The Horse Dancer

horsedancerI decided on a re-read this week, and picked one of JoJo Moyes’s lesser known books, The Horse Dancer. I enjoyed it enough the second time around to want to revisit (for my newer readers) the review I wrote in 2019 when I first read it.

There are three intertwined stories in this book—one in the past, the other two present-day. The first involves Natasha and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Mac. Natasha is an up-and-coming attorney in the area of child protective services, and channels all her repressed feelings about the end of her marriage into her work and her tentative new relationship with a shiny partner at her firm. Mac is a freelance photographer, and appears to be fairly happy-go-lucky and irresponsible next to the upright and uptight Natasha, but seems to have major regrets about the end of the relationship. The two are in the process of sorting out their mutual possessions and financial issues on the way to divorce when their paths cross with Sarah.

Sarah is a 14-year-old girl who has two major loves in her life: her beloved grandfather, Henri, with whom she lives, and her horse, “Boo.”  Her grandfather was, in his youth, a professional rider for the prestigious Cadre Noir, a French dressage academy, but he gave it all up to come to England to marry Florence, the love of his life, recently lost to cancer. Sarah’s dream is to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and ride with Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. Meanwhile, she and her grandfather train the horse in the shadow of an old railway siding in the seedy part of London, where they stable the horse with Henri’s friend, Cowboy Joe. When something terrible happens to Henri, Sarah discovers the fragility of her situation as a child with too many adult responsibilities, and tries her best to deal alone with all the potentially terrible outcomes.

I found this book tremendously moving in several areas. The relationship between Sarah and her horse brought back memories of being that age and wanting that special partnership so badly. (My grandfather, an impulsive bidder at auctions, actually gave me a horse for my birthday when I was 12—an unbroken two-year-old palomino
stallion—and my parents, dismayed by the thought of dealing with the housing, feeding, and exercising of him from the comfort of our suburban lifestyle,  made him take it back. I can hardly remember ever feeling more heartbroken.) The scenes that depict the tie between Sarah and Boo are so viscerally and immediately written as to be impossible to resist.

The interplay between Mac and Natasha was painful and confusing, and there were parts I flat-out had trouble believing, but ultimately the idea of the walls we build to protect ourselves that do us more damage than those we built them against resonated with me. The picture Moyes paints of a teen girl who depends on her grandfather and no one else, and of what happens to her when she is thrown on her own resources and believes she must cope all alone, is poignant, real, and frightening. The back story of the grandfather’s youthful experiences in Le Cadre Noir gave the book additional legs. All in all it was a satisfying and touching, albeit somewhat dark, read.

This is a book that is written for adults, but it explores the adult-child (or adult-teen) relationship from both sides, given that it shows both Natasha’s and Sarah’s views of the proper way to deal with the situation in which they find themselves; and I think that there are teens who would appreciate and even benefit from reading this book. Natasha has to transform her view of Sarah as a frustratingly opaque, surly compulsive liar and see that she is a child adrift in an adult’s world who is convinced she has to be as strong and resourceful as an adult; while Sarah has to get past her view of Natasha as a controlling authority figure and see that she is doing her best to be helpful even though Sarah is keeping the bulk of her life secret from everyone. The thing Moyes gets right is that final push through misunderstanding that is essential to a true and lasting love, whether it be between a couple, a parent and child, friends, or a girl and her horse.

craigdarkhorse

Aging, dying, living

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett (released as Eudora Honeysett is Quite Well, Thank You in the U.K.—a better title, in my opinion) is supposed to be a feel-good read. I chose it because someone on the “What should I read next?” Facebook page compared the writing of Annie Lyons to that of Linda Holmes, author of Evvie Drake Starts Over, which I liked quite a bit. I somehow got it into my head that one person had written both books, but learned my mistake after reading it, then looking up “other books by Annie Lyons” and then “Evvie Drake” on Goodreads.

I scrolled through Goodreads reviews checking to see if anyone at all had hated this book, and found only one “did not finish” (DNF) in two pages of reviews—that person called it A Man Called Ove rip-off. Otherwise, universal fours and fives out of five stars.

