These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel by Maisy Card

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You remembered having laughed at the thought that getting down on your knees could redeem you.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. Maisy Card’s dialogue is written with authentic accents , which seems necessary to flavor this story as it pulls the readers through the dirt of history. As she exposes the deceptions of a Jamaican family through generations, we travel through time from Jamaica to Brooklyn. The characters can be downright devilish or desperate. It is a brutal tale, that begins with Abel Paisley faking his own death and assuming another man’s identity. The ghosts in this family aren’t all dead, and those who have been long in the ground refuse to remain silent. Secrets have a way of climbing out of the grave. Abel’s abandonment of his wife Vera steals all smiles from his children’s lives, puts an end to their mother’s tenderness. The daughter he raised under his assumed identity Stanford Solomon, fared no better and is nothing but an embarrassment. Her own child will wonder “if there is someone out there who could wear your life better.”  Her grandfather knows that answer best.

Vera is nothing but an angry ghost now, born to the knowledge of  her husband’s deception only after her own death. But what can a ghost do but watch and remember her life, now vanished from her hands? She can only simmer and focus on revenge. We the reader can go back through the years to see where the betrayals first began. When Abel shucked his life, Vera became a young widow ‘drowning under the weight of keeping a house and tending two small children’, and hired Bernard. A teenager himself, not yet a man, she finds uses for Bernard that keeps him obedient. What cost is there in so much loyalty, all the years he made this family he worked for his life?  The rest of the family see him as nothing but a servant, Vera’s yard boy, a modern day slave. Slaves just like the ones once kept in Harold Town. Bernard has his own secret history, jealous of a dead husband, taking his place in his own way but always an outsider, never granted full entrance into the house nor within the family. Grieving harder for Vera than her own blood. The searing pain of loss forces him into his own brand of madness, and the choice Abel made still keeps spinning everyone’s lives.

Further back still we reach looking for atonement, hoping our DNA tells the tales of our ancestors but not quite ready for horror stories. But it is in the heirlooms, such as the battered leather book that one’s great -great -great -great Grandfather, Harold Fowler’s, sins are recorded. Here, Debbie reads about the running of his Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1800’s. She isn’t prepared to digest the horrors of slavery, nor the nightmares that are visited upon her that feel more like possessions. History cannot be denied.

As Vera’s children sort through their childhood differently, one clinging to the good memories, another to the rotten ones, they must face what their mother was. Superstition runs rampant among the people, but what is reality, what is folklore? Adultery, unwanted children, drug addiction, blood thirsty little girls, secret histories, lies, slavery, rape… every single character is a trembling branch on the family tree. The truth is elusive, as solid as ghosts.

This debut is disturbingly engaging and one hell of a complicated tale. If we picked the bones of our own family history clean, would we too feel poisoned? Is this why it is often said to let sleeping dogs lie? It’s a shamefully dirty history, but makes for captivating fiction!

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Simon & Schuster

 

 

My Dark Vanessa: A Novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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I assume I’ll be the one he turns to in ten or fifteen years, whenever his body begins to break down. That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.

The above lines stood out for me more than any other in this gorgeously written novel. Make no mistake, ambitious and bright , fifteen-year old ‘nymphet’ Vanessa Wye becomes a devoted dog to her much older teacher, Mr. Strane. Hungry enough to have convinced her parents she would flourish at Browick, a boarding school that lures students  with high college acceptance rates and a wonderful “social fabric”, we witness her in 2000 at the dorm move in date for her sophomore year. Something happened to break the bond between she and her one close friend, Jenny. The pain of it hovers in the air as the only thing promised this year is abject loneliness. For Mr. Strane her loneliness seems like a choice, something he too likes. When she joins a club he heads up the two become closer, more so as he encourages her writing, something she has never shared with anyone else. It isn’t long before he is praising everything else about her, giving her the attention she is sorely in need of. Naturally, even at the age of fifteen, she knows grown man shouldn’t be giving such compliments to a young girl, and yet there is something so enthralling about his attentions, particularly when he begins to seduce her with snippets of literature, that reminds him of her. All the little intimacies grow until she is consumed by the fire he has built.

