Taína: A Novel by Ernesto Quiñonez

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By this time the air had gone flat in Taína’s life and it was her mother who answered all the questions.

Spanish Harlem, fifteen year old Taína and songbird of young Julio’s heart, is a virgin… a pregnant virgin! She tells everyone, “maybe some angel entered the project”, impregnating her. She has never been with a man, no way! Her mother Inelda (Sister Flores)  would never allow such a thing, and she tells the elders at her Kingdom Hall of Jehova’s witnesses as much, it’s not even possible because she is always present, she is the all seeing eye in her daughters life, besides God, of course. No way would they go to the hospital, subjecting Taína to such an intrusion (examination) to prove her virginity!  Instead, they resign themselves to a sort of imposed silence in public, “The two women were living in a universe of two, and it seemed that not even the crowds could disturb them.”  Julio wants the feeling Taína inspires with her singing, angelic in and of itself, able to make people weep, “so I could hear love.” How different Taína is in person, with her foul mouth and fury. What is the shame that happened? The shame people speak of that marks Inelda as a bad mother? Why is Taína’s beauty suspect, why do social workers come to their door, ignored like everyone else?

One thing is certain, Julio is going to sneak his way into Taína’s life, one way or another! He will keep visiting her door until he is let in to her home and heart. Let the residents of “Spanish Harlem” believe the worst, believe in some tragedy, he will chose instead to believe in Taína, even if he makes a fool of himself, it’s a tale worth believing. Who hasn’t been a fool for love, eh?

This passion will have Julio visiting a prison to question a dangerous criminal, teased mercilessly at school for being ‘crazy’ (and not just for believing in Taína’s angelic conception), wasting money on offerings for the forthcoming miracle baby, and getting caught up in crazy schemes for money, maybe even dealing in posh dogs. Sneaking out at night, after his parents fall asleep,  he meets El Vejigante who tells him “Many people don’t know me because old people are invisible”. This strange man wearing an old, fading satin cape may just be his ticket into Taína’s good graces. He is the once famous Capeman, keeper of the night, his name is Salvador but just who is he to Taína and how  he can help won’t be known until their next secret meeting.

Julio is a good boy, but good boys can do questionable things when they think it will help another. What if his mother takes him back to the psych ward, because of his visions which are tied into Taína, solidifying his belief in the miracle of her pregnancy? He tells the reader, he believes he is free to make choices and “but I would be held accountable for my choices”, still he would not turn away from her as the church has, even if his mother demands it. Even if he promises to stay away from her, his inner universe of belief won’t let him.

There is a challenge of loyalty, Inelda and Taína need the help of Peta Ponce, “she is known all over”, an espiritista (spiritualist) but it takes money to get her to come to them, money they do not have surviving off WIC checks and this… this is where Julio comes into play. Inelda isn’t the only woman of the project they live in to use Peta Ponce’s services, but that’s a whole other fork in the story. What sort of magic can this woman practice that leads Pureto Rican women to have more faith in her than in actual doctors? Sal knows, but he isn’t forthcoming with answers to all of Julio’s questions. One thing the reader knows is, Julio doesn’t know much about anything. Through the story, many secrets of his own mother’s past comes to light, as does Taína’s mysterious tale and if it makes him feel ‘paralyzed with happiness’ just to be in her presence rubbing her swollen pregnant feet, who are we to question it? It’s time for Julio to figure out his hustle, to be the man and savior she needs.

The novel veers off her and there, meandering through other characters origins and their pasts, like Peta Ponce, Salvador, Inelda, Julio’s mother and father. There is magical realism, poverty, multicultural flavors, coming of age as a misfit, the difficulties Puerto Ricans face, Julio’s visions, “Whom I saw was my mother. I saw her dreams, I saw my fathers dreams too. They were trampled and unfinished.” It’s a strange novel, Julio is both oblivious and hyper-aware and it leads to all sorts of confusions for the poor boy and his family, some run ins with the police. Even so, maybe be can be their salvation. Maybe we will get to the bottom of Taína’s miraculous pregnancy. Sometimes I lost the plot, but it’s a decent book, it just needed some containment, it runs off a bit with the telling and characters. A unique story, the cover is fantastic.