I have to say that it was an engaging narrative, with interesting, well-developed characters who made me care, and an alternating timeline that clearly explained how we had gotten to where we were at the opening page. Where Eudora was…

Eudora Honeysett is 85 years old. She is (that dreaded word) a spinster, and lived with her mother, Beatrice, for most of her life, caring for Beatrice until she died—after a series of incidents and illnesses—all by herself in a hospital bed. This experience shone a light for Eudora on exactly how she didn’t want to end up; so, since she is alone in life, without friends, siblings, or other relatives, and the effects of the aches and pains and obstacles of old age are beginning to become burdensome rather than just annoying, she decides that she will take steps to ensure she gets to go out on her own terms. She contacts a clinic in Switzerland that will give appropriately vetted patients “a good death” at the time of their choosing, and makes every effort to get them to see that they don’t need to doubt her motives or mindset—she is not depressed, she is simply done.

I am eighty-five years old. I am old and tired and alone. I have nothing I want to do and no one I want to see.
I don’t want to end up dribbling in an old-people’s home, wearing adult nappies in front of a shouting television. I want to leave this
world with dignity and respect.
Now, can you help me out?

EUDORA HONEYSETT, protagonist

I think I have to vet my books more thoroughly and quit reading this kind. I had an almost identical, visceral reaction to Dan Mooney’s The Great Unexpected, which is much the same theme, although Eudora remained mostly in control of her environment while Mooney’s protagonist, Joel, was already stuck in the nightmare of the nursing home Eudora dreads.

This book, like that one, posits that the infirm elderly can still find something to live for, if they open themselves up to life. In Joel’s case it was rebelling against his environment and reconnecting with his family; in Eudora’s, it is the acquisition, despite herself, of two new friends: Rose, the relentlessly inquisitive but also consistently kind 10-year-old girl who moves in next door and decides to adopt Eudora as her new best friend; and Stanley, an elderly widower who rescues Eudora when she faints and falls on the sidewalk in their neighborhood while out for her morning walk. Eudora tries hard to resist their interest in her, since she is determined to carry out her plan, but neither of them (especially Rose) will take no for an answer and, despite her best efforts, she finds herself caught up in their lives and drawn into a world with which she has been largely unfamiliar in the course of her life of disappointments and hardship. She discovers that people can be kind, that connections can feel welcome rather than burdensome or obligating, and that love is to be treasured, not avoided for fear of being injured.

The book was, I must admit, heart-warming, charming, and all the other accolades bestowed upon it. But my frame of mind while reading it somewhat poisoned the well for me, and I looked ahead, as with Mooney’s book, and wondered about my own fate. I have always possessed what they call “rude health”—I have had no operations (save a tonsillectomy at age 13), take one medication, and am never ill. I assumed, up until this year, that I could continue to rely on my robust constitution until I departed life in my 80s or 90s or, who knew, achieved the century mark like several of my immediate ancestors have done. But a recent health problem with a discouraging diagnosis has resulted in a major loss of mobility and suddenly, at age 66, I am wondering if an independent life will remain sustainable, or if I will end up trapped and alone as Eudora dreads and Joel experiences.

I think it’s time for some bibliotherapy: Georgette Heyer, Dick Francis, some good escapist science fiction? Four stars from me for Eudora, but I don’t really want to talk about it any more!

Old age, friendship, rebellion

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked up The Great Unexpected, by Dan Mooney. It was billed as “charming” and “poignant,” and compared to such books as A Man Called Ove, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, and books by Mitch Alblom. There were definitely some of the same elements present; but it was also both depressing, and depressingly real, and I wasn’t in the greatest space to read about someone’s sad last years.

