Children for sale

The book Sold on a Monday, by Kristina McMorris, starts with a picture: Reporter Ellis Reed is killing time along a country road while his overheated Model T cools down, by snapping photos. He has just attended a rural quilt show, where he has documented the display for a newspaper story, and he has a few frames left on his roll of film. He approaches a farmhouse and sees two young boys sitting on the porch. They are both red-headed, both blue-eyed, both dressed in nothing but overalls, and he remarks to himself that they look like the same child at different ages. But after he takes the picture, he sees something in the background that he didn’t note at first: A hand-lettered sign that says “2 children for sale.” Even though he is inured to the sight of heartbreaking poverty in this post-crash year of 1931 in America, he is horrified. He has heard tales of people farming out their children to relatives or dropping their kids off at orphanages and churches because they can no longer feed and clothe them; but the concept of a parent selling their own children to keep themselves afloat? That was a darker scenario.

His picture of the two boys was personal—not meant for publication—but when he leaves all the photos from his shoot to dry in the newspaper darkroom, Lillian Palmer, enigmatic young secretary to the publisher, sees the picture in question and shows it to her boss. The photo thus becomes an instrument in the advancement of Ellis’s career as a newspaperman, but the simple action of publishing the photo has devastating consequences.

This book was a page-turner. I liked the parallel development from Ellis’s and Lillian’s points of view; I also liked that, except for the prologue and epilogue, the story was told in third person, even though it was alternating viewpoints. It made it personal enough yet not too internal, if that makes sense. The storytelling was nuanced—the author knew when to set things up and when to reveal them, and was also good at end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

This is, in essence, an historical novel, in that it documents a particular time that was heavily influenced by events of the day; but it’s not one of those books that either pretentiously or self-consciously proclaims itself as an historical document. The small details of dress, morés and mannerisms, social class and financial status are seamlessly woven into the scene-setting and characterizations, making it simply a good story told within a particular context.

I read it with a certain degree of horror that poverty could so decimate the conscience and devastate the family construct, but also knowing that similar acts no doubt go on to this day, swept under the rug by the possibly more timely intervention of social services—still not an ideal solution, but at least evidence of a more robust social contract than was present in 1931. This book was the perfect marriage of thought piece and suspenseful tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The closest I can come to a read-alike would probably be This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger; if you enjoyed that, definitely try this one.

As usual, I have something to say about the cover: The scenario in the book is two children for sale, so why in the world would the publisher choose to portray only one in the cover photo? I throw up my hands.

Two by Hepworth

One of the few benefits of not sleeping much is that you end up reading a lot! So I got through The Mother’s Promise, by Sally Hepworth, in less than 24 hours (my library loan was about to run out), and I’m happy to say that it restored my faith in her. I loved her book The Good Sister but disliked and was puzzled (and bored) by The Mother-in-Law. This one took me back to an excellently researched and well told story about interesting and dynamic characters. I then went on to read The Family Next Door, and was similarly pleased by that experience, although it was a bit different again.

The Mother’s Promise was a sort of psychological exploration of what happens to people who don’t have a social network—and by that I don’t mean Facebook friends or Instagram buddies, I mean an extended family of relatives, or a close group of friends on whom they can call when disaster strikes. Alice is a single mother of one daughter, Zoe. Zoe’s father is not in the picture—in fact, Alice refuses to either disclose his identity or give away any information about him. It’s always been just Alice and Zoe—there are no grandparents, no siblings on whom Alice can rely, and no close friends. Part of this isolation is because Zoe, 15, suffers from crippling social anxiety and being her parent, her advocate, and her protector has been a full-time job for Alice on top of her means of making a living. Although they have sometimes struggled, up until now they have managed to make it work on their own. But Alice has just received some disturbing news from her doctor that will immediately and significantly affect their lifestyle and, on top of worrying about her own health, Alice has to wonder: How will Zoe, who melts down at the least sign of a challenge, cope with this?

