Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Silver Girl by Elin Hilderbrand

I've been a Hilderbrand fan since first reading A Love Season. But I haven't as thoroughly enjoyed some of her recent works. I read a sample of this book on my Kindle and didn't feel entirely pulled in. I thought to myself: am I really going to be drawn in to a story about a wife of a Madoff figure? But my mother called and highly recommended this novel, so I happily delved into the copy I got from the library.

I finished the novel in one day, and closed it feeling sated and happy. My mother was not wrong.

At the heart of this story isn't the relationship between Meredith Delinn and her Madoff-like husband, Freddy. Instead the novel focuses on Meredith's life long friendship with Connie. The two are recently estranged when Meredith turns to Connie because has no one else to turn to. Connie rescues Meredith, whisking her away from the prying eyes of the press to her beautiful beach house in Nantucket. Both women arrive in Nantucket, middle-aged and broken. Both are cut off from their former spouses and their beloved children. Both are starting anew, and trying to make sense of past mistakes. As a twenty-something, on the cusp of my life truly developing, it was fascinating to read about a woman looking back at her past and trying to pinpoint exactly where things lost control. Meredith was a golden, or should I say "silver" girl, raised to believe she would be successful and happy. Her father led her to believe that since she was brilliant and talented, she could do no wrong. It's hard to say what is Meredith's biggest misstep -- choosing Freddy, not leaving him when she had the chance, ceding control over their financial life, ignoring the life developing around her. Fascinatingly, Hilderbrand succeeds in making Meredith a deeply human character. She may have been rich and she may have been married to a psychopath, but she is a happy-go-lucky, resilient woman who seeks love and understanding.

For me this book made me think about how one decision can set a life on a totally different trajectory. Meredith, in trying to overcome her high school love, runs straight into the arms of Freddy Delinn. In the book she tells Toby the high school love): "You got me at my best. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. That was the best Meredith." It's tragic to think of someone truly believing they were the best at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. And yet it's so easy to understand the lens through which Meredith fews her past and present.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It was thought-provoking, well-written and engaging. Can't wait to hear what others thought about the characters motivations. I still am trying to figure out some of the decisions Meredith's husband (the Madoff-figure) made.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

I read this book during a three and a half hour plane flight and it was the perfect flight companion. I love reading stories about unique family dynamics and the family at the center of this novel is certainly unique in it’s brand of dysfunction. I also enjoyed the fact that a historical event is at the center of the family’s backstory – the fire at the Cocoanut Club in Boston in 1942.

I was fascinated by the closed-up nature of the matron of the story. Alice makes her opinions known and rarely bites her tongue when criticizing her daughters or granddaughters and yet she keeps so much of her personal story to herself. I can’t imagine my own deceased grandmothers doing so. And yet I realize there is so much that is unknown to me about my own grandmothers' lives. In a world with internet and genealogy websites, and a constant news cycle, its hard to imagine a deeply traumatic event being locked up inside one individual. The Cocoanut Club fire and the death of her sister, transforms Alice's life path. And it is her inability to forgive herself that dictates her flawed relationship with her children and grandchildren.

Alice’s deep faith was also intriguing to me since I know so very little about Catholicism. Alice's faith sustains her and explains many of her life choices. At first glance it's hard to understand this (living in an era with so much overt agnosticism) and yet it rings completely true to the character and the tenor of the story.

One of the most interesting aspect was examining the intergenerational changes and interactions. Alice wanted to become an artist but she squashed that dream and tried to devote herself to her husband and providing grandchildren for her parents. Alice struggled to be motherly and battled alcoholism until her husband gave her an ultimatum. Alice’s oldest daughter, Kathryn, battles alcoholism just like her mother and looks back at motherhood as something that restricts a woman’s freedom and life choices. She is not overjoyed when her old daughter considers single motherhood. A grandmother who wished she had rejected the traditional path, a daughter who battles many of her mother's demons, and a granddaughter who has made it as a writer and yet yearns to be a mother. So much changes over time. I loved seeing how much changes inside three generations. Also it was interesting how Alice's faith and churchgoing was juxtaposed with Kathryn's new aged dogmatism regarding AA, meditation and yoga. This all rang so true to me. Each generation sought deeper meaning but their time period dictated what they clutched onto.

There are so many fascinating aspects of this story. The fact that Alice was closer to her daughter-in-law than her daughters. The daughter-in-law's own story growing up poor in Southie. The gay granddaughter who is off-stage in the Peace Corps (I wished we had learned more of her story). The novel raises the question: are parents responsible for their own children's stumbles? If your children are your life's work and they stumble are you a failure? There is so much to discuss about this novel. I can't wait to hear what resonated the most for other readers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

My selection (which I just discovered existed today!) is:

A Year and Six Seconds by Isabel Gillies

Due out: August 2, 2011

I really enjoyed Gilles first memoir It Happens Everyday and am excited to see how her personal story develops.

From Amazon:

When our story opens, it's a dark and slushy winter in New York City, where Isabel is arriving by airplane from Ohio, two toddlers in tow, to move in with her parents; her husband has left her for another woman. In subsequent scene after hilarious scene, Isabel shares her valiant, misguided, and bumbling attempts to understand her own part in the disintegration of her marriage and to feel strong and loveable. And, one by one, she begins to cross items off a staggering single mom to-do list that includes: change last name, get bank account, get work, have breakdowns only in front of best friend and not in front of children, find rare preschool slot for son midyear in Manhattan, get along with three generations of family in tight quarters, find a man who can plant one great and romantic kiss, accept self, accept love, be happy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister

I liked the premise of this novel: six grown women with different problems are forced to do something difficult or scary. I liked that the six women were so different and faced such disparate life challenges yet they came together at first to hold twins and then to support one of their members in her fight with breast cancer. While I found the story engaging and intriguing, the narrative style left me feeling detached from the characters. Each "chapter" is devoted to one of the women.