Joel Monroe, 76, is counting down his days in a nursing home. After independent life got to be a bit too much, he and his wife, Lucey, moved into the home together and, as long as he had her, everything was okay. But she quietly expired one morning while waiting for her cup of tea, and since then Joel’s experience has begun a downward spiral into thoughts of suicide. His entire life as a younger man had been centered on his work and his relationship, and he has no hobbies or pastimes to occupy him. He is plagued by the sense that no one at the home—nurses, aides—and no one in his family—his daughter, Eva, and grandchildren Lily and Chris—sees him as a vital human being who has earned respect for his long, productive life. He resents being treated like a child, from being required to passively take his medications to being refused access to the world outside the gates of Hilltop Nursing Home “for his own protection.” Everyone involved wishes Joel would just settle quietly into his role as elderly dependent, do as he’s told, and not make waves, but Joel feels angry, out of control, stifled, and grief-stricken.

After his roommate who followed Lucey also dies, Joel is made to share his room with Frank Adams, stage name de Selby, a former soap opera actor. Frank is genial, outgoing, quick-witted, and perceptive—everything that Joel is not—and he rapidly gets under Joel’s skin and provokes him into confiding his thoughts of suicide. Rather than acting shocked and horrified, Frank agrees with Joel that he should be allowed to exit his life if and when he pleases, even offering to help him plan his grand gesture, and this solidarity cements a preliminary friendship between the two. But although he is ever the listening ear for Joel, Frank has issues of his own with which he has never dealt, and soon the friendship grows in both directions. Frank encourages Joel to take back some of his dignity by exhibiting some “bad” behavior, source of much of the charming bits of this story.

On the up side, this book is much more than the sentimental, sweet story of yet another curmudgeon won over by life. It’s sincere, lovely, and touching, and tells a wonderful tale of friendship that acknowledges and supports. On the down side, if you are a person of a certain age, as I am, with the eventual prospect of being unable to care for yourself sufficiently to live alone, this is a slightly scary guidebook to what that experience could hold.

We all know that our society doesn’t treat the elderly well; once they exhibit the least infirmity, they are ignored, discounted, and shunted aside. We have all had the experience of visiting a nursing home and walking its halls lined with old people dressed in pajamas and robes sitting forlornly in their wheelchairs, of “rec rooms” featuring TV talk shows and board games to fend off boredom, with that indefinable commingled scent of piss, Lysol, and whatever is cooking for dinner. And we have also seen how the young and fit begin to talk down to the elderly and infirm as if they were irresponsible children or even beloved pets. Although Dan Mooney is never preachy in his approach, he paints a pretty clear picture of the emotions of an elderly man with few resources who doesn’t know how to fight against this encroaching, patronizing lifestyle.

Yes, I’m being just a tiny bit dramatic here; but I identified with Joel a lot more closely than was comfortable, and thought for the first time about what could be in my future if I don’t manage to fend off physical infirmity or mental laxness. So while I would recommend this book as both a worthwhile and an entertaining read, be aware that it may push some buttons for those of a certain age. On the other hand, if you are a young person reading it and are so motivated to take another look at your aging relatives as individuals of worth instead of as problems or burdens and to consider what they are due in their maturity, then all to the good!

Tragic

I opened All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, with no knowledge and few expectations except those provoked by the prescient title. By the end of the book I was insulted on behalf of the author by those book blurbs praising her for a wonderful debut; this was a wonderful book, regardless if it was her first or her 30th. It was also ugly.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because it was such an anguished kind of pleasure to discover it as it went along. It is a truly unique (and I don’t use that word casually) coming-of-age tale about a child who has not one advantage and many crippling obstacles in life and somehow, as some rare children do, manages to survive and to eke out an existence with happy moments in it despite everything.

Wavonna, known as Wavy, is the daughter of a violent, abusive, sexually prolific meth dealer and his drugged-out, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wife. Neither of them has had a single regard for her since the day she was born, and in fact the idiosyncrasies of her personality that have resulted from ill treatment have caused her father to avoid her company. Wavy rarely speaks; she won’t eat in front of others; and she actively dislikes being touched in any way. At eight years old she trusts no one, depends on no one, owns nothing, and is struggling on her own to raise her baby brother, as the only “responsible adult” in the family.

