, further enliven the story.

The book explores such themes as right and wrong (doing right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right ones), trust, responsibility, mistakes, and transparency, but does so in such a way that the reader never feels imposed upon by those themes. Kemmerer presents black and white and every shade of gray as they appear to all participants and makes the reader as eager as the characters to resolve the issues, find justice, and give the misunderstood some relief. There is romance, but it’s far from the dreaded insta-love; this is realistic young adult fiction at its best. If you are a teen who enjoys contemporary fiction, this is a writer who will give you what you want.

I have already lined up Kemmerer’s other two contemporary novels on my Kindle.