What girl isn’t in awe of a person who is able to engage her intellectually, especially Mr. Strane with his gift for all things literary? How does a girl not swoon when a man is filling her with praise, telling her she is beautiful, gifted, talented? A man who thinks about her all the time, tells her she is special.  Here is a lonely, intelligent, hungry girl who is suddenly the light in a grown man’s eyes, honed in on her alone. Oh the rest of us know just what he is up to, and she too knows this isn’t normal, but this could be different and not sleazy. She really could be special! It isn’t long before he makes her feel like a seductress, and he touches her with more than words.

You know it goes further, deeper than a little flirtation.

The book goes back and forth between future and past. It is 2017 and Mr. Strane is facing accusations from other students, Vanessa’s most recent relationship with Ira is in ruins and her future doesn’t resemble anything her entrance to Browick promised. What the hell happened? Is one of Mr. Strane’s accusers just a filthy liar, like Vanessa believes? What she and Strane had was not abuse, and she refuses to mar what they shared by labeling it as such. Strane needs her and time has not diluted her loyalty. That past… what the hell happened in that past where the young girl whom Mr. Strane felt would “take over the world” is now an adult leading a mediocre life?

In the past, we find her tormenting herself with every interaction she has with Strane. He wants me, he doesn’t want me. It is euphoric love for her, or something like it. His moods can leave her in a state of devastation or exhilaration, but everything is always her fault. Can it be criminal if you consent, if you want it? If he is equally as ‘tormented’ as her?  From her youthful perspective, it’s easy to forgive Vanessa for seeing things as she wants them to be. How else do adults get away with such things? I just kept thinking of a Dorothy Parker line from the poem Incurable, “But you, my sweet, are different”. Because when you’re young you don’t think the rules apply, not so much in your little rebellions, but in the stories that you know won’t end well. We tend to attempt to redefine what is truly happening into a more tasteful telling. In her mind, what they have together isn’t sordid nor dirty, despite the age difference and power dynamics. She carries this confusion into adulthood, still not understanding what exactly happened.

Where does the shame lie? Was he as devoted as her or were there other little loyal dogs? Was she just a fool to be had? Is this a story of being groomed? Vanessa’s ‘love’ story unfolds before the reader’s bewildered eyes, and it is provocative and engaging, often infuriating. Just what did he project unto her? The adults fail her, and why is that?

Therapy is only as good as the things you confront. How do you assign blame when you carry the shame on your shoulders and refuse to crack open the past? I spent most of my time blaming every single adult in the novel. Especially her own family.

I ached for Vanessa when she is young, begging to be an adult, awakened too soon, fouled even if she doesn’t know it yet. This book is going to trigger many people. I was pissed off for her, but unable to be too angry with Vanessa (as others will likely be) when she reached adulthood because this trauma has haunted her like a specter, preventing her from having genuine healthy relationships. She is still just that loyal devoted dog, her obedience automatic and under the guise of love. But we all have to wake up sometime! Nothing is more distasteful to me either as a woman than their intimacy when she is so young. There is nothing romantic in it when you look with adult eyes. Vanessa, through the years, is just on the edge of understanding what really happened, but to examine it closely is to discount all she felt, the good things too.

For some it takes extreme situations to look upon the scene of the crime, so to speak. But you have to be able to call it that. It isn’t hard to understand how the seduction sucked Vanessa in. How easy it is for Strane to control the story, because he is the true author of it all.  As Vanessa says, “My silence is so reliable.”  She doesn’t know the full story, but she will. This is an engaging, brutal story that left me reeling. Beautiful writing and I highlighted many lines like a mad fool. A shout out for the gorgeous cover too, may be my favorite in years. Read it, you won’t be able to put it down.

Publication Date:  March 10, 2020

William Morrow

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

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Evelyn can give us strength, but she can steal it away from us too when she feels like it.