Then she meets Kellen, a gruff young man who does occasional work for her father between his stints as a mechanic, and the two recognize one another’s blank spots. Kellen is appalled by the level of neglect surrounding this little girl, and starts stepping up to help her, from twin motives of compassion and loneliness. He registers her for school and takes her back and forth on his motorcycle; he brings groceries; he washes dishes; but more than these practical deeds, he offers Wavy both friendship and respect. In return, she sees him for who he is, rather than judging him by the story some of his bad deeds tell about him, and gives him the love and attention that have been missing from his life—and hers.

This is where the story hits a controversial twist, and it is a testament to your flexibility and understanding whether you continue to follow it with empathy or slam it shut with swift condemnation.

The best thing about this book is its unsentimental storytelling. It is a dark portrayal of abuse and dysfunction, yet it neither dramatizes nor trivializes any of it—it’s not manipulative. The reader is allowed to come to the material on her own terms and react to it with sadness, outrage, disgust, compassion, whatever emotion that emerges. Somehow this author is able to write a beautiful story about ugly events and still allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

The book is told from multiple perspectives—I believe there are 16—including chapters narrated by Wavy’s brother, her aunt, her cousin, the sheriff, a judge, a teacher, and of course by Wavy and Kellen themselves. I don’t ordinarily care for books split into so many viewpoints, but in this case it works brilliantly as a reflection of all the possible opinions about these two that might come up, depending upon your perspective. And all of the characters are distinctive and beautifully drawn.

Wavy’s story is stark, controversial, emotional, and unsettling. It’s in-your-face explicit in its descriptions, and will probably leave you feeling conflicted and uneasy, maybe outraged. It’s also some of the finest story-telling I have read in a long, long time. It won’t be for everyone; but if you resonate with a tale about raw human emotion, heartbreak, and resilience, it will continue to echo in your mind as it does in mine.

Note: It’s also well worth reading the author’s comments about content and choices at the end of the book.

Marchetta’s latest

I was first introduced to Melina Marchetta when I was a young adult librarian. Although she is probably best known in YA circles for her books Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca, or perhaps her Printz-award-winning On the Jellicoe Road, all of which identify as realistic / contemporary fiction, I first encountered her in the guise of a fantasy writer, with her series the Lumatere Chronicles. We read the first book, Finnikin of the Rock, for high school book club in 2010, two years after it was published, and although I enjoyed it quite a bit, I didn’t really recognize the brilliance of her prose until she came out with the two other books in the trilogy—Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn. I won’t go into the details of what the series is about (it’s kind of complicated), but these books are filled with heartache, pain, adventure, mystery, magic, and madness, and the characters, world-building and story-telling would be hard to surpass. It’s one of those series about which I tell people: “You have to read the first one in order to know what’s happening in the subsequent books, but those make it well worth the effort.”

After having read nearly all of Marchetta’s YA books, I was pleased to see, in 2016, that she had written her first for adults. And although Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil contains a bunch of teenagers as significant characters, it is from the adult viewpoint that the story unwinds, and the adults in the story have the typical hard time fathoming the teen mindset. The book was primarily a suspense novel (reviewed here), which proved to me that Marchetta can write pretty much anything successfully.

I was pleased, then, to pick up her latest offering, The Place on Dalhousie, published in 2019 but just discovered by me. It is contemporary fiction, focused on relationships (both romantic and familial), and is fully as compelling, if somewhat more low key, as anything else she has written.

The book is a little bit confusing at first, because there is a “time out of time” quality to the meeting of two of the protagonists. Rosie is living in a small town on the coast of Queensland, serving as caregiver to an elderly woman, and the two are caught up in a natural disaster when the town is flooded. Jimmy Hailler is also by chance in a kind of time-out there, and it is his work helping to save the stubborn villagers from the rising waters that brings he and Rosie together for a cautious two-week interlude fueled by the disaster. Then Rosie returns to Sydney to her childhood home, which is in dispute: Her father built the house for she and her mother, Loredana, but her mother died of cancer when Rosie was 15, and her father married Martha 11 months after Loredana died, sending Rosie off in a fury. A few years later her father also died, and now she is in a standoff with her hated stepmother over the ultimate ownership of the house.

