The Blurry Years: A Novel by Eleanor Kriseman

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I wanted to stop driving, even if where we stopped wasn’t home. I wanted my world to narrow to one point again, to stay the same in front of my eyes, wanted the landscape to stop blurring as we sped by life instead of living it. We were in limbo.

A coming of age set in the late seventies early eighties Florida. This isn’t the sunshine state all the tourists and snowbirds know and love. There aren’t trips to theme parks and lazy beach days with coolers full of food and drinks, a parent’s watchful eye for her. Callie (Calliope) grows up starved for more than food and a place to call home. Affection and attention is fleeting, she is exposed to the seedy side of life where her mother Jeanie can’t keep herself together let alone be a role model for her child. The places she lives have thin walls, too much noise, bugs, rodents. The fun her mother and friends have when they aren’t working crummy jobs is full of partying, and conversations her young mind can’t decipher, nor should she be exposed to. The men that surround her life don’t concern themselves much with age, young girls are all the more appealing.

Just when her mother gets herself into a jam, they decide to return to her grandmother June’s place in Eugene, Oregon. It’s the very place her mother Jeanie fled so long ago, but the best laid plans often go awry. Callie is her mother’s rag doll, dragged along, at the mercy of her whims. For a time, Callie feasts on love and stability when they shack up with Jeanie’s best friend Starr and she wonders how long this happiness, as thin as it is, will last. Her desire feels muddled, inducing shame and hunger, changing the way she thinks about women, men and love all because of her adoration of Starr. The only constant in Callie’s life is that her mother will get restless, or find trouble, surely the lull in the chaos of their existence won’t last; happiness for Callie rarely does.

When they are back in Florida again, Callie’s soul becomes as bruised as the Florida sky during a thunderstorm. Offering herself up to an older guy, desperate to feel wanted, loved, to feel anything but the emptiness of goodbyes. This wanting, over time because a sense of owing, owing people (mostly men) pleasure, payment for any drop of decency shown to her. With teachers lecturing on their usual spiel, ‘you can be anything’ and working as a babysitter for a wealthy couple she has to wonder if someone like her, who comes from nothing, could ever find her way to a fuller life. How do you believe in a bright future when the only evidence before you is contrary to your dreams? Or worse, what if you don’t even really have dreams because you’ve learned far too early that world is off limits to the likes of you. All you have been witness to is adults failing, living in the gutter, not one story worth latching unto? A mother who for all her presence is vacant, unable to share any intimacy with her daughter Callie, but is fast to drink with her, include her in her raunchy escapades. With a mother who encourages her into sleazy situations and then fails to protect her, how do you believe in a better tomorrow?

This novel is an all too familiar story where I am from. Don’t be mistaken, there are plenty of children living in poverty whose parents give them love and affection, who guide them. It just isn’t always the case that poverty equates with neglect, poverty makes things harder, there is a lot of wanting that goes unfulfilled but parents can still nuture their children. However, Jeanie is a disaster, the sort of mother who never seemed to develop beyond her own reckless teenage mentality. She hates her life, resents the adult responsibilities raising a child entails and while it’s possibly a cycle where help was absent when she was ready for it, that doesn’t excuse the neglect of Callie. Far too often kids around Florida grow up too fast, exposed as they are to adult chaos or worse, predators who have easy access thanks to their self-centered parents. A single mother who herself manipulates, plays men to get what she needs when she isn’t running from abusive relationships isn’t aware enough to shelter her girl from the world she constantly lands them in. The darkness is always lurking but the biggest threat to Callie may well be her own mother. At 171 pages it is a fast read, and yet gritty as our sandy beaches. It is tragic because it’s too real. Florida isn’t the only state with these types of stories, most people have at least one friend or someone they know of who had damaged parents and it doesn’t always end with the child breaking free one day. Some become like their parents despite their hunger for anything other than… some don’t make it out alive and numb themselves with drugs, abusive relationships… you name it. How will it be for Callie?