Katie learns to make her own fun but always under the sway of the far more charismatic Evelyn, with Maeve completing the trio as someone Katie ‘endures’.  Katie and Evelyn are the closer of the two in an unbalanced friendship based far more on convenience “there aren’t many children along our road, so there isn’t much choice” and on Katie’s envy of  her bold, commanding ways. It is always through Evelyn the girls define themselves and no one more than Katie. Macken bares the painful dynamics of female bonds, when a girl is still an unformed thing, looking to others for clues of who she will become, often relying on another’s wisdom who seems to understand the world far better. A time when jealousies arise from pecking order of importance and friendships are as fevered as love. As with many small towns all the world over, someone is always the leader, the queen until someone more interesting comes along.

Evelyn can dish out mean criticisms, and understands the adult world far better than anyone. She is the authority on all things and she is Katie’s ticket to a brilliant future, they have big plans to leave the Irish town of Glenbruff when they’re old enough. But there are times when Evelyn can be overbearing, when Katie feels her inadequacy is exposed, usually by Evelyn. If she tries to be more, or get attention from a boy, no one can bring her down a peg better than her best friend. Yet Katie never fails to praise Evelyn, that is the best way to keep her close and happy.

Pamela is a threat, new on the scene, drawing all the attention that should be Evelyn’s. A talented dancer and pretty enough to have all the lads chasing her, naturally Evelyn can’t stomach her. “Life is exciting at the minute,” all this Maeve feels, and it’s all because of Pamela, throwing their small world into chaos, ruffling her cousin Evelyn’s feathers. Things change when Katie is forced to get to know Pamela which in turn tests her loyalty to Evelyn. There are disappearances and disappointments, secrets and lies. Too often we see people as they wish to be seen, rather than as they really are. Sometimes we hide behind other’s strength rather than searching within to discover our own. People have to earn confidences, and Pamela isn’t any different, has her escapades, secrets that Katie doesn’t understand, and may never get the chance to.

The future is upon them soon enough and with it broken promises, altered dreams. Katie has to learn to step out of her best friend’s shadow, to find out who she is and what she wants, needs. It requires distance from everything she has known but often when you leave it’s easier to ignore those you left. When you return, it is as if everyone has changed, or won’t let you be the person you’ve become and worse, accuses you of abandonment. Is it better to fold and let people tell you who you are or allow experience to ‘alienate you’ until you are chiseled into something new? Katie isn’t the only one trying to find herself, Maeve has a difficult history that comes into play as the girls grow up. Evelyn isn’t always as steady and sure as she seems, and Pamela… Pamela is a flicker, and yet comes to leave an indelible mark on the town.

It’s a quiet story about a small town in Ireland. There is a bit of a mystery and it isn’t solved in a flash. Much like real life, the truth is a long time in coming. After the incident occurs, time moves on, but the questions and wonder always hum beneath the town’s feet. Some are stunted, others flourish, it is about finding and understanding yourself and coping with the ways some friendships change you; how you both rely on and escape the people who may not be good for you. This is called growing up, and it can feel mean.

Publication Date: June 9, 2020

Oneworld Publications

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

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More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.

Slaverytime 1854 we meet Miss May Belle, a slave woman well known for crafting curses, because as she tells it, “Hoodoo is black folks currency.”  What other power is to be found than in such things? It’s another form of hope when drowning in desperation. In a time when other slavefolk were forced to work in  the fields, or on carpentering and cooking Miss May Belle has her hoodooing and healing (for various afflictions) as well as midwifery skills. She is the one the slavefolk turn to, and sometimes the white man as well; when what ails him is a shameful thing. Her own daughter Rue comes of age at her side, learning more than healing wounds, and birthing babies. She learns first hand about true love and passion watching her parents during her father’s brief visits and the abysmal pain and suffering of its loss. She also learns about the cost of freedom and ownership. Then she witnesses the consequences conjures take on a person’s body and soul. Through her mother’s gifts and skills she is able to weave in and out of the lives of their people as well as the home of their master and his family, prosperous landowner Marse Charles.

