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

 

 

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The Reckless Oath We Made: A Novel by Bryn Greenwood

 

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Let those who suffer an illness of the mind do so and prosper of it, but I do not and I will not.

If you told Zhorzha “Zee” that a knight was her destiny, she would smack you silly. Zee isn’t a delicate princess, and no one has ever saved her from anything. Her life has been a lesson in catastrophe, first in early childhood dealing with a criminal father and a mother devoted to him, now as a grown adult she is keeping her family afloat. Sharing an apartment with her sister LaReigne whose little boy Marcus depends on her, she spends her days hustling in any way she can to get money, for bills, for the roof over their head, for food. Her hip injury from an accident on her exes Harley is the least of her pains, nothing causes her more grief than discovering her sister has been taken hostage during a prison break where she volunteers.

Who knew her ‘stalker’ as she calls him isn’t a stalker at all, but a knight in shining armor. “I am her champion. I watch that I might her serve.” So okay, Gentry won’t look her in the eye, walking around speaking like a traveler from medieval times, but there is something chivalrous about him. Gentry brings both she and Marcus to his home, their only refuge, considering her mother doesn’t have an inch of space safe enough for them to stand let alone sleep. She occupies more than her share of space, along with all her junk. Mountains of it, hoarded like precious treasures! Her family is chaos personified. She surrenders to Gentry, why not? Her options have run out. Once surrounded by the kindness of his parents, she begins to see Gentry as more than just some weirdo, stalker and slowly begins to fall under the spell of his charm.

Her sister LeReigne’s abduction escalates into violence, and Zee isn’t going to wait on the cops to do anything, especially when they suspect her sister of aiding in the prison break considering their family’s criminal history, so it is on her shoulders (isn’t it always) to bring her nephew’s mommy home safe! Gentry will serve his Lady, more loyal than blood, even if it means breaking laws, maybe even risking his own life. The voices in his head have foretold of his mission, his life’s purpose, to serve this damsel in distress. Zee isn’t the most admirable, nor likable woman in any book but life has burdened her, made her sour, bitter, suspicious and cynical.  Some would say rightly so. One visit with her infuriating mother is enough to understand the bite that comes natural to Zee. This isn’t your typical warm family, they have more than a smattering of mental issues and poor judgement when it comes to their love life, controlling their impulses. They demand a lot of her, but don’t give much in return, certainly not a lot of affection. She is the sort of woman who rubs those who have mastered appearances the wrong way, because she makes you confront your own hypocrisy, imperfections. She doesn’t pretend her family or she herself is anything other than a wreck, she doesn’t make excuses for her ‘hustling’, no. She is more the ‘take me as I am or to hell with you’ sort of gal. It is a strange pair Gentry and Zee make, but there are similarities once she meets his biological mother. Not so different at all.

Love blossoms in the strangest of ways, and maybe we aren’t always worthy of the devotion Gentry shows Zee, who is to say? Maybe someone who hasn’t known tenderness has a hard time opening themselves to it?  I was frustrated by what many would call a quirk, Gentry’s medieval knights and castle obsession, his Middle English speech that feels like a riddle half the time, but then it became a natural part of his character that I couldn’t imagine him without it. Bryn Greenwood knows how to create relationships that make us scratch our heads, because in the real world, that’s often how love works. It doesn’t always make sense to outsiders why two people band together. There is a lot of blind devotion from the heart in this novel, and I am not just talking about Gentry. In fact, he may be the only character with logic on his side, no matter what psychiatrists think! “Let those who suffer an illness of the mind do so and prosper of it, but I do not and I will not.” Bless his heart!

This is a story about the madness of family loyalty and love. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

Penguin Group

Putnum

The Man Who Saw Everything:A Novel by Deborah Levy

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“Yes,” older Jennifer said, “I knew I had to get away from your love as fast as possible.”