Alice ends up throwing herself on the mercy of two strangers—a nurse and a social worker—in her desperation to find some stability for her daughter. But the results are mixed, and bring up long-buried issues in all their lives that must be confronted alongside Alice’s emergency situation.

One thing I particularly liked about this book was the portrayal of Zoe—the examination of her problem and the creative ways in which she tries, despite her fears, to address it. This part of the book felt particularly real and valid to me, and provided a somewhat hopeful coming-of-age vibe to an otherwise rather grim story line.

The Family Next Door, while also exploring family dynamics, has quite a different personality from either The Good Sister or The Mother’s Promise, but was likewise an enjoyable read. Of the four books of Hepworth’s I have read, the style and narrative of this one reminded me most of a Liane Moriarty book. Part of that is that it is centered in a small community and involves multiple families, with partnerships and parenting all under scrutiny, somewhat similar to Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

The story takes place on a suburban street called Pleasant Court, with the obvious implications. Three families in the neighborhood know each other, but only from a distance, where everything seems perfect. They know their neighbors by their professions, by their number of children, by who is driving carpool—all the surface details that you gather when you live on the same street—but up to now, meaningful interactions have been rare. Then, Isabelle Heatherington moves to Pleasant Court, and her very presence stirs something up for each of these families, even though it’s not necessarily her intention to do so. Isabelle is single and childless, and shows an inordinate amount of interest in Fran, Essie, and Ange and their children and, in turn, the three moms become somewhat obsessed with Isabelle in various ways. Information begins to be exchanged, alliances are formed and dissolved, secrets are revealed, and marriages are perhaps in jeopardy, or at least in question. And then…things take an unexpected turn.

This is a mostly fascinating look behind the scenes of three suburban marriages and what happens when closely held secrets and ideas begin to erode those partnerships. When Isabelle moved to the neighborhood I halfway expected this to turn into the relationship cliché of husband(s) straying with the new woman, but the real reason for Isabelle’s presence is much more interesting and surprising. I said “mostly fascinating” because there are points at which the story bogs down as we get a little too much day-to-day detail about what characters are thinking and perceiving about their spouses, their children, their mothers, their friends…perhaps some of it was unnecessary. But it certainly does set things up for some entertaining scenes!

I enjoyed both of these books and would read another by Hepworth; but I’d like to somehow be able to ensure it was like the three I enjoyed and not similar to the one I did not! I guess I will have to switch from the reviewer to the petitioner and ask for recommendations for myself.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

The Venice Sketchbook

Between my inclination to read almost any book that’s about an artist and my steadfast desire to visit Venice someday, I could hardly resist a book with this title. I have read books by Rhys Bowen before (mostly from her Molly Murphy mysteries) and found them pleasant and entertaining without being particularly compelling; this one, while not written to a formula as is the mystery series, had a little more going for it, but its content didn’t quite meet its potential.

This is historical fiction, which is Ms. Bowen’s specialty, but the historical context suffered a bit by her putting the personal stories first and not sufficiently researching some of her background material, which surprised me. And while she tries to set a vibrant scene in Venice, some of her prose felt like generic descriptions from not very original guidebooks.

Part of the problem with the scene-setting may be that both of her characters are so melancholy most of the time that anything they describe carries a pall of personal gloom with it. The story is told from two perspectives—Juliet’s primarily from the war years (1938-45), and Caroline’s from 2001. Juliet Browning was an aspiring artist who attended art school for one year in her youth and then had to drop out and get a job to support the family when her father lost everything on the Stock Exchange in 1928. The story revolves around three separate trips that Juliet makes to Venice: One, when she is just out of school, a cultural pilgrimage chaperoned by her Aunt Hortensia; one, 10 years later, when she is chaperone herself to a group of girls from the school at which she is the art mistress; and a third a year after that, when she is granted a bursary through her school to spend a year in Venice studying at the Art Academie.

