Where Reasons End: A Novel by Yiyun Li

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Since Nikolai’s death I had asked people to send poems. They came like birds from different lands, each carrying its own mourning notes. 

I felt the deep sorrow expressed in this novel so much I researched the author. I wondered, did she herself lose a son to suicide, only to discover more about Yuyin Li’s own breakdown. Li wrote a memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life  while she was struggling with deep depression. In Where Reasons End, Yuyin Li tells a fictional tale of a mother composing a story in conversation between she and her son, who has taken his own life. This is a story about the elusive presence of grief, how it transforms us even if we don’t understand it. It is a mother reflecting on memory, where her son can now only live for her, and questioning how memory isn’t enough. If she can just keep the conversation going, she can keep him alive, stop the essence of him that lingers from escaping, disappearing. Too, she knows words are incapable of expressing the all consuming sorrow, pain. That clichés cannot carry us through life, nor the losses in one. How to recapture time? How to breathe and exist through the worse thing that can ever happen, to know her son has succeeded in the biggest win of hide-and-seek.

“I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” Our narrator promised her son she would understand, didn’t she? Her own past sufferings, were they inherent in the blood? She can’t lose him more than she already has. The old things remain, things Nikolai made or wrote, remembrances of the Nikolai his friends knew, objects she has never kept tract of nor made an effort to freeze in time, not much of a keeper of life’s detritus nor treasures unlike other mothers whom fiercely cling to ‘things’. This conversation is made up, right… but “sometimes what you make up is realer than the real.” Such a bright boy, whose perfection hurt him too much to anchor him to the world.

Not a day will pass, when you’re left behind, that you don’t imagine how your loved one would react to each of your remaining days, from the mundane to the eventful. It truly is a novel about ‘inescapable pain’ and the solitude of grief. There is a gut wrenching chapter, Catchers in the Rain that left a lump in my throat because there isn’t anything thing left to catch, she can longer be her child’s safety net. This isn’t the sort of novel that makes you weep with the obvious moments, nor is it an attempt to explain suicide. Though through the intimacy between mother and son, remembering even the stories he himself wrote where the boy characters often died hints that maybe he was sad for a long time, and she didn’t see. Or maybe not, maybe that’s what we do in the aftermath, look for reason where maybe there is none. Maybe fiction is just sometimes fiction. The Nikolai she gives life through writing is as witty and biting in her creative story as he was in life. She utilizes her gift of authorship (which her son himself showed promise of early on) to attempt to soothe herself and carry on in this abyss she never asked for.

Yes, Nikolai took his own life but it is as much about motherhood because even when it is taken from you in such a way, you are still a mother. How should one find meaning in their child’s death, in this backwards way to travel in time, when a child should never go first, especially through their own hand? With the novels closure,  I want to ask only who are you today, instead of how are you?

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Random House

 

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Soon the Light Will Be Perfect: A Novel by Dave Patterson

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I’ve often prayed for our misery to be transferred to someone else- anyone else.

A young man comes of age  in rural Vermont alongside his older brother, just a sliver away from the trailer park and poverty they used to live among before moving into a house. The two contend with more than their hormones. Their Catholicism is little help in facing the harsh reality of a mother whose illness turns out to be cancer. The shame and confusion of raging urges that are becoming more of a fetish has him believing he is a deviant whose desires cannot be controlled. Often hungry for a filling meal himself, sick of heating frozen meals, he begins resenting his mother’s charitable meals for those that have even less, considering the recipient’s son is anything but thankful and seems enraged by generousity. His own mother tends to others needs despite her fragile health, yet contrary to her faith goes against the church during a protest, proving sometimes you have to honor your own moral code.  There is the debt he owes for a cat, a ‘fruitful’ endeavour that sees felines taking over their home but far more confusing is his father’s concerns over the tanks he helps build for the war. There is an inner conflict, risk losing the job that provides for his family, particularly now with his wife so ill or just do one’s job and remember ‘it’s best not to question things’. Their father isn’t the only one struggling with his place in life. How do you put your faith in God when even Father Brian isn’t holding strong?