It is 1988, Saul Adler is a beautiful, young Historian thinking only about his glamorous girlfriend Jennifer, a photographer who is planning to take a picture of him crossing Abbey Road just like the Beatles album cover for his host’s sister Luna, who adores the Beatles. In three days he is meant to leave for East Germany (GDR) to research “cultural opposition  to the rise of facism in the 1930s at Humboldt University”. Granted permission  into the archives for promising to ‘engage sensitively’ and ‘focus on education, healthcare and housing for all it’s citizens’, subjects of which he had discussed with his own father before he died.  Here Walter Müller will be his translator but right now his mind is stuck on Jennifer when he is nearly run over in a zebra crossing (pedestrian crosswalk) falling back instead on the curb. The car that comes seemingly out of nowhere and nearly hits him is driven by a man in his sixties named Wolfgang, and so follows a peculiar interaction, the novel itself is a peculiar interaction with the reader and yet compelling for this very reason. Looking back on his notes from the night before, his hip sore from the fall, he thinks about his dead father who was a tyrant much like Joseph Stalin. He remembers how his brother doled out the punishment for their father, for Saul being so fragile, so much like his dead mother, for not being the right sort of son, his father offended always by his ‘sublime beauty’.  Beauty that can seem to the reader like a blessing and curse. His relationship with Jennifer is crumbling and he isn’t really sure why.  Jennifer feels she isn’t really seen by Saul, does she wish to be seen beyond her beauty, is that why describing her with words is verboten? But does she see him beyond his ‘sublime beauty’ or care about his mind? He is confused by her adamant complaints that he doesn’t see her, doesn’t know anything about her art of which, by the way, he is the subject, but she is all he sees! He would marry her! She wants to end things, ‘you will always be my muse‘ and so with the death of his father and relationship ending he is ready for great change.  It is in GDR that his life splits and forks when he meets his translator Walter Müller and Walter’s sister Luna. Told not to say ‘everything was grey and crumbling’ in his report, the truth is Walter is a relief, spending time laughing in his company, finding pleasure in someone who isn’t about ‘material gain’ frees Saul. Censorship here, he knows, isn’t any different than Jennifer’s censorship of his thoughts and feelings for her.

Something strange is happening, objects look familiar like the tiny carved wooden train Walter is holding. There are new desires too, who knew mushroom hunting could be such a pleasurable experience. With his father’s ashes in tow, the haunting memories of his past too have hitched a ride. People he meets become consumed by him, Saul always the center of others. Luna is no exception. “Your hair is so black. Like the birds in the fields.” There is a lot he doesn’t see in GDR too, truths about Walter, Luna, and Walter’s colleague Rainier. Just who is Rainier really, with his acoustic guitar and interested questioning? It’s not just about communism, country, family, sex or love. It’s all those things. It’s about time and memories, about how our version of reality can be a fiction we tell ourselves. We are all haunted houses, in a sense, age at times bringing more questions, regrets like phantoms.

The past, present and future come at us fast and we are all splintered beings. Saul’s love is fluid, and not any easier for it. We are really not the stars in anyone’s lives, not even our own. When told to ‘go back to your world’, which world is that? People are suddenly older, and Saul knows everything but not how or why. His story is shattered, time is slippery and faces, people are blurring and blending. It’s how we fail to be there, how we destroy others being entrenched so deeply in ourselves. Everything is a weight, even the things we think we shucked off.

This is like a drunken read I don’t believe I would have understood were I younger, fresher and less jaded. It’s horrible and beautiful because it reveals cracks in human beings, I think. You get lost in the tangle, the shame, joy, pain, love and confusion of Saul’s life. Missing so much like you will in your own, if you live long enough for regrets, for a long hard look in a fractured mirror reflecting the many versions of you. I like that the Abbey Road photograph is the beginning of this story, we have these photographic memories of ours that never tell the whole tale, only hint at what is happening. These flashes of ours, wondering what’s outside the photo, who is the eye, what are the subjects thinking and feeling behind what we can behold. This novel put me in a weird frame of mind.

This is certainly an engaging read, but it is dizzying. In the beginning you are like a newborn baby trying to make sense of weird occurrences, not understanding up from down.

Deborah Levy’s writing can unsettle you, but I enjoy her work for that reason.

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

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But they were not attractive children, the rest of their faces soft and undefined. They looked ratty. I hadn’t even tried to fix their cult haircuts. I feared that fixing them would only make the kids more plain.

Lillian and Madison, an unlikely pair became tight friends at Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School, hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, where all the rich people sent their daughters. Lillian, having grown up poor in the valley of the mountain with a single mother knew she just needed ambition and and a scholarship, her ticket out of a luckless life. It doesn’t matter if her mother thinks this ‘opportunity’ isn’t the golden ticket her daughter thinks it is. That you can’t just go from the pits to a palace, that reaching too high can only lead to a greater fall, bigger disappointment.

With Madison’s friendship she comes to understand true power and what loyalty costs. There is an incident and Lillian must leave the school and abandon her dream for a better future, slipping mostly out of Madison’s life too. Working now as a cashier, Lillian’s life is antithesis to her old friend’s, who is ‘famous in political circles’, living a charmed life of wealth and still glamorous in her ways, with a perfect little boy named Timothy. Humming inside of Lillian is still the attraction, the need to please Madison, the desire to be needed by her. It is a desperate plea that has returned Madison to Lillian, her husband Jasper is up for secretary of state and his other two children by his ex-wife Jane have a peculiar affliction, they burst into flames upon any sort of upset. No, it isn’t a joke! It’s untenable in the limelight, how could Jasper explain, how could he reach success with children always on the verge of combustion? Imagine the danger, the chaos! All Lillian has to do is keep the children safe, calm and really, what does she have to lose? Her life is already ash anyway, really this is her salvation to Madison’s way of thinking and it’s infuriating that she may be right.