As a playmate to his spoiled daughter Varina, Rue has more freedom than afforded girls like her and is privy to a different life. Yet Rue learns her place well, always watching from afar the life that she knows divides them. When she forgets her place her mother is sure to do the reminding. Miss May Belle may be freer than most, but she still must abide by the unspoken rules of the white-man. The master’s child Varina loves to be wild and who better to be an “accomplice to witness her rebellion” than Rue. It always turns into punishments for her alone, for her mamma Miss May Belle has eyes and ears everywhere, and an uncanny way of knowing everything her girl gets up to. In order to keep her safe and under the care of Marse Charles she must teach her everything she knows, whether Rue wants to learn or not and that includes behaving properly, and colored little girls can’t run around fancy and free like Varina.

The story goes back and forth between slavery and freedomtime, Rue’s childhood and her turn at caring for the people her own mother gives up on after a horrific tragedy. Superstitions seem to guide the people, especially when a baby is born more like a pitiful creature, something that everyone feels is more like a curse than a bundle of joy. She has birthed every child in town since the end of slaverytime, more intimately involved in all their lives than anyone. But she knows firsthand how fast praise can turn to hatred, more so when a religious man comes to town. Everyone needs someone to blame their bad luck on, it’s so much easier than looking within. When the old ways no longer save you, maybe God can, but the bible doesn’t take with Hoodoo. Love itself can be as potent as a curse, as too can harboring secrets about the people in the town and Marse Charles’ family. Someone is always scheming, there is little comfort to be had. Gossip can cost anyone their standing, especially Rue. Running away can be dangerous but so can ‘digging in’, making a stand and fighting for your small place in the world. Rue will not run, even if Bruh Abel is set on her ruin. Even if the bible marks her as evil, fallen, in need of redemption. Maybe Bruh Abel isn’t so pure either?

Fear runs rampant among the people, curses aren’t enough, and every affliction can’t be cured. The woods are not always silent nor still, they too are haunted by memories, and possibly something else. Secrets seems to go there. So many decisions Rue is forced to make to protect others, so many wrong moves and yet nothing for herself. Will it ever change? Is she forever trapped in this life rooted in whispers, secrets, gossip, grief, curses, and conjures? What will the price of freedom be for Rue? Life is a heavy weight and what comfort can be found in her mother’s words? “Fix what you’ve done. Or live with it quiet.”

There are some things that one cannot live with and everything you have done will rise up. It’s an interesting historical fiction with a taste of magical realism, people help each other but also harm one another. Rue carries many burdens and tries hard to make things right. It’s written from the perspective of slavery, rather than ownership and it lends a far more authentic experience. This is a writer to watch! For those who are into cover love, how beautiful is the book cover? As I read it, I kept thinking someone will make this into a movie. Who knows? It’s a fantastic debut!

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Random House Publishing

 

 

 

Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

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It is easy to be swept away by promises of miraculous cures for incurable diseases.

The universe has a strange sense of humor, as I am writing this I am getting over a virus and I’ve temporarily lost hearing in my right ear going on 3 weeks now. For me, it’s fluid behind the eardrum, but for this reason I finished this novel thinking about how important losing your hearing is for those born with it. I’ve had several family members lose their hearing due to cancer, old age, as well as damage from working around loud machinery. Most of us are ignorant when it comes to disabilities that don’t directly affect us, in fact before reading this I hadn’t really understood that people need to learn to hear when they get a cochlear implant. It’s hard to understand that a person, with the aid of hearing implants, doesn’t hear the same as those of us with properly functioning ears do. Before my own father started using a hearing aid I didn’t know how it distorted some sounds, magnified others and how awful it is for him to hear when more than one person is talking. As with anything else about humanity, there are different ways of being deaf and ‘cures’ and ‘aids’ don’t work for everyone, nor are they necessarily desired.