Out now

Two Dollar Radio

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Miracle Creek: A Novel by Angie Kim

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Did he think so much had already happened that nothing more could? But life doesn’t work like that. Tragedies don’t inoculate you against further tragedies, and misfortune doesn’t get sprinkled out in fair proportions; bad things get hurled at you in clumps and batches, unmanageable and messy. How could he not know that, after everything we’d been through?

This is a wonderfully written courtroom drama that not only tugged my emotional strings but had its twist at the end. Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine (pressurized oxygen chamber) that gives new hope to patients with varied maladies. All seems to be going swimmingly, until an explosion kills two patients within the chamber during a power outage. Others are also left with serious injuries. A trial asks, who had a reason to murder the victims because one thing is becoming more certain, it wasn’t an accident.

Young and Pak Yoo are Korean immigrants, striving for success in America. Pak had lived without his family at first, knows all about sacrificie and struggle. Surely he had more than his fair share of hardship, yet he should have known better than, on that fateful day, to ask “What could go wrong?” as if like a command, because to the universe, it’s a challenge. On opening day with all the fresh faces of hope never could those patients, and mothers have fathomed what tragedy awaited them all. With a daughter of their own about to head to off college, are they capable of committing murders for insurance money? Especially when Pak himself and their daughter Mary were also injured? Then again, why weren’t the Yoo’s present when everything went wrong? Why did they leave the patients unattended? It seems everyone has secrets, the distance between Mary and Young has been widening for a long time, like Pak says ‘you always think the worst of her’ but could she be right? Since the accident, she is much worse, but there were things before, like her daughter ignoring her, being too good to help with cooking, cleaning. This better American life didn’t include Mary stooping to that, oh no, that was all on Young’s shoulders. Now her daughter is healing, but something inside of her is tormented.

The trial seems to be focused on Elizabeth ( the defendant) mother of Henry, now deceased, with a list of disorders from Autism Spectrum to OCD. The most ‘manageable’ child of all the patients with disabilities yet the most overwhelmed, resentful, exasperated mother who everyone could see was cracking. It is true, she sometimes hurt him, it is also true she pretended to be sick and went to ‘have a smoke’ instead when the explosion happened. Is it wrong that Young feels relief that Elizabeth is the focus of the people’s fury, that she is absorbing all of the blame? What about Pak? Yes, he made a mistake, but whether he was there or not, it still would have happened, surely he can’t be blamed? Right? He can’t see everything he and his wife worked so hard for as immigrants, all to give Mary opportunity in America disappear! They need that insurance money desperately, or they won’t survive. Matt is called to witness, not so surprising as he understands better than anyone about hyperbarics, holding an M.D. as he does and he was present, after all, a patient himself, taking part in the dives to help with his infertility. He can explain how the ‘submarine’ works, to the court, the jury. He has his own deceptions to hide from his wife Janine, riveted by his answers on the stand. All of this is stirring up weeks he would rather forget, but why?

More than anything, this story is a chain of events, if you remove one action, could the outcome have been different? Is there really just one person to pin everything on or are so many others accountable? There are many roads to guilt, and it seems here every character is on one. Is the truth always the only choice? Are lies as ruinous as facing up to one’s sins? There is a lot to think about here and depending on who you ask about just such a scenario, you’ll get a different answer. Elizabeth’s situation, and Henry’s, was a very difficult read for me. I’m still gutted! This was a very touchingn novel and I look forward to Angie Kim’s next! Not all courtroom dramas can hold my attention, but Miracle Creek balanced what lead up to the trial and the aftermath perfectly.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books

 

 

We Were Mothers: A Novel by Katie Sise

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Mothers took their children’s behavior so personally, and Sarah thought it was a waste of energy, because when you’re a mother you have zero control, and having a child is a tremendous act of optimism bordering on magical thinking. It was the biggest chance you could ever take.

