Love across the Pond

When I heard the plot summary of Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, all I could think was, What a gimmick. And when I saw the cover, I thought, Oh, I get it, “chick lit” for gay guys.

redwhiteblueAlex Claremont-Diaz’s mother is the President of the United States, so her family members are under heavy scrutiny. Alex is inevitably cast as the handsome and charismatic “First Son” that everyone romanticizes.

Prince Henry of England (not the heir, but the spare—the second son) is likewise a glittering image of royalty, close to the same age as Alex and with all the advantages and a similar fixation by the public on his every move.

When word gets around, after a couple of meetings, that the two dislike one another, consternation apparently erupts on both sides of the Pond, and diplomatic relations people hastily put together a meet-cute opportunity for the two to prove that the rumors are false and everything is copacetic between the youth of these two allied nations. But the diplomats had no idea, when they encouraged friendship between the royal and the First Son, what a hornets’ nest they would be stirring up!

When I asked a librarian friend of mine if she’d read the book, she tossed off a casual recommendation, saying simply “It was cute!” so I figured it would be just another lightweight romantic comedy for gay teens. Nope. Red, White & Royal Blue wasn’t what I was expecting…and I’m so glad!

I swiftly got past the first part of the book, which was a little cute, if not cutesy, with the I-hate-him-I-love-him turnaround from Alex, and into the relationship proper, which was intense, deep, and precarious, given that one lover was the son of the first female President of the United States and the other was a Prince of England, and there was a lot invested by both sides in remaining discreet. Henry has, perhaps, the most to lose, since the royal façade doesn’t allow for deviation from the hetero pattern of marriage and babies to keep the descendents coming; but Alex likewise faces a certain amount of jeopardy on behalf of his mother—being the first woman president carries the presumption that everyone in the family will act at all times with transparent perfection. His mother, however, doesn’t cherish the same expectations for her children as do the royals. She just wants them to be sure of themselves, and to be happy.

The author was so effective in writing all the things that needed to be here—the sexual awakening of Alex, and Henry, too, to some degree; the non-awkward, rather compelling sex scenes; the wonderful banter (amongst all the fleshed-out characters, not just between the protagonists); the properly scaled-down but still ever-present politics; the romance and joy of falling in love (not in lust or in crush); and, ultimately, the painful but necessary pursuit of the truth of who these two young men want to be.

Casey McQuiston, well done! I’ll look forward to more books from you.

Readers please note: I didn’t realize at first that this book is aimed more at the new adult (18-25) market than at the teen (12-18), so I was a little taken aback at how frankly the sex was described. Not over the top, not explicit to the point of discomfort, but still real and honest beyond most teen fiction. So if you are recommending it, my advice would be not to drop below the senior-in-high-school mark.

 

Cold cases

I was a little wary when starting to read Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, because I read her book Life after Life and, while I admired it, didn’t enjoy it much. But I think, in Jackson Brodie, she has found an anchor around which she can wrap the chain of her storytelling to keep it stable.

16243._SY475_I will admit that it took me a while to get into this book and to understand what was going on; Brodie is a private investigator who has been invited for various reasons by family members or interested parties to look at three cold cases, the latest one already 10 years past, the oldest more than 30. Because Atkinson presents the case histories one at a time at the beginning of the book before ever mentioning Brodie’s name, profession, or involvement, the book initially seems disconnected by its three narratives, save for the fact that some crime has been committed in each. But having the case histories narrated by the people involved, rather than exclusively through the eyes of Brodie, makes the stories that much more powerful, and also allows us to encounter them as if we were standing in Brodie’s shadow, listening in and trying to make connections in the same moment he is.

I liked Jackson Brodie’s character, and the slow reveal of what his life is like and what kind of person he is. I also enjoyed the many and varied characters who took the lead in each of the histories, although I did have to scroll backwards on my Kindle a couple of times to remind myself of exactly who they were or how they were involved. Each of the mysteries consisted of equal parts frustration and intrigue, just enough so to keep me reading. But I don’t mind some complexity in a plot, if it serves the plot, which this absolutely did.