Out Today! September 3, 2019

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

 

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Mona in Three Acts: A Novel by Griet Op de Beeck

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Lying is a national sport in our family. We learned it when we were little and it’s gotten into our bodies like blood and water for other people.

Mona in three acts is an emotional journey, maybe too downhearted and crawling for some readers but it clicked with me. This is a novel about the way we are shaped by our families, not often for the best. Three Acts, part one and it is 1976 when Mona says, “They say your eyes get used to the dark”, from a tiny room in the corner of the basement. She’s in trouble again with her mother, she is not the good kid, that’s her brother Alexander’s role. The punishment feels excessive to the reader, as Mona sits in that dark space fearful of mommy’s wrath. Mona seems to be nothing but a disappointment simply for existing, a hard woman obviously as Mona is only 9, stricter with Mona “because I needed it” and then she exits the family in a tragic instant. She’ll never be able to prove to her mother she is a good girl. Her maternal Grandmother knows what the children need to recover and that is order, routine so steps in to take care of them all until… daddy gets sick of her meddling and judging.

Mona’s father wants them to meet a very special visitor even though only months have passed since their Mommy’s death, a woman named Marie who is fated to become their new mommy. Things aren’t going to get any easier. Some children get to be children and some, like Mona, have to fuss over the grown ups. Stuck in the middle with her maternal grandmother’s disgust for her father’s speedy new marriage and not wanting to invoke her father’s displeasure, she stuffs down her own feelings. Marie is emotionally demanding, quick to tears, feeling the family isn’t grateful for all the effort she puts forth as their new mother. It is here that Mona learns to fake happiness, to put her best face forward and make sure that Marie is, at all costs, appreciated. Weight is piled on her shoulders and with her father’s distant nature, this marriage and Marie’s pregnancy is more Mona’s cross to bear, already involved in nurturing her brother Alexander she is caring for the newest addition, because Marie needs rest. It’s all just too much for Marie, right? Everything has always felt like Mona’s fault, more so now. If someone is unhappy, storms off, feels sad, it’s because of her. The weight of the world.

Mona’s twenties find her feeling ‘defined by the things she is not’, though there is hope working in theater.  She becomes a ‘dramaturge’ for one of the most important theater directors. It’s a world away from her family, but somehow they still seep into her life. She accepts love in f half-measures, it’s what she learned growing up around first, her mother Agnes, her disapproving Grandma after the accident and lastly her replacement mommy Marie and her disinterested father. As for her lover Lois, why not stay with him? If his touch doesn’t set her on fire, well it’s okay. If he is self-centered, not fully in the relationship, well he must have his reasons, it’s still love. He is a writer, it demands all of his focus, attention, surely she has to understand that? Life has never cared much for the state of her well being, not even her own important work is enough to give her the confidence to define herself as something more than what her family or lover has decided she is. She has been surrounded by difficult characters, whose only constant is their theatrics, which may well have prepared her for her job. So much of her life has been packed away, much like her own mother Agnes whom really is more a faded memory, never to be spoken of as not to upset Marie. Her father has been, though, almost as absent as the dead. I know it comes off as a lot of whingeing, and many readers will think ‘hell, pick yourself up and make the life you want’, and some people are strong enough, confident enough to do it and say ‘the hell with the lot of you.’ But during the formative years, some people shrink deeper into themselves and start believing the version their family has decided they are meant to be. They learn to be pleasing, to convince themselves that any scrap is enough. They want more for others forgetting themselves in the process and you see this in how she cares for her brother Alexander and half sister Anne Marie. It’s strange how in many families, there is often one person (more if you’re unlucky) like Marie, who can strike fear into everyone, why do we succumb to such abuse, long after we have the freedom to walk away? Physical abuse is easier to recognize, it’s those that distort our versions of ourselves that are hardest to expose, especially when everyone else is so good at playing along, ‘keeping the peace’. I absolutely understand such people with their ‘toxic unhappiness’, how like a disease, a disaster.