In the contemporary story, Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie (Juliet) dies and leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a few final words that include a prompt to go to Venice. Caroline’s son is in New York City with his father, too traumatized (according to his dad, anyway) to fly back to England after the events of 9/11; Caroline decides to take her mind off her troubles by making a pilgrimage to Venice to scatter Juliet’s ashes in the city she loved. She also hopes to find out exactly what happened to Juliet there more than 60 years ago. Until Lettie passed away, Caroline assumed that she had been the same stolid, pleasant spinster her whole life, but perhaps there is a past there.

The plot line hinges on romance: On her first trip to Venice, Juliet meets Leonardo da Rossi, the attractive and charismatic son of one of the ruling families of Venice, and they have a “moment” that is repeated on her second visit. But Leo is destined to marry to suit his family’s business interests, and by the time Juliet returns in 1939, he has been married for some time to Bianca.

Connections that Caroline makes once in Venice lead (somewhat too fortuitously) to her own encounter with a descendent of Leo’s, and with some assistance from and discussion with him, Caroline begins to put together a timeline and a story of her aunt’s days in Venice. A lot of the revelations about Juliet come from a diary that she kept and Caroline discovers, although gaps in it lead to some confusion and false leads until additional clues are acquired. It’s all rather serendipitous.

As I said at the beginning, although this is supposedly a romance about an artist and a beautiful city that steals her heart, the melancholy nature of both the personal and global stories bogs it down. Juliet is first frustrated by the truncated nature of her visit to Venice with her strict aunt; then she is wistful as she conducts her young art school charges around the city, because they don’t seem to appreciate what she would have given anything to experience in their places; and when she finally arrives to stay for a year, living there and studying art, although she does make some friends and have some positive experiences, she is self-conscious about being so much older than the other art students, and she is depressed by the fact that Leo da Rossi is off limits.

Overlaid on Juliet’s story is, of course, the progress of World War II as it relates to Italy and specifically to Venice, and it begins as a constant menace that fails over and over to turn into something concrete, a hovering cloud that never actually rains (so the narrative seems like it contains a lot of false alarms); and then when things finally change for the worse, the story is so relentlessly focused on how it is affecting Juliet and her immediate circle that it’s hard to get an idea of the actual historical facts. I won’t go so far as to say it’s clichéd, but it’s a bit one-dimensional and shallow.

Meanwhile, Caroline is bitter that her husband has left her (after she has supported his career at the expense of hers) to hook up with a famous musician and make good with his fashion designs. She reluctantly agrees to joint custody with Josh of their son, Teddy, six, who stays with her in England during the school year and goes to his father in New York City for the summer and winter holidays. She complains a fair bit about all of it, but doesn’t take any action (like getting a lawyer), and then the outside world intrudes as the planes crash into the World Trade Center, separating her from her son for an extended period. Her impulse is to fly to New York as soon as that becomes possible and take Teddy back, but instead she embarks on this quest to Venice, with all of this hanging over her head.

It’s not all depression and despair—there are fun and funny moments here and there, and some genuine feelings are expressed—but it’s not a happy story, not a traditional romance with a HEA, but also not an achievement for historical fiction. I think that if the background events had been more compellingly and immediately presented, it would have been a better book. I’m not panning it, but it wasn’t a five-star read for me; maybe a three.

GUP

I almost took a pass on The Guncle, by Steven Rowley, after the first 30-some pages. Rowley started out writing Patrick as such a gay cliché (not to mention that he’s an actor, with all that implies), that I couldn’t see a possibility of liking, yet alone identifying with, him as protagonist.

Lest you think this is because I am a “mature” hetero white woman, let me set you straight (pun intended): I worked for more than four years as a typesetter at The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, during the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Believe me when I say that I have met and, in some cases, befriended for life, every gay cliché in the book.

I couldn’t quite see what Rowley was trying to do. He invented Patrick as superficial, pretentious, cynical, and almost completely self-involved; and then put him in charge of a six-year-old boy and his nine-year-old sister and let him play out all those annoying attributes in condescendingly coy conversations with the kids, who are already in shock from the death of their mother and the retreat of their pill-popping dad into rehab, leaving them with Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP) in a strange, otherworldly place (Palm Springs in summer). (They normally live in Connecticut.)