I have placed a hold on the next Jackson Brodie book at the library.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: I think this book (and perhaps the rest, we shall see) would appeal to readers of such mystery icons as Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, and Patricia Highsmith. Perhaps also Tana French? Those writers produce dark, devious, complex mysteries in sophisticated language, and Atkinson nearly rivals them. And if you are a reader who enjoys Atkinson’s books but haven’t ventured back into the annals of these other writers, by all means do so!

 

More bookstores…

Here are two more in the “books about books and readers” category.

yesterdaysIn The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, 28-year-old Miranda is teaching history to middle schoolers in Philadelphia, having just moved in with her boyfriend Jay, the school’s soccer coach. Then she gets the news that her Uncle Billy has died. She hasn’t seen nor heard from him in 16 years, but she remembers him from her childhood as that glamorous uncle who always showed up with gifts from his travels (he was a seismologist). Billy also owned a bookstore in Silverlake (Los Angeles), and Miranda is surprised to discover that he has left her the bookstore. This despite the fact that Miranda’s parents live in Los Angeles, and his sister might have been the more logical beneficiary?

Thus begins her trek back into the past: What was the falling out between Billy and Miranda’s mom that caused him to abandon the family so long ago, and why has he reached out now, when it can’t make a difference, with hints and clues to tantalize Miranda? Her parents aren’t talking, so Miranda has no choice, if she wants to figure out the family dynamic, but to follow Billy’s clues. She also has to decide what to do about the bookstore…

The Bookshop of Yesterdays was a well plotted and skillfully written debut. I enjoyed the parts about the bookstore most of all. It made me, as always, want to have one of my own…even though the financial risk (as portrayed here) is daunting and undeniable. The author was clever with literary references, and with the portrayal of all the bookstore personalities, as well as the pasts and quirks of Miranda’s family.

printedletterThe title of The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay, came up as “you might also like” in a search on Amazon, and it sounded appealing, so I bought it.

Madeline has been doing her due diligence in a law firm for several years, in competition with her former boyfriend for a partnership. When the news of the partnership doesn’t go her way, she uses her recent rather bewildering inheritance of a bookshop from her Aunt Maddie as a distraction from her derailed career. Although she initially intends to rid herself of the property, Aunt Maddie’s two remaining employees attempt to convince her otherwise…and a surprising romantic entanglement makes her consider other options as well.

As I read this book, various themes kept nagging at me, making me think I had read it before. Then I realized its similarities to The Bookshop of Yesterdays, which I read last year. In that one an uncle owns a bookstore, in this one it’s an aunt. In that one, the uncle has a falling-out with the parents when the protagonist is 12 years old. In this one, the protagonist is eight, and the supposed reason for the falling-out is bad financial advice from the protagonist’s father to his sister (the aunt), causing her to lose her savings. (None of the parents in either book will talk about the fight.) In both books, the bookshop owner dies and leaves the store to the niece in the will, hoping his or her legacy will be continued. And in both books, the back stories of the other people whose lives are tied up in the store prove to be the icing that holds the layers together and turns them into a tasty cake.

I think I liked this one a bit more, perhaps because I identified more closely with the back stories of the two women clerks, Claire and Janet, and also liked Aunt Maddie more than Uncle Billy, and Madeline more than Miranda!

If you like Jenny Colgan’s books about young women who realize their lives and careers are not “all that” and decide to make a radical change, you will like these. And of course there is the added enticement of being set in a bookstore. But in retrospect, I would probably just pick one, the stories being so similar.

 

Fresh look: old book

Continuing this occasional feature…

Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:

Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.

beantrees      pigsheaven

The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.

andreams

I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.

 

Awakening

Some of the symbolic meanings of peacock feathers are “awakening,” “vision,” and “protection.” When I finished The Peacock Emporium, by JoJo Moyes, I wondered if she had specifically chosen that as a surname for the main protagonist (even though a married name) to foreshadow the action.

peacockThe story revolves around Suzanna Peacock, a woman of 34, who returns, with her husband, Neil, to live in a house provided by her landowner family, near the small town of Dere. They are there because of financial troubles—Neil lost his job, and Suzanna ran up credit card debt—and Suzanna greatly resents the need to be obligated to her parents for providing them with shelter, when what she wants is to be as far from her troubled background as possible, preferably in London. Restless and at loose ends in the country but not willing to consider Neil’s solution of having a baby, Suzanna decides to open a small gift shop and coffee house on the main street of town. She calls it The Peacock Emporium, and Suzanna soon loses herself in collecting all the unique and wonderful items she wishes to sell in her hybrid shop.