Part three takes us to the heart of Mona’s relationship with her father. It is relief to understand the why of things, but it changes nothing of what children suffer through. For the reader as much as Mona her father has been absent, a non-entity whom only seems to hide and let others deal with the difficult situations. Mona has to learn sometime to toughen up, to demand what she deserves, because if you just keep lying down and taking it, people will never stop walking all over you. It may come late, but she may just learn to stand up and stop excusing the selfishness of others and walk on until she finds something better.  This isn’t a happy novel, Mona’s life has been a misery that she hasn’t understood how to climb out of, but there is hope for us all. If you ever wanted to understand what goes on inside the mind of a pleaser, you are privy to it from childhood on. Mona’s voice as a child was genuine, I felt so sorry for her. It’s a fiction that childhood is the happiest time in the lives of all, there are so many Monas out there, it makes you sick to think of it. I wonder, had her mother lived, though difficult she was, would Mona have rebelled eventually? Become someone else entirely? Just a thought.

Publication Date: November 12, 2019

AmazonCrossing

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Mother Earth: A Novel by Kristian Novak (Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)

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When one person took their life, the disease was theirs alone. When four people took their lives, the whole village was afflicted.

Successful Croatian author Matija’s creativity, born out of a disconnect from the torment of his past, seems to have abandoned him. His third book is a failure, nothing is going right since Dina walked out of his life. A pit is opening inside of him, abandoning himself to the abyss he must confront the past he has buried in the dark mother earth of  the Croatian village of his childhood. Fear has been at the heart of his creations, his make believe life the safety net that has maintained his sanity, kept the demons of the past from pulling him back to the trauma he has repressed. He doesn’t even truly know what he has buried. Dina wants his memories, whether they expose his fragility or not, this is the meat of any solid relationship. How can love be real if you don’t share your childhood, the glory days and the goofy awkward stages? What if all you have is horror? How do you share memories you don’t even have? Some things are better left repressed. Some memories are wild animals, animals he left behind before he and his family moved away to Zagreb. But memories have a keen sense of smell and can track you down, no matter how many years pass in between.

Reaching back, further back it all began with the passing of Matija’s father when he was only six or maybe the rot seeped in because of the legend his grandmother told him. Something about the soil of that burial ground disturbs him, some sort of ‘staged’ feeling about his father’s funeral births mistrust of the villagers. This child’s disbelief in the face of loss, death is the seed that germinates into abandonment of reality. Grief gets tangled into stories about the will-o-the-wisp folk, and what is real for a child? What about the world is solid when you are still trying to wrap your mind around all the big and small  nagging questions of the world? What happens when the village starts watching you because they think you are different, a ‘troubled’ child? What happens when you start to see things, know things maybe even become the catalyst for tragedies, and realize that they could be right about you? What’s a boy to do when the brutal dark ‘things’ visit him, as if summoned by his need?

This novel is a strange type of horror story whose engine is revved all because of Matija’s love for Dina. Everything rises to the surface, you must face the dark earth of your origins in order to have a chance at love. The past always comes back for us. For Matija  the things left unexplained have soured his thoughts, a curious, intelligent, creative little boy left to makes sense of the wounds of losing his father. He never really recovered from that first loss, and everything that followed; the suicides, the terrible things people hide from each other in any village or town haunts him so much that any fabrication is better than facing everything he knew. He doesn’t understand his father’s death and his mom and sister are so swamped in grief they don’t know how damaging keeping him in the dark will become. His strange drawings don’t help, he feeds the villagers fear of him, he can’t seem to help it. He is fated to be an outcast, every village needs one, it makes it so much easier to avoid the real horror, within ourselves and each other. Collectively, these people are suspicious and distrusting of anything different, they can overlook the ugliness in those nearest and dearest so long as the person seems admirable, clean..etc. The horror is in that.  War is looming, at least that is something solid to fear and maybe they can turn their hate there.