But once Patrick gives up a certain percentage of his showboating and settles into a daily routine parenting Grant and Maisie and seeing them through the beginning stages of their grief, the story shifts. Patrick had suffered a loss of his own several years previous, when his lover, Joe, died in a car crash and, in the process of trying to be authentic and present for the children, he realizes simultaneously what they need now and what he has needed all along—to talk, to feel, to be in the moment no matter how painful, and to come to terms with life as it is now, on the other side of this cataclysmic event that has deprived them all of someone so vital.

The other advantage that kept me reading was that Rowley knew just how to write these two children. He got the fears, the naïveté, the bravado, the scorn, and all the other emotions and personality traits of children at these ages down pat, and the conversations they have with Patrick and with one another are the meat of the book, containing humor, pathos, practicality, banality, and wisdom.

The tone of the book was mostly light, but there were passages and events that packed some punch. It was also nice to see the effect serving in loco parentis had on Patrick’s long-term self and goals, provoking a willingness to assume more responsibility for his life and theirs. By the end of the book I had mostly forgiven Patrick his self-conscious snobbery and fallen for his undeniable charm, and I wanted to pack up the two kids and take them home with me. There were also some nice interludes between Patrick and one of his neighbors, as well as meaningful interactions with his two siblings (his sister, Grace, and his brother, Greg, father to the kids) that raised the tone.

This kind of book is one of the reasons that I object to the term “women’s fiction” and have rechristened it, at least in my own classification system, as “relationship fiction.” This is a prime example of that kind of novel that celebrates the relationships among families, friends, and significant others, and it is neither written by nor primarily read by women. I would say, if you have the same initial reaction that I did, give it another 30 or 40 pages and see if it doesn’t begin to draw you in and give you the experience for which you were hoping when you picked it up.

(Can I just say that the cover is perfection?)

Author vs. Genre

I picked up The Dream Daughter, by Diane Chamberlain, because it is a time travel book. But as I examined reviews on both Goodreads and in the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” I found that I was a member of a tiny minority when it came to motivations: Apparently Diane Chamberlain is a big deal with a certain kind of reader, and many/most of the reviewers confided that they read this book despite its science fiction content, because they read everything by Diane Chamberlain.

My first thought was, Who doesn’t love a good time travel story? Apparently a lot of people! But since this is the one and only Diane Chamberlain novel I have ever read, I am judging her and her writing by the contents of this book about time travel, so my review will be differently framed than most.

When you type “If you like Diane Chamberlain…” into Google, you come back with a whole slew of names, most of whom are listed as authors who write “feel-good fiction with a twist,” “romantic women’s fiction,” and “hometowns and heartstrings.” There is also an occasional mention of historical fiction. But my experience of The Dream Daughter didn’t fit so much into those categories, perhaps because I was so focused on the mechanics of the time travel—whether the author would make it believable, workable, and without unnecessary paradoxes. And although the discovery of the mechanics of it were a little fuzzy, the carrying-out of the process was quite satisfactory. I don’t know whether she borrowed it or came up with it on her own, but the methodology is similar to that in the movie Kate and Leopold, in which the traveler must find both an ideal moment in time and a height off which to step in order to reach the proper destination. The portal timing and location is essential to the plot, since it is the main source of tension in the book—will she/won’t she (or he or they) make it to the location in time, will they land where and when they planned, and what happens when they run out of return options?