Suzanna has never come to terms with her background. Her mother, Athene Forster, first wife of her father, Douglas Fairly-Hulme, died in childbirth, and Douglas’s second wife, Vivi, is the only mother Suzanna has ever known; but the difficult relationship between Douglas and Athene, a self-absorbed, reckless glamor girl, has always overshadowed Suzanna’s complicated relationship with her parents, and has caused her to be withdrawn from the family dynamic. She can’t help but feel that everyone in her family views her through the lens of her mother’s doubtful character.

Putting together the Emporium is the first real accomplishment of Suzanna’s life, but although she takes great pride in the exacting way she has set up the shop, her introverted affect makes her less than ideal as a shopkeeper. What luck, then, when the irrepressibly upbeat Jessie shows up at her door, determined to befriend Suzanna despite herself, and equally committed to turning Suzanna’s showpiece into a neighborhood haunt. As the shop begins to take on the personality of both women, the community embraces it, and Suzanna’s perspectives slowly and subtly begin to change, until a disaster shows up all the cracks in her life that need mending—or rending.

I had a hard time getting into this book initially; the first 80 pages consist of three disparate timelines in different locations, and the story jumps from one to the next with no apparent connection. I hung in there because I have enjoyed this author’s other books, but if things hadn’t started making sense soon after that, I might have put the book down. Fortunately they did; we arrived at the present day with Suzanna and the shop, and subsequent events revealed the necessity for all the previously gleaned information.

This is a book with Moyes’s usual compelling cast of characters who engage you with their issues and quirks, although in this book there are a few that you positively dislike, or at least for whom you lack empathy. It’s also a book containing strong messages, including generational differences, changing cultures, and moral dilemmas. There is an underlying lack of trust amongst many of the characters, primarily due to a dearth of honest communication, but with all of that there are also moments of extraordinary generosity and love. It’s an odd, sometimes depressing, sometimes poignant, and ultimately joyful story that’s not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it.

featherThere are three covers for this book, and none of them gets it right. The hardcover features a woman in a dress from no known era that is associated with this story; the paperback at least has women dressed as Debs from the 1960s (the era of Athene Forster’s debut); but the more recently released paperback features a girl on a bicycle, even though no character in this book ever rides one. I say again, as I have lamented before: Doesn’t anyone in the art department ever read the book? Or at least look at a synopsis? Ask for advice? Care about being true to the story? C’mon.

 

Secrets

Although the title of Liane Moriarty’s book is The Husband’s Secret, many more secrets abound in this book about responsibility, guilt, culpability, and consequences.

secretThe initial secret is contained within a letter, addressed from Jean-Paul to his wife, Cecilia, to be opened only in the event of his death. She finds the letter in with some filed tax papers, and though she itches to open and read it, she reluctantly decides that this would be too great an invasion of her husband’s privacy. She admits to him that she found it, only to be somewhat stunned by the extremity of his reaction when he learns that the letter still exists—he thought it was lost or destroyed long ago. He tries to make light of it (he wrote it right after the birth of their first daughter, now a teenager, and claims it was in the emotional heat of the moment), and asks her not to read it and to give it back to him. But something happens that makes her no longer willing to respect that wish, and all the rest of the consequences of this tale about three families follow.

I had some initial trouble with how, exactly, these three stories would interlock; even though they lived in the same town, there were generational differences, outside influences, and a lot of time and space between some of the events, so the book was hard going for the first part. But after the secret is revealed and everything begins to tie in, I read with increasing fascination and momentum. Part of the fascination was that I did not expect that to be the secret. When you think about something that one spouse is keeping from another, your mind automatically goes to the usual stories: past infidelity, Johnny is not your son, I’m leaving you for the pool boy, etc. But this secret is BIG, and affects so many more people than just the wife to whom it is revealed that it makes the story extra compelling. And of course, the minor secrets people hold that either directly or indirectly impact their relationship with and reaction to the big secret further that suspense.