There is an eeriness in what Matija starts seeing, and the overwhelming horror of fantasy that becomes a threat for others near him, which at the heart really comes from a place of love and grief to have his dad come back from the dead. The scariest moment is in his fervent, childish hope by the water with his friend. His mother just wants him to act like a normal boy, because behaving like his ‘natural’ self carries the threat of being taken away. He learns early on how to betray himself, and in turn, how to betray others in order to ‘fit in’. It’s hard to blame his actions, who doesn’t want to feel accepted somewhere, especially when you’re young and have been on the outside for so long? Sadly, it’s one of the biggest mistakes of his life, some things can’t be fixed. Is he the disease in the midst? Is he really to blame as people begin to take their own lives?

“Things you’ve forgotten bide their time. They keep an eye on you, poke each other in the ribs, and snicker softly so as not to disturb the sanctity of the delusion. They only start getting louder when you begin to stagnate, when there’s no forward movement and that’s when they go after you, seething because you’ve forbidden them from coexisting with all the new things you neatly pack into the storage unit known as your life.” 

We are the horror. It’s a solid novel, it put me in a strange place. We forget how fear can consume young minds and how destructive fantasy can be. What a sad tale.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Amazon Crossing

The Topeka School: A Novel by Ben Lerner

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They felt at once profoundly numb and profoundly ecstatic to be young and inflicting optional damage on each other; the heat was its own justification, but so was the cold- there was a second-order thrill in knowing you could kick someone in the chest without emotion. 

With two parents who are highly successful psychologists working for “The Foundation”, surely one would imagine their son Adam would have a solid structure to build his life upon. It’s not so, the parents marriage isn’t so perfect neither is he the well rounded, popular student the surface would have people believe. Like other foundation kids, he is on his way up, a debater and orator sure to win the state championship, popular with the other foundation kids despite being a poet (whom everyone knows makes you a total wimp, right), growing up in middle class Kansas, a seemingly charmed existence but his parents strategies are enough to drive him into a rage. He’s got verbal battles to channel bullying, a safe outlet. Thank god for his ‘language’, and he can always do ‘talk therapy’ or consult with someone they really admire, anything to dull that ‘intensity’ of his. A concussion leads to migraines, and of course there is terror in the debilitating neurological effects for people of any age. Are these migraines just the effects and pressures of ‘passing himself off as a real man?’ Lucky for Adam he has The Foundation and Erwood, “a pioneer in biofeedback” to pull him through.

There are pages where we get inside of Darren’s mind, a student with mental problems who is pulled into Adam’s circle,“Hadn’t they always been told to include him?” and involved in an incident that leads to a violent episode. In fact, this was what I loved most about the novel… that even parents with all their brilliant research and Adam’s father with his keen insight into troubled boys can still fail just like the rest of us. “Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state, you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy…” you want to talk about intensity and aggression how about what it means for boys to embrace violent masculinity even in a world that is ‘inclusive’, with a top-notch support system. Kids will be cruel, even when they know better, even when they are trying to be better. There is a mockery of the world as modeled by their parents, and no one exposes it in the way Lerner does in this novel. Even the adults, like Adam’s father understands that you can’t transcend feelings, even if you do understand them.

Going back in time and reading about Adam’s parents family dynamics leads us to some understanding on why they are concerned about the human psyche, what they themselves have embraced or discarded from their own childhoods, all the old wounds. But a parent can’t apply their own lessons perfectly to their own children, we live in different times, different worlds. You still have to fight societal norms, the culture of youth, the expectations of peers and the world always breathing down your neck. Jane’s interactions with The Men, the harassment she tolerates because other women suffer so much worse. How it touches Adam when he is a young boy. Just who are the men? You know them, the woman haters, the ones who would have her raped and ‘taught a lesson’ if wishes could make it happen.