The plot begins fairly simply: Carly is a physical therapist in her early twenties. She helps Hunter, a previously uncooperative patient, to regain his health, and introduces him to her sister; he subsequently becomes her beloved brother-in-law. A few years later, in 1970, Carly learns two heart-breaking pieces of news: Her young husband, Joe, won’t be returning from the Vietnam War; and her as-yet-unborn baby daughter has a heart defect that will almost certainly prove fatal once she is born. The baby is all she has left of Joe, and Carly is devastated. But Hunter, a physicist, tells Carly there may be a way the baby’s life can be saved. If she believes him (instead of urging her sister to have him committed to the psych ward), Carly can take a leap of faith that may lead to a healthy daughter.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely more relationship fiction than it is sci fi, but even a “soft” sci-fi element can materially contribute to an otherwise regular story if it’s thought through and properly integrated, which this definitely was. There were a few unexplained plot points that remained puzzling to me (such as the impatience and coldness displayed by Hunter’s mother on several key occasions), but for the most part all the characters were well developed and understandable, as were the situations and narrative, and it has just the right level of suspense and complexity to keep you reading. It shares with books such as 11-22-63, by Stephen King, that dire warning about avoiding changes to history by minimizing interactions, but then (like that book) allows its characters to ignore that warning in certain circumstances, to the benefit of the plot (if not necessarily to history). And this was definitely a gentler read than that angst-filled tome, but no less enjoyable in its more personal focus, and with plenty of similarly entertaining historical details as well.

I feel like this book could appeal equally to fans of relationship fiction, time travel and, of course, to most Diane Chamberlain devotees! I don’t know if I would enjoy her other, “straight” fiction as much as I did this one, but I may give one a try after this.

The conundrum of re-reading

I gave in to an impulse this week to read something for a second time. I felt like I needed a break from all the new and an encounter with something familiar. I read Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, two years ago when everyone was buzzing about it, and reviewed it favorably on this blog, but when it grabbed my attention again this week, I decided to have another go.

Given that this is a novel of suspense with an ultimate revelatory moment, you would think that re-reading it would fall flat…but it didn’t. It’s amazing to me how the mind will recall some things and (purposely?) shut others out. I remembered vaguely who died and when and why, but completely forgot the specific circumstances and immediate chain of events, so I got to be gobsmacked again, even though I knew it was coming! That scene is powerful—I read it a couple of times.

I know that there are people out there who never re-read, some because there are just too many new books coming down the pipeline to “waste your time” with one you have already consumed, and others because their reading consistently transfers into their long-term memory and they can’t imagine repeating an experience. I feel fortunate that although I do have a good memory for story, I am also able to be entertained by the nostalgic review of a narrative.

There are books that you will read once and, even if you liked them, never want to repeat. There are books that might stand up to one re-reading, both to confirm your liking for them and also to allow you to gather in the images and nuances you might have missed the first time when you were in a headlong rush to finish. And there are the books that become old friends, comfort zones, the recitation and repetition of a feeling you liked the first time and want to have again multiple times.

I will say that these criteria do shift and change over time. When I was in my teens, probably between ages 14 to 18, I was for some reason obsessed with Jane Eyre. I read the book conservative estimate about 15 times in that four-year period. About 10 years ago, prompted by helping a teen girl at the library find a classic off her Honors English list that she thought she could bear to read, I decided to make another visit to Thornfield Hall. I was dumfounded by my experience: What had I seen in this book that made me read it repeatedly and obsessively? I had to look back to the circumstances of my teen years to understand: I was a shy, quiet, romantic girl, with few friends and no dating experience, and my background as a fundamentalist Christian at that impressionable age guaranteed that the themes of sacrifice and self-denial (as represented both by Jane and by the sanctimonious St. John Rivers) would profoundly move me. Coming forward multiple decades to my current status as an agnostic self-supporting adult with a marriage and a tragic love story of my own behind me, I could clearly see that my obsession was uniquely tied to a particular iteration of my personality.

The criteria I use for whether a book remains in my personal collection is whether I think I might ever re-read it. If it’s a no, it goes. If it’s a yes—maybe once—I will keep it if it was a truly special experience (and if I have the shelf space) but otherwise rely on accessing it from the library when I want it. If it’s a yes, I can imagine enjoying this again and again, then it stays.

I’m happy to be the kind of reader who can appreciate all of these reading permutations.

Hits, misses, ?