It appears for the women in this novel, the second biggest, most dangerous chance they can take is on love. I don’t say that in the light-hearted ‘love is adventure’ way either. There are quite a few characters to keep track of, none of them seem happy with their love lives. Cora spends her time lusting over Jeremy, feeling ashamed for not being a better wife, for not yearning for her husband Sam more often. Jade can barely stomach Jeremy’s touch. There has been devastating loss, with the death of Maggie (daughter, sister, lover) years ago that no one has truly been able to get past. More painful still to her family was how she died, her own stupid fault as the drunk driver in the car accident that killed her the night of her sister Cora and Sam’s engagement party. Sam survived (Cora’s husband) and so did Jeremy, her friend who were both in the car.  The wedding went on, Cora and Sam had twins George and Lucy and tried to make happy memories from the grief that remained. Everything seemed straight forward, Maggie made an irrecerseable stupid mistake, and it cost Maggie her life. Despite the facts, so much regret and shame reamins to share since that night, still so many secrets untouched that years will never be enough to bury. In deep sorrow, relationships formed, marriages happened, life moved along, children were born. Jeremy is married to Jade now, once very close to Maggie (devastated for deeper reasons after her passing) trying for a child, Jade barely feels a lick of attraction for him these days. As she struggles with the emotions she’s tried to close off, Jade fakes it hoping she can get through every moment of intimacy between them, shocking as he is very good-looking, charming and successful. She has her own secrets concerning her relationship with Maggie. Six years passing hasn’t made life without her any easier.

Children need babysitters, and Mira is a beautiful young woman, daughter of Dash and Laurel. What happens, though, when Cora discovers her journal describing a passionate encounter with Sam, her husband? Worse, what if that isn’t his biggest secret? How can she ever trust him again? Should she? Laurel is frightened when Mira turns up missing, and of course Sam is suspect. Worse, Laurel is dealing with her own marital problems with Dash’s increasingly aggressive behavior. His daughters, Mira and Anna, with the intense drama and confusion they cause bring his spiraling madness to head. Out comes the monster that Laurel has been cowering from, but is it too late to finally stand up for herself, her girls?  To Sarah, who still grieves the death of her girl Maggie, Laurel seems pompous, with her ‘professionally blown out’ perfect hair. Disgusted by the ‘blame mothering’ as much as the one-upmanship game of women like Sarah, too she has to contend with her husband’s ‘not so new now’ wife. A friend once, of sorts, now by the side of the man she was meant to end her days beside. Then when they had a chance to try again, the shocking devastation of Maggie’s drunk driving accident. The panic attacks may have stopped, but there isn’t a day she doesn’t think of her girl until what she thought of as fact comes to light as a big lie. She will do anything, right or wrong, to keep her family safe, she can’t lose another daughter, she won’t!

This story is sometimes all over the place but it isn’t bad. The men aren’t worth a damn, sadly. Narcissistic, violent, criminal, selfish but good-looking. Is good looking a quality? No? Some of the characters worked for me, I liked Jade but would have preferred a little more meat to her and Maggie’s past. Jeremy I could take or leave, he was sort of just there. Sam, well he’s a real nightmare isn’t he? Dash goes from calm to hurricane at the snap of a finger, which is the point when dealing with abuse. Mira is naive, a bit stupid but that’s youth sometimes. Laurel is the perfect example of women who put on a persona to hide the destructive lives they suffer behind closed doors. I don’t think there could be a sadder bunch of women in one story, nor men who will do nothing but turn you off men in general. I think there are some characters that could be worked on, but it was a decent story. You think it’s going to be the typical young girl, affair, murder… it isn’t. The mystery is buried in Maggie.

Available Now

Little A

 

 

You Were Always Mine: A Novel by Nicole Baart

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Evan wasn’t dead. Jess knew that. She knew it deep down in a place where she believed there was still a connection between herself and the man she had once called her home.

A busy school day morning, much like any other, is disrupted when Jess receives a phone call from a man named Deputy Mike Mullen near Minneapolis. There has been an accident, a middle-aged man is dead, but there is no way it could be her husband Evan. Recently separated,  but trying to work on their problems, she’d certainly know if he had traveled out of Iowa. The body has no identification, it doesn’t sound like him, his hair wasn’t gray! Why was her phone number in the victim’s pocket? This is the first mystery that will close around she and her children, her adoptive son Gabe in particular.