Having a successfully famous feminist mother, and wondering during an interaction with another mother and son should he feel proud or emasculated by mom’s success is a fascinating thought to explore. It seems her very existence can generate situations that demand Adam act out, with ape mentality.  There is a section of the novel where his mother Jane is receiving an award after an encounter Adam has with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. His behavior the opposite effect of what his feminist mother teaches others. The mockery from the protester when Adam does show his own hatred. When does masculinity cross the line, when is it more about appearances? What causes so much anger inside of Adam, whose been raised to redirect any form of aggression in a healthy way? The world still demands a man ‘prove’ his strength, the world still sizes him up. How do we fight back without losing our own dignity? This isn’t the last he will see of the protesters.

There seem to be pivotal moments in Adam’s life, the concussion and the incident that he drags with him into adulthood. Adam blames himself for Darren still too. The collapse of a serious relationship, the collapse of his own parents calm little marriage. Has he really ‘graduated from childhood’? What does that even mean? Has he learned to be a man yet, the sort of man mom wouldn’t be ashamed of, the sort of man that channels his own father’s calmness? But there are so many tests for a man beginning in childhood to adolescence, and then fatherhood?

The story shifts perspectives, we see the infidelities through his father Jonathan (how we cross the lines of intimacy in marriage), the toxic violence of our current times, the issue of masculinity, why Jane holds herself back, how our past can both guide and haunt us and the impossible task of trying to understand what it means to even be a man anymore in the world. How we distort the truth, how we make sense of the chaos outside and inside of us. Time skips, and folds in on us through the telling, it works in this novel. How do you raise a solid human being when our culture is crumbling, especially as Adam is coming of age in the 90s, where being a man seems to be modeled on demeaning others, on knowing if you can ‘take someone down’?  Having a feminist mother, parents who understand the human psyche doesn’t mean the rot of the world won’t stick to you. This is an intelligent novel but it felt scattered sometimes. There is a lot going on, and you have to keep up.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 by June Sylvester Saraceno

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It’s a project I have, trying to get grown-ups to talk about things they won’t tell kids. You have to sneak up on it, come at it sideways- if you straight out ask, they’ll send you outside to play, or if it’s night time, tell you to say your prayers and get to bed. That’s true most of the time anyway.

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 is a coming of age about a little girl who is all fire and spit! She isn’t a good girl, not if it means being neat and delicate. None of your beeswax doesn’t apply to Ten-year-old Willie Mae, she is nosy and incredibly perceptive. She longs to burrow beneath the surface, to seek out every family secret, but has no qualms about spying on her neighbors either. What else is there to do but hop on your back and see what sort of fun you can rustle up? She is a child with ants in her pants, far too much spirit and lord but it sometimes seems like the very devil has her ears.

In the 60’s children weren’t bombarded with knowledge with the click of a mouse. The adults didn’t barrage them with answers to every question. That naivete is long gone, children were in the dark and if they were good little darlings, they held fast that ‘mother and father know best’. If you were a feral child, you resorted to any means you could invent to uncover mysteries. Curiosity killed the cat may apply to someone like Willie Mae, but she is witty enough to realize cats have nine lives and all the fun happens in secret!

Long stretches are spent in the company of her beautiful grandmother, Birdy. Birdy who loves to talk of the past, especially about her charismatic, handsome, beloved older brother Billy until Willie comes around, as she always does, to the subject of his death. Then it’s the silence of a grave. It’s burning inside of her, to know how someone could die so young… why, why won’t Birdy tell her how he died! Sure it was a tragedy that occurred before her birth, decades  ago, in dusty olden days, but he is still family, surely she has the right to know?  Why, why won’t Willie Mae let the dead rest? Too curious for her own darn good!