The novel starts with a Prologue which focuses on Kate, a cancer survivor who finds it strange to be alone with her body. Kate's views on cancer, life and risk were overwhelmingly realistic and deeply intriguing. While reading her story I felt incredibly connected to the emotional tenor of the story. In this Prologue, the six women gather together to celebrate Kate's recovery from Cancer. One of the women notices a brochure for a White Water Rafting trip down the Grand Canyon on Kate's bulletin board. It is Kate's daughter's idea and Kate is terrified. Upon the urging of her friends, she decides to do it, as long as her friends each take a risk too - a risk she chooses.

Each chapter narrates the risk each of the other women takes. Some of these "risks" would seem simple if I listed them here. But each is deeply symbolic of the stage in life the unique woman is trapped in. I liked some of the women and their chapters more than others. The love story between Daria and Henry is very captivating (and I wanted it to play out over even more pages). I also was particularly taken in by Hadley's story. The story eventually comes full circle and brings us back to Kate and her own risk and her physical embrace of life and its challenges. While I enjoyed the story I felt the individual chapters could have meshed better if told in a different way. I also wanted more in the end. I wanted to feel even more connected to the journey of these six interesting women, but the structure and writing left me at arm's distance. I would love to hear what other's thought of this novel and it's narrative structure.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Weekly Update 6/17/11

I am once again behind in reviewing so I want to take the time to at least capture what I have been reading during my first few weeks of summer. I'm still behind on reviewing No Bikes in the House Without A Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene, Exposure by Therese Fowler, This Life in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman, and Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. I think I read them all last week (this is why I need to update weekly!). I think Greene is an excellent writer and a wonderful mother and her memoir about her family (four biological children and five adopted children) was incredibly engaging, very humorous and very heart-warming. I have more to say about it later. Fowler's book is about teenage sexting and was inspired by her own son's problems in this domain. The book made me feel old (my teenage years were so much less complicated!) and while I was engaged by the story, I found myself more interested in the story behind the story. My latest reads have been The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted by Bridget Asher and The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson (which I will certainly review).

I just got The Astral by Kate Christensen and Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister from the library and I have the latter with me in New York. (It was hard to pick which one to bring with me on my weekend away as I LOVED Christensen's Trouble but her books are incredibly thought-provoking and I figured I'd save it for when I got back home). I may get antsy and buy Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan on my Kindle (I'm sixth in the library queue) as I will probably finish my one library book in one day. I also have ten other library books on my bedside table in DC. (I figured bringing my Kindle and not several hardcovers was a better move for my back but I am slightly regretting this decision). Expect a lot of updates soon!

Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

I was delighted to find out there was a new installment of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The series is near to my heart as it was one of the many quality YA series I had in my former classroom. I specifically bought the first three for my students because I loved them so deeply myself even though I was not a young adult when I read them. I can remember during my teaching tenure happily reading the fourth one (which had just come out) on the floor of my local Barnes and Nobles (the 86th between 2nd and 3rd location RIP) feeling completely satiated. Earlier this evening as I sat on a Boltbus from Washington DC to NYC, I turned on my Kindle happy to find it had power (I mostly read library books and rarely have my Kindle charged but it seemed easier to pack a Kindle than many clunky hardcovers...I always need extra books to read). Looking the book up, I was surprised to see a number of mixed reviews on Amazon. These reviews made me apprehensive to purchase the book (I have problems committing via my Kindle since I get most of my books from the library for free) but I was so deeply looking forward to being reunited with Bee, Carmen, Tibby and Lena and learning what their lives looked like as they approached 30. One of the Customer Reviewers on Amazon stated: "I feel the author did not stay true to the characters and their younger selves. While we certainly change as time goes by, I have to think that the teenage sisters would certainly be disappointed with their adult versions."

While I understand this comment and why this reviewer was disappointed by what she perceived as the "melancholy tone" of the book, I did not have trouble relating to the characters or being drawn in to the story. I found myself incredibly invested in the lives of the characters. I disagreed with many of their individual choices and often felt anguish as the story progressed and yet I still devoured the story, seeking closure. And in the end, I only wanted more words, more pages, more story.

As an almost28 year old I can relate to the "grown-up" sisters so much more than I could the teenage ones. And I am not at all surprised that they have changed in ways that may potentially disappoint their former selves. That's what we call adultolescence. What makes these young women unique is that three of the four of them are still anchored to their own adolescence as they are in some way connected to their teenage lovers. While I suppose that is interesting, I didn't find it particularly unrealistic. It is actually a lot more believable than the entire premise of how these four girls came together in the first place (their mothers met in a pregnancy aerobics class).

I don't want to give too much away about the events of the novel. Something surprising happens very early in the book. I found myself shocked and unsure how the story would unfold. There is something magical in that. I didn't truly understand many of the events until I got very far into the novel. While I was upset with the unalterable outcome and some of the author's choices, I can accept that this is the way it had to happen. My mom still gets outraged over a particular event in the Friday Night Knitting Club. She always exclaims: "That did not need to happen." And while I get her point. I am much more forgiving of most authors. I get that the story sometimes controls its own outcome.

I really treasured this book. It was wonderful to be reunited with characters I know (I rarely read series excluding the Jessica Darling books although I have been waiting not patiently for the next installment about Wynter from Bread Alone and the Baker's Apprentice by Jean Hendricks Ryan). While I understand why fans trifle with the plot lines and the character development, I truly can't complain. My mother (who has only seen the movies) asked: "So is it over?" I replied: "What is she going to do write about the characters when they are forty, fifty?" If Brashares chooses to do so, I will surely tune in.