The conversation about embracing Deaf culture is a personal one, particularly to those born deaf. To many people, it’s not a matter of ‘curing’ something they never lost in the first place. Other people’s expectations of what makes a person whole doesn’t take into account their needs, their decisions. Reading about parents searching for cures it’s heartbreaking for both the child and the parents. For those who want to restore their hearing every new invention and scientific breakthrough can just be one more disappointment to bear, some more dangerous to one’s health or outright deadly. While Jaipreet Virdi shares a history for the deafness cure, too she interjects her own personal trials and tribulations in defining her own place in the Deaf community. Jaipreet was not born deaf and therefore her hearing loss doesn’t “ fit with the discourse of deafness and Deaf culture, because most Deaf people were born deaf and thus, never had any hearing to lose.” Her goal is to “enrich our understanding of an unrepresented aspect of deaf history: that of the medical and technological avenues for “curing” hearing loss.” These cures involve everything from airplane dives, chunky devices, and all sorts of  “Electrical Wonders.” Even advertisements that shame women for their unfashionable hearing apparatuses is simply just another way to demean a person and make a ton of money off a medical condition.

There are, of course, those in the medical community who made discoveries that were great strides in medical science but for every genuine, qualified doctor there were quacks and frauds. Factor in the exuberant cost for treatments, cures, and hearing devices and people have no other option than to purchase what they can afford, generally for products that did more harm than good if they worked at all. Loving parents that were well meaning hunted for cures largely because in the past the fear their child couldn’t manage in a world that doesn’t support disabilities caused alarm about their child’s future. Society tends to attack anything that is ‘different than’. Their fear that their child couldn’t survive without the ability to communicate as the majority demands placed them on quests to try anything to cure their Deaf child. But what of the child forced through treatments that are often more painful than not? As an aside, this happens with all sorts of illnesses, defects, disabilities that are physical or mental. The truth is, most parents want to make their child’s future one where their child will be safe, functional long after they are no longer around to care for them, it often comes from a place of love. Yet there are two sides of this coin.

What of the child like Jaipreet Virdi who has had to learn how to live between two worlds, that of hearing and the deaf, feeling she isn’t planted firmly in either? People often forget how important hearing is to language, for it is through hearing others speak as well as our own voice that we can pronounce and enunciate.  A not so simple skill most of us take for granted. Hearing, in the end, matters and is just something most of us don’t think about. As we age, hearing as much as sight is a sense that tends to go. All of us are prone to illness and injury, that can easily end in the loss of hearing. It’s easier to not think about our senses, until we or someone we love loses them.

How can we not empathize with the need those born Deaf have to embrace their own community, feeling whole as they are? Sometimes we fail to understand that all over the world people have their own way of existing, it may be different from our own, but it’s not less. How much of oneself is anyone expected to give up to fit in, particularly when you lose more of yourself? We all must measure our own happiness, and create a place for ourselves, why should it be any different for someone with a disability? With that said, it wouldn’t hurt to educate ourselves about the difficulties others confront, to at least try to understand each other better and respect personal choices.

This book is full of hearing history, which is shocking and sad as well as fascinating. It’s part memoir and medical history/science. Maybe I was more interested in this book having witnessed the frustration of those who have lost their hearing. Seeing firsthand how someone is dismissed when they can’t communicate what they need to. I don’t always think other people are cruel (though such people do exist) I think they just don’t know any better, which again comes down to “unrepresented aspects” of hearing loss and many other disabilities. In a world as populated as ours, there really isn’t an excuse not to educate ourselves. There is a line that stayed with me, “We marvel at how people pass as normal by hiding the signs of disability.” Why should they have to hide?

If you’ve ever been curious about the world of the hearing impaired or Deaf (which is the same world you share) this is an informative read.

Publication Date: May 1, 2020

University of Chicago Press

Breasts and Eggs: A Novel by Mieko Kawakami Translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd

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We had no relatives to call for help, and zero chances of marrying into money. Less than zero. Lottery odds.