Willie Mae will fight dirty when she has to, like dealing with her big brother Dare, whom everything is a competition against. She may be a girl, but she is just as strong as him, just as fast! All her mother wants is for her to act like a little lady, but that just ain’t her way! It’s all dolls and frills when she wants to be like her brother, shooting at living creatures, why do boys get to do all the fun stuff?

God fearing children do not spy on others. They sure don’t know what happens between a woman and a man. Aunt Etta wants Willie Mae and Dare to be ‘witnesses for the lord’ because it’s certainly the end of days. “Half the time I didn’t care that I was a sinner, but I kept it secret.” It’s so hard to be a perfect, good little girl when so much action calls to your soul.

Death, racism, family secrets, God, sex, and nature are just a few things that occupy Willie Mae’s thoughts. She has so many questions bubbling inside of her. Maybe Willie Mae isn’t the only free spirit ever born into her family. Maybe she isn’t the only one who had to be tolerated. This is childhood, the lull before one’s rough edges are smoothed. Ten, a time when the secrets you poke at and prod change the way you see the world, and more importantly, your family. The world spins, and it is changing too, the old folks need to get used to it!

This is a time that no longer exists, children running through the streets at play, wild little savages with scabby knees and snarls in their hair. There was an ugly side too with racial divides, children caught in the middle of the confusion. Clinging to old ways, what happens when someone is ‘different’ be it skin color or something else, something that isn’t tolerated. The bigger issues are always just above a child’s head, but they feel the wrongness of things, we see that with Willie Mae and her ever questioning mind. I enjoyed that Willie Mae sounds like a child, she can be a nasty little whip of a thing and sweet in the center, children really are neither good nor bad. Like all of us, they sway between the two.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: September 17, 2019

SFK Press

 

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok

 

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Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. 

The sadness of this novel is like ants under the skin. There are choices we make because of this enormous love we have for our children that end up tearing apart their universe. It was only meant to be a year, as Ma and Pa tried to make a place for themselves in the Beautiful Country. But New York is so much harder than they realized it would be, with their meager savings soon exhausted, and no hope for work anytime soon, it is with a heavy, shameful heart that Ma decides she will do right by Sylvie and accept the offer from her cousin Helena. With Grandma living with her cousin in Holland, caring for Helena’s young son therefore, unable to come to America and help with her baby girl, Helena has ‘kindly’ offered a place for Sylvie to live. Her mother writes her, “if you were to entrust your most precious fruit to me, perhaps it might alleviate your burden.”  After much internal struggle, and the reality of their hardships in America as immigrants who cannot even speak the language, it is decided- but it is a devastating decision.

A child in between places her entire life, at the age of nine Sylvie finally returns to live with her biological family. Unlike Amy, born after the difficult years and her parents assimilation into American culture, Sylvie feels like the cast off, a stranger. Torn from the only home she has ever known, feeling more that they wanted her back only so she can babysit her little sister (the longed for cherished daughter), she feels as unwelcome here. Thrust into yet another world where she doesn’t fit, painted as ‘other than’ for her accent alone, suffering the humiliation of a corrective eye patch that only adds more fuel to her awkwardness, hurt by the racist barbs from her peers, her mind still embedded in all things Dutch, she is the one who never truly assimilates into one culture nor one home. In both houses, in both countries she longs for the things she has been forced to abandon. All a child feels is rejection, for a child’s heart doesn’t understand the reason of the adult world, a hungry belly is nothing compared to the hunger for a mother/father’s embrace. A grown woman now, Princeton and MIT educated, a management consultant, more than surpassing her parents humble world, “how did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa?” she is called back to what she feels  is her true mother’s deathbed, her grandmother. It is here where she mysteriously disappears.