As Lillian enters the children’s life, hoping to tame them and manage their strange illness her heart expands and this temporary world comes to feel more important than any dream she ever conjured. She understands too well Bessie and Roland’s disappointments, because that is all her life has been made of, too she understands their inability to fit in anywhere and how their strange little hearts beat so much like her own. She will come to be more of a mother than their ‘governess’ and do anything to protect them. How are families made? Sometimes our wants and desires arrive disguised as disordered worlds, as lonely, dangerous children alight with fire.

This is one of the strangest, sweetest books I’ve read all year. It put a warm little fire in this heart of mine!

Yes, read it! It will warm you up in the cold of November. Wonderful fall fiction.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

HarperCollins  Publishers

 

The Lines: A Novel by Anthony Varallo

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When the children return home from another weekend at their father’s, their mother says she has something to tell them. Great, the girl thinks. Whenever an adult tells you they have something to tell you- run. Run fast! Run fast and keep running.

It is the summer of 1979 and one family of four is splitting apart, a time when separation and divorce wasn’t quite as common as it is today. The girl seems to understand all the things that hum beneath the surface even though she is only 10 years old, things her brother, at the age 7, remains clueless about. Is this going to fix all the sorrow, this divide? How will becoming two families make life easier? It just doubles the problems doesn’t it, when you split things in half?  The boy certainly has questions about life as it’s unraveling.

Father is no longer living at home, father no longer being the man of the house isn’t there as things fall into disrepair. Is he really still a father then? Does the boy then step into daddy’s too big absent shoes and become man of the house? It’s all mass confusion. The kids are taking on the slack left behind now that mom returned to school. Then the dating, the parents are dating people! Bad enough they have to get used to two homes, two rooms, two separate lives  now doors are opening to strangers? Dad has a girlfriend, they won’t mention this to mom, and this girlfriend Sarah becomes a stand in mom when they are at their dad’s. In fact, she is often more engaged than their father, watching them at the pool.

The father had forgotten what being a bachelor means, the ‘essential’ things he can’t recall, the cooking, the food shopping and darn if he doesn’t miss his garage. Father not that good when it comes to attentiveness towards his son and daughter, hasn’t that always fallen to the mother before? Why can’t father make relationships work, even with someone new? Why must the girl be so aware of the ways her daddy falls short? There is something obscene in seeing your parents as human, with their fault lines.

“Why, the girl wonders , is life so often a matter of answering yes to things you’d rather say no to?”  Like meeting Mom’s new man. Seeing your father date is bad enough, and seeing his relationship fail is something she doesn’t wish to witness. Both parents are letting some parenting go, it’s different depending which home they are at. The summer is a bust, school feels more tempting than all this time on their hands, all this terrible change. There is a new man on the scene, Cliff. The mother’s friends are pushing her, find someone. Cliff is someone.

Cliff can fix things, make life easy, help bear the brunt. Sister is getting salty with her mother, challenging, fed up. With Cliff comes Marcus, who thinks he knows everything and is probably as clueless as the brother and sister. Everything is a crap show, the adults have all lost their senses. There is no compass, life without an anchor even Gumma tells her grandchildren their childhood is over now, coming from a broken home. It’s so sad when the adults try to make a new normal, failing time and again. The parents are terrible, according to Gumma. Everyone and their opinions, their insights! Bitter adults!

Is their marriage really over? Will their parents realign themselves and everything return to normal? One thing is certain, it’s going to be a terrible summer. All that happens is beneath the skin and mind, “There’s such a relief, the girl thinks, in knowing no one knows your thoughts.” For both the mother and the father, life full of financial demands, at least they no longer have to attend to each others bottomless need, but what to do with all this freedom? Life is still life, as a mother, as a father there will always be things and children pulling you this way and that. As the novel says, “Human misery, there’s never a shortage of it”, whether you are married or not. The children shoulder the separation and their parents failings, understanding raining upon them as heavy as the suffocating heat of the summer.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: August 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

Never Have I Ever: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson

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She smiled, and I had no premonition as I smiled back. She didn’t look like my own destruction to me. She looked… the word was “cool”. 

“Cool” is hard to find once your life is consumed by mothering, or heck, even just “adulting” -mothers aren’t the only ones who lose excitement. When Angelica Roux crashes Char’s book club arriving at Amy Whey’s house, where it’s being hosted, they’ve let it their destruction. It’s not just her beauty that unravels the women, “I could feel her charisma like it was a wind she’d set loose in the room, pushing us all forward in our seats”, it is her very presence, her energy. It is as if she is a mesmerist! Charlotte catches on fast seeing that Roux has ‘hijacked’ the evening, she knows how to bait the women into revealing themselves, loosening their inhibitions and all within minutes of her arrival. Wine bottle after wine bottle, damn but it feels good to let yourself go, when you spend so much time living like ‘domesticated animals.’ Their book club is normally just a spot of stolen time, but it’s never been this exciting!