Dr. Evan Chamberlain’s abilities to provide for his family has never come into question nor his fierce dedication and passion to his practice. All his hard work has left little time for Jess and the children, consumed by his job she has felt their love receding. Separated, divorce looms but neither seems to be urgent to make final decisions.  She could never get enough of him, always wondered with wounded pride if he felt the deep love for her that she felt for him. With his distance, constant distraction, forgetting important meaningful dates, cooled passions, doubt crept in. Now this. When Evan doesn’t show up to pick the children up, nor answer her calls she has to face there might be more to this dead stranger, and her husband could be involved.

A closed adoption brought Gabe into the couple’s life, it suited her needs to be the only mother he would ever know.  After the call, and what follows, a break in occurs at her home, related to the incident. Betrayal rises to the surface when she discovers Evan has been in intimate  contact for years with Gabe’s birth mother.  It is the least of his secrets, and his involvement in something sinister is going to unravel the secure life she has been living with her sons. Just who is this woman, how had Evan allowed her to worm her way in? What does this mean for Gabe? Though blessed to have a biological elder son Max, it doesn’t make Gabe any less hers that she isn’t his birth mother. Why did Evan feel the need to communicate with this woman? Wasn’t she enough? What was between them, really?

What her husband was involved in is bigger than their family and someone will stop at nothing to make sure they aren’t exposed. It isn’t just the intimate letters to Gabe’s mother, there are notes (maybe clues) written on a business card, maybe answers to what Evan was up to before tragedy struck. He wasn’t a man who hid things, it was against his nature to deceive, it is a burning mystery. So why then the sudden subterfuge? Why was he staying at a motel, there are other strange tidbits, shaky connections that don’t add up, only lead to more questions. Then a file is found full of names… codes. One, according to Deputy Mullen means ‘prostitution’, a strange thing to be among Evan’s personal effects. But names, and criminal codes aren’t answers either, just another thing to add to Evan’s peculiar behavior.

Her dear friend Meredith was the social worker involved in their adoption of Gabe, now an honorary Auntie and a major support for Jess. Lately, Meredith has doubts about Jess and her parenting.  All she cares about is seeing Gabe properly cared for, even if speaking out will hurt their friendship. Now Jess is being accused of things that could threaten her hold on her children. Why would someone want to do that? Could it all tie into whatever Evan was working on? How is all of this connected to Gabe’s adoption?

This is a hard review to write when one must tread lightly on giving away the plot twists. It’s about birth mothers, those who manipulate women without choices, the good intentions that can sour clear thinking and the passion to right grievous wrongs even at the very risk of your own life.  It’s a psychological mystery about the underbelly of adoption. It’s about being so consumned by something you know is wrong, that those who need you desperately become impossible to see.

Not every reader will like Jessica, but her fierce devotion to her adoptive son and comfort in a closed adoption can be understood as fear is a great motivator. The threat of another woman, always looming somewhere out there makes such adoptions ideal, as much as said biological mother may not wish to be found. Maybe it’s easier for people, like social worker Meredith, to imagine those mothers as abusive, cold creatures, unfit women so they can swoop in and save the precious little ones. What if the narrative is wrong? What if in desperation people are urged to act against their wishes, until it is too late. What happens when those working the system abuse it? Should you remain blind if you yourself benefited?

Publication Date: October 16, 2018

Atria Books

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish: A Novel by Katya Apekina

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Yes, mom dragged me with her to every terrible place.I needed to get as far from her as I could. She was consuming me. That day she tried to hang herself from the rafter in the kitchen, I’d been lying on the bedroom floor. My mind was a radio tuned to her station and her misery paralyzed me.