It is Amy’s turn to be the brave sister, “Amy, so much like Ma, had eaten from frightened hare meat”, who Sylvie said needed to broaden her horizons.  Despite her fear, she travels to the Netherlands, her sister needs her! As Amy tells the story from her perspective, we see a different side of the mother that Sylvie feels never wanted her. Helena and Willem aren’t as warm and welcoming as she expected, cousin Lukas exudes a mixture of anger and sorrow, there are implications, accusations about Sylvie from the moment Amy lands. This isn’t the life she had imagined for her big sister, how could ma and pa have given her away, sent her to this cold “Grimm’s fairy-tale world?” She doesn’t really know her sister, Sylvie has never opened up about the heart of her childhood here, with this other family, “The enormity of the existence my Sylvie had before me yawns at my feet like an abyss.”  She must dissect Sylvie’s life, and every single person who has their part in it. Sylvie’s secretly unhappy, inner life is spilling open, even her enviable marriage to Jim was collapsing, her return to Holland a chance to ‘leave everything behind’ only forges her deeper into old family dynamics, roles her calculated Aunt Helena created. Her old wounds throb, the past revealed to the reader, no matter how much she has made of herself, she still feels like nothing. Entrusted to her aunt and grandmother, no one ever gave a thought that maybe the ‘better life’ robbed her of every happiness. Never understanding just what it is about her that rubs Helene the wrong way, wondering what has soured her aunt’s heart so much that the niece she has been entrusted to raise she treats more like a burden, beneath her contempt. This callousness burdens Sylvie with the insurmountable task of trying to prove her worth, long after she has been gone. But surely too there were brief moments of kindness? What of the distance within’ her real family? Do her ma and pa ever get her fully back? She wonders if they ever loved her at all.

This novel is incredibly heavy, of course it’s about the sister’s relationship but as we delve deeper into ma’s pain a raw side of the immigrant experience is exposed, even in the “curtain” between mother and daughters. Sylvie surpasses every expectation and in doing so the divide grows wider and wider between she and ma. Such strength and independence in a child makes ma fearful,  the inability to be a mother in a way other american women can, language an insurmountable obstacle, there is comfort in shrinking oneself but it’s a temporary one when the true cost is affection, bonding. Sylvie is gone again, but she never seemed to ever return to begin with, and it is an earth shattering reality that things would have been different, had they only kept her in the first place. Just what was her goal?

Amy doesn’t really know her sister, failed to understand how having another family entirely affected her, for better or for worse. Jim and Sylvie fought before she disappeared? Why would she run away? Helena accuses her of taking her family inheritance, but Sylvie wanted for nothing, why would she? Greed fills Helena’s heart more than concern for Sylvie who could be hurt somewhere, all alone, in need of rescue. Just how did she survive this cold woman who raised her? What does she know? What of Grandma’s ‘jewels’, who did she intend have them, if they even exist at all? Who is suspect? What is Amy missing? Maybe Sylvie isn’t the only one she didn’t really know at all.

The police don’t seem to give Amy hope, and Amy knows in her heart it’s time to ‘step up’ and be the sister Sylvie has always needed. She must shuck of her inborn cowardice. “Sylvie, where are you?” She must discover the who Sylvie is first. Every revelation gives rise to more questions. Anyone could have been involved, no one is as they seem, certainly not Sylvie’s husband Jim who has his own deep secrets and is unraveling, nor even Sylvie herself. How could so many terrible things have been happening in her big sister’s life, kept so neatly contained, that Amy didn’t see the fissures? How could two sister envy each other’s lives without understanding the pain humming beneath the surface? How did Amy miss so much of her family’s history, the bitterness?  She is navigating Sylvie’s Netherlands, hoping to feel her big sister return to her in this way, trying to uncover what chased her away. She may discover a heart that was more vulnerable than Sylvie ever let on, a woman far more fragile than her bravado implied. Love can sneak in even when hate wants to assert dominance, all of our intentions can destroy the very family we seek to protect. What about ma and pa? Surely the blame must be smeared all over them too, for ever sending Sylvie away. She must discover the one thing that has led to her sister’s mysterious vanishing, if she ever hopes to find her. But she may discover a darker family history, exposing long buried shame… will there be any love left for forgiveness.