This week has been a real mixed bag in the reading department. I started out with a book whose description was really exciting—A History of What Comes Next, by Sylvain Neuvel—only to end up with a did-not-finish (DNF) rating. I then started Beach Read, by Emily Henry, as some light relief, because my Kindle said I had read only 11 percent of it…only to realize partway through that everything was sounding quite familiar. And I finished up with a second book by an author where my first experience was excellent, only to realize that this was a different kind of story than I had expected.

The book by Sylvain Neuvel came highly hyped by many Goodreads folk. Having just finished 11-22-63 by Stephen King, it appealed to me as having a faintly similar premise: There were “people” (aliens) interfering with history to direct humankind to a particular path (in this case, leaving Earth for the stars). I am a big science fiction fan and, unlike some, don’t have a problem with hard science in my fiction. I am also a liker of alternate histories. This book includes science-heavy narrative, historical fiction, stuff about space exploration, a treatment of invisible minorities, mother-daughter relationships, and an intriguing take on aliens. It sounded perfect.

But…for me, at least, it was the most intriguing set-up with the most stultifyingly dull execution ever. The characters were one-dimensional, self-involved, and isolated amongst the true humans, so that you only got to know them through the conversations they had within their own minds. There was angst and personal insecurity (the protagonist is a teenager), a lot of violence, and not much in the way of story. The chain of mothers and daughters that culminates in this book with the 100th generation is relentless in pursuing their goal to send humans to the stars, but they have completely forgotten their origins, as have the other malevolent aliens who are sworn to stop them, so there is no interesting back story to be had, just the endless detailing of their day-to-day battle. Admittedly, I say all of this having read only 45 percent of the book, at which point I decided to cut my losses and give it a DNF. Goodreads people rave about some of the other books by this author, and maybe I will try one someday, but this one left me cold, tired, and impatient.

My experience with Beach Read was pretty funny; when I began it and started to get a feeling of déja vu, I chalked it up to having read books like it before. It wasn’t until a particular meet-cute scene that the light dawned and I realized I had read the book in its entirety about a year ago, and even reviewed it for the blog! I went ahead and finished the second read and enjoyed it this time around as well.

My third experience this week was The Mother-In-Law, by Sally Hepworth. I greatly enjoyed her book The Good Sister, particularly for the development of the character Fern, who really came to life on the page. That book, although billed as something of a thriller, turned out to be more of a family or domestic drama, although it had its tense moments at the resolution. With the description of this book, I was expecting more of a legitimate thriller, since the protagonist’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in murder…but that doesn’t end up being the case.

The book is presented (mostly) from two points of view—the wife, Lucy, and her husband’s mother, Diana. It is told by both characters in an equal division between “past” and “present,” the specific time periods sometimes not being noted but at other times being given as a particular year in the life. Because of the set-up, I was expecting a creeping sense of unease about the mother-in-law, culminating in her death and whatever would happen in the aftermath; instead, what is presented is two women with different goals and outlooks who are the victims, in their relationship with one another, of “unmeeting wishes.” Lucy lost her mother early in life and wants nothing more than to bond with a mother figure for a fulfilling relationship, while Diana is a rather aloof and self-contained person, due to her own background in which rejection played a large part, and doesn’t care to engage with Lucy in this way. Lucy sees Diana as cold and uncaring, while Diana regards Lucy (when she thinks of her at all) as self-indulgent and overly emotional.

The supposed central piece of the book—the murder—doesn’t factor much into the rest of the story, and the pool of potential suspects is small enough that I had a good guess fairly early on, though it wasn’t enough of a certainty for me to stop wondering until it happened. I frankly found that whole thread distracting—the book was trying to be too many things at once. There was domestic drama, there were specific agendas it seemed the author wanted to highlight through her characters—and adding the murder into the mix seemed like the author was trying to turn the path of this family saga in a direction it wouldn’t naturally go. (And presenting it as a fait accompli up front took any pizzazz out of its potential as a plot point!) The result, for me, was that I was alternately enthralled and bored, and in the end would have liked more back story and more relationship details and less of the somewhat forced nature of the “thriller” aspect.