The particular ways in which all of the characters’ lives entwine one with another is the main appeal of this book, and bring you to various conclusions that are then offset by a catalogue of what-ifs in the epilogue: What if this had happened that way instead of this, what if this person hadn’t been in this place at that time, what if anyone had been able to show a little restraint at the proper moment, etc. That is the core of this book, those what-ifs, and they lead you to look at your own laundry list, past and future, and try to decide (about the events of the book and your own list) whether they are black, white, or gray.

Weirdly, although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, part of me would have preferred other stories to grow out of it. Because all three family dramas were sublimated to the central event, some felt incompletely told. The story of Will, Tess, and Felicity, for instance, had its own trajectory that I wish the author had either explored further here or turned into a separate novel. I really wanted to know what happened there! So far, no joy, but perhaps Moriarty will finish their story someday?

Parenthetically, I’ll say that I am not a fan of the “floofy” covers they put on Moriarty’s books. They definitely downplay the narrative.

 

 

Memory and time

About her book What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty says the following:

I had always wanted to write a story about time travel but I found the logistics made my head explode.
Then I read a story about a woman in the U.K. who lost her memory and behaved like a teenager – she didn’t recognize her husband or children. I realized that memory loss is a form of time travel.
So I came up with the idea of a woman, Alice, who loses 10 years of her memory. She thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child and blissfully in love with her husband. She is horrified to discover
she is 39, with three children and in the middle of a terrible divorce. It’s like
the younger Alice has travelled forward
in time.

aliceforgotIt’s 2008. Alice Love is 39 years old. She is at her spin class at the gym. She didn’t eat any breakfast or drink any water before she began the class, and as she begins to sweat, she becomes faint and falls off the bike, hitting her head quite hard on the way down.

These are all details that you find out later in the book. The opening scene is one of confusion—Alice opening her eyes to discover she is lying on a cold floor with a bunch of people staring at her, and not knowing where she is, why she is there, or what has happened. And when people start trying to explain it to her, she is more confused than ever. She remembers that she is pregnant with her first child, who she and her beloved husband Nick have nicknamed the Sultana (since that’s about the size of the fetus at this point). She doesn’t understand why she was at the gym, because she hates working out, and she is baffled by the thin and taut state of her body, since she remembers it as larger and softer. Once the hospital calls her contacts, she notices that her sister is acting weird around her, almost like a stranger, and when she calls Nick (who is for some reason on a business trip) to tell him she has had an accident, he yells at her and hangs up the phone. What in the world?

Alice has a temporary case of amnesia. She thinks it’s 1998. She doesn’t remember anything at all subsequent to that, including the fact that she now has three children and is in the midst of a nasty and bitter divorce. How is that possible? She and Nick are so happy! After a couple of days at the hospital trying to come to terms with all of this, she returns home to confront what was a ramshackle fixer-upper but is suddenly imbued with every single advantage Alice and Nick had daydreamed when they bought it. Her husband returns from his weekend with the three children, ready to drop them off as usual on Sunday night, and Alice is in a panic—she’s never cared for one child, let alone three, and hers are now actual little people, with personalities and phobias and quirks with which she is completely unfamiliar! She doesn’t know what to feed them, or the addresses of their schools, or that she’s supposed to drop Tom at swim class and take Olivia to her violin lesson—none of it rings the faintest bell. And Nick looks at her with anger and disgust, when all she longs to do is throw herself on his chest and cry.

Readers tell me that what they liked best
about this novel was how it made them
think about the choices they’d made and
wonder how their younger selves would
feel about the lives they are leading now.
—Liane Moriarty

This book is a journey of self revelation, but not just for Alice; because of her condition, she has suddenly gone back to being who she was 10 years ago, and all the people surrounding her must similarly take a look at who they have become in the decade she is missing. Alice discovers that she doesn’t much like many of the decisions she has made that have brought her to this point, and because she can’t remember her life, she busily goes about reversing some of them. This is my favorite part of the book, because her simple naiveté leads her to mend fences that she couldn’t and wouldn’t choose to attempt if she remembered why they were broken. The story is, indeed, a form of time travel, and at this point, I was actually rooting for Alice to remain contentedly in the past!