In this gorgeous debut, sisters 16-year-old Edie and 14-year-old Mae’s lives are upended when their mother Marianne is admitted to St. Vincent’s (mental hospital) to ‘rest’ after an attempted suicide. The girls are forced to live with their estranged father Dennis (a literary success) in New York, a man who thinks he can just pick up in the middle of the story and become beloved ‘daddy’. Edie wants to go back to their old life in Louisiana, to her boyfriend, her school committees, her mother. It’s no surprise she was the one who found her mother hanging that day as she has been the one taking care of Marianne for years, through her stony silences and strange episodes. Edie doesn’t trust Dennis, feels it’s a betrayal to even be living with him when their mother needs them so badly. Mae felt swallowed up by Marianne, fearful she is too much like her damaged mother. Mae doesn’t have romantized thoughts about her mother’s illness, it has always scared her. Now that she is free of her, able to finally be herself, she doesn’t want her mother back. With Dennis’ eyes watching their every move, which irritates Edie feeling like they are just ‘new material’, Mae feels being the center of his world is intoxicating. Edie is loyal to Marianne, Mae has shifted alliances to Dennis’ side. So begins the unraveling of the sister’s bond.

It’s meant to be temporary, but time stretches and Marianne isn’t getting better, Mae is under Dennis spell but Edie won’t let herself fall, despite her desire for the comfort it would bring. It’s too late for her, where was he all this time anyway? Busy with his women, not one thought for his ‘beautiful, beautiful girls’ who now have his rapt attention. Are they just a story brewing for him, serving as inspiration as their once  beautiful, fragile mother was in her youth? There is a story there, Marianne as muse, was she the abuser, or the abused?

The reader is witness to the blossoming of forbidden love between Dennis and Marianne, the civil rights movement, and dangerous obsession. With insight from Rose, Dennis’ sister, we are forced to wonder who is to blame for the fractured family. Fatherly love takes a dangerous turn as Mae never wants to go back to that life with her mother, never again wants to be suffocated by her mother’s madness. Yet the further she tries to step away from Marianne, into a new self, the more she becomes her.

Edith is too angry, too perceptive to put her faith in Dennis. In fact, she is downright disgusted with his writing, with his seduction of her young mother so long ago. There is  a line spoken by another character in the novel that expresses the emotional storms within, “It’s hard sometimes, ” she said, “to know where you end and others begin.” You can feel the ground shaking before it opens, know you are being led somewhere you hoped they would never go. Much like the photographs Mae takes, it’s an eerie exposure of the wildly different beliefs we have about our shared experiences. Both sisters are in denial about their mother and father. If Mae hitches her wagon to her father with fat dreams and madness, Edie holds just as much false optimism for her mother’s recovery. Like a needy kitten, love gets twisted for Mae and there is a point of no return. Edie runs to destruction as much as Mae does, they just take different paths to reach the end. There is no mistake that Marianne has been a destructive influence on Mae, who looks so much like her but Dennis… Dennis is a catalyst.

To say more, would ruin the novel. I loved it, Apekina writes beautifully about a very ugly subject.The title alone, isn’t it the best, had me itching to read it. I can’t wait for her next novel, writing about family dysfunction isn’t easy, and taboo subjects if done poorly can repulse readers but it all added up here. I don’t think Marianne is alone in her wounded bird fragility, she got some help toward self-destruction in the form of Dennis and that’s all I have to say about that. Yes, read it! I still have the taste of ash in my mouth.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Two Dollar Radio

 

Ponti: A Novel by Sharlene Teo

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The distance between where she was and the glossy point where she wanted to be stretched and stretched. 

In Ponti, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa’s otherworldly beauty and small diminished fame. ” I marvel for a split second at the unfairness of genetics, mysterious spirlas of DNA coiling and cohering into life sentences: You will be plain. You will be beautiful. You will repulse mosquitoes. You will have an iron gut. You will be sickened by crabmeat.” Amisa’s career never took off with the promise her beauty once held. Having left her small village for bigger things, she works hard and falls in love with Wei Loong, they marry and she works full-time at the Paradise Theater until she is discovered by filmaker “visionary” Iskander Wiryanto. She has the perfect beauty, like a mask, exactly who he desires to play the Pontianak (folklore, a ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth and preys on men, in the form of pale beauty, long dark hair) in his films. We follow Amisa through the making of the film, witness to the ‘bloom of her ego’ even in the face of grief for her losses back home. Playing the Ponti takes it’s toll on her, the filmaker difficult, pushing her harder than she can stomach, not as enraptured by her sexually as all men are. Three films in, and her shining star dims, the movie becomes a cult classic, but of the times no one is interested in superstitions nor films about ghosts. The parts dry up, Wiryanto no longer needs his beautiful ghost and life with Wei Loong leads to just another part, of poor housewife. It isn’t long before she is pregnant with Szu, and feeling dreadfully close to her own mother and the life she trudged through. Amisa is more like a ponti now than a starlet. Wei Loong leaves before Szu turns 8, and then it is three, Szu, Amisa and Auntie Yunxi.