Published June 2019  Somehow I kept putting off this review to meet with the release date, and am kicking myself for not posting it!

William Marrow

Harper Collins

 

 

 

 

 

The Grammarians: A Novel by Cathleen Schine

 

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There was something wayward in the twins’ relationship now, a devious shift Sally sensed but could not catch in the act.

Much like their father Arthur and his brother Don ‘were like trees that had been planted too near each other”, redheaded, identical twins Laurel and Daphne Wolfe have a bond that begins with a secret shared language until even their love of words pushes them apart and the relationship feels like a confinement. As in all sibling relationships, there is always one sister/brother that rises above the other. One who rushes head first into things, the default leader. Laurel begins to long for autonomy, to resent the ‘we’ that follows Daphne’s thoughts, decisions.  Daphne’s childhood has been one spent as the second born “Laurel was older by seventeen minutes. Daphne hated those seventeen minutes” sure “I’ll never catch up” and maybe shocked when she surpasses Laurel.

Laurel clings to the interior life she can keep for herself, thoughts she doesn’t have to share, weary of her life being lived in equal measure with her twin. Daphne, on the other hand resents when her sister keeps secrets, hates change. She despises the ways Laurel distances herself from their twin-ship. They’ll always have their shared love of words though, right? The balance shifts when Laurel marries, has a child and Daphne becomes a career woman. Suddenly, Laurel no longer feels like the ‘top dog’, her days spent with her child treated as less than the work Daphne does, though ‘she knows just as much about language’. When she returns to teaching, inspiration is born. Daphne’s successfully popular career as a columnist “preserving the dignity of and elegance of Standard English” is interrupted by Laurel’s revolt of the language rules through her poetry. It is like a smack in the face of everything Daphne has worked so hard to keep pure! Really, who is Laurel fooling, just as obsessed with the proper usage of language since birth? Just like Laurel’s mission to differentiate herself through her physical features, here she goes making yet another division in a world they once shared! Anything to always come out ahead, at Daphne’s expense!

The sisters relationship comes crashing down. Their mother, who has never been as close to her girls as they are to each other, now must witness the unraveling of their bond. Then there is the dictionary which remains “the subject of bitter controversy”, an inanimate object that is also, the subject of custody. It all returns to their daddy’s gift of the biggest book imaginable, ‘an ocean of a book’, placed upon a stand like an altar, Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. It is where the sisters “two little faces pecking at the musty pages of a dead man’s discarded book” were always found, the very thing that united and divides them. Their wordy little world is precocious which can sometimes come off as annoying or exhausting in a novel, instead I was tickled. I just kept thinking ‘oh you little bluestockings you!’ Will their mother ever see the day when they come back together? There truly are far worse vices for children than an obsession with words and yet to think they could cause so much trouble!

It’s really not about the words, it’s about all the years between them, it’s about the closeness of their twin-hood that begins to feel like an incarceration of their independent selves. Perception is everything, it makes or breaks you. Even in the unsettling feeling their uncle Don feels being around them, and their mother’s jealousy of the distance she is kept at because of their congenital bond, it follows such roles become suffocating. It’s so silly, our escape routes from family. This isn’t an explosive fall out, so much of the destruction is a slow chipping away of their sisterhood, how they see themselves and each other, how roles define us, something completely different in twins. You can’t be any closer, can you? The ending is perfect, maybe their mother Sally doesn’t share their genius for words, but she sure as hell understands her children, it’s a bittersweet ending, and I like how Sally tells a story better.

There is just something about this novel that clicked with me, it’s a quiet smoldering sisterhood, all the things we say and do as much as what we hold back. That hunger for independence, to be something other than the younger, or the older sister. Just an entity unto oneself, so much harder when twined with another.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books