The book is by turns serious, looking at such subjects as infertility, infidelity, and bullying, and comical in its recounting of Alice’s mishaps as she flails around trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. It similarly challenges the reader to think about decisions made that have led to this point and to wonder—would I do things differently, if I could suddenly revise them?

Both an enjoyable and a rewarding read.

 

Charmed by books

After dwelling in darkness with Sharon Bolton for a couple of days, I felt the need for lighter fare. I initially chose these three books because of their titles and covers, which revealed they were all books about books. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for more of those!

charmerThe first one I read—The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins—also has the element of magical realism going for it. It did, in fact, remind me of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, in some of its elements, notably the two sisters who are dumped at a young age for someone else to raise, and in the fact that books actually talked (maybe out loud or maybe just in her head) to one of the residents of the small town in which the story ultimately takes place.

It was, indeed, a charming book about books, about family and friends, about small towns and the very real dangers of their dying out in the face of progress. It also dealt delicately and accurately with the issue of Alzheimer’s disease.

I would have liked more about the growing-up years of sisters Grace and Hannah, and the parallel years of Sarah Dove, lucky seventh daughter (and the book charmer) of the Dove family of the town of Dove Pond. But after an introductory chapter about each,
we jump to present day when everyone is an adult, and proceed from there. Not that the “there” wasn’t a good tale, I just wanted a bit more of the back story.

I thought the portrayal of Grace was excessively curmudgeonly, although I could understand her point of view. But she could have relented a bit sooner in instances where people were actually trying to help or befriend her, or both.

I liked this book’s gentle quirkiness, and will probably seek out the author’s subsequent stories about the same town.

ninahillThe next book I took up was
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman. Talk about your basic wish fulfillment!

At the beginning, given that you are a person who thinks like me, Nina has it all: A job in a cool bookstore, a lovely guest house lined with bookshelves filled with books, a companionable cat named Phil, and a busy schedule taken up mostly with book clubs and trivia contests.

Only child: check
Likes books better than people: check
Likes cats better than many people: check
Enjoys her work putting together readers with books: check
Likes her routine and doesn’t want to be dynamited out of it: check

Then, Nina discovers that the father she never knew has called her out in his will to receive some sort of legacy, thereby putting her in touch with a raft of unknown and unsuspected brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and cousins…which is in one way kind of a dream come true for a wistful only child who has previously been an observer but not a participant in family life…and in another way kind of a nightmare for a self-sufficient, slightly anxious introvert.

Also, the team leader of one of the competing trivia teams in her league is showing definite interest in Nina…but it will never work out, because he’s not a reader. Oh well… But he IS good looking, and persistent, and maybe…no, definitely not. But…

You can guess how things play out from fairly early on in the book (obvious portents), you can see the “event horizon” clearly, but you’re so caught up in it you don’t really care. This is the ultimate feel-good book for the bookish and the romantic.

overdueI didn’t think I’d be a fan, initially, of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, because of the whole martyrish deserted mom thing. I mean, I get it, and she had a perfect right, and I’ve been there as the deserted wife, although not with the mom thing piled on top of it; I just didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about it. But I did, quite a bit!

Amy is soldiering on as a single mother after being completely abandoned by her husband and partner, John. When the children were 12 and 9, John went to Hong Kong on a business trip, and never came back. Amy had to go back to work full-time as a school librarian, and scrape absolute bottom to keep her kids in their school and put food on the table. Not only did John desert them, he didn’t pay child support or communicate with any of them for three years. Small wonder that Amy harbors major resentment.

Then John comes back—because he misses his kids and wants to make things up to all of them. They all know that’s not possible, but Amy agrees (with some counseling by her friend, Lena) to give John a week with the kids, and she takes off for New York City on a part-professional, part-personal trip. The week stretches into a summer, and Amy finds herself at loose ends (and somewhat uncomfortable with it) as all her responsibilities are picked up by someone else.