The story picks up 15 months later, when Jimmy tracks down Rosie and arrives on the scene to discover Rosie living upstairs, Martha downstairs, and a battle raging about whether to sell the house. Rosie, a prickly, difficult young woman at the best of times, is suspicious of Jimmy’s motivations in finding her so long after she initially reached out to him, and the remainder of the book, centered on families both interconnected and divided, compromise, love, and identity, proceeds slowly and cautiously to explore not only their relationship but those of almost everyone involved. I don’t want to give away too much, because a huge part of the enjoyment of the book was in discovering the details as you went along. But there are great characters here (she writes women of all ages particularly vividly), and a lot of humor and pathos in the telling of their stories

I thought Jimmy’s name sounded familiar, and when I checked reviews I soon realized that he was one of the characters introduced in Marchetta’s book Saving Francesca, when he and the others were in high school, and the one character of the group notably missing from the sequel, The Piper’s Son. Many refer to him as the most sympathetic or compelling character, and are thrilled to see him turn up in a later incarnation. You don’t have to know any of that or have read the other two books to enjoy this one—it definitely stands on its own. But for those who loved the YA books, this is a culmination of those stories, and some also hold out hope for additional books with the others—Frankie, Tara, Tom, Justine, and Siobhan—as protagonists.

If you do feel moved to read the two YA novels as foundation, you won’t have wasted your time. Marchetta’s writing is severely underrated outside her native land, and it would be lovely to think that I have convinced more people to appreciate her fully.

Ginny Moon

I picked up a Kindle copy of The Truth According to Ginny Moon, by Benjamin Ludwig, partly because it sounded like a good story and partly because it was discounted to $1.99 and I was looking for something realistic to bounce back from my prolonged immersion in fantasy.

This is not an easy story to read; I don’t mean that from the standpoint of time or vocabulary, but rather because the heroine, Ginny, is so overwhelmed by frustration at unmet expectations that her constant state of tension, confusion, anger, and sadness, all further accentuated by the characteristics of autism, is hard to bear in prolonged doses. But what kept me reading was knowing that what was hard for me to read must be impossible for Ginny to experience; I almost felt compelled to continue for her sake, as if she was a real person and needed me to advocate on her behalf!

The story opens when Ginny is 14 years old. She grew up in an untenable situation with a flighty, impulsive, irresponsible drug addict of a mother and her dysfunctional rager of a boyfriend. Ginny was removed from the household at the age of nine, when she showed a “failure to thrive” that included malnutrition, bruises, and evidence of broken bones and possibly worse violations in her past. She then went through several foster situations and finally ended up with Brian and Maura, who have adopted her. But the birth of their baby, Wendy, triggers profound and unsettling memories for Ginny, causing a drastic shift in her demeanor that baffles everyone who knows her. Ginny seems to revert to a younger age, obsessing over her Baby Doll that she left behind at her mother’s apartment; she ultimately finds a way to contact her birth mother (who is forbidden to see her) so that she can find out if they found the Baby Doll after she left, and if it is okay.

This initial innocent action on Ginny’s part turns her world upside down, as she tries in vain to communicate her fears to those around her—her new parents, her therapist—while they must deal with the intrusion of the birth mother, Gloria, and others from Ginny’s past, and become increasingly frustrated by Ginny’s continuing erratic and difficult behavior.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the depiction of autism as expressed in Ginny. I tend to think that a lot of her situation, while exacerbated by the functional issues of the condition—emotional disconnection, apparent lack of empathy, inadequate socialization, extreme sensitivity to external stimuli, compulsive habits—could equally be blamed on PTSD from the unendingly stressful situation in which she was raised. But regardless, she is the fascinating narrator of her own story, and seeing everything from her perspective gives the reader a glimpse into what it must be like to try to navigate the world as such an unusual person. The literalism, the skewed but also sensible logic, the heartbreaking self-analysis as those she loves seem to reject her, all come together to create a truly heroic individual who is confronting her demons despite her despair. Bravo to Benjamin Ludwig for giving this child such a wonderful voice.

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.