Aunt Yunxi and Amisa earn their living as fakes, mediums who ‘trade in hope’, milking the desperation of their clients. It’s necessary to con people for their survival, what with her tragic mother more a ghost of a woman, sleeping away her life. Szu is a misfit and completely friendless, until she befriends Circe. The two of them ‘citizens of nowhere’, feel unique, bonding over their discontent with the world. For Circe, the allure is Szu’s mother and mysterious aunt, even in their ugly home, there is a pull. Jump ahead to 2020, Circe’s team is going to be working on promotions for the new re-make of Ponti, hence “it feels like a can of Amisa-shaped worms has been opened.” The reader is dragged through time, guest to each character’s perspective. Szu, once seeming so bitter, strong, solid begins to fade, retreat into herself.  Something many female relationships wrestle with is the discomfort of familiarity, seeing too much of yourself in another. Sharlene Teo exposes this uncomfortable bond perfectly, there is a pull and push between Circe and Szu, a sort of marriage. They feel warm and cold toward each other, until Circe can’t stomach Szu, when Szu needs to be anchored most to the here and now! “She started wearing her hair in a bubble ponytail just like mine and mooched  about my house all day drinking gallons of diet coke and draping her sadness over my things.” It’s too much heavy sadness, Szu is dwindling, and she isn’t going down with her!  Circe wants to be young, fun, free and this friendship is suffocating, she needs to shake her off, shake off this stale depressive air. Circe of the present day isn’t sure she wants that Szu back in her life, and is surprised to hear of a Szu who turned out differently then she imagined.

Szu doesn’t really hate her mom, she hates that she wants her love and never gets it. That her mother was more a phantom through her entire childhood, never happy to play her part in her real life role. What is more melodramatic than a fallen star? Despising all the ordinary living that remains. How did Amisa, so beautiful, so alluring allow her promise to fizzle out? How could this woman, who as a young girl showed so much grit and courage by venturing into the city, the unknown to become something more, simply surrender? Auntie Yunxi is the bones of the household, maintaining the only structure in Szu’s life. But she is a mysteriously strange woman herself, and where is Szu’s father? Is she right in blaming her mother, for chasing him away being like a Ponti, a threat to his happiness? When he makes an appearance again, after life turns tragic, he has some truths to unveil.

This novel is disquieting, because the real ghost here is grief, blindness, and starry eyes. It’s about the whims of fate, beauty isn’t always a promise of anything solid either, you can’t bank solely on dreams nor a face. It’s giving up and closing your eyes to what you have, haunting your own future and destroying those nearest you in the process. It’s a child trapped by her mother’s shadow, who sees nothing but disappointment reflected back at her, a girl who hungers for the love she will be denied even from the grave. It’s clinging to another person for dear life, because they are a sort of stand in for the mother/daughter bond. Circe and Szu represent that awkward hunger girls have for connection, and how easily it can turn monstrous and all you want is your freedom. The Ponti in this story isn’t so much about the folkloric ghost, the more terrifying creature is Amisa, and what she allows her disappointments to do to her future.  She was so sure her beauty signled her out for more, made her special and she simply retreated from life when it knocked her back to earth. Szu follows in her footsteps for a breath of time, devoured by her own form of grief, like a disease. I found this to be terribly sad, heavy to carry.