I loved that the book included attendance at a librarian convention, accompanied by a presentation by the protagonist about a concrete idea (Flexthology) on how to promote reading to reluctant teen readers through choice and anonymity. This made the character feel solid and real, and made the subsequent events (even though they were more fanciful) seem plausible and possible. Her makeover (to be featured in a magazine article) by her publisher friend, Talia, was fun (and only a little patronizing). I adored Daniel, the “hot librarian,” and rooted for him despite Amy’s #momspringa (a play on the Amish Rumspringa) dates with other guys. Part of what kept the book going was the witty banter—Harms knows how to write dialogue.

These books all three definitely fit the bill when you’ve been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion and description—while there is still poignancy, these authors keep the tone light while exploring some serious issues. They are all three great additions to my rapidly growing “canon” of books-about-books-and-readers!

 

Big Little Lies

I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.

biglittleliesI didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?

It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend private school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.

It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.

I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.

I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!

I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.

 

Autism in fiction

A few years back, I read the book The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. At the time, I didn’t have what you would call a significant reaction to the book; it was more along the lines of “charming, funny, and enjoyable relationship fiction.”

I did comment in my notes on Goodreads that the protagonist, Don, put me in mind of an adult version of Christopher Boone, the kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon—I could see him growing up to be Don: precise, literal, frustrating, yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

rosieprojectDon Tillman, Australian genetics professor, is an odd duck. His lifelong difficulties with social rituals and situations have caused him to create an orderly, easily navigated life with a precise routine and little human contact. He does have a few friends, and one of them comments to him that he has many attributes that would make him a good husband. This sets Don, who has never gone on a second date, to thinking about how best he could find a partner for himself with the least amount of fuss. His conclusion is The Wife Project, a questionnaire he devises that he intends to submit widely (mostly via a dating site) to weed out the things he can’t abide and narrow his search to the perfect woman for him: no smokers, no vegetarians, no late people, no messy people…the list of what he doesn’t want far exceeds the list of what he does!

Rosie Jarman shows up at his door intending to ask for his assistance on a genetics project, but because she has been sent by his friend and mentor, Gene, Don thinks she is there in response to The Wife Project questionnaire, and asks her out. He is baffled when he discovers that she is a smoker, a drinker, perpetually tardy, and in no way his ideal woman. But when he questions Gene about her, Gene (with some suppressed mirth) says he threw her in as a “control,” and encourages Don to continue to see her. Don takes up the challenge of Rosie’s genetics project, and begins to learn that perhaps the ideal woman on paper isn’t the one for him.

Although it is obvious to other characters in the book that Don is “on the spectrum,” as it has become modish to say about degrees of autism, Don has not self-diagnosed as such. When he is asked by Gene to substitute for him at giving a lecture and the lecture turns out to be on Asperger’s Syndrome to an audience of children with Asperger’s and their parents, Gene’s wife, Claudia, a psychologist and also Don’s friend, asks him if, in preparing his notes, anything seemed familiar. Don seems baffled by her question and doesn’t arrive at the answer she is obviously implying.

A few readers’ reactions to this novel have been negative, because they felt it mocked or made fun of autistic people, but the book’s author has noted that when he wrote it, he didn’t research Asperger’s, and in fact had based Don on “people I met in physics, information technology and doing a Ph.D.” He follows up by adding, “Experts in the field assure me that Don has Asperger’s and that community says the same thing. It was not my intention to make light of Asperger’s, and the Asperger’s community…regards Don as typical but not stereotypical. He’s seen as a good role model; readers generally love him, and that’s a good thing for the image of ASD.”