Breasts and Eggs is about being oppressed through poverty but also it’s about the female body as an instrument for survival or a vessel for motherhood. It begins with Natsu’s older sister Makiko and her silent daughter Midoriko arriving by train for a visit. While silent in her mother’s presence for over half a year, her mind is a hive of anxiety about her changing body, but she doesn’t share these thoughts with her single mother; their communication solely through written words on paper. Nothing is wrong with her, she speaks perfectly normally at school and with friends, ‘she just refused to talk at home’. This is just another strain between Natsu and Makiko, especially after news that her elder sister wants to get breast implants, which will certainly improve her working life as a hostess. Spending her nights slaving in a less than glamorous location with ‘no shortage of vagrants and drunks’, women with bigger breasts make more money. While Midoriko ponders how awful it must be to menstruate for decades, her mother looks really old, and she isn’t even forty yet. Natsu is at odds with the way Makiko is behaving like everything is okay. As if her daughter’s self imposed silence is a rite of passage. She is more disturbed by Makiko’s obsessive plan to improve her body.

Soon, Makiko is sharing colorful brochures that are the guide “to be more beautiful”.  Hers is a life without prospects, there wasn’t anyone helping make her life better. The sisters past losses turned their lives to one of poverty and struggle. Survival in it’s rawest sense, and at a young age. Welfare, not an option. Before them, their own mother struggled. Even now, there isn’t enough money to stretch, let alone for breast implants! What about the health risks to her body? When they visit a bathhouse its a perfect example of women comparing themselves to others and how imperfections can be fixed. Natsu is helpless to make her sister see reason. For young Midoriko, the body is beginning to feel like a thing she has no control over, her future will just be a lifetime of bending to it’s demands, and seeing how making money every day just to keep it alive has drained her mother of youth and vitality makes her feel very afraid. Too, why would anyone want to create another life, just another body (like she herself is for her mom) that is more weight to your financial woes? She is horrified, feeling captive to her body’s changes, much like a runaway train she can’t stop or maybe like an approaching monster? Most women forget how scary leaving childhood behind is, when the body first begins to bud. It’s not always an easy progression, though a natural stage. Natsu herself is single in the most severe sense. No child, no partner and what does this lonely state say about her? With the visit from her family, memories are being brought out of the dark again about the sisters hard past. Natsu too thinks about the body and beauty, expectations, how to define happiness which seems much easier for those who please the eye. Worse, she sees her dream more as a hobby, herself as a failure having moved to Tokyo to become a writer ten years earlier and yet not a great success that can bring money in to help her elder sister and niece. It’s only a matter of time before Midoriko erupts emotionally about how her mother is effecting her and the strain between the sisters comes to a head.

In Book Two Natsu is found giving her everything in her writing, which to some doesn’t seem good enough. Through celebrity interest her luck changes and finally she tastes success. She finds support through an editor Sengawa, for a time who nudges her to reach deeper. She wisely informs her that it’s the real readers of literature she must reach. She wrestles with her own anxieties, the fact that in a relationship her body refuses to enjoy the physical fusing most people long for and don’t just ‘endure’. What sort of woman is she? To feel stunted in this way? A woman who retreats from such affection? She never feels more alone than when entwined with a man. What if she decides to have a child after-all, maybe better as a single mom, subtracting a man from the equation altogether?  It’s possible and a problem many single women face. There is always sperm donation. This quest brings her closer to children, now adults, born impacted by donor conception. Not everyone feels being born was a blessing. How will this effect her decision? This novel is a deep exploration into not just motherhood but the very nature of womanhood itself. For Midoriko when she is young in book one, her body feels like it’s gone rogue, for another character in book two, it stood out to me that with illness, it is the same. The body taking over. Choices are weighted in the entire story, there is no right or wrong path, and every decision they make effects someone. Parenthood and what a mother or father is reaches deeper than blood too through the novel. Natsu doesn’t feel normal, the way you should in relationships, but should she have to feel that way in order to create a family? Does she want to? As she ages, the question if she wants to remain alone is a heavy one.

There is so much happening in the novel, and it’s intelligently written but I sometimes wished the pace picked up. However, there is gorgeous writing within. “People are strange, Jun. They know nothing lasts forever, but still find time to laugh and cry and get upset, laboring over things and breaking things apart.”  One of the most beautiful moments in the novel is when Aizawa (you’ll meet him between the pages) talks about the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. It moved me.