When it’s Amy’s turn to play,  terror invades her very insides as Roux has “cracked open the past”, and Amy’s past is ugly.  Roux has her right where she wants her, and it could blow her happy little family, and home to the wind. How can she keep a brave face with her beloved husband, maintain normalcy caring for their little boy Oliver when threats are looming. Luca (Roux’s son) has taken a fancy to Amy’s Stepdaughter Madison, just one more entanglement. One mistake Amy made in her past ripped a hole in the world, and you can’t just patch something this big, the skeletons will find you. “If she owned my past, then she owned me with it.” Who is Roux really, it’s a game of cat and mouse, even the reader isn’t sure what is happening and that is why this dark novel works so well!

The flashes into the past beg the question, what is culpability? How much punishment, ownership evens the score? Is it even possible to even a score? Roux forces all the horrific pain and memories to return, things Amy had buried to maintain her sanity, to escape the weight of her guilt, to move on in order to live again. It’s not just Amy pulled into her web. Other women will be hurt too. Some horror stories don’t involve ghosts or monsters, but mistakes made in our youth. It’s too easy, for someone like Roux, to collect currency through secrets, revelations. Yet, who is Roux to manipulate and avenge the past? To use the present to bring others down to her level. Can Amy beat her at her own game? Someone with much more money and resources? Does she have secrets of her own that could turn the game in Amy’s favor? Doesn’t everyone have a past?

This is a thriller, true, but somehow it pulls off tenderly heartbreaking moments, reminding us how vulnerable we have been, are still. As for villainy, sometimes it’s a matter of the circumstances. One split second can make a monster out of us all, despite our intentions. I won’t give anything away, read it! It’s engaging and just the side of dark I like.

Publication Date: July 30, 2019

William Morrow

 

The Porpoise: A Novel by Mark Haddon

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She never fights, never complains. She allows these things to happen, and the gap between acceptance and encouragement is a very narrow one. The longer it goes on the more she feels like an accomplice. 

The novel begins with tragedy, when Philippe’s pregnant wife dies in a plane crash, the baby miraculously survives. Growing up, she is denied nothing but her father is a sun that will consume and burn her with his attentions, his warped love. He justifies his abuses, and Angelica doesn’t know enough of the world, sheltered by her father, to know any better… until Darius.  “she knows little of the world and it is often hard to recognize stories when you find yourself inside them”, it is her dream that Darius will take her away, drunk on his attention she will find a way to confide in him. But they have underestimated daddy’s jealousy and rage. She finds other ways to escape, into silence, refusal, disengaging.

The story transitions and Darius is on the run, Philippe is a wealthy, powerful man whose reach is far. He takes to the sea upon The Porpoise accompanied by his friends Helena, Marlena and Anton while avoiding those who would kill him, not much of the hero Angelica needed. There is something strange afoot, lulled to sleep when they wake the ship has changed drastically and there is a strange, dangerous tattooed man abroad. They are no longer in their world, their time. In this Shakespearean tale based on Pericles, we are crashing into the mythology, but then flash back to Angelica and she is reading the very tale that his life has morphed into. Is this all her fantasy? Honestly, I am not sure. Is that meant to be the thread?

Now we are with Pericles/Darius, and it can be a challenge because I was immersed in the present, disgusted by Philippe, hopeful that Angelica would escape and not into silence nor through denying herself sustenance. It is the only revolt she has, for now. Shakespeare enters the novel too, and we ponder if  it was he who ‘turned Appolinus into Pericles’  or was it George Wilkins? Let’s focus on terrible George, by the way, and how he treats women. George, the debauched man, frequenter of brothels, who will soon be dead and have to face quite a surprise in the afterlife. “for years everything has been traveling steadily towards this terrible moment”, and how just! I enjoyed this part of the novel immensely.

It was difficult at first to dig into Pericles as he arrives in Tarsus at first, but it began to flow even if sometimes the jumping through stories and time had me lost. I had to avoid interruptions while reading to keep everything straight. It is adventurous, there is mutiny, rescues, a princess fished out of the sea, births, deaths and women suffering.  It is a dark novel, because it begins with rape, no matter how you try to define it. I don’t see her as an accomplice, not at all. Angelica’s insight is vital, the dawning of how wrong what her father does to her is told in her hunger to leave with Darius, her absenting her own body too.  I still feel I lost Angelica’s story, even though I can make loose connections throughout Pericles’s tale, still I wanted to focus more on her. This is a unique book, even if I felt as if I was slipped something while reading a modern tale that suddenly changed.

Out now

Doubleday Books