Remembering how I had enjoyed this somewhat light but entertaining and thoughtful read, I was pleased to see that while I wasn’t paying attention, Simsion had written two follow-up novels, continuing Don’s and Rosie’s story, and I snagged both sequels from the library’s e-book collection as soon as I could get them.

rosieeffectThe Rosie Effect picks up fairly soon after the events of the first book; Don and Rosie are married (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but you kind of knew how it would end, right?) and living in New York City; they both have satisfying work, and everything seems to be going according to plan, which makes Don feel happy and secure. Then an unexpected pregnancy throws everyone for a loop. Don had always agreed, in the abstract, that he would enjoy having offspring, but as far as he knew, birth control was in place and nothing along those lines would happen without a lengthy discussion and negotiation. Rosie, observing their friend Sonia’s struggles to conceive, realizes she isn’t young any more in terms of optimum child-bearing years, believes it could take some time to become pregnant, and “decides” to forget to take her birth control pills, resulting in an almost immediate “success.”

Don does his best to cope with this news, but approaches it with his usual lack of emotion, choosing instead to make lists of tasks and goals that need to be accomplished before the baby is born and setting about them in typical Don fashion, which is to say he almost immediately finds himself in trouble on every front. Meanwhile Rosie, who was happy as Don’s wife, begins to question what kind of father he will be able to be for their child, and as Don seems increasingly incapable of understanding the emotional commitment she needs, Rosie withdraws. Don will have to rein in his various projects and focus instead on his relationship with his wife and child, or all his good intentions will be for nothing.

I had a little trouble with the evolution of Don’s and Rosie’s relationship as a result of the pregnancy. Don continued to be himself; but Rosie, confronted with parenthood, had an extreme reaction to everything about him that she had previously found charming (if maddening). Her reaction seemed over the top, even for someone whose instincts were telling her to place the welfare of her child over the viability of her marriage. For the first time in their interactions, you see Rosie have as little emotional understanding of Don as Don has of Rosie, and it’s unsettling. But it’s a strong story over all, and with the help of their friends they are both able to attain clarity.

rosieresultThere is a considerable hiatus in years between the ending of the second book and the beginning of The Rosie Result; Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is now 11 years old. The family has returned to Melbourne, where both Rosie and Don are working full-time in their professions. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of them will need to suspend a busy schedule to give time and attention to their son, who is having trouble fitting in at school and needs more parenting. Coincidentally, Don does something that is typical (and without agenda) for him but which his students find offensive, and concludes that putting some distance between himself and this problem is congruent with his goal of tutoring Hudson in how to get by in a world that thinks you’re weird. Don quickly realizes that the best thing he can do for Hudson is to “outsource” some of this instruction to people with better social instincts than his, and the following year becomes a good example of a “village” raising a child.

In this third book, Simsion openly confronts the topic of autism; while its effects in Don’s life were duly noted in the first two, it is Hudson’s difficulties in school that bring the topic into focus, and Simsion uses the interactions of the Tillman/Jarman family with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, other parents and students, and their unusual group of friends to highlight various sides of the issue. He shows the prejudices that confront people who don’t fit in with perceived social norms, and specifically discusses the pitfalls that lie in allowing a child to be “diagnosed” with something that will follow them for the rest of their school career and beyond. Labeling and identity, both specifically with regard to autism but also in a wider sense, are prevalent themes, and the book directly questions people’s assumptions about autism.

There is a particularly effective scene in which Don and Rosie attend a panel discussion about autism, participated in by a mother who has taken every route—including intensive tutoring, medication, and behavior modification—to help her daughter conform to neurotypical norms, as well as an activist who maintains that autism is not a disease but an identity. Her example is that she doesn’t ‘have’ lesbianism, she is a lesbian; therefore, she doesn’t ‘have’ autism, she is autistic—it’s part of who she is, not something visited upon her that she needs to confront and conquer.

Far from turning the book into a polemic, I felt that this debate, fictionalized and exemplified by the relationships amongst the participants in the story, made it all the more compelling. It is particularly touching as Don, who is determined to make Hudson’s life better than his own by teaching him to cope with society’s expectations, comes to realize that perhaps his response isn’t the best one for Hudson, and that if Hudson can navigate his life by being himself, there may be more wiggle room in his experience than his father had assessed. While maintaining the gentle humor inherent in Don’s (and Hudson’s) misunderstandings of social norms that Simsion portrayed in the first two books, in this one the intensities of the relationships become truly heartfelt. The arc of this three-book story is completed with vastly more depth than one would expect from light, “relationship” fiction.