As the boys help their father build a table for their ailing mother, the only thing she truly demands, her health continues to decline. Then new girl Taylor comes along, confusing him with her desire to know what his life feels like, that even as empty and terrible as it sometimes proves to be, it is still full of the love and stability others with so much less may long for. He finds himself drawn to her, whether it makes sense or not. Taylor’s environment is wildly freer than his own, surrounded by kids in the trailer park who have nothing better to do to pass the time than drink or worse. With a mother who goes through boyfriends, she needs protection and maybe he can be the one, even if he is wise enough to know running away isn’t an option, not when they don’t have two dimes to rub together between them. The only certain truth about Taylor is he understands even less about her actions than he does about his own.

It’s a story about being trapped in situations outside one’s control, that even faith sometimes has to take a backseat to the harsh realities and obstacles that come into our lives. Not all moral dilemmas can be resolved with a prayer anymore than laying on of hands is going to cure his mother’s illness. Paths can converge and lead to happy awakenings, as much as it can lead to tragedy. Before the end of the novel, our young narrator will grow up and discover that when misery and suffering eases its hold on us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of it.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Hanover Square Press

Late Air: A Novel by Jaclyn Gilbert

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Murray’s fist tightened over his watch, numbers slipping like sand.

What began as a romantic, surprising love in Paris when Murray (a marathon runner, olympic competitor, coach for Yale) and Nancy ( literary archivist) first meet in a cafe, turns into marriage. Her family isn’t thrilled about his background. Just finishing her PhD, her mother wanted far more for her than someone with Murray’s less than stellar background. Not even after marriage and a child are her parents able to open their hearts. Murray himself doesn’t have many familial connections with both parent’s deceased and a brother who dropped off West when their mother was ill. Together, they create a family of their own to build upon, chosing to focus on their careers and marriage.

Murray is more than passionate about his girls, in Nancy’s mind maybe obsessed. Having moved to New Haven more for his work than hers, there are small resentments. Never easy in making friends, she finds her own footing and befriends colleagues to share the thoughts in her mind with as Murray becomes more distant, and their intimacy recedes. Often ashamed of the jealousy she feels over Murray’s ‘girls’, Nancy tries to channel all her energy into her newborn, Jean. But the days collect in loneliness, the maternal feelings don’t come naturally and Murray is always preoccupied by his stopwatch, training. She needs her work too, this she knows. Being stuck home all day isn’t nourishment to her mind, soul. She isn’t bonding naturally, her child is often a squalling bundle of energy. She is exhausted, depressed, and lonely.  In time, her little family is working again and everything feels good, though Murray is forgetful of important things, his mind never committed to Jean and Nancy.

Present day, sixteen years later Nancy and Murray are nowhere they thought they’d be. Tragedy has struck one of Murray’s star athletes, and the suffocating horrors of his own past suffering merges with present day. Now, he is beginning to see all the things he missed but is it too late, this breath of air? Could all the ridiculous fears, accusations and guilt from the past have some grain of truth? Is the injury Becky sustained his fault? Did he push his girls too hard? Was he a little too involved with others? Did he spend too much time running away from Nancy and Jean? Could anything he did or didn’t do change either outcome?

Time has its way with all the characters in this novel. Marriage through tragedy is a different beast, and sometimes it takes the passage of years to understand our choices, our mistakes, to confront our pain. Sometimes we understand too late that our partner’s betrayal may well be rooted in our own. This novel is an exploration of pain and love. You don’t have to be interested in runners (sports) to take meaning from the story, it’s much more about relationships, marriage, family. It burns slowly, takes you back and forth through Nancy and Murray’s lives, but those of you married long enough can relate especially partners who have trudged through loss together. If you haven’t known tragedy, you will one day. Grief and sorrow comes around for us all. It is the price we pay for being alive, for love.

Publication Date: November 13, 2019

Little A

 

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

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