I don’t feel strongly enough about it to wish I hadn’t read The Mother-in-Law, but it was definitely not the experience I was either expecting or craving, based on either the book’s description or because of my reaction to her other novel. She is a good enough writer that I will go on to try others of her books, but perhaps without reading the misleading blurb next time!

Happy endings

I suppose it’s slightly ironic, given that my last post was an enthusiastic recommendation for half a dozen Regency romances, that I don’t normally care for books with blatantly happy endings. Given that statement, it’s even more unlikely that I would bother to pick up a book actually titled The Keeper of Happy Endings. But Barbara Davis combined several elements that lured me in, including the presence of Paris as one backdrop for the story, an artist whose dream was to open a gallery, a seamstress who created couture wedding gowns (yet another form of art), and historical elements set in World War II.

The basic set-up for the story is that it takes place partly in the present day, which in this book is 1985 Boston, and partly (in flashback) during the middle years of World War II, in German-occupied France. It brings together two women who share a similar tragedy in their lives: Soline Roussel, whose fiancé drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in France, and went missing, presumed captured and killed by the Germans; and Rory Grant, whose fiancé is kidnapped, presumably for ransom, while working in the Sudan for Doctors Without Borders.

When the story opens in 1985, Rory’s fiancé, Hux, has been gone for about six months with no word of his fate. Her life has become a waiting game, and she has dropped all pretense of continuing without him; although she is supposed to be preparing for a return to college in the fall, followed by an internship in Paris, she sits at home and reads romance novels, for the distraction and also because she hopes for her own happy ending.

In flashback, Soline Roussel is a young woman working with her mother in their bridal salon. Generations of the women of her family have created “lucky” wedding gowns: a “wish” or charm is embroidered into the dress, and so many of the brides who marry in a Roussel gown end up with good relationships and generally lucky lives that the women (and gowns) have gained a reputation for magic. But the onset of World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Germans has put an end to the business and, after her mother dies of cancer, Soline is at loose ends. She ends up volunteering at a hospital, where she meets Anson Purcell, a Yale man from Boston who drives an ambulance, and he soon becomes the love of her life. Fearful that the Germans will capture Soline and use her against him so that he will reveal details of the Resistance work in which he is secretly involved, Anson sends her off to America

Back in the present day, the two women come together when Rory decides that she will revisit a dream (in which Hux encouraged her) to open an art gallery to exhibit previously unknown artists, and discovers the perfect location for it, the former bridal shop (in Boston) belonging to Soline Roussel. The building was decimated by a fire four years previously, and was partially rebuilt but remains empty. Rory persuades the reclusive Soline to lease it to her and, in the process, Soline recognizes a kinship between herself and the heartbroken girl, and a friendship is born.

This book has a lot going for it. There is a nice balance between the story in the past and the one in the present. There are complex relationships, notably Rory’s with her mother, Camilla, and Soline’s with her own mother and also with Anson. The historical details of the flashback portions of the book feel real and explore some uncommon details about World War II . I wished for more information about Soline’s career in couture as well as the methodology behind Rory’s chosen art form, but both were adequate to the story. The romance was satisfying. There were interesting twists and turns that kept me reading until far later than prudent into the early morning hours.

Are you sensing a “but”? Well…in many ways this was a beautiful and complex story that I wanted to love. But at a certain point, things became too predictable and certainly too coincidental to suspend disbelief, and I know, I know, I should have seen it coming from the title of the book, but the wrap-ups and happy endings for so many of the characters set my teeth on edge. Yes, there is a part of me that thrilled to the fulfillment of everyone’s dreams; but there is a reason I don’t read much romance, and it’s this: There is also a cynic in me that flat-out doesn’t believe it, and wants the complexity of a partial fail or, at least, a tiny bit of the unknown to remain.

I will, therefore, give a qualified recommendation for this book, which is, if you are fond of the perfect ending, especially after a lot of intervening suspense about what will happen, you will adore it. But if you are like me, with an inbred cynic who sits on the sidelines and scoffs, then you will like it, but not nearly as much.

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.