I admit I was disappointed by the ending. I felt the story was a gathering storm, waiting for a climactic moment (big things do happen throughout, in their own unassuming way, with death) but I was waiting to be a part of Circe and Szu’s reunion, which was more hinted at. It never culminates. The writing is gorgeous, it’s an emotional upheaval which is strange considering there is a great distance between all the characters. There is an air of detached coldness, but it seems more a defense, Szu isn’t as strong as she seems. Her anger is a wall. Maybe it’s true that grief  ‘makes ghosts of us’ and that is part of why Amisa is more a suggestion of a mother, having lost someone dear to her early on. I am mixed on the novel, this is a talented writer but again I kept waiting for the big ending. Despite the aforementioned issues, the novel itself is beautifully written.  Circe is haunted by the past friendship, and years later carries the burden of her reaction to Szu as she began falling apart. It’s a complicated look at friendship, unwanted motherhood, dead dreams  and the terrible ways we allow certain moments to define our lives, for better or worse.

Sharlene Teo is one to watch. I am wildly curious what her next novel will be about.

Released Today! September 4, 2018

Simon & Schuster

How We Remember by J.M. Monaco

 

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Unlike Dave, in my younger years I grew up with a sense of my position in the world that was closely aligned with my mother’s. I accepted that I should never expect any sense of entitlement to anything.  I continued to live out the expectations required of the good girl who never fussed. I ate that soggy McDonald’s burger without complaining and said thank you very much for the privilege.

Now an academic living in North London, Jo returns home after her mother’s death, surprised that her mother saved enough money for an inheritance. Her mother who expected nothing from life, a mother who often disappointed her still had a few surprises it seems. Once her marriage was over, she took on the role of single motherhood, becoming a nurse. Jo’s childhood was mostly a lesson in spirit breaking, the same dreary life she escaped by beating the odds with her education, a mysterious turn of luck in the universe that led her to university in England earning her ‘fancy pants’ degree,  love with Jon, and a great career. It is a far cry from her childhood with a brother who took and took from her in between disappearing acts, now an adult and still just as lost, unstable and pulling at her with his needs. The early days when her parents were still together and tension was thick as the smoke from her mother’s cigarettes, the way she only felt the love and comfort of a real family when she was at her friend Beth’s, sharing their meals and easy affection. Then there was the big shame between Jo and her uncle as she became a teenager, a seduction in which she felt somewhat complicit, as girls often do, a hushed up incident buried in the bowels of her dysfunctional family, to keep peace between her mother and her aunt, despite the cost to Jo. Her parents own wildly chaotic, broken marriage isn’t something she wanted to mirror but Jo isn’t immune to relationship woes. Now, she has her mother’s diary and the incident feels fresh, her mother’s sorrow about the strain it caused with her family and proof that her mother knew exactly what her uncle was! That she believed Jo.

Jo is battling severe health issues far worse than her inability to conceive a child or carry it to term, and coming home is only opening old wounds on top of current troubles in her own marriage. There is a student, someone she fell for, and it’s all coming back to bite her. The trouble may cost her more than her job, if Jon finds out everything may come crashing down! Dave is adamant that the money from their mother should go to him, to help him in his latest scheme to make something of himself with a business! Jo already has everything (as if she hadn’t worked hard for it, saved) so why not give him a leg up for once? Why must he Dave always think he is entitled to things without working for them? There is a struggle, she has enough to fight against on her own than to deal with her brother’s outbursts, surely it’d be easier just to give him the money, despite her lack of faith it will do him a bit of good. Her father refuses to budge, knowing his ex-wife was adamant in how she wanted the money dispersed before dying of cancer. Her father is mentally declining, but the last thing she wants with her own illness is to be tied to caring for the man who never showed up for his kids, nor his ex-wife. Maybe she won’t have to, maybe her father has his own shocking surprise too.

This story does feel like a sad memoir about deeply flawed, lost people. No one gets fixed, there are no rainbows nor happy endings. Sometimes damaged people just continue their entire life falling apart and are too stubborn or helpless to change. Is the dysfunction so deeply rooted that there is no hope, or is it simply a case of turning over and playing dead, a constant victim of circumstances? It’s hard to say. Each character seems to have done terrible stuff that needs forgiving, Jo included when it comes to her own husband Jon. Maybe some people just have to be accepted as the mess they are.

Publication Date: September 13, 2018

RedDoor Publishing