Women’s bodies are as complicated as our lives can be, every single stage from puberty to the end, and every decision we make from whom touches us to whether or not we carry a life within. There are illnesses, emotional obstacles, careers (some grand, others necessary for survival), and always memories of all that came before. How Kawakami fit so much in the telling, I can’t say. I lived in Okinawa, and I think I read books written by Japanese authors a little differently having a bit broader understanding of the culture than someone who has never visited or lived among the people yet I think anyone can relate to what happens to the characters. This is perfect for readers who enjoy other cultures, and women’s issues too.

Publication Date: April 17, 2020

Europa Editions

Love is a Rebellious Bird: A Novel by Elayne Klasson

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“Judith, sometimes it’s hard to be objective when it’s someone we love.”

With the years gone faster than the blink of Judith’s eye, she finds herself thinking about the same person she has since childhood, the one person whom has occupied the biggest room in her heart, Eliot Pine. The most pressing question of all, beyond why and how we love the people we do, is can you love someone who doesn’t love you with the same devotion and passion you feel for them? Is true love only measured in equal parts? Worse, can you stop yourself from loving a person who can never return your own? Judith is over seventy, and “trying to make sense of what I did with my life”, knowing her obsessive love was “consuming, painful, and, ultimately, unsuitable.” Here she presents her story of unwavering love for Eliot through her marriages, births of her children and her career.

Judith first meets Eliot Pine, a beautiful boy, when she is ten years old and transfers to Pratt Elementary School in Chicago her fifth grade year. The reader learns, just like Judith, through a fight he is in that his mother is in the mental hospital, again. His pain and sorrow becomes Judith’s own. Immediately her heart belongs to Eliot. First it’s love from a distance, each with their own little boyfriend and girlfriends until they begin to compete academically. Impressed by her intelligence, the two become fast friends, earning her even a special nickname from Eliot that sticks for life. She inserts herself in his passionate causes to be closer to him, getting to know even his mother, for a time. But she always seems to be asking him for more than he can give, their relationship one of imbalance. A terrible tragedy takes place, and Judith is only too eager to be Eliot’s solace. Through the years and difficulties of life, Eliot and Judith turn to each other as something far more undefinable than friends.

As growing up does, experiences change Eliot and Judith just can’t seem to keep up. As he changes, Judith longs for him in the Ann Arbor Gloom, focusing on her education, waiting for that ‘some day’ he always promises when she can finally, fully give herself to him, body and soul. Judith immerses herself in psychology and social work. The two meet up again and again through life, keeping in touch through letters before emails take over, their life circles different as Eliot’s in more affluent, and yet there are times they are unavailable to each other as he graduates Harvard Law and she travels the world with someone else.

Judith and Eliot’s life paths split in different directions, he with a career in law, she with a career in social work and later raising children as a single mother after a tragic turn. Eliot gives her mixed signals even after he is married to someone else, and all she can ever feel is “if only” about everything involving Eliot. Is Eliot moved more by their shared history and her utter devotion and attention to him? In love with the intensity of her love for him? She promises him to always be there for him, even when they’re old and she keeps that promise, which in fact may be the most beautiful part of the story and the most pure example of love.

The novel is Judith’s journey through life, always on the edge of Eliot’s as he goes on to do great things. Using her other loves and marriages as a means to have a life of her own, separate from Eliot. Her own love life comes with it’s own issues and temptations like any marriage. There are betrayals and losses, brutal days. It is with startling honesty that Judith tells her story of how she humiliated herself for love, which a woman once she reaches old age at some point has done over someone. Not every great love story is mutual nor mutually exclusive. Love is sometimes one sided, but is it any less true? Even when she tries to push away, there is always her heart beating for Eliot and it is tender until the end, loyal if not returned. Eliot, again and again ‘not choosing me’ and yet not quite ever releasing her either. She is the constant friend, and in old age, let her children think she is crazy, she will not refuse Eliot when he needs her the most. It may be painful to recognize yourself either in Eliot or Judith, the worshiped or the devoted. The end was tender and sad, dare I say beautiful?

Published November 12, 